I am planning on considering Amsterdam and other Dutch and Belgian destinations for next year's travels if the COVID situation allows. However, I don't want to stay in Amsterdam considering it is insanely expensive and there are high and crazy tourists at night. That is why I am looking into staying a little outside of Amsterdam and taking the train in. Towns I am considering are Haarlem, Utrecht, and Leiden. Are there any other towns I don't know about? Which town has the most to see? Which town has the most relaxed atmosphere? Which town has the best food and best culture (music and art)?
Den Haag (the capital) has an excellent art museum, the Mauritshuis. Rotterdam's Boijmans van Beuningen art museum is also good. Den Haag has a picturesque historic center; Rotterdam was extremely heavily damaged in the war and rebuilt in modern style. In any case, though I haven't been to the Netherlands recently, I imagine those cities are not cheap. One is the capital [correction--seat of government]; the other is a major business destination.
Utrecht and Gouda are physically attractive. I haven't been to Leiden. I believe Rick mentions Haarlem as a less-expensive alternative to Amsterdam, and it's a very quick train ride away. That's the first place I'd look, because I'd have a longer list of target sights in Amsterdam than in any other city in the country.
My vote is for Haarlem. Easy train to Amsterdam. Good restaurants, reasonable lodging.
Try Hoorn. Short train ride to Amsterdam. Cute restaurants of all sorts, many with menus only in Dutch. A shopping street, Historical square, aquarium, on the Zuider Zee, steam train. We loved our 5 day stay. Reasonable logging.
Are you planning to visit Amsterdam or to visit the Netherlands? If the aim is for Amsterdam you might also look at less central parts of Amsterdam, where the prices might be lower but still not that far from central Amsterdam. Such as somewhere around Amsterdam Zuid station or north of the IJ. Haarlem, Utrecht and Leiden are lovely town worth a visit and far less crowded than Amsterdam, but even if the trains are fast and frequent I'm not sure about staying there just to commute to Amsterdam. But that is just my personal opinion.
If you are looking at somewhere to commute to Amsterdam, I'd say Haarlem or Almere, they are both 15-20 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal. Utrecht and Leiden are a bit further away. Especially Almere can be cheap as it is not a place that sees many tourists (it was built in the 1970's on a polder).
If you are looking for a nice place to stay in the Randstad that is not Amsterdam, consider Haarlem, Utrecht, Leiden or Amersfoort. But if you are willing to travel a bit further, Groningen is a good option. Haag and Rotterdam are as mentioned big destinations on their own so might not be cheaper than Amsterdam.
Even with Haarlem, you’re talking about roughly an hour, door to door, for your first and last attraction each day. That’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. Just as people say about New York City, to see Amsterdam, stay in Amsterdam. Each town you mentioned is worth a full day visit for someone with enough days in country. That doesn’t make it a good idea to commute from there.
We love Amsterdam and would never describe it like you did.
However, we spent a week in beautiful Leiden two years ago. It is a beautiful canal laced university city and was home to the Pilgrims for ten years before they left for North America on the Mayflower. We would happily spend more time there.
We took the train to Amsterdam, Haarlem, Delft, Den Haag, and Rotterdam to switch to river boat to Kinderdjke, home to 19 authentic windmills, a wonderful sight to see. So easy to explore from any of those cities. Make sure you visit all of them, very easy by same train line. We especially enjoyed Den Haag.
We have been to Amsterdam some 4 or 5 times, each time, after the first, we looked in Amsterdam for lodging and found it to either be unavailable or 2-3 times the price of Haarlem...so have always stayed in Haarlem. While "high and crazy" might be a bit extreme to describe the atmosphere, pre-Covid, it was horribly crowded. We always found our day, and even evening in Amsterdam to be fun and fine, but did enjoy escaping to the peace of Haarlem for the night.
Haarlem itself is a charming town and has a nice night time activity, good restaurants, pleasant bars, maybe what Amsterdam was decades ago. Haarlem does have art in it's own right, and an active music scene at the Philharmonic hall in central Haarlem.
I'm with Suki. We also spent about a week in Leiden two years ago, and loved it. We spent several days just exploring the town, and also made a day trip to Den Hague to visit some museums.
We've also stayed in Haarlem a couple of times, and enjoyed it, as well. We're hoping to get back to Leiden in a year or two.
The last time we were in Amsterdam, we staying in a quiet area near the Vondelpark. The nearby "restaurant row" had lots of tourists, but that part of town was, on the whole, very pleasant.
Another vote for Leiden--a quick commute to Amsterdam but lovely in its own right. Good for science people--I did not make it to the large museum, as I was just shaking off jetlag for a day, but the botanical garden was wonderful.
Delft is also pretty but I fell in love with Leiden.
I'd also look at neighborhood stays in Amsterdam--it's not all madness.
Good advice from many above. We stayed in Haarlem on our second visit to the Netherlands, and liked it a lot. After reading about Leiden here and in other threads, I'd like to spend some time there too. But making your base anywhere outside Amsterdam will add travel time to and from there every day you want to go. Moreover, you'll begin and end each Amsterdam day in the Centraal Station area, where the crowds and "craziness" are worst. You might look for affordable lodgings away from central Amsterdam but within reach by foot or tram or the city's underground system. If time allows, though, try day trips to some of the places others have mentioned.
Agree with Paul about a 100%. We always stay in Haarlem. It kind of like an old shoe -- it is convenient and comfortable after a long day somewhere else. Just west of the airport so it is an easy bus ride if arriving via air. We primarily use the Hotel Amadeus because it is on Grote Market square. Last time it was full so we use the Ambassador City Centre Hotel just behind the Grote Kerk. Just as nice and convenient. We just find Haarlem more relaxing at the end of the day than Amsterdam. Our son stays in that area when he has to come to Amsterdam for training and meetings.
Haarlem is most definitely a great option. Walking distances not too far, great architecture and (in general) nice people.
My advice would be to check out the Teylers Museum, Frans Hals Museum and the Jopenkerk.
The first two are museums and the latter is an old church made into a brewery!
Also a must, in my opinion, is a boat tour through Haarlem. There are different companies but I would recommend Luxe Sloepen Haarlem. Seems to be the nicest boats and we had a very friendly captain.
We've stayed at both the Haarlem hotels Frank mentions, and would do so again. A special shout out to the Amadeus: when we checked in there in the spring of 2018, as we were unpacking Stan realized he had lost his wallet. (Lost, not pickpocketed. I've posted the story elsewhere here. https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/packing/hidden-pocket-a-cautionary-tale)
The staff at the Amadeus bent over backwards to help us; they got in touch with the Heathrow (which is where Stan lost his wallet), let us use a phone to call our bank and credit card companies, and kept checking back with us to see if we needed more help.
We loved the staff and out stay there. A word of warning, though: you reach the rooms up a steep and narrow staircase. There is an elevator, but it's only accessible when the restaurant is open.
When I went to the Netherlands, I stayed in a hostel, which worked for me but I am a man solo traveler and I was ok with most of the hostel guests being younger than me. You remind me of the time I spent 6 nights staying with a cousin who lives in Maryland, possibly about under a ten-minute drive beyond the last stop on a Washington D.C. commuter train line. Each full day I was there we drove to the train station, parked in a parking garage, waited for the train. rode the train to near the museums in Washington, D.C., which took about another 45=50 minutes, and then walked the rest of the way to another one of the museums. You probably shouldn't rent a car in the Netherlands, Me and my cousin's transportation method obviously worked but if I had not stayed with my cousin, I would have stayed somewhere close to the museums or sights; I would have picked a place that was a good compromise between location and cost. I would have walked more in Washington instead of spending the time commuting. In the Netherlands I took a day trip to Haarlem while staying in Amsterdam, and i stayed in the Hague for 3 nights. I didn't see Utrecht or Leiden. I thought the art museum in Haarlem was worth seeing. I would have skipped the Teylor's museum but Rick recommended it and I was not unhappy to have seen it. The English audio guide was quite descriptive. And I went to Peter Teylor's grave in the floor of one of the churches in Haarlem. If you don't care much about walking in Amsterdam or any town in the evenings, and if you are fine spending approximately up to 2 hours or more of each day you are in the Amsterdam area, walking and taking trains and waiting for trains, then Haarlem is a fine place to stay. Otherwise you are better off finding a place with the right balance of cost and distance from your top sight in Amsterdam, research that neighborhood, ask us about that neighborhood and maybe we'll see what we can find out about it, whether it seems safe enough, and so on.
Amsterdam has been cracking down on the "drug tourism" .No more m.j shops for non-citizens .Yes , it is an expensive city and Haarlem is cheaper. IF you decide to go to Haarlem you are a skip away from a lovely beach town: Zandvoort .My grandkids (13 year old twins) loved it also , looking for sea shells and finding jellyfish.
We spent four nights in Leiden about a year ago and really enjoyed it. Pleasant city with a university, museums, a beautiful botanical garden and other interesting sites. Restaurants of all varieties. We did a half-day walking tour of the city with a guide mentioned in Rick's book and really enjoyed that experience. Easy day trips by train to The Hague, Delft and Amsterdam.
That said, I would not shy away from staying in Amsterdam for at least a few nights of your trip. Although lodging prices are higher than other nearby cities, the convenience of being close to all Amsterdam has to offer is worth it to me. You can find more reasonable lodging in quiet areas that are on the outskirts of the city and still close to the tram system that takes you all around the city.
In Belgium, we really enjoyed tours of the WWI battlefields near Ypres. Lots to see there, but spread out such that you will either need a car or plan on taking an organized tour of the area (or both). Organized or private day tour gives you a richer experience of this area.