The traditional saying goes, “April showers bring May flowers.” But for us, Spring arrived early as April delivered blooming fields of colorful tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils right outside of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam has been on our list to visit since we moved to France over two years ago. We originally planned to go to Amsterdam over Easter in 2020 and again in 2021. But you know how the story goes, as COVID caused both years of plans to fall through.
This Easter, however, would be different. We had a three-day weekend ahead of us with no COVID travel restrictions in the city and the promise of blue skies and good weather.
Our primary destination for our weekend in Amsterdam was Keukenhof, the “gardens of Europe” and a leading springtime flower destination since 1950. The expansive park is located about thirty minutes outside Amsterdam in neighboring Lisse. We planned out a leisurely morning to explore the Keukenhof gardens and coordinated a bike tour in the afternoon of the neighboring tulip fields.
Aside from Keukenhof, Amsterdam’s rich history with tulips dates back over 400 years. Tulips were first introduced in the Netherlands by Turkey way back in the 1600s. The residents of Western Europe considered tulips rare and exotic plants, becoming captivated by them. Surprisingly, the tulips with diseases that caused variations in the colorful blooms were the most desirable at this time. If you can believe it, the colorful flower became so popular that it caused an economic bubble known as Tulip Mania.
Side note: The tulips in the Netherlands are harvested for one purpose only, and it’s not what you think. The tulip bulbs are the most valuable part of the flower, not the blooms themselves. In fact, when the farmers harvest the tulip fields, the blooms are left on the ground and not even sold. The blooms are just for extra enjoyment.
Back to Tulip Mania. As demand spiked, so did the tulip bulb prices. The tulip’s increasing price was good news for the farmers, as harvesting tulips resulted in a bo-go (buy one, get one). After farmers planted the bulbs in their fields, the tulip bulb would multiply throughout the season. When harvested, farmers would have two bulbs for each one they planted. Farmers would sell the old bulbs and replant the new bulbs for the upcoming season. Rinse and repeat the process, and it was a continuous form of revenue.
Fun facts about tulips during Tulip Mania:
- The cost of tulips was ten times more than the average salary in the Netherlands!
- Tulip bulbs were more valuable than many homes at the time.
- At the peak of Tulip Mania, people even used tulips as a form of currency. You could buy property in exchange for tulip bulbs. If only that were the case in today’s real estate market.
After a thirty-minute bus ride outside Amsterdam, we arrived at Keukenhof, the largest flower garden in the world. This stunning place displays over 800 varieties of flowers for the public to enjoy, but only for a short period. Keukenhof is only open to visitors for a short eight weeks a year, from March to May. The gardens average about two million visitors during this time – almost 40 thousand visitors a day.
The frenzy and demand for tulips helped propel the Netherlands into a prosperous country, positioning the Netherlands as one of the best places for trade. But with any economic bubble like Tulip Mania, it was bound to burst. After only a few years of the craze, the bubble burst and collapsed, causing many tulip farmers to lose their fortunes overnight. Even after the collapse of Tulip Mania, the Netherlands remains the tulip capital of the world and has stunning displays for locals and visitors to enjoy each year.
While an iconic bucket list destination now, Keukenhof had humble beginnings dating back to the 15th century. It started as a simple herb garden outside an estate’s kitchen. Because quite literally, when translating Keukenhof from Dutch to English, it stands for “kitchen courtyard.” Fast-forward to the 21st century, today’s gardens are just a little more expansive than a herb garden.
Keukenhof gardens display stunning flower arrangements in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some arrangements are neatly in rows, and others create visually stunning formations. At Keukenhof, the bulbs are planted strategically at different depths. The variation will force the flowers to bloom at different times, guaranteeing everyone a beautiful experience throughout the eight weeks.
We spent hours leisurely walking through the Keukenhof gardens, and hidden gems awaited us around every new section. Tucked off the beaten path was a small overlook displaying perfect rows of brightly colored tulips. Around one corner, we spotted a few beat-up old Volkswagon beetles tucked away with flowers planted decoratively in and around them. A toy-sized replica windmill and a boat made from a clog captivated the eyes. A field of purple flowers mimicked a small river dividing the land.
We could have stayed here for the entire day, but we still had an afternoon bike tour scheduled. Aside from all the stunning flower arrangements, Keukenhof reminded me of “home” at the Augusta National. All I needed was a $1.50 egg salad sandwich, and it would be a perfect match.
If you have ever watched the Masters golf tournament on TV (or, even better, experience it in person), do you remember hearing the birds chirping perfectly? The sound is almost flawless; it feels like a calm recording of birds chirping playing through hidden speakers throughout the grounds. That’s exactly how it was in Keukenhof.
Above the gentle buzz of chatter from other visitors, the sounds of the birds chirping were peaceful and inviting. The grounds were perfectly green. The flowers are perfectly manicured, with no detail left uncovered. There was even a stone bridge that could be a mirror image of the ones at the Augusta National. And while I was thousands of miles from “home,” it still felt nice to have a taste of familiarity.
After leaving the grounds, we walked along a path for about ten minutes to our meeting point for the bike tour. We would be visiting authentic tulips, hyacinths, and daffodil fields.
Our bike tour guides were a husband-wife duo local to the area. They took time off during flower season to show eager tourists like ourselves an authentic look of Lisse. The couple was inspired after taking a bike tour in Barcelona and thought there might be an opportunity to bring bike tours to Lisse. Side note: I did a bike tour with two of my girlfriends in Barcelona, and it was one of my best travel memories! Highly recommend.
The group was about 15 people of all ages and backgrounds. Funnily enough, about half of them were American expats, like us, located somewhere in Europe. I enjoyed the tour’s leisurely pace to soak in all the area’s beauty. On our tour, not only did we stop at multiple flower fields, all with varying flowers and colors, but we biked through the town of Lisse, paused at one of the churches, and saw the actual estate where the Keukenhof gardens dream was born.
One field was more than a simple stop to take photos of pretty flowers. The place had a little cafe to refresh with coffee and cake. There were benches of all shapes and sizes located outside for easy lounging. They even had variations and colors of tulips with funny names that could be ordered and delivered worldwide when in season. We held off on buying them as we can’t ship them back to South Carolina with us.
I had an “Instagram vs. Reality” moment as I had only seen stunning photos of beautiful girls wearing light sundresses wandering through the tulip fields when researching online. In reality, while the weather was lovely, it was still cold. Almost everyone was wearing jeans and a jacket. Definitely not sundress weather!
While on our bike tour, we also learned that it’s illegal to walk through the tulip fields. There are concerns about bringing diseases from one field to another and ruining them. My favorite part of the bike tour, other than seeing all the beautiful flowers, was watching our bike tour guide yell at the people in the fields to move. A giant sign read, “do not go into the tulip fields.” There were even emojis if English was not their first language. But the sign didn’t stop people from jaunting through the narrow paths between each row. As a rule follower, I could have watched this all day!
After a day invigorating all of our senses (and our allergies), we returned to Amsterdam. Other than our day near Keukenhof, we had no set itinerary for the city. With a loose list of things to see, the remainder of our weekend involved all the traditionally touristy activities.
Here are some of our highlights:
1. We wandered through the narrow streets and expansive green spaces (We even saw some parrots! Fun fact: over 10,000 parrots are wild throughout the Netherlands).
2. We leisurely walked over countless bridges and waterways. Does Amsterdam also have a “Venice of the North” nickname?
3. We spent an afternoon at the Heineken Experience, one of the most interactive and interesting brewery tours we have ever visited.
4. We ate traditional foods of the area, like stroopwafel, bitterballen, and fish and chips, while also indulging in not-so-traditional cuisines like German, Spanish, and Argentinian.
5. We took advantage of a sunny afternoon on a canal cruise and watched locals enjoy the nice weather as they pulled chairs and tables to the riverbank. Many of the homes in Amsterdam are narrow because residents were taxed based on the size of the exterior facade. Speaking of facades, many also look like they are tilting forward so much that they might fall over. The tilt is not from old age but was an intentional design feature.
6. We went to Tony’s Chocolonely, where we customized a chocolate bar and wrapper. Aside from making delicious chocolate, the company is passionate about eliminating slavery from the chocolate supply chain. We created a Clemson inspired wrapper for our milk chocolate with sea salt and pretzel bar. Unfortunately, they didn’t have black ink, or I would have made a UGA candy wrapper!
7. We slowly wandered through the local markets, admiring all the blue and white decorations and flower bulbs for sale.If you ever buy tulip bulbs in the Netherlands, make sure to buy them in October. Any other time of the year, they will be the previous season’s bulbs!
8. We quickly walked through the infamous Red Light District at night and during the daytime. During the day, it’s a sleepy neighborhood. But at night, we were shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other curious tourists. It was one of the busiest places we’ve been since the pandemic started.
After a long wait time of two years, I can say that visiting Amsterdam and seeing a little bit of the Netherlands was worth the wait. The allergies that sprung up with it, well, I can’t wait for those to go away!