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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can choose to stay in Lisse, the town where the gardens are located, to make it easy to arrive early or stay late.
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.
Stationsweg 166A, 2161 AM Lisse, Netherlands | www.keukenhof.nl