Zwolle is about 90 minutes east of Amsterdam by train. It’s just one of many cities to visit if you’re looking to avoid the busy streets of the capital. Amsterdam gets a whole lotta love in the media: the bikes, the museums (Rembrandt! Van Gogh!), the pot. But there’s an assortment of other cities, none of which are more than 90 minutes away by train, that offer their own distinct reasons for visiting.
Amsterdam has made efforts to reduce the effects of overtourism since before the pandemic. In 2019 alone, the city saw more than 9 million tourists, which is quite extreme when you consider the population is less than 1 million. The diversity of things to do and see outside Amsterdam is especially pertinent now that tourism to the capital is ticking up again.
Here’s a trio of cities that are only a quick train ride away.
“Here, have a sip of history,” the bartender said, setting a glass of Hoppenbier on the bar. It was malty and crisp with a gentle hoppy finish, and, according to a document unearthed from Haarlem’s city archives, it’s what the locals were drinking at the turn of the 16th century. It was the inaugural beer Jopen made when it started brewing in 1994 on the outskirts of this very old city. In 2010, the brewery opened Jopenkerk, a dazzling restaurant and taproom inside an old church, where light from the stained-glass windows bounces off grand, shiny copper brewing kettles.
It’s in a lively town square, and if you’re there any night at 9, you’ll hear the bells of nearby St. Bavokerk, a medieval Gothic church. They ring just like they’ve rung since the 16th century, when they notified residents the city gate was closing. It’s such a source of local pride that some residents have the chime as their ringtone, said my tour guide, Antoinette Haan. (In an unprecedented move, the bells’ ring time changed for a stretch during the pandemic to announce a coronavirus-imposed curfew.) But for all its Old World charm, Jopen is decidedly visionary, offering “high beer,” a playful, boozy spin on high tea, and thoughtful beer-pairing dinners, which prompted me to question whether I’d ever need wine with a meal again.
Others around Holland and beyond were drinking Hoppenbier in the 1500s, too. There was plenty to spare. The water from the Bakenessergracht, the canal that cuts through the city and ends at the River Spaarne, was not safe for drinking. But it could be used for brewing. Noting that river access made Haarlem a commercial hub, Antoinette pointed out the canal-side weigh house where merchants were taxed on their cargo. (Haarlem, less than 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam, is a history-rich city. If your time is limited, I recommend a guide who can show you the highlights and reveal its nooks and details.) The breweries contributed to the town’s wealth, and few were more prolific at documenting bourgeoisie life than painter Frans Hals, Haarlem native son and Golden Age star.
Hals is known for his portraits of civic guards — all black suits and ruffled collars. (Van Gogh is famously said to have written that Hals must have used “27 shades of black.”) Many moonlighted as brewers. The works are on display at the Frans Hals Museum, which has purportedly been visited by Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet, each of whom, legend has it, are noted in the museum’s guest book.
Spectacular as the paintings are, when I wandered into the courtyard, frozen in time in the 1700s when the building stood as a home for elderly men, it was hard to go back inside. Who would ever want to leave such tranquility? Courtyards like this are one of Haarlem’s marks of distinction. Later that day, Antoinette led me to one a few blocks from the museum, explaining that the cottages lining the perimeter were designed as spaces where older women could live rent-free. It was easy to imagine Hals set up with his easel here, eternalizing the residents’ animated faces.
Breakers Beach House is a seafood-focused restaurant on the Noordwijk shore. It’s part of the Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin, a family-owned hotel that’s hosted luminaries such as Barack Obama. He stayed in Noordwijk (30 minutes by train from Amsterdam to Leiden, then another 15 minutes by bus) when he attended the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. A wall in the back of the restaurant is festooned with sepia-toned historical photos; it could be a town museum. There are cheerful women in bonnets and flouncy dresses gazing at the sea. And there are covered wood wagons on the beach, ersatz changing rooms for 19th-century leisure seekers. The images portray Noordwijk’s past as a spa town. Now, after a few decades as a convention site, it’s reviving its reputation as a resort destination. Efforts are paying off. In 2020, it earned recognition from the European Spas Association as an official spa town.
But there’s far more to the outdoors here than eight miles of coastline. Noordwijk is where I discovered there’s truth to the old saying that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. At least, that’s the case when you’re relearning on flat, paved paths that wind through a patchwork of landscapes: dunes, forests, fields. I connected with Mark Kras, a Dutch Forestry Commission park ranger, for a tour of the town. Encyclopedic in his knowledge, he provided a running narrative throughout our four-hour ride. (The continual assurance he offered this edgy born-again cyclist should not go unmentioned.) First, along the 19th-century tulip fields, which will bloom again come April. Then up to the millennia-old dunes. Mark stopped short, hopped off his bike and pulled out his binoculars.
“As soon as you enter the dunes, you’re bound to see one,” he said, handing me the binoculars and pointing to a fallow deer, its antlers rising above tall grass and grain stalks like skyscrapers in the wilderness. All the while, parents on bikes with babies or toddlers in baskets on the front or baskets on the back or wagons in tow coasted past us.
Just as yours truly, an unapologetic urbanite, was starting to succumb to nature’s charm, civilization appeared like a speed bump. Up ahead loomed a radio tower, part of a Netherlands Naval Aviation Service base that had been taken over by the German troops during World War II. We cruised south along a forest, a dense cluster of pine trees planted around the 1930s to protect coastal villages from encroaching sand. But it was encroaching Germans who left their marks ahead. The Atlantikwall Museum, whose entrance is tucked into the side of a high dune, offers access to a network of underground bunkers. Mark beckoned me to the other side of the bike path, pushed away some overgrowth and pointed out a slab of cement marked with a curved impression. “Here’s how we know a German stood here,” he said, tracing the outline of a boot print.
Soon enough, I said goodbye to Mark and headed to the Vesper Hotel, a gorgeous and thoroughly modern hotel inspired by some of the world’s best-known design hotels. Cosmopolitan yet playful, it has curated vintage furniture and decor. Each light-flooded room has a record player and vinyl, but the lullaby comes courtesy of the waves across the street.
The Phood Kitchen occupies a tremendous former dairy plant. From the dining space, guests can look downstairs to where leafy greens grow on two tables designed for aquaponic agriculture, a system of growing plants in water tables where fish waste is converted to nutrients. After lunch, a coconut rice and chicken dish made with the house-grown kale, I found Tim Elfring, who owns Phood Kitchen and the adjacent Phood Farm with Sabine Feron. Partners in life and business, they met studying tai chi in England. He took me to the elaborate indoor farm. (Tours will be available for groups in the near future.) He estimated they grow 200 pounds of greens a week. An imminent expansion — horizontal and vertical — will quadruple growing capabilities.
The restaurant had a tented outdoor stage and sandy dining pavilion all summer, but beyond the perimeter is a vast industrial tract, the kind that defined Eindhoven, 80 minutes by train from Amsterdam, for decades. But that’s changing. Tim is helping develop the area into an incubator for food start-ups. It’s similar to how Strijp-S, about four miles across the city, famously became a trendy district with shops, breweries, restaurants, design studios and Enversed, Europe’s biggest virtual reality experience, the platonic ideal of an amusement park. (All the thrill, nobody seated next to you.)
It’s also where I wandered through Mu Hybrid Art House, which dubs itself an “investigative presentation platform.” Exhibitions here highlight the intersection of design and technology. Artificial intelligence figured prominently in the mostly digital work in “Real Feelings,” the show I caught this summer. This had to be the best possible place to consider future-is-now technology. After all, locals might have felt a similar mix of wonder and anxiety when, at the turn of the 20th century, the factories standing at this same location turned out futuristic lightbulbs.
Now a destination, Strijp-S was known as the “forbidden city,” because, for decades, it was occupied by the manufacturing headquarters of Philips and only employees were allowed on the grounds. The lighting and electronics company was founded in Eindhoven in 1891, and it’s synonymous with the city. (See: Philips Stadium, the concert hall Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, the school Frits Philips Lyceum.) But production moved to China in the 1970s and ’80s, and in 1997, corporate headquarters relocated to Amsterdam, leaving abandoned factories in its wake. But the city is also home to the celebrated Design Academy Eindhoven, and cavernous industrial spaces are a designer’s Shangri-La.
Piet Hein Eek, a 1990 Design Academy graduate, was among the first to appropriate a brick factory building. The Dutch design star, who became known for his scrap-wood cabinets, now runs a veritable empire headquartered on Strijp-R, about three miles across the city. His studio/workshop/showroom doubles as a design museum, complete with a restaurant and soon-to-open hotel just across the street. Soaring ceilings and walls of windows provide a stark backdrop against which the details of the furniture — mismatched chairs, Eek’s signature patchwork anti-pattern tables, a mesmerizing bar constructed of layered colored gas pipes — appear in high-definition.
It struck me again and again how the free-spirited, eco-conscious creative class does not disdain the city’s corporate past. In fact, many cherish it. Tim and Sabine, for their part, tricked out their urban farm with Philips bulbs specially designed for indoor growing. Here, past innovation directly shapes the future.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
If you go
Where to stay
Ripperdastraat 13A, Haarlem
Modern and vintage decor merge in each individually designed room at this stylish hotel. With exposed wood beams and sumptuous textiles throughout, it has a classy-yet-cozy vibe and playful touches tossed in for good measure. A “living room” features a library of design books and ping-pong. Rooms from about $151 per night.
Koningin Astrid Blvd. 46, Noordwijk
From the rooms to the vibrant lobby bar/restaurant, this creative beachside hotel has a cosmopolitan look and a beachy down-to-earth feel. Modern and minimalist, the individually designed rooms are enlivened by pops of color and vintage items, courtesy of the owners’ visits to antique markets in France and beyond. Includes complimentary breakfast. Rooms about $183 per night.
Paradijslaan 2, Eindhoven
Sleek, minimalist design and rustic infrastructure intersect at this immersive design hotel located in 19th-century Dutch army barracks and adjoining warehouse. The eight uniquely designed rooms are reverse-engineered into original spaces, like a hayloft. The complex features two restaurants, an exhibition space, a courtyard and a shop. Rooms about $189 per night.
Kanaalstraat 4, Eindhoven
The grand stained-glass windows are just one of the holdovers from when this hotel stood as an Augustinian church and monastery. A stark-white modern lobby connects the two buildings, where contemporary art and high-tech amenities exist against a backdrop of Old World architecture. Keep your eye out for good-humored Old Testament references. Rooms from about $110 to $203 per night.
Where to eat
Gedempte Voldersgracht 2, Haarlem
Craft beer, including some made with centuries-old recipes, and modern fare are served in a former church where stained-glass windows and soaring ceilings frame grand copper brewing kettles. Jopen, an award-winning brewery, offers a range of beers and classy pub fare. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Try a beer-pairing dinner ($56) or an afternoon “high beer” ($35). Reservations required.
Hugo van der Goeslaan 2-03, Eindhoven
Purported to be the world’s first aquaponic farm-restaurant, this airy, stylish eatery, located in a former dairy factory, focuses on sustainability and uses vegetables grown in a sprawling indoor farm. Open Thursday to Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Starters from about $7.50, meals from about $17.
Breakers Beach House
Koningin Astrid Boulevard 5, Noordwijk
Part of the Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin, this elegant yet laid-back waterside restaurant, with a fireplace for cooler months and sweeping windows, features fish-focused dishes. Open daily 12:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. The fruits de mer seafood tower (about $93) is a highlight. Starters from about $19, mains from about $25.
Restaurant Piet Hein Eek
Halvemaanstraat 28, Eindhoven
Soups, salads and sandwiches with imaginative accents define the menu at this stylish restaurant across from famed Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek’s studio and showroom. This light-filled space is outfitted with tables and chairs Eek made with recycled scrap wood, his signature, and vintage furniture he scored at auctions and flea markets. Check website for hours. Lunch starters from about $5, mains from about $12; dinner starters from about $7.50, mains from about $24.
What to do
Frans Hals Museum
Groot Heiligland 62 and Grote Markt 16, Haarlem
The vivid paintings of renowned Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals take center stage at this museum in a centuries-old building, once a home for aging men. Including portraits to landscapes, Hals’s works bring 17th-century Haarlem to life. The museum split into two locations in 1950; the Groot Heiligland location, referred to as Hof, houses the permanent collection, while the second building, located in Grote Markt, a bustling city square a few blocks from the original, houses modern art. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission about $19 adults, free for people under 19.
Once referred to as the “forbidden city” because only Philips workers were allowed access, this former industrial district now houses a variety of trendy restaurants, green space, galleries, boutique shops and markets. Buy a booklet with an illustrated map designed for a self-guided tour of the neighborhood at the tourist information point for about $3. Guided group and individual tours available through Eindhoven247 for about $145 per guide. Free audio tours available.
Mu Hybrid Art House
Torenallee 40-06, Eindhoven
Located in a former factory building, this gallery features shows by international artists whose works explore the intersection of design and technology. Check out the agenda for live talks and events. Open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission about $6, $4 students, free for people under 18.
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