Amsterdam has the charm of a mini village with big city benefits. You'll see quaint houses and picturesque bridges resting above more than a hundred different canals but you'll also get the entertainment, nightlife and restaurants of a proper metropolis.
Haarlem, a short train ride away, gives a closer look and local life feel. It's often been described as a quieter Amsterdam but this city also has a vibe that's all its own and worth experiencing.
Both places make for a relaxing but still active and exciting European side trip or long weekend.
As a non-European, I didn't know much about Amsterdam beyond the Red Light District and had never heard of a Haarlem outside of New York. Both cities genuinely surprised me in the best way! I had three full days and could have easily done more.
My guide was my lovely friend, Nathalia, who lives locally in Haarlem. If it wasn't for her, I probably wouldn't have ventured out to these charming destinations. Obrigada lady! This guide gives you the highlights of my trip and inspiration for an active holiday with a playful spirit.
You can rent a bike for the day to discover hidden city streets and to speed along gorgeous bridges. There wasn't one place we couldn't access by bike - that includes the public ferries which tow as many bikes as people across the canals. There are even garages with multiple levels just dedicated to bike parking.
Be forewarned that city biking is an art in The Netherlands and you may feel like the kid who just graduated from training wheels yesterday. Embarrassingly, I must have fallen off every time the bike traffic light went red. I nearly hit at least two bikes carrying babies. (In my defence, the bike was way too high for me; you can only balance so much when your toes don't touch the ground!) To stay motivated, think of all the off-the-beaten path things you'll see or tell yourself that a day of biking = at least two good workouts. (The more you pedal and the more inclines you climb, the truer this becomes.)
Be prepared for bum soreness. I haven't felt lower body muscle ache in a long, long time. Being known as a bootybuilding trainer means that I'm pretty much numb at this point to any exercise targeting the glutes. Yet after a full day of biking alongside the ridiculously talented Dutch, I could barely climb the stairs. A day of seat soreness was worth the sights!
Despite the previous day's biking soreness, we decided to give the fitness scene in Amsterdam a try. The city has some massive warehouses on the outskirts which allow for some serious boutique space. I expected that we'd have to share in our pole class (as is often the case in Central London) but no - all 20 of us had our own pole and could spin (or fall) with space to spare.
The class was tough and the instructor was great! (As an instructor myself, I'm horribly picky.) She also did the class in English because of us. This was such a thoughtful gesture - not that we expected it - but if you've ever heard Dutch, you know that it's not a language you can guess at and pole dancing is hard enough as it is!
Book online with Pole Dance Factory for a pole, aerial silks, hoop, acro, twerk or flexibility class.
Aside from biking, the canal tours are the way to get to know Amsterdam as well as learn a bit of history. Purchase tickets on-site when you arrive or online. We did an hour-long tour the moment I got into town; I went straight from Amsterdam Centraal station to the boat, carrying my suitcase with me! Relaxing is for later - at the the beach or bar!
We listened to a mix of history about buildings, the city, the culture and iconic neighbourhoods while watching locals float past with summer shirts and beers in hand.
From Haarlem, bike to the National Park for a lakeside stroll or tan on the sand dunes. Here, you'll be among locals going for a dip, doing a BBQ or even setting up for a bonfire. If you're prepared for a longer ride, try biking all the way to the ocean!
I love a good, quirky local hangout with a history to it. The Jopenkerk in Haarlem fits the bill and was one of the highlights of my trip. It's a former church with the clever slogan, "Creating Divine Beer." Inside, you can witness the brewing process, surrounded by stain glass windows and club music. I'm not a beer gal (in general I don't drink too much) but wow the "Nuts & Chocolate" pints got me going for thirds! Dinner is available to help you soak up this tasty beer.
SWING ABOVE THE CITY
Next to the canal and many floors above it, you get a 360 degree view of Amsterdam at the A'DAM Lookout. Here, you'll find an interactive exhibit showcasing Amsterdam's history. For the less historically inclined, there's an indoor bar there too with floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around the entire building. For those that are wrecked from a day of exploring, you can relax on the rooftop on comfy bean bags while looking up at the open sky. Entry is 12.50 euros. For an extra 5 euros you can swing "Over The Edge" of the building from the sky deck. This is the highest swing in Europe!
A note about the swing: you will have to wait in a decent line and the swing ride is short. However, the experience is worth it. The swing harness is so lightweight that you'll feel as if you're flying with the wind. It's terrifying, at first, but this is one of the few times you'll ever get back that same rush of swinging in the playground as a kid. Go for sunset to get a gorgeous city backdrop.
Tickets are available online here or on-site. The Lookout is accessible by bike or free, public ferry.
Dress for the season and don't forget your umbrella! The weather changes quickly. On the first day, we had gorgeous sunshine. The following two days alternated rapidly between clear skies and heavy downpours. Bring lots of layers to adapt! (The weather is similar to London if you're familiar with my current home city.)
Since I was visiting a friend, I stayed locally with her in Haarlem. Having explored both Haarlem and Amsterdam, I'd suggest spending a night in both for maximum exploration time. Try renting an Airbnb houseboat in Amsterdam for a night or two and then renting an Airbnb again in Haarlem. There are also many hotels available but the Airbnb options are cute, quirky and something different.