Modern-day tulip mania: on the Netherlands' tulip trail
From tulip fields to glorious gardens, the Netherlands is known the world over for its brilliant spring blooms. Here's how to plan a trip around the annual tulip season.
Where & what is the Netherlands’ tulip trail?
Tulips are synonymous with the Netherlands and every spring, the fields between Amsterdam, Leiden and the North Sea coast become a heady carpet of colour. The tulip trail starts in Haarlem in the northwest of the country and meanders south through Lisse to the famous floral displays at Keukenhof.
The flowering season for tulips varies, but the best time is usually between March and May to catch fields awash with colourful velvety buds. If your timing is a bit off, visit the Bollenstreek, a strip of coastal sandy soil in the west that’s perfect for cultivating blooms. In early spring the crocuses and daffodils bloom first, followed by hyacinths and the long-anticipated tulip. Summer latecomers unfurl in the form of gladioli, dahlias and carnations.
This incredible flower season celebrates all aspects of Dutch floriculture, with street parades, art displays and even flower-themed gastronomy.
Highlights on the Netherlands’ tulip trail
Keukenhof Gardens & flower fields
The world-famous Keukenhof botanical gardens, open for eight weeks every year, is tulip central, and should be your first port of call. It attracts one million visitors from all corners of the planet, who swarm like pollen-sozzled bees over paths that intersect the 32-hectare site. The Keukenhof gardeners hand-plant seven million bulbs to produce around 800 varieties of the silken-headed blooms, digging them up and starting all over again in the autumn.
Exhibitions change annually and 2018 sees Tulip Mania in the Juliana Pavilion, showcasing the history and economic importance of the famous flower. Take a so-called 'whisper boat' around the perimeter of the gardens via the canals which provide a duck’s eye view of the flora-covered banks.
Jump on a bicycle and enjoy the wind in your hair as you take a number of marked paths through open fields around Keukenhof, dissected by swathes of red tulips and purple hyacinths.
Twice a year floral tributes take to the streets. The first in April sees illuminated floats tracing the 25 miles Bloemen Route from Noordwijk to Haarlem, through some of the country’s most impressive flower fields. Or visit in August, when seaside resort Katwijk aan Zee gets in on the floral parade action.
Leiden’s Botanical Gardens
The Hortus Botanicus in Leiden is the oldest botanical gardens in the Netherlands. In spring and summer, the jasmine-scented gardens are a wonderful place to while away an hour or two. With more than 60,000 flora specimens it’s a horticulturist’s playground.
Aalsmeer flower auction
The Netherlands is world’s largest producer of tulips, with over two million bulbs per year auctioned alongside cut flowers and plants in at Royal FloraHolland in Aalsmeer. Open to visitors at 7am, it’s worth the early start to watch the hustle and bustle of the auction floor.
What to do when you've had your fill of flowers
Whether you stay in Lisse, the closest place to stay for Keukenhof’s flowery exploits, or any number of the nearby towns, there's plenty to do to get the full Dutch experience.
Visit this beautiful country house, dating back to 1641, to get a taste of what life was like in the Dutch Golden Age. Book yourself onto a guided tour and don’t miss the stunning landscaped gardens.
For food in town
Eat at one of the many terraced cafés and upmarket restaurants in the quiet but elegant town centre. Book an outside table for lunch at De Vier Seizoenen restaurant – in tulip season, try a three course flower-themed menu. Join the locals at the Min12 ice cream parlour on the weekend where there’s always a small crowd of families.
Take a break at this cute café on the site of the old train station. On the main cycle route out of Keukenhof and surrounded by flowers and trees, the open terrace is the perfect place for a pit stop. Expect typical, fresh Dutch fare like avocado salads and rye bread.
Museum De Zwarte Tulp
The colourful, family-friendly museum shows the history of the tulip from the Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent to Leiden in the Golden Age with interactive displays and changing art exhibits.
Leiden University’s Observatory
Established in 1633, this is the world’s oldest observatory and still in operation today. Near the Botanical Gardens, it has some child-friendly exhibits and guided tours.
Leiden has one of the Netherlands’ best Saturday food markets, with dozens of stalls lining the canals in the city centre. Pick up some stroopwafels, herring and the ubiquitous kaas (that’s cheese to you).
Molenmuseum de Valk
Visit this wonderfully preserved windmill where the miller’s compact living quarters are displayed as they would have been in the 18th century. It’s a fairly steep climb with the reward of incredible views from the upper platform.
Frans Hals Museum
View unparalleled art exhibits by the eponymous painter and other Dutch masters at the Frans Hals Museum. There are original drawings and paintings, as well as changing exhibitions.
Try a locally brewed beer at the Jopenkerk brewery, located in a former church. You can book a private tour and stay for lunch or dinner at the grand café and restaurant. The brewery also hosts DJ nights, cheese and beer tastings and other one-off events.
Aalsmeer Historical Gardens
From April to September, your entrance ticket to the flower auctions at Royal FloraHolland also grants you entry you to the vast Aalsmeer Historical Garden, including an hour-long boat ride on the Westeinderplassen Lake.
Elsewhere in the area
With canal trips and museums like Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam is the pinnacle of Dutch style. If you’re getting floral withdrawal symptoms, check out the flower market and the small Amsterdam Tulip Museum.
Noordwijk aan Zee and the coastal resorts
Take a leisurely cycle ride over the dunes to Noordwijk, Katwijk, Bloemendaal or Zandvoort or walk along Holland’s long, flat beaches. After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the numerous beachfront restaurants serving fine wines and seafood. End the day on a terrace overlooking the sea with a cocktail in hand.
Where to stay on the Netherlands' tulip trail
These hotels and apartments in the dune and bulb region make great bases to explore the flower-filled area.
Carlton Square Hotel, Haarlem
This relaxed but sumptuous hotel looks out onto open green spaces, and despite being within walking distance of Haarlem’s centre, it feels worlds away in terms of pace and atmosphere. Not that Haarlem’s full of noise and bustle, but this little canal-side edge of town has something of a village feel. Keep the flower vibe going on the outdoor terrace, and enjoy one of their high grade herbal dried bloom infusions.
Hotel Lion D’Or, Haarlem
Steps away from Haarlem’s train station, this handsome building will enchant you with its sophisticated façade and outdoor terrace tables. The sitting room and breakfast area is full of art and if you take a coffee with a window view you can keep an eye out for the Keukenhof bus.
Hotel Lion D'Or/booking.com
Hotel de Duif, Lisse
In the heart of Lisse, this place has some beautiful new apartment-style accommodation, complete with kitchen and dining areas. If it’s just a room you need, you’ll be next to Lisse’s best restaurants and the main street.
Hotel de Nachtegaal, outside Lisse
This modern hotel is located just outside of Lisse is great if you’re driving. It’s the perfect base for trips to Amsterdam or the beach and has a great restaurant.
Boutique Hotel Rembrandt, Leiden
Small but beautiful, this bijou accommodation is just around the corner from the Molenmuseum de Valk and the train station. Leiden’s not that big but the location is great if you’re planning on catching buses and trains.
The Flying Pig Beach Hostel, Noordwijk aan Zee
A welcoming hostel for the young at heart (although it doesn’t allow children). It’s got a chilled atmosphere and friendly staff will help organise watersports and other activities on the beach, only 50 yards away. Shuttle buses run daily between its sister hostel, the Flying Pig Downtown in Amsterdam.
Getting around the tulip trail
During flower season, the Keukenhof Express bus goes directly from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to the Keukenhof gardens, taking around 35 minutes. Depending on your location, it might be worth buying the Amsterdam Region Ticket, which gives unlimited bus travel for one day with selected bus companies, including the Keukenhof Express.
Direct buses from Haarlem and Noordwijk to Keukenhof give you a wider choice of accommodation, which is handy as little Lisse is usually booked up well in advance of flower season.
Even better, travel by car and you can easily hop between all of the major sites.
Map of the Netherlands' tulip trail
Use this handy map of the Netherlands' tulip trail to plan your trip.
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