Tulips and Holland. The words go together like, oh, cheese and beer. Windmills and flower fields. Stroop and wafel. You can’t go to the Netherlands in spring without seeing tulips. But where is the best place to view them in all their glory? And how can you do it? Here’s a complete guide to where to see tulips in Holland.
Tulip Season, Netherlands: It Begins
As I write this—on January 18, 2020—people are picking tulips in Amsterdam. That’s because it is the third Saturday in January, National Tulip Day in Amsterdam or Nationale Tulpendag. It is the official opening of the tulip season in the Netherlands. Tulips—just the word makes me smile. Yes, it’s still winter. They might even still get snow or canals frozen hard enough for ice skating. But Tulip Day reminds everyone that spring will come.
But how did this passion for tulips happen? How did this pretty, goblet-shaped flower become the very symbol of Holland?
Tulips in Holland: A Long and Rich History
If you are like many people, when you hear the word tulip, you automatically think of the Netherlands: windmills, cheese, wooden clogs, and… tulips. But these magnificent and iconic flowers are not indigenous to these flat lands.
They actually came originally from the high mountains of the Caucasus and the Tien Chan Mountains, where China and Tibet meet Afghanistan and Russia, and all the way to the Himalayas and Mongolia.
As early as the 11th century, they were being cultivated in Istanbul. And by the 15th century, they had become a passion of the ruling class. One Sultan of the Ottoman Empire loved them so much he had 12 gardens full of them and needed 920 gardeners to care for them. He often wore tulips in his turban.
Tulips first came to the Netherlands in the late 16th century and took hold of the popular imagination immediately. They showed up in vases and windowsill flower boxes and in paintings by the Dutch masters. They were so popular, especially the rare, multi-colored varieties, that from 1634-1637, the speculation in tulip bulbs became a frenzy. You might enjoy watching the movie Tulipmania for a look at how that all went down. (Spoiler alert: Tulipmania itself did not turn out so well for many. Financial bubbles seldom do.)
Enough history. You want to know where to see tulips in Holland NOW. So let’s have a look.
It All Begins with National Tulip Day in Amsterdam
Every year, on the third Saturday in January, commercial bulb growers from around the Netherlands bring some 200,000 tulips in crates to Amsterdam and set them out in a pretty pattern in Dam Square, right in front of the Royal Palace. As many as 10,000 people, locals and tourists alike, line up behind the barricades to see and photograph the display. Then, when the gates are opened, they are invited in to pick a bunch of tulips to take home. For free.
The tulips are not cut flowers. You pick the whole thing, bulb and all. On the way in, you’re given a bag for your flowers. It used to be a handled plastic bag, but now they have changed to paper to be more sustainable. I don’t know that they count the number of flowers in your bunch as you leave, but it’s not cool to be too greedy. Most people seem to pick 20 or so.
Here’s a glimpse of what you will see if you head to Amsterdam for National Tulip Day.
If you want to experience Tulip Day in Amsterdam for yourself, here are the deets:
The growers start setting up at 8am. It’s fun to watch the process as they unload flat after flat of blooming bulbs in dozens of colors and set them out in elaborate patterns with walkways between. The gates for picking open at 1pm, but you’ll want to get there well before that to get near the head of the line. Unless you’re right at the head, you can expect to wait at least an hour to get in. The garden is then open until 4:30 pm.
And dress warmly! Remember, even though there are tulips all around you, it’s January. It’s winter.
Amsterdam Tulip Season and Tulip Festival
So Tulip Day can whet your appetite for more, but the actual tulip season doesn’t get into full swing until spring. And the month of April is the best time to see tulips in Amsterdam, during the city’s annual Tulip Festival, which runs all month. At more than 85 locations throughout the city, the showy, multi-colored and curvaceous blooms decorate the landscape, setting off museums and monuments, lighting up public parks and squares, and filling flowerboxes on the railings of many of the 1281 bridges crossing the city’s 165 canals running some 31 miles. Look for them in the flower bowls in the middle of the giant reflecting pool on the Museumplein side of the Rijksmuseum, in the Rembrandstplein, in the Vondelpark, and dozens of other city locations. They are impossible to miss.
Bloemenmarkt – The Floating Flower Market, Amsterdam
In the old days, flowers arrived daily in Amsterdam on barges from the countryside. To memorialize that custom, the shops of today’s Bloemenmarket, the famous floating flower market of Amsterdam, are still housed on barges that float on the Single Canal. But it doesn’t actually look like a floating market, since the flower and bulb displays spill onto the pavement where you walk along enjoying the technicolor display. And it not just flowers. You can buy a range of green and growing things—spider plants, trailing philodendron—an infinite number of seeds, and a range of gardening tools.
This is where you can buy cut tulips and other flowers in spring, to adorn your hotel room or take as a hostess gift to a Dutch friend. The bloemenmarkt is also where you can buy flower bulbs to take home. If you are flying back to North America, be sure to check that the bulbs are certified for importation. If not, they will be confiscated at U.S. or Canadian customs when you arrive. Ask the sellers about certification for importation into the U.S. or wherever you plan to take or send them. Also, be sure to ask the best time to plant your bulbs to get a good flowering. The sellers should be happy to tell you.
But of course, the floating flower market in Amsterdam is not open only in spring and not just for tulips. You’ll find bulbs for daffodils, purple crocus, feathery hyacinth and that drama queen, amaryllis. You can find beautiful cut flowers, from roses and baby’s breath to lilies and giant sunflowers. And all sorts of bulbs at any time of year. Again, check for import certification and ask about when the bulbs you choose should be planted.
And even if you don’t buy a single flower, a packet of seeds, or a gardening trowel, the floating flower market in Amsterdam is a lovely sight to see. And to smell.
The Amsterdam Tulip Museum
Before we leave Amsterdam to discover more of where to see tulips in Holland, we need to make a stop at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. The presentation walks you through centuries of tulip culture, from the mountains where they were first found through their cultivated history, up to the story of how the Netherlands became the largest grower and exporter of tulips in the world. Using photos, videos, and tableaux, it tells you everything you need to know about this glorious flower.
The museum is located at Prinsengracht 116, directly across the bridge from the Anne Frank House. It is open daily from 10-6 and admission tickets cost €5 (no senior discount available). If you get the IAmsterdam City Card, admission is included. As the museum is small, you should plan to spend 20-25 minutes here. However, the lovely shop might compel you to stay longer (and spend more!) Because it is located in an historic canal house, the museum is not wheelchair accessible.
The shop at the museum is delightful. You’ll find hand-painted Delft tiles, jewelry, books, cards, toys, tea towels—a rich inventory of flower-themed items. Most importantly, the Amsterdam Tulip Museum shop is known for the high quality of the bulbs they sell. And all are pre-certified with stickers for import into the U.S. and Canada, so they will not be confiscated by customs on arrival.
If you can’t visit the Netherlands in spring and see the flowers in all their blooming glory, the Tulip Museum is the next best thing.
And while I mention it, the IAmsterdam City is something you should check out. You can buy it for several different timeframes. It gives you free admission to dozens of museums (including the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Tulip Museum), a free canal cruise (the best way to see the city), free public transport for the length of your card, discounts at many restaurants and cafes, and much more. It’s a real bargain and will get you to places you might not find on your own. You can get your IAmsterdam City Card here.
Keukenhof – the Queen of Flower Gardens and of Tulips in Holland
You wanted to know the best place to see tulips in Holland? We’ve got you covered. The famous Keukenhof Garden, at Lisse, is one of the world’s great springtime parks, and most especially for bulb flowers—daffodils, hyacinths, and of course, tulips.
The gardens are only open for 7-8 weeks a year, during the blooming season, but during that time, almost a million and half people will come to enjoy the colorful spectacle. Besides the extensive gardens and ponds, there are indoor pavilions with flower shows, terraces and cafes, children’s playgrounds, and the largest sculpture garden in the Netherlands. Every year, there is a different theme for the gardens and flower shows. In 2020, the theme is World of Colors.
The dates for 2020 are March 21-May 10. The gardens change throughout the season, as some blooms die off and others come out. To ensure that the tulips bloom throughout the run, they are planted three deep. The shallowest bulbs will bloom first, the second layer down a few weeks later, and the lowest bulb will give a final showing the last few weeks of the garden season. The flowers tend to be at their absolute peek about mid-April.
The overall numbers are pretty impressive for Keukenhof:
- 79 acres/32 hectares in size
- More than 7 million bulbs planted every year, including 800 different varieties of tulips by 500 different flower growers
- 9 miles/15 km of footpaths winding through the gardens
- More than 20 flower shows
- A 100-year-old windmill
How Best to Visit Keukenhof Gardens
It’s important to buy your ticket in advance, to avoid long lines at the ticket counter when you arrive. Tickets cost €19 for 2020. However, since the garden is some distance from Amsterdam, near the town of Lisse, I find it most convenient to buy a combination ticket that includes transportation from Amsterdam or Schiphol, plus a skip-the-line entrance ticket. With some packages, other activities are also included, like a boat trip, or drives through the tulip fields. I strongly recommend this approach, rather than trying to do it all yourself, including getting yourself there.
Practical Notes for your Visit to Keukenhof Gardens
The garden is open daily during the run from 8 am-7:30 pm, with smaller crowds before 10 and after 4. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the least crowded days.
There is free wifi available throughout the garden. Get your Instagram on! The park is wheelchair accessible and has many accessible bathrooms throughout the property. Non-powered wheelchairs are available with advance reservations for a €20 refundable deposit. You can reserve a wheelchair here.
The Glory of the Tulip Fields, Netherlands, in Spring
You’ve seen the flowers, their pretty cups open to the sun, in singles, in groups in the parks, and in great planted swathes at Keukenhof. But you haven’t truly experienced tulip season in the Netherlands until you’ve seen the tulip fields in the Netherlands. Huge stripes of color, laid out like quilts for giants, stretching almost as far as you can see. These are the fields where Dutch tulip farmers grow the millions of bulbs they ship all over the world.
When the flowers bloom, they are only left to flower for a short time before being “topped,” i.e. the flower heads are cut off, because it is the bulb, not the flower, that is the farmer’s end product. So you have a fairly small window of time to travel out to the fields to immerse yourself in all that color.
The flowers begin to bloom about the last week in march and are usually at their best around April 15th, but that all depends on the weather, how cold the winter was. The bulbs develop more quickly in warmer conditions. So after a cold winter and spring, the bloom will be late. With a warm winter and spring, look for flowers much earlier.
You can sign up for email updates on the state of the fields–what is in bloom, weather forecasts, and the current state of the fields.
Visit Duin en Bollenstreek–Translation: “Dune and Bulb Region”
This coastal strip of fertile land lies between the cities of Haarlem, The Hague, and Leiden. There are beautiful inland fields, but the most spectacular views, I think, are the ones that combine flowers and the sea, all in one panorama. These are near Noordwijk and Noordwijkerhout, where the bulb fields grow up to the edges of the rugged dunes that then slope gently down to the shoreline of the North Sea.
If you like riding a bike, that makes a wonderful way to visit the fields, since you can stop when you like to take pictures or just breathe in the beauty. It is easy to rent a bike at the site. There are also many organized half-day and day trips from Amsterdam to see the fields in full bloom. Do remember, they are popular and the time window is short. Reserve as far in advance as you can.
Among the easiest flower fields to visit are the ones directly around Keukenhof, in Lisse. Combine a trip there with a tour of the fields, by car, boat, or bike. They are adjacent to the garden.
Follow the Tulpenroute – The “Tulip Route” Through Flevoland
You’ve probably heard that the Netherlands is bigger than it used to be because they keep adding landmass they have reclaimed from the sea. By walling off a part of the sea with dykes, them pumping out the water, they have created what are called polders, entire new areas of very fertile land. And the polderlands happen to be perfect for growing tulips. Flevoland is reclaimed polder land, under the Zuiderzee as recently as about 50 years ago. Now, it is the Netherlands’ newest province.
The best part of Flevoland for seeing the tulip fields is the Noordoostpolder. Exploring this area by bike is particularly rewarding. There are some 60 miles/100 km of roads and paths through the area, with nearly 2500 acres of fields, all ablaze with color in late April.
FloraHolland-The World’s Biggest Flower Market
For a completely different take on tulips—and flowers of all kinds—you might want to visit FloraHolland in Aalsmeer, close to Schiphol airport. The scope of this place is unbelievable. In a building with the largest footprint in the world at 5.5 million sq. ft./518,000 sq. mt. some 20 million flowers and decorative plants are traded at auction every day.
Unlike Keukenhof and the bulb fields, this is not a place to get up close and personal with the flowers on auction. This is a working business place and veritable hive of activity. You don’t want to be down on the floor where millions of flowers are being loaded, moved, and go whizzing by on train-like vehicles. You would be very much in the way. But visitors can watch the action inside this whirl of activity from elevated walkways. You can also go into the galleries to see how the auction process is carried out. The auction begins at 7 am on weekdays. You should arrive well before 9 am to see and understand how it all works before the morning sales are done at 11 (or 9 am on Thursdays). Admission is €8
For a much more complete description of what happens at FloraHolland, how to get there, and how you can best visit and enjoy it, go to this page on European-traveler.com
Hortus Bulborum—Keeper of the Tulip Genes
For truly hard-core tulip fans, I recommend a spring trip to the Hortus Bulborum in the town of Limmen, about 5 miles/8 km from the city of Alkmaar. This repository, which serves as a sort of gene bank for spring-blooming historical bulbs, more than 4000 of them, includes not only thousands of tulips but also narcissus, hyacinth, crocus and a few others. Some of their tulips date from the 16th century.
The garden at Hortus Bulborum is open to visitors only in spring, from April 6 to May 16 in 2020 (check their website for the correct dates for future years). Opening times are 10-5, Monday-Saturday, noon-5 on Sunday. Entrance is €5.50 for adults, €4.50 for over 65, free for kids under 12. It is not wheelchair accessible, but they do have a kind of wheeled beach chair available for use. The main garden paths can be accessed by those using a walker, although they can’t move into the narrow paths between the beds.
Learn more about the Hortus Bulborum here.
There is our springtime tulip tour of the Netherlands and the Amsterdam tulip season. Remember, the best time to see tulips in Holland is from mid-April to early May. These flowers wait for no man, nor woman. And they show up when they are ready and not before. But it is worth putting in a little planning to get yourself to the Netherlands at this magical time of year. There is nothing else on earth quite like it.
Check out these and other activities in and around Amsterdam. It’s a small country rich in wonderful things to do and sights to see.