Just 15 minutes away from Amsterdam by train, the city of Haarlem is a bit of a hidden gem. Like a smaller, quieter Amsterdam, it combines historic charm with a cultural edge and a food and drink scene that rivals any big city. And of course, its location on the edge of the dunes means that the lure of the coast is never far away. With many families moving from Amsterdam to Haarlem for more space, it’s no wonder that the city has such a child-friendly feel, with plenty to keep the little ones entertained. Here's our pick of some of the best things to do in Haarlem with children.

Rent a bike

Couple cycling in Bloemendaal dunes Amsterdam Beach Rob Verhagen

For those who are a little afraid of cycling in Amsterdam, Haarlem offers a far gentler experience. A bike is a safe, convenient and fun way to get around the city and hit some of those further-out spots, especially in the summer months. Most bike rental shops offer child seats on the bikes for little ones, while older kids will love cycling around on their own two wheels. Great places to cycle to within around 20 minutes of Haarlem are the beach at Bloemendaal aan Zee, restaurant Kraantje Lek on the edge of the dunes with its fabulous wooden playground, or the enchanting castle Ruine van Brederode – more on that below.

Visit a petting zoo

Houthoeve Haarlem

Children’s farms (or ‘’kinderboerderij’’) are a common sight in cities in the Netherlands, set up in the middle of last century to provide green spaces where urban children can meet animals. Haarlem is home to a few good ones, in particular de Houthoeve in the middle of a large park just south of the city centre. Kids can see and stroke a range of farmyard and rare breed animals including goats, sheep, llamas, donkeys and horses, as well as chickens, rabbits and other small furry friends. There’s even a wonderful playground attached, with wooden climbing frames and slides nestled amongst the trees.

Wear them out at a picturesque playground

Speeltuin De Glasblazers

According to Unicef, Dutch kids are officially the happiest in the world, and perhaps the quality of their playgrounds plays a part in that. Haarlem is overflowing with beautiful ‘speeltuins’ (literally, ‘play gardens’) where parents can relax in quaint surroundings while the kids blow off some steam.  Nestled in the heart of the city, the community Speeltuin het Paradijsje (the little paradise) is a secret courtyard of wonder aimed at younger children. With a large sandpit, swings, little cars and tricycles and lots to explore, tots can be entertained for hours while parents enjoy a coffee surrounded by cute Dutch houses. Another notable speeltuin is de Glasblazers on the River Spaarne, which boasts its own wooden pirate ship and outdoor trampoline. Most speeltuins understandably ask for a small entry fee towards the upkeep of the facilities.

Feed them up

So many places in Haarlem are great for kids, but a few places go the extra mile to keep them happy without compromising on brilliant food and service. If you’re in the city centre, take a pitstop at half-toystore-half-café Meneer Paprika, where tables are arranged around a huge toddler-height train set, so you can keep an eye on your little ones wherever you’re sat. The excellent Brownies and Downies has a spacious play area at the back of the restaurant and plenty of space for buggies, while rooftop restaurant De Dakkas has enough novelty factor (and roof-dwelling chickens) to keep kids happy while you enjoy lunch. A little out of the centre in the north of Haarlem, the lovely Kweekcafe at the Haarlemmer Kweektuin is a huge glasshouse café with a large play area, lots of space to run around, and a speeltuin, adventure playground and petting zoo.

Explore weird and wonderful science

Slightly older kids will love the Teylers Museum of Wonder. Fantastic fossils, preserved beasts, sparkling minerals and impressive gadgets are just some of the weird and wonderful items on display at this beautiful museum, which combines art and science under one roof and is worth a visit for the building in itself. Kids up to 12 years old can take a free treasure hunt through the collection, whilst the museum organises regular workshops – check the website for details.

Hit the (toy) shops

Tante Steef

Haarlem is often voted as the Netherlands' best shopping city thanks to its selection of beautiful independent stores, bustling markets, thriving high street and ease of getting around. But all the kids really care about is the toy shops. Thankfully you’ll find some beautiful kids’ stores dotted around the centre, which all make browsing an experience in itself, even if you’re not planning to make a purchase. Meneer Paprika (Mr Pepper) combines enchanting toy shop with a great café, a huge train set and even a dressing-up box for kids to play with while parents catch a breath and a coffee. Tante Steef (Aunty Steef) and Krokodil (Crocodile), within a few minutes’ walk, offer an enrapturing selection of kids’ toys big and small, with a see-saw outside Tante Steef and a fun slide inside Krokodil.

Go open-air swimming

Houtvaart Haarlem

Swimming under blue skies is a great way to keep cool in the heat of the summer, and Haarlem offers a few great places to splash around in the open air. From April to September, the Houtvaart outdoor pool comes into its own on hot days with kids of all ages enjoying the paddling pool, kids’ pool and main pool complete with a springboard to dive off. Check the website for session times. If wild swimming is more your bag, the beautiful Het Wed lake in the dunes on the edge of Haarlem has a clean, sandy beach and a roped-off shallow area for kids to paddle in.

Head to the beach

Amsterdam Family on beach Rob Verhagen

A pleasant 25-minute cycle through the dunes or a short bus ride will bring you to the hotspots of Bloemendaal aan Zee or Zandvoort, where the beaches are vast and clean, and the sea is surprisingly shallow and swimmable on hot summer days. The beaches tend to be quieter in winter, meaning there’s plenty of space for little legs to run around or fly a kite, before diving into a cosy beach restaurant like San Blas for a warm chocomel. For a beachy feel without leaving the city, hip de Oerkap city beach near the train station is a good option with a fun programme of outdoor events throughout the summer, while het Veerkwartier is a ramshackle greenhouse made from reclaimed materials that overlooks a lake with a small beach and loads of space for kids to be kids.

Be King of the Castle (or windmill)

Haarlem molen Adriaan Geert Snoeijer

An enjoyable cycle ride through the forests north of Haarlem (around 20 minutes) will bring you to the impressive Ruine van Brederode, a ruined medieval castle complete with a moat, dungeon and far-reaching views from its highest turret. Kids can dress up as a knight or damsel to explore the ruin’s many rooms and towers, and play a range of traditional wooden games at the ye very olde outdoor café. Back in the city, Haarlem’s iconic Molen de Adriaan windmill on the banks of the Spaarne river offers another opportunity for a view over the rooftops from its wooden deck, underneath the windmill’s sails, 12 metres above the river.

Go sailing

Haarlem gracht Amsterdam Metropool

Haarlem doesn’t have as many canals as Amsterdam, but there are still enough waterways to make for an enjoyable cruise with the family. Take a guided boat tour to see the city from the water and learn interesting facts about its history and development along the way. If younger children would struggle to sit still for the duration, hiring your own boat offers more freedom for young skippers and allows you to set your own pace as you explore Haarlem. Sloepdelen Haarlem offers comfortable, self-drive electric boats for up to 12 people.

Still looking for things to do in Haarlem? Check out our tips of the 10 best things to do in the city.