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Visit the Keukenhof Tulips

Visit the Keukenhof Tulips

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I have always loved tulips, so visiting the largest flower garden in the world, planted with millions of bulbs and only open a few weeks a year, was a dream of mine. This past spring we spent a glorious day exploring Keukenhof, and were pleasantly surprised to find out its an easy way to see spectacular tulips with kids along for the ride, and even when the weather is against you. 

Brilliant tulips at Keukenhof
Brilliant tulips at Keukenhof

A little history

The Keukenhof name actually refers to the kitchen garden of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut, as the original gardens incorporated this area and the hunting grounds from her 15th-century estate. A succession of merchants held the lands after the Countess’ death, but it wasn’t until 1949 that the Mayor of Lisse created the gardens in their current form. It was originally created to showcase the wide array of Dutch flowers available for export. It has grown to be the one of the largest flower gardens in the entire world, with 7 million tulips newly planted every year. Truly, I have never, ever seen flowers like these. 

I think these were possibly my favourite tulips at Keukenhof
I think these were possibly my favourite tulips at Keukenhof

When to visit Keukenhof

This is the most important piece of information: the gardens are only open for a few weeks a year, mid-April to mid-May. There are different flowers blooming at different times of that visiting window, so there will always be something to see. However, if you’re also aiming to visit the surrounding fields of tulips, aim for mid-April. You can check this flower radar site for community uploaded photos of the flower fields to see what’s happening, too. Obviously the weather plays a part in this too, and when we visited in mid-April in 2018, the long cold winter had delayed the tulips out in the fields. Keukenhof was still gorgeous, however, and well worth the trip.

More little canals and colourful plantings
More little canals and colourful plantings

Finding your way around Keukenhof gardens

Pick up a Keukenhof map just past the entrance gates. The gardens are arranged into smaller areas and special vistas, but there’s no real need to plan it out. You can wander the paved paths and take in the incredible plantings as you go. The gardens are large, but you can easily see it all in a day, with time for a leisurely lunch and some playground time. There aren’t guided tours unless you’re booking with a large group, but regardless with a little reading beforehand and a map, you will be fine. 

The gardens open early, at 8am, so if you’re really keen to get photos with no one else in them, I’d say arrive as early as you can manage. At the end of the day, the visitors tail off as well and the garden closes at 7:30pm, so you can catch golden hour on the tulips. Ideally, staying close by makes this more feasible, of course. All that being said, we had a bit of a disaster of a morning, and didn’t get to the gardens until 10am, and left around 3pm, but it was completely manageable, and not that busy. I think this was partially due to the surrounding tulip fields not being out yet, but still, the gardens are large, if you walk into the park a bit straight off, you’ll find a quiet spot quite quickly. 

Look at that delicate purple on these ones.
Look at that delicate purple on these ones.

What to see at Keukenhof

There isn’t a bad vista at Keukenhof, really. The gardeners plant over seven million bulbs every year, so scale is impressive. It’s large, but not huge, so it’s easy to wander a bit and then check the map to see what you’ve missed. It’s not like Kew Gardens in London, say, where if you don’t concentrate you can miss half of it. However, I would say make sure you make time for the central pavilion, that’s where I saw some of the most incredible tulips I have ever seen in my life. Reds so red they would not show up properly on my camera, dozens of frilly tulips all with perfect perfect edges, variegated (mixed colour) tulips that would blow your mind, and the biggest flower heads ever. I also particularly enjoyed the Tulipmania exhibit, and the cross-section tulip pot that showed how the flowers grew up from the bulbs. 

How cool is this cross-section of tulips growing in a pot?
How cool is this cross-section of tulips growing in a pot?

I would suggest heading over to the big windmill and booking your spot on a whisper boat tour as soon as you arrive if the surrounding fields are in bloom. There is no point in doing it if they are not, speaking as someone who sat there frozen on the boat staring at dirt fields for 40 minutes. But even though there was nothing doing, we still had to wait for an hour for the next available tour, so I can imagine it books up quickly when everything is out and blooming. 

 

Where the whisper boats start their tour from Keukenhof
Where the whisper boats start their tour from Keukenhof
The windmill at Keukenhof
The windmill at Keukenhof

The plantings change every year, so even if you’ve been before they gardeners will have thought of some other incredible way to display their flowers. It blows my mind that they dig up, and then plant again anew, over seven million bulbs. 

Playground plus coffee hut at Keukenhof. Other botanical gardens, take note!
Playground plus coffee hut at Keukenhof. Other botanical gardens, take note!

There is quite a good playground, thoughtfully combined with a little hut selling snacks and coffee. There’s also a fun hedge maze right next to the playground, and all of this neatly appears about halfway through your visit if you’re just wandering through the paths. Be prepared to pay a bit more for your lunch, if you eat on site, and we found the food to be a bit sub-par. I’d suggest packing snacks with you, and do your best with the lunch situation. We’ve been spoiled with reasonably priced German cafes at every castle and garden, so I was not prepared for the not-great expensive food, particularly as everything had been quite good on our Netherlands road trip so far. 

Vibrant purples at Keukenhof
Vibrant purples at Keukenhof

Why go to Keukenhof when you can visit the Dutch bulb fields for free?

Good question. If you’re coming from overseas and don’t have the luxury of timing your travel exactly for the flowers, it means you can see gorgeous tulips regardless of what the weather is like. We had to work with my son’s Easter break, so delaying another two weeks wasn’t possible for us. The plantings in the Keukenhof are impressive and creative, and while the sheer number of flowers in the tulip fields are incredible, they are in rows and that’s it. The flower farms are growing these flowers for the bulbs, you see. Keukenhof is also meant as a showcase for the most incredible flowers Dutch flower growers can produce, so you will see some incredible one-off beauties that never make it to the mass market fields. Sure, if you’re not keen on paying the entrance fee, the bulb fields are definitely impressive – but to me, Keukenhof and the bulb fields are two different things… like comparing tulips to daffodils, if you will. Oh, you know I had to. 

 

Getting to Keukenhof

It’s quite easy to organize travel to Keukenhof from Amsterdam. We stayed at the Ibis Styles just outside Haarlem and they had bus services listed in the lift. It’s an easy drive, if you rent a car, and there is plenty of well-organized parking. Here is the route from Amsterdam. 

You can also take the train to Leiden, and then the special bus to Keukenhof. Buy a combi-ticket, which gets you your bus transfer and entry ticket in one transaction, and allows you to skip the ticket-buying line when you get to the gardens. 

Buying tickets for Keukenhof

If you drive and don’t arrange for a specific tour, do buy your tickets in advance. It allows you to walk up to the gate, get your ticket scanned, with a minimum of fussing. You don’t need to print them out, they can scan the tickets directly from your phone. If you’re coming by transit, either arrange for a full transfer from Amsterdam which is easiest and not much more expensive, or buy a combi-ticket for bus transfer from Leiden station, which includes your entry ticket. 

Keukenhof hotels

You can choose to stay in Lisse, the town where the gardens are located, to make it easy to arrive early or stay late. 

Booking.com

We stayed in the Ibis Styles in Haarlem, a nice town within easy distance of both Amsterdam and Keukenhof, yet cheaper and less frantic than Amsterdam itself. 

Booking.com

 

Keukenhof 

Stationsweg 166A, 2161 AM Lisse, Netherlands | www.keukenhof.nl

 

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Amsterdam in a Day

Amsterdam in a Day

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Can you do Amsterdam in a day? Well, no. This spring we hopped around the Netherlands exploring all sorts of things, and we ended up doing Amsterdam in a day. Obviously we could never cover everything, or even more than one museum, but it was a good first taste. We are city wanderers and history lovers, and so planned our day accordingly. There were a couple things we would not have bothered with had I known a bit more, so I’ll share what we learned.

I could stand on canal bridges and photograph houses forever.
I could stand on canal bridges and photograph houses forever.

I could have spent an entire day just photographing boats, houses, and bicycles! Definitely make time to just walk and wander, this city is full of little side streets, and side canals, that are worth exploring and experiencing. I really recommend not limiting your visit to museums and sights –– take time to for an unscheduled wander and see where you end up. 

Even when the trees are bare, Amsterdam is fun to photograph.
Even when the trees are bare, Amsterdam is fun to photograph.

Hop-on hop-off… on a boat

We always like to do a city tour when we arrive somewhere new, and because so much of Amsterdam is canals, we decided to go for the City Sightseeing Amsterdam boat and bus hop-on, hop-off tour, which worked out really well. We like these particularly with kids as it allows you to grab a place to sit and still see things while kids chill out and maybe even nap. The Amsterdam City Sightseeing folks have an app, which I highly recommend downloading ahead of time (Google Play or Apple), which shows you where the buses and boats are. It cuts down on waiting times tremendously. Tip: don’t bother with their free tour of the diamond-cutting museum, it is very boring and you are herded around in huge groups, you hardly see anything at all. The boat tour itself was quite lovely, and we enjoyed sliding through the quiet Jordaan neighbourhood the most. Do check what time they finish running and make sure you’re in the neighbourhood you want to be in –– the last boat was doing its rounds about 5pm. We just hopped on a regular tram to get back to the station, but if you want to avoid paying for more transit, keep an eye on the time. 

The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. And yes, you get to go on that ship.
The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. And yes, you get to go on that ship.
The beautiful Amsterdam, a replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship built by young people in the 1980s
The beautiful Amsterdam, a replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship built by young people in the 1980s
Climbing all over the Amsterdam at the National Maritime Museum.
Climbing all over the Amsterdam at the National Maritime Museum.
There's an amazing climbing area in the cargo hold of the Amsterdam.
There’s an amazing climbing area in the cargo hold of the Amsterdam.
The crew quarters on the replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship Amsterdam.
The crew quarters on the replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship Amsterdam.

The National Maritime Museum

You can get the full description of our visit to the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam soon, but tl;dr version: it is so cool definitely go, even if you don’t have kids. If the big restored ship in the harbour doesn’t grab your attention, know the galleries are designed well with lots of interactive pieces to explore, and story narratives to take you through the history of this sea trading nation. It doesn’t shy away from the Dutch history with slave-trading and colonialism, which I found lacking in lots of other tourist narratives around the city. You can clamber all over the Amsterdam, the incredible replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship moored outside as well, which was definitely a highlight. It’s worth noting you have to put large bags and coats in lockers downstairs before visiting the main galleries, and the ship – though you can grab your coat before you head outside to the ship. What we skipped: the NEMO Science Museum. I hear lots of cool things about it, but we had an excellent hands-on science centre in Vancouver, and incredible huge technology museum near us in Germany, so we didn’t feel compelled to go. 

The gates of the co-op playground in Amsterdam.
The gates of the co-op playground in Amsterdam.
Co-op playground in the centre of Amsterdam
Co-op playground in the centre of Amsterdam

Wandering with a goal… sort of

We walked around a section of the city and found little sidewalk playgrounds, and a wonderful co-op playground in the middle of some houses. We played in one of these in Haarlem as well, and they look like such a wonderful resource for parents with small children. It reminded me a lot of our housing co-operative in Vancouver. They are open to anyone, so definitely drop in to let your kids blow off some steam. Peering into living room windows, canal boats, and just about holding my bike envy in check, we wandered with a general direction in mind. No garden space means Amsterdammers take their container gardening to the next level, lots of front steps were surrounded by 10-15 pots of herbs, flowers, and shrubs. 

Beautiful and classic canalside scenes in Amsterdam.
Beautiful and classic canalside scenes in Amsterdam.
Super cute bottles in an Amsterdam window.
Super cute bottles in an Amsterdam window.

Floating flower market: should have skipped it

One of my goals was to visit the floating flower market. I imagined open boats with flowers spilling out everywhere… I should have checked Google Images first! It’s a row of greenhouse-shaped shops that are indeed floating, but you can barely tell if you walk along the canalside. Also, in mid-spring there isn’t much to see except bags of bulbs, and lots of tourist tat. So, if you happen to be nearby it’s worth a little look, but definitely don’t walk for ten minutes to get there! Though if we hadn’t we might not have seen the best sandwich shop sign ever.

Best sandwich shop name ever? I think so.
Best sandwich shop name ever? I think so.

Where we ate

By complete accident we ended up in Betty Blue for lunch, a quirky cafe and restaurant with a sort of Mexicanish slant. We had nachos, burritos, and a sandwich, and some excellent coffee –– fairly reasonably priced for Amsterdam. They had a great selection of cakes as well, it would have been a perfect coffee and cake pitstop as well. It’s definitely not a tourist spot. By dinner time, we slide into the back garden of Herengracht, a bit of a low-key hipster restaurant with lots of seating out front by the canal and in the back in their garden, plus a few seating areas scattered inside an old house or two. This was a bit pricier but excellent, with local craft beer and decent house wine, and great nachos (they don’t serve them much where we live in Germany, so we were taking advantage of the great cheese and going a bit nacho crazy!). My son and I split steak frites, and my husband had a burger, everything was excellent. Not geared for families in particular, but we had no trouble finding things for our eight year old. Interestingly, this seemed to be a locals place, because we heard nothing but Dutch all around us. 

Love this neon in Betty Blue.
Love this neon in Betty Blue.

A friend of ours was visiting her family in Haarlem, and canvassed her relatives for restaurant recommendations – they suggested Moeders for some classic Dutch cuisine. They were booked up unfortunately, but the menu looks amazing: rijsttafel, stamppot, and spareribs. 

Tip: if you want to eat somewhere in particular, you need to book as much in advance as you can! Several places we wanted to try were fully booked up. 

A very skinny hotel in Amsterdam.
A very skinny hotel in Amsterdam.

Hotels in Amsterdam

It’s a pricey place to stay, and there’s no way around that, but some digging on booking.com will throw up some deals.



Booking.com

However, we took the popular choice of staying in Haarlem, a short train ride away, and saved quite a bit. The Ibis Styles is a short walk from the Bloemendaal train station (one beyond Haarlem Central) and super easy with kids or without. Their breakfast is often bundled with the room rate. 

We felt like we got a good taste of this famous city, and are looking forward to coming back for a few days to really dig in. What do we need to see next time?

Fifi and HopTwo Traveling Texans
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