Peter Morrell falls in love with this well preserved City which is a mere 15 minutes by train from central Amsterdam and is currently hosting two world class art exhibitions
There is an assumption that to visit any place worthwhile requires a lot of travelling. This is certainly not the case with Haarlem. Within two hours of leaving London City airport I was wandering through narrow cobbled streets dating back to the middle ages, gazing at picturesque sun dappled canals and being overawed by the sheer majesty of the 15th century Gothic St Bavo’s church.
I was in Haarlem for the opening of two world class exhibitions featuring Leonardo da Vinci and Frans Hals, long time resident of the city.
Before exploring much further I had lunch at Grand Café Brinkmann, overlooking St Bavo’s in Grote Markt. the main square. This café has, since 1879, been a well-known spot for delicious food and perfect coffee in an historic Haarlem building.
There was a good range of food including rolls made with artisan bread and a range of fillings. The food was complemented with a beer from the local Jopen craft brewery, one of the few, there was in the past 50+ breweries operating in the city.
After lunch a two hour guided walk around the city was the perfect post-lunch activity. The layout and architecture of the old town is still intact and gives you the feeling of what life was like 400 years ago. Along the way was the De Adriaan windmill, now fully restored it sits on the bank of the Spaarne River, still a working waterway. The windmill, now a museum, provides photographers with the opportunity to snap the perfect Dutch scene.
Haarlem was a rich city and its wealthy residents were very philanthropic, on my tour 1 saw many alms houses set around neat gardens where older people would live and be provided with food, fuel and money.
Near the windmill was Teylers Museum, the location for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and almost next door Waag, the old weigh house. In times past goods arriving by barge would be checked before distribution. Waag is now a bar with terrace making it the ideal canal side spot for a drink.
The old town is a jumble of streets, they are pedestrianised but do look out for the bicycles! Some of the houses are still residential, the names of the occupants written in copperplate script on the doors. Other buildings are now boutiques, chocolate shops and small cafes.
I was taken to a courtyard and shown the side of a large building. Invisible from the street it was a hidden church that was built when the protestant reformation arrived in the 16th century and a group of Anabaptist Christians who were Mennonites wanted to continue their religion. The interior of the church is sober and unadorned, in line with their beliefs.
After the walk it was back to Teylers for a preview of the Leonardo da Vinci Drawings exhibition. This is a beautifully curated exhibition that gives the visitor a real opportunity to get into the mind of the master. Examples of da Vinci’s work have been gathered from around the world including the loan of 16 drawings from HM The Queen’s collection.
Da Vinci was able to capture the very soul of an individual through the face, there are beautiful young innocents set against against the visages of old warriors.
He could illustrate emotions and portray people’s thoughts and was one of the first artists to show the intention of one person to another through the depiction of body language and position.
Da Vinci was fascinated by grotesques, he described his drawings of them as visi mostruosi or monstrous faces. He drew pictures of older women who has lost their allure and men with oversized chins and hooked noses.
Da Vinci’s great rival was Michelangelo and the city of Florence commissioned them both to paint frescos of a battle scene. This was an artistic dual fought with brushes. The frescos were never painted but both artists produced preliminary drawings which have been juxtaposed in the exhibition. Interestingly Michelangelo strove to depict anatomical precision while Da Vinci focussed on expression and emotion.
The final gallery is absorbing, a large copy of da Vinci’s The Last Supper is displayed. The original was painted using an experimental technique and that coupled with moisture and bomb damage means that it is flaking, faded and in poor shape. On the opposite wall is a copy with vibrant colours showing how The Last Supper looked when it was painted in the late 15th century.
It is an unmissable collection and a look at the permanent exhibition is just as rewarding. It’s an eclectic mix of exhibits with good examples of Dutch art, a large coin collection, cases of mineralogical examples and scientific instruments.
After a long day of history and heritage it was time to eat. Dinner was in an exciting new restaurant called De Dakkas. It’s the location of this eatery which makes it so unique, it’s been created on the top floor of a multi-storey car park. There are stunning views across the roofscape towards the majestic St Bavo’s church in the main square. You can dine al fresco or in a glass building which still gives you the opportunity to enjoy the views.
The food was excellent with the dishes veering towards the vegetarian and vegan although carnivores are still well catered for. Again the local Jopen beer was readily available.
After such a long and eventful day sleep came easily in the comfortable Amrath Grand Hotel Frans Hals which overlooks St Bavo’s church and is just minutes away from all the major attractions in the city.
The following day I took a canal boat ride to take a look at the city from a totally different perspective. There were great views of the windmill, Waag, Teylers, the dome of the now disused Panopticon style circular prison and the many rich merchant’s houses. As a footnote in history it was in Haarlem in February 1637 that the first cracks appeared in the tulip mania bubble. The market for Tulip bulbs which were changing hands for several times the average annual income suddenly collapsed.
After an hour’s absorbing ride the canal boat stopped at a pontoon close to the Frans Hals Museum. This year the museum is staging a major new exhibition called Frans Hals and the Moderns. It examined how one of the Golden Age’s greatest artists faded into insignificance until rediscovered by more contemporary artists in the 19th century.
The art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger brought Frans Hals to the attention of the world, as a bonus he also rediscovered Johannes Vermeer but that’s another story. Frans Hals was always a rebel he was a drunkard, fathered 14 children and his artistic style was not Golden Age, tight and precise but far more flamboyant. His subjects and their demeanour were more joyous, his use of colour bolder and his brushwork was loose and natural.
As tastes changed so did the techniques of modern artists. They were heavily influenced by this forgotten master’s works. A procession which including American John Singer Sargent, Vincent Van Gogh and Edouard Manet came, observed and started to emulate what they had seen. Many of these works are on display. Van Gogh’s ‘The Postman Joseph Roulin’ in his bright blue uniform and Singer Sargent’s Mrs Ernest Hills, dressed in black and although recently widowed has a distinct sparkle in her eye. A real coup is the display of the recently discovered Boy with Pitcher by Edouard Manet, which shows the naturalistic nature of this art genre.
The intriguing recurrence of the style used by Hals is illustrated with many examples There are also like for like copies made by artists as they learnt how Hals used brush strokes to create his works.
This was an excellent, well constructed exhibition which showed in detail just how influential Frans Hals was on contemporary art.
My final lunch was in the lively Vooges conveniently situated by Haarlem Central Station.
This lightening tour of Haarlem was at an end and I was glad to have spent time in the city, the two art exhibitions are a big draw but so is the architecture and history of the city itself. It’s an ideal short break destination, a stone’s throw from the UK.
For tourism information on Haarlem go to
The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition is open until 6 January at Teylers Museum
The Frans Hals and the Moderns exhibition runs until 24 February 2019 the Frans Hals museum
Grand Café Brinkmann
De Dakkas Restaurant
Amrath Grand Hotel
For information about travel to Holland go to