City trip Europe Gastronomy The Netherlands

Alternatives for Amsterdam: what to do in Haarlem, Laren and Hilversum

Amsterdam is a wonderful place but it can get kind of busy. This is why you should also consider exploring the area around the Dutch capital. Haarlem, Laren and Hilversum for example, have a lot to offer tourists as well. Trot Op! went and found the best alternatives for an Amsterdam city trip.

Wat te doen in Haarlem

Just like Venice and Barcelona, ​​Amsterdam belongs to that small group of top European cities literally everybody wants to visit. As a result, there will always be tons of people around. Fun if you work in the tourism industry; less pleasant if you have to squeeze yourself onto a tram full of  gawking idiots every morning just to get to work.  When I was there for the first time ever last week –outrageous, I know – reality dawned on me quickly. Full of enthusiasm I trotted over to the Anne Frank House, only to be laughed at by the gatekeeper in the most polite way possible. Next available tickets: in five days. Out of desperation I visited the nearby Sex Museum instead. I didn’t have to wait in line, the annex was noticeably more spacious and overall most people walk out of there a little less depressed. So great deal all in all, but the underlying problem is clear. Amsterdam is a fantastic destination, but is suffering from overtourism.

“Full of enthusiasm I trotted over to the Anne Frank House, only to be laughed at by the gatekeeper in the most polite way possible. Next available tickets: in five days.”

That’s why I amsterdam is working with a number of partners from the wider Amsterdam area. Together, they are trying to convince the tourists to combine their city trip to the capital with some alternatives. This way, the poor sods who actually live there can go about their day without an oblivious horde of shuffling sandal-wearers getting in their way. This is where I come into play. After all, I have years and years of professional experience in luring people to even the most desolate, uninteresting locations on the planet. Getting them to go to beautiful Haarlem, Laren and Amsterdam should therefore not prove to be hard work. So let’s get on with it, shall we? *cracks knuckles*


Alternatives for Amsterdam: what to do in Haarlem, Laren and Hilversum

Contrary to what I previously thought – despite my academic appearance, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed – Haarlem, Laren and Hilversum are not districts of Amsterdam but completely independent destinations. Destinations that are easily combined with a visit to the capital. Just half an hour after I’d left my car in a Hilversum parking lot, I was blinking my eyes in Amsterdam Central Station. You don’t even have to go there if you don’t feel like it. There’s plenty to do in the wider Amsterdam area as well. Haarlem is a large city with a rich past in its own right, and is definitely worth a city trip. Laren is no more than a glorified village, but is located in the middle of a beautiful patch of nature in the Castles and Gardens region. Great stuff for hikers and cyclists, and art lovers can go crazy here as well. Hilversum is Holland’s media city par excellence. Because a lot of radio and television stuff is located here, half of the Dutch celebrities live nearby. So if you want to see Tatjana Šimić get her Sunday buns (look her up, you won’t regret it) you now know where to go. So let’s get off the beaten track and discover the main tourist attractions in Haarlem, Laren and Hilversum. Hold on to your butts: it’s gonna be wild.


1. Teylers Museum in Haarlem: the oldest museum in The Netherlands

Wat te doen in Haarlem - Teylers museum
Wat te doen in Haarlem - Teylers museum
Wat te doen in Haarlem - Teylers museum

Haarlem is in many ways a more compact version of Amsterdam. You walk along little canals, through cosy alleyways and in beguinages where an amazing amount of red lights hang in front of the windows – no idea what they are for. There is a beautiful central market square full of bars and restaurants waiting for you, and in the middle of it stands an imposing church. Haarlem also has several museums on offer. The most unique of these is probably Teylers Museum. It’s located in a neoclassical building on the waterside, and is officially the oldest museum in the Netherlands. Pieter Teyler was a wealthy silk manufacturer, banker and avid collector from the 18th century. After his death, he left half of his fortune to support the arts and sciences. This included the construction of this museum, which is a mishmash of fossils, skeletons, scientific experiments, paintings and even sketches by Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Everything is illuminated by natural daylight, and is displayed together in beautiful rooms full of wooden cabinets. As a result, the whole thing oozes a nostalgic atmosphere that many modern museums lack. The pièce de résistance is an electrostatic generator that could generate lightning indoors. This device got so famous even Napoleon came to Haarlem just to see it. Unfortunately, he stepped into the room accompanied by some twenty guardsmen, all drenched in rain. As a result the air became too humid causing the contraption not to work, and poor Napoleon had to return home disappointed. Fortunately for him, he of course fared much better later in life.


2.  Barnaart House in Haarlem: a look at the life of the bourgeoisie

Wat te doen in Haarlem - Huis Barnaart
Wat te doen in Haarlem - Huis Barnaart

Barnaart House is another, brand new museum in Haarlem, and one of 35 museum houses that can be visited all over the Netherlands. All of them are important buildings from different periods that were preserved to give us a glimpse of life in that era. In the case of Huis Barnaart, this is a glimpse at the life of an indecently rich merchant from the 19th century. The main function of this mansion was to impress guests during dinners and receptions, and it shows. All rooms are richly decorated. Most were restored from scratch, but the so-called “golden room” is still almost completely original. The purpose of this particular space: to play the occasional game of cards. Indeed, the most ravishing halls were only used few times a year, and in summer the whole building stood empty because the owner stayed in his country house. The last room of the tour was kept more modern and is a tea salon where several quotes from the family’s correspondence were printed on the walls. These give some funny insights into the etiquette of the time. For those who want to give a performance no one asked for – that would be me – there is an old piano which you can use to pretend you’re a virtuoso. Enjoy!


3.  Haarlem’s Jopenkerk: get drunk in a church

Wat te doen in Haarlem - Jopenkerk

Haarlem was a city full of breweries in the late Middle Ages. As one of the main brewing cities in the country, Haarlem beer was exported far beyond the borders. This was done in 112 litre barrels called jopen – bam: general knowledge increased. However, all good things must come to an end, and the last brewery closed in 1916. As a result, people in Haarlem – just like in the rest of the Netherlands – had to start drinking shitty Heineken. After drinking lukewarm piss for eighty years, it was decided in the mid-nineties to reverse this tragic evolution. A few medieval recipes were retrieved from the city archives and people started brewing again. Today, the result of this noble work can be found in the Jopenkerk. This is an ex-church building that now houses a brewery, a hip bar and a restaurant. Those who book a dinner will see each course paired with a different beer. A lot of them are brewed there: from weissbier to IPA and from heavy triples to dark beer with a hint of chocolate. Something for everyone, in an extraordinary location.


4.  Museum Singer Laren: modern art in nature

Wat te doen in Laren - Museum Singer Laren
Wat te doen in Laren - Museum Singer Laren
Wat te doen in Laren - Museum Singer Laren

Laren and Hilversum are both located in the Castles and Gardens region around Amsterdam. Until the end of the 19th century this was an area of poor soil, mostly used to graze sheep on. As a result, there is still a lot of open heathland and forest to explore here today. At the time, many artists moved here from the city because they were tired of the smog and industrialization. They resisted urbanization and started living as a bunch of tree hugging hippies ahead of their time, painting the landscapes and farmers. Because they were in close contact with each other – the weekly djembe sessions were reportedly top notch – they caused an explosion in the development of Dutch modern art. This past can be explored in the Singer Laren Museum. This large and modern place is currently getting a new wing to house its permanent collection, which holds all of the most important Dutch impressionists and modernists from those days (I’ll namedrop Mondriaan, so you at least know one of them). It also has the largest collection of works by Rodin in the whole country, including “The Thinker” (oh look, you recognised another thing). Those more into Flemish painters, can visit an exhibition on Magritte, Ensor and Delvaux as from 7 December. A nice warm-up while waiting for the new wing to be finished: patience is a virtue.


5.  Sanatorium Zonnestraal in Hilversum: coffee with a hint of TB

Wat te doen in Hilversum - Zonnestraal

Sanatorium Zonnestraal was a huge complex built in the early 20th century to house Tuberculosis patients while they waited to be cured. The place is located on the border of the Hoge Veluwe National Park. This way, the poor souls who stayed here had something nice to look at while they were coughing up blood.  As TB became less and less of a problem over the years, the buildings eventually stood empty. By the end of the 1990s, the site had deteriorated into a rather sinister urbex location. Because this was one of the first examples of modernist architecture in the Netherlands, it was decided a few years later to completely restore the place. Today, a number of medical companies and services have once again found a home here, but one of the three buildings also hosts a fine brasserie. This means that after a brisk deer-spotting walk, you could come here and enjoy a hot cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin pie. And who could say no to that?


6.  The somewhat strange Hilversum City Hall

Wat te doen in Hilversum - Raadhuis
Wat te doen in Hilversum - Raadhuis

Some are fans, some are not, but the fact is there’s a lot of modern architecture on display in Hilversum. An early example of this is Bloemenbuurt (“flowers quarter”). This is an entire area of quasi-identical workers’ houses forming a balanced whole together (try finding your house after a night of heavy drinking here). W. M. Dudok was this project’s architect, and he designed the much more famous city hall as well: a colossal Lego-looking building with a 50 meter high bell tower on top, but a very interesting place to visit. Did you know for example, that every façade was deliberately made asymmetric, so the shadow play would reinforce the lines of the design even further? Neither did I, but it’s true. Inside there is more colour to be found, and every room was designed with a specific purpose in mind. This purpose apparently was “serving as Dr. Evil’s new headquarters”, but maybe that was just my imagination running wild. Nevertheless: a tour of the Hilversum city hall is quite unique, and at the end you can climb the tower to enjoy a view that stretches all the way to Utrecht on a clear day. Another place you can scratch off the list.


Hotels in Haarlem, Laren en Hilversum en algemene info

Wat te doen in Hilversum - Bloemenbuurt

Want to know everything about Amsterdam, surf to:

For specific info on Haarlem, go to

For more info on Laren and Hilversum, visit

In Amsterdam I stayed in Radisson Blu City Centre, right in the centre of town.

In Haarlem I slept in Amrâth Grand Hotel Frans Hals.

In Hilversum we booked at Gooiland Hotel Hilversum.

Feel like another trip to The Netherlands? Click here for my piece on the Frisian Isles. More into Belgium? Read all about Diest, Limburg and Mons.


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  • Reply
    November 27, 2021 at 1:58 pm

    Ook een halfuurtje van Amsterdam centrum en zeer de moeite: het CoBrA-museum in Amstelveen!

    • Reply
      Jonathan Ramael
      November 27, 2021 at 2:00 pm

      Da’s iets voor volgene keer dan. 😉

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