I've been to Holland half-dozen times and there's always something interesting going on in the country, but I had never seen the legendary tulips in bloom until my visit there in the middle of May.
As a man who rarely takes more than an occasional flower picture, I surprised myself by snapping hundreds of images of these beautiful blooms. I had no idea that flowers could create such breathtaking scenery. The place? Keukenhof.
Keukenhof does for tulips what Walt Disney did for theme parks. The attraction is enormous and after two-and-a-half hours, I'm still not sure how much we missed. The blooms were an explosion of colors with ponds, ducks and windmills nearby to top off any missing Dutch stereotypes. Needless to say, there's lot to look at, including a vintage street organ playing nostalgic European tunes, a wooden shoe shop, places for kids to play, and great local food. You could even grab a neuwe herring sandwich or pose inside a giant wooden shoe.
I'm a jaded traveler who normally gets bored easily, but I was amazed how this park was able to slow my pace. I took the best flower pictures I've ever taken, owing to the fact that the place is simply stunning. You'll see tulips elsewhere, but if you want to see the best, this is the place to go. The only downside? Keukenhof is only open for a short time each year—in 2017, it will open between March 23 and May 21—but that gives you plenty of time to plan your next trip to the Netherlands right now.
Consider adding nearby Madurodam to your list of spots to visit while you're there. It's a fun little adventure park that allows you to literally see all of Holland in an hour or two. How? The most famous Dutch landmarks were painstakingly recreated in 1/25th of their original size and displayed with interactive video screens to create a very accessible Holland. If you ever wondered what it feels like to be Godzilla, this is the opportunity you've been waiting for.
In the miniature Holland, you'll find the Schipol airport with miniature moving planes, plenty of castles, the Rijksmuseum and, of course, lots of windmills. Want to mix it up? There are also a few oversized models like giant tulips that make you feel the size of Antman. The park is perfect for families, but also gives you a view of Holland's scattered treasures so you could potentially add an interesting town or place to your itinerary that you didn't know about before to your visit.
Less than 10 minutes away is the Mauritshuis museum right in the middle of The Hague. It's a beautiful, inviting building that has more of a feel of being in a friend's mansion than a museum. It's only two floors of art, but there are some treasures including Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the collection's most famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. You'll likely see some other pieces that you recognize and you won't be overwhelmed like you might be in the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum. It's definitely worth a stop.
About an hour southeast of The Hague is the tiny town of Kinderdijk. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and famous for its collection of water windmills along the narrow channel in the town. They're hundreds of years old and some are still working. It is without a doubt the best windmill pictures in Holland. Unfortunately there are no tulips anywhere near the windmills. That's the biggest problem with stereotypes: They just won't cooperate.
Amsterdam is less than an hour north and is everything you'd expect it to be and more. Its laissez-faire attitude allows the "coffee shops" and red-light district to coexist with those opposed to such things and somehow there seems to be harmony between the two factions. It's kind of a driveable Venice, but bicycles are a much better option than trying to find a place to keep your vehicle. This time of year is perfect for bicycling. Holland has bike trails everywhere and you can bring your two-wheeler on a ferry, train or wherever you go. It is the most bike-friendly country on the planet. The weather is perfect: not too hot, not too cold and best of all: the summer crowds haven't arrived. You won't have the place to yourself, but the Anne Frank House queue might be an hour shorter.
The young diarist's former house is one of Amsterdam's best known attractions. Most of the world is familiar with Frank's story, in which she and her family hid from the Nazis during 1944. But to see the rooms where the family lived, the scraps of decorations on the walls, to walk the steps where they walked and see the bookshelf that hid the entrance to their secret living area, is well worth the wait it takes to get in. You can see the house turned museum in less than an hour and afterwards hang out in the adjacent Jordaan area with its cool little restaurants and bars. Not far away is the Museumplein, an area that contains the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museeum. These museums take in almost five million visitors a year collectively.
If you happen to be lucky enough to be in the area on a Friday, Alkmaar is a short drive north from Amsterdam and has the most famous "authentic" cheese market in Holland. It's not real cheese, or maybe it is, who knows? However, you will see the dramatic reenactment of how cheese has been purchased for hundreds of years as volunteers dressed in traditional clothing transport cheese, negotiate prices and do a lot of cheese busy work for throngs of spectators. There are scales, boats, people in costume and lots of busy running-around that might make one feel like they're in some sort of very important frantic cheese stock exchange. The coolest thing about this market is that one can learn how cheese trading has been done for centuries. No one knows how to make cheese like Hollanders.
After you've taken all the pictures you can of Dutch girls in bonnets and wooden shoes, stop in a cheese shop and try some of the different varieties. Each area of Holland has its own style and recipe and you might be surprised how many flavors of cheese these little shops can hold. Spring is the perfect time for Holland and you can still get some good deals before the summer crowds arrive, especially if you start planning now.