Nothing says ‘spring’ like the blooming of flowers, and nothing says ‘the Netherlands’ like the delicate eruption of tulips in April. You can see these bulbs memorialized in every souvenir shop in Amsterdam if you visit during the tourist season (June to August), but experiencing the real thing – the sight and smell of the flower that ruled a nation – is incomparable.
The story of tulips, believe it or not, is a bit more interesting than one would expect of such a simple, if lovely, flower. It is a story of daring raids, manic spending and the making and breaking of vast fortunes. During the Dutch Golden Age (17th Century), this was the flower that brought a nation of merchants to its knees and became a symbol of wealth, power and the fleeting nature of life.
Today, the tulip is more modestly regarded as the unofficial national flower of the Netherlands. On the list of ‘most Dutch things,’ it’s right up there with wooden shoes, cheese and coffee shops. Since its introduction to the country in the 16th Century, the tulip has become one of the leading exports in the Dutch economy.
This is why, in 1949, the small town of Lisse in the “bulb district” of South Holland decided to play host to an open-air flower exhibition of massive proportions. Under the auspices of the then mayor, the grounds of a nearby castle were repurposed to become the site of the biggest and most famous tulip festival in the world.
The grounds of Keukenhof used to form part of the nearby castle’s kitchen gardens, which is how it earned its name – “keuken” is Dutch for kitchen. It is now one of the largest formal gardens in Europe. Keukenhof covers 32 hectares with various flowers and over 7 million bulbs are planted each year to produce the stunning, kaleidoscopic landscape. Tulips cover the greatest area and are the focus of the festival, but you’ll also find beautifully arranged hyacinths, daffodils and crocuses.
Today, the garden has been organized into several exhibits that showcase the tulips in their context as part of Dutch and world history. There are several national gardens, such as the English and Japanese gardens, that feature characteristics typically associated with each country’s horticultural traditions.
The main attractions, however, are the truly Dutch incarnations of the flower. The vastly varied landscape features several areas dedicated to the presentation of historic strains of Dutch tulip. These ‘pavilions’ focus on different aspects of the tulips’ history, from its earliest beginnings in the Netherlands to the experimental breeds on the cutting edge of today’s tulip mania.
Things to Do:
Although the park stays open for several months, it does have a schedule detailing special events. The highlight of the calendar is the Flower Parade, which starts in Noordwijk, passes through Keukenhof and ends in Haarlem. In 2017, the parade will be held on 23 April, and should hit Keukenhof around 3:30 p.m.
On any other day, there’s still loads to do in the park. Most of the day will be taken up by walking, but if you’re a tad tired, you can take a boat tour of Keukenhof instead. Boats depart from the windmill on the grounds, and take you through the network of water and canals that flow through Keukenhof.
While there are several eating options, preparing and taking a picnic is both romantic and budget-friendly. If you’re not up for the work, you can find a self-service restaurant and several ‘street food’ stands that are positioned all over the park. These stands sell things like warm, sliced ham on a bun; hot dogs and ice-cream.
Go garden-shopping – most of the strains are labelled so that visitors can buy seeds from the vendors dotted around the park. There are also helpful guides and instructions on how to raise your tulips, as well as modular gardens that should inspire green thumbs to take up the spade.
There’s also lots for children to do in Keukenhof. Apart from wandering the enchanted paths with their parents, they can take on a maze, see some animals in the petting zoo and play in the dedicated play park.
When to Go and How to Get There:
The flower festival takes place in spring, between mid-March and mid-May. Weather in the Netherlands can be tricky, and sometimes the best time to see the tulips is unpredictable. You’ll have to allow some flexibility in your schedule if you want to see the garden on a sunny day, and it would be advisable to visit between mid-April and mid-May if you want to experience everything the park has to offer. Visit http://tulipsinholland.com/ for weekly tulip updates.
The park is open daily from 08:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. In 2017, it will be open from 23 March to 21 May. It can be easily reached via a dedicated bus from Schiphol and Leiden, but several busses pass close to Keukenhof and tickets combining entry and travel are readily available.