14 May Blooming brilliant: Exploring tulip fields by bike from Amsterdam
Every spring, the countryside of the Netherlands comes alive in vivid technicolour. Tulip fields bloom across the country, producing bold, brilliant flowers that are loved here and abroad. Whilst the famous Keukenhof Gardens are popular with visitors, we went off-piste to explore the spectacular fields near Amsterdam – escaping the crowds and discovering more about this floral phenomenon.
Before we headed to the Netherlands last month, there was one thing I knew I wanted to do. Find tulips.
We would be visiting in early April: Peak tulip season. I wanted to make the most of the chance to experience something that happens just once a year.
A quick bit of research told me the most popular option for seeking out blooms would be a visit to Keukenhof Gardens. Open for just two months of the year, Keukenhof is an enormous show garden in the town of Lisse, a short distance from Amsterdam. More than 7 million tulip bulbs are planted here every year, making for a formidable display of the Netherlands favourite flower. The thing is, Keukenhof is extraordinarily popular. And understandably, this means tickets are expensive and the crowds very large. It didn’t really sound like my cup to tea, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was another way.
It had to be possible to see these blooms elsewhere. Tulip growing is a massive agricultural endeavour here, and they’re farmed commercially across a huge swathe of the country – particularly in the Noordoostpolder region. But they’re also found close to the towns of Leiden and Lisse, not far from Amsterdam where we would be staying. A plan was forming. What could be better than heading off to the Dutch countryside to see flower farming in it’s vast, awe-inspiring reality?
With Lisse just 32km from the Dutch capital, we decided cycling would be the best mode of transport for our voyage of tulip discovery. We hired two bikes and hopped on board for a ride that would take us to the picturesque market town of Haarlem and through the tulip fields of Lisse. There might be easier ways to discover the flower-growing heritage of this country, but this had to be the most fun.
We planned a circular route that took us out of Amsterdam, through the small town of Halfweg to Haarlem. From here, we followed cycle paths to Lisse, through a busy tulip-growing region. After a leisurely lunch in Lisse, we took a different route back to the big smoke through the town of Nieuw-Vennep and along the Westinderplassen waterside.
It would cover almost 80km – not too far for us as regular cycle commuters. And best of all, it would give us a chance to ride through the diverse Dutch countryside and several interesting small towns.
Hiring bikes in Amsterdam
There’s no shortage of places to hire bikes in the city that cycles.
We choose the easiest option, hiring bikes from our hotel – the Conscious Hotel Vondelpark. For €15 we had all day hire of our city bikes and the freedom to go wherever our curiosity took us.
You’ll find that most bikes for hire in Amsterdam are Dutch-style city bikes. They take a little getting used to if, like us, you’re used to a road bike. You’ll need to pedal backwards to brake, and there are no gears. But don’t worry! They’re incredibly comfortable to ride (the saddle of my own bike now has some questions to answer), are easy to handle and perfectly designed for the smooth, flat cycleways of the Netherlands. There are several shops in the city that offer road bike hire if you’re keen on covering some serious distance, but we were happy to try something different and leave the cycle shorts at home.
If you’re planning on cycling within the city, I’d recommend a read of my post about everything you need to know before visiting Amsterdam. The priorities for bike traffic may be different to what you’re expecting, and can take a little getting use to.
Cycle route signposting
Just when you think things can’t get much better in a cycle-friendly country, they do. One of the most noticeable things in the Netherlands, apart from the sheer volume of cycleways, is the amount of signposting. Cycle routes are numbered and exceptionally well-signposted, so following a route is easy – even if you’re a visitor.
Town and cities are signposted, sometimes with distances. But you’ll also see that many signs are based on a numbering system. The numbers don’t refer to a route, as such, but instead mark junctions and key points. It sounds unusual but in practice works really well. You can build up infinite routes based on the system of numbers. For example – aiming for point 26, then 28 and finally 33 and will take you from Amsterdam to the outskirts of Haarlem. Once you’ve worked it out, it’s quick and easy to see where to go.
Our day exploring by bike
We started bright and early from our hotel, wanting to make the most of our day. The first twenty minutes of our ride saw us weaving amongst the city streets of Amsterdam, precariously taking corners as we got used to our bikes and hunting for signposts. Quick enough, we got the hang of our new wheels and made sense of our route.
Before we knew it, we’d left the city streets behind and swathes of high grass had replaced high-rises on either side.
From Amsterdam to Haarlem
We left the Dutch capital aiming for the market town of Haarlem. At first, our route took us through Speiringhorn, a lush green park on the outskirts of Amsterdam Nieuw-West. Smooth, flat tarmac greeted us and in next to no time we were speeding past our mid-point, Halfweg. Here we disappeared into farmland and spent the remaining few kilometres to Haarlem in a blur of green.
The historic market town appeared on the horizon quicker than we’d expected. We slowed and steadily meandered our way into the town centre, taking in everything around us. Haarlem is worth visiting in its own right – very pretty with a fantastic medieval church and Grote Markt, or town hall, at its very centre. A labyrinth of charming cobbled streets, lined on either side with smart shopfronts and traditional brick townhouse radiate out towards the river.
Had we not had other things on our mind, we could happily have spent longer exploring here. But the arrival of the fair in town (ready for Kings Day in a weeks time) meant we couldn’t enjoy the main square at it’s best. On a better day, without our view obscured, it would have been blissful to sit and enjoy a coffee here. With other plans in mind, we decided to head on.
Haarlem to Lisse
Hopping back on our bikes, we wove our way out of Haarlem and immediately fell in love with the surrounding countryside. The first few kilometres of cycleway took us mostly through woodlands lush with fresh greenery. Spring was in the air, and the weather was warming up. After a short while, a flash of colour appeared in the distance beyond the trees. We’d found our first tulip fields.
There’s something quite staggering about encountering your first flower farm. In the UK we’re used to homogenous crops of green and ochre. There’s a short-lived splash of colour in May when rapeseed paints the countryside yellow for a few fleeting weeks. But I’d certainly never seen rainbow stripes across a farmer’s field, and I never expected the sheer scale of tulip growing.
Between Haarlem and Lisse, we zigzagged between tulip fields and dappled woodlands. The cycle path is gentle, making the ride a joy in more ways than one. Each time we emerged from the shade we were greeted by a happy cacophony of colours in every tulip field, bright and beautiful.
After a while, the paths started to get busier. Other cyclists, walkers and even campervans were joining us alongside the canal and flower fields. We were approaching Keukenhof and it’s gardens. It was at this point that I realised we’d absolutely made the best decision to explore this area on two wheels. Keukenhof punctuated our ride with a sprawling coach park and crowd of people. But we’d had an hour of astonishing tulip fields all around us and almost to ourselves. Whilst I’m certain that Keukenhof’s gardens and floral displays are spectacular, it didn’t appeal at this busy time of day.
Tulip growing: It’s a way of life
For me, I can’t think of a better way to understand and appreciate these blooms that mean so much to the people of the Netherlands. Not only are they beautiful, they’re also a fearsome crop that drives a surprisingly large part of the economy around here. Seeing the vast scale on which they’re grown is awe-inspiring, and gives an insight into their importance.
Some things only make sense once you’ve seen them. On no one farm were all the fields in blooms. The nature of cropping tulips throughout the season means some flowers are harvested sooner than others. At the peak of season meant approximately one-third of fields were in full technicolour, another third were deep green leafage about to flower at any moment and the remaining fields were completely bare. A bit of a surprise, but of course these fields had already been cut – their harvest adorning the vases of homes across the country. On the horizon, you’ll spot as many smart, white distribution centres as you do pretty little churches. Tractors roar past you on the road. This is an agricultural operation on an industrial scale, and it’s absolutely fascinating.
Lunch in Lisse
Lisse itself seemed delightful laid-back compared to the chaos around Keukenhof. It seems more visitors don’t make their way into the town centre. It’s a nice little place, although admittedly not one that’s dynamic enough to justify a stop here in its own right.
With the sun well past the yard arm, we were ready for something to eat. We stopped at the rather innocuous looking Qoffee and more on the pedestrianised high street. It looked more like a clothes store than a cafe, but the moment our enormous plates of food arrived we realised we’d made a good call. Not only does Qoffee indeed know how to make a good cup of coffee, they also make exceptionally good salads and sandwiches. By the time we hit the road again, we were comfortably full and caffeinated.
Qoffee and more, Kanaalstraat 68, Lisse
Returning from Lisse to Amsterdam
We knew we wanted to make our ride a circular route. This meant using a little bit of imagination for the return, as the most popular paths led either on the coast or back to Keukenhof.
Instead, we headed out of town in the direction of Nieuw-Vennep. Although more slick cycle paths awaited, we’d said goodbye to tulip fields and we quickly flew through this little suburban town. Emerging on the far side, the wind hit us. It turns out that there is a downside to cycling in the Netherlands.
With effort now required, and the lack of gears on our bikes noticeable, we were glad once we’d crossed the vast fields that extend a few kilometres out from Nieuw-Vennep. We were suddenly at the water’s edge, at Westeinderplassen. This world of wetlands and waterways is actually a vast lake and feels completely different to the surrounding countryside.
From here, we were no longer riding on neatly segregated cycle path. We were on a quiet road running alongside the water, with an enjoyable assortment of little houses lined up on the far side of the tarmac. The wind was still in our face, but it didn’t matter as we were once again treated to a different side to the Netherlands. Small barges chugged through the water, allotments sprawled in abundance across the water, folks were sat in the sun outside their homes reading or drinking coffee. Just a stone’s throw from the capital and Europe’s third largest airport, it was remarkably peaceful.
After a few kilometers we passed the small town of Aalsmeer and, before long, the outskirts of Schipol airport. But this wasn’t the end of the road for Dutch rural idylls yet, there was one more surprise in store.
Discovering Amsterdam Bos
The last stretch of our ride took us through the charming Amsterdam Bos, which I can’t recommend enough as a mini-adventure in its own right. Somehow squeezed between Schipol and the city centre, Amsterdam Bos is a huge expanse of woods and parkland that’s just lovely. Criss-crossed with paths and promenades, it’s just as perfect for a picnic as it for cycle rides, running or a Sunday stroll.
Emerging on the far side of Amsterdam Bos, Vondelpark and our hotel were remarkably only a kilometre or so away. We’d clocked up almost 80km, but barely broken a sweat thanks to the joys of Dutch cycle paths and my city bike, which I’d become rather fond of.
Before we said goodbye…
…to our bikes, we decided to make the very most of having day-long bike rental. We took them first for a spin through Vondelpark, packed with people enjoying the pre-Easter sunshine. We then braved the cycleways of central Amsterdam at rush hour – something which, on reflection, rather required taking our life into our own hands. But somehow we made it to our final destination, the quite brilliant Brouwerij ‘t IJ.
This craft brewery is quite a way out from the centre of Amsterdam, hence our decision to take the bikes. But we also thought we’d earned a beer by this point, and we were thankfully delighted by the interesting selection of beverages on offer. There’s a heaving beer garden outside, along with a wonderfully chaotic cycle park that challenged us almost as much as getting here (finding a space for your bike on a sunny spring evening is a competitive sport). Finally settling down with two of their seasonal brews and a platter of delicious nibbles, we were able to pat ourselves on the back for a day very well spent.
Brouwerij ‘t IJ, Funenkade 7, 1018 AL Amsterdam
A word on tulip field etiquette
Chances are, you’ve seen beautifully-lit photos online of travellers posing amongst an abundance of tulips in some of the fields around here. The tulip fields are undeniably beautiful and quite extraordinary.
But it’s worth being aware that the enthusiasm for the national flower isn’t without controversy. If you’re riding or driving around the Netherlands at this time of year, you’ll likely see signs asking you to respect the flowers and farmers here. Sadly, we saw these signs being disregarded on a few occasions.
Please don’t enter the fields unless you have the farmer’s permission or you’re on an organised farm tour. Taking your bikes into the field, or heading off to explore and take photos amongst the flowers might seem romantic but causes damage to crops. At the end of the day, local farmers rely on cutting unblemished blooms as this is their livelihood – and with a short season, it’s even more important.
So save your shots for those taken from the path – they’ll still bring back fantastic memories. This way, farmers can continue to keep their fields unfenced, for us all to enjoy.
If you’re looking for a less conventional way to explore the tulip fields of the Netherlands, I can’t recommend cycling enough. We were able to explore at our own pace and escape the crowds. And the whole experience is both beautiful and fascinating.
Cycling 80km in a day might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s really easy to create a route that suits you. Hop on a train or bus from Amsterdam to Haarlem or Lisse, and hire bikes once you get there. Explore as far and as wide as you feel like.