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May 29, 2023  -Today the Frisian port of Harlingen is perhaps best known as the gateway to the Wadden Sea islands of Terschelling and Vlieland. Yet it was given city rights in 1234, making it older than Amsterdam, and to this day remains a working port. As one of the 11 cities of Friesland, Harlingen makes a great place for a quick escape or a good base to spend longer exploring the locality.

What to do:

Take a walk around the the city
Harlingen is not big, so in a couple of hours you can wander around most of the old town at your leisure and spot some of the no less than 600 listed buildings. Keep an eye out for all the alleyways between the houses and their extraordinary names. Check out the Discover Harlingen website for an interactive map. You can also pick up a walking route at the tourist office which is open every day but Sunday.

Catch up on local culture
Like so many towns of similar size, Harlingen has a charming local museum staffed by enthusiastic locals who are happy to answer all your questions. The Hannemanhuis has a particularly fine collection of local pottery and silverware, but the building itself is well worth a visit. It also offers an audio tour in four languages.

If pottery and tiles are your thing, the Harlinger Pottery and Tiles Factory [“Harlinger Aardewerk & Tegelfabriek”] is an authentic family business and claims to be the last company in the Netherlands to produce pottery and tiles in an original manner. The factory is open every day but Sunday and happy to organise tours on request.

Go exploring with Willem Barentsz
Harlingen’s harbour has a life-sized replica of the sailing ship which Willem Barentsz used in his efforts to find the north west passage, only to become marooned on the ice for the winter of 1697. Barentsz survived the winter but died on the return journey home. You can also visit a special exhibition about the voyage, which is little known outside the Netherlands.

Mess about on boat
Get a taste of the Frisian countryside by renting an electric boat and head inland. Reserve via Ouweseun or one of several other companies offering a nautical adventure. A small boat for up to six people will cost €75 for the full day. Ouweseun also offers a one-hour canal cruise around Harlingen in the summer months. You can take your own food but they will also cater or organise a special boat tour for a private group. In the summer, you can also take a two-hour boat trip to look for seals. The harbour is also home to the 70 strong ‘brown fleet’, traditional sailing boats, many of which offer excursions.

Annoy the locals and visit Franeker
The rivalry between the good seafaring folk of Harlingen and the farmers and university students of nearby Franeker is legendary. Quite why is lost in the Frisian mist, although it could be linked to an attempt by Franeker residents to steal Harlingen church bells in medieval times.

But Franeker is just 12 kilometres away and makes a great day out. In particular, the Eise Eisinga planetarium, finally nominated for inclusion on the Unesco world heritage list is well worth a visit. We wrote about a weekend in Franeker last year.

Where to eat
Harlingen has all the usual suspects in terms of jolly café terraces with borrel hapjes, burgers and French fries as well as a sprinkling of more interesting eateries. We opted for ‘T Havenmatsje on the old harbour front for dinner, which was pricey but delicious, with very helpful staff and good wine.

We also had an excellent lunch in the sun at Eetcafe Nooitgedagt, located in a building dating from 1647 and serving simple, well-prepared food with a smile. The café in the ferry terminal is a very bad choice for breakfast on Sunday.

Where to stay
We stayed at the Boutique Hotel de Eilanden, in a very large attic room with a massive and extremely comfortable bed. Some of the rooms have a private patio. The same team also operate Hotel Restaurant Zeezicht on the edge of the harbour, where you can also have breakfast.

If you are looking for great views, the Roofhouse overlooks the sea, but has a minimum stay of two nights or seven in the high season.  You can also stay in the light house or, alternatively in a 17 metre high crane in the harbour, where you can turn the control cabin yourself to change the view.

How to get there
Coming by car from Amsterdam, The Hague or Rotterdam, your best bet is over the Afsluitdijk, the massive water works which cut off the Zuiderzee. Arriva runs train services to the town from Leeuwarden and you can pick up regional buses in Alkmaar and Heerenveen.

Anything else
If you have more than a weekend on your hands, combine a stay in Harlingen with a trip over the Wadden Sea to the islands.

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