Keukenhof: Holland’s magical tulip park

Magical Keukenhof

Keukenhof in the Netherlands is world-famous for its spectacular display of spring flowers, the undisputed queen of which is Holland’s iconic tulip. The park is only open eight weeks from mid-March through mid-May for the spring flowering season. It is the showcase for the Dutch floricultural sector with an emphasis on bulbs. Each year, 7 million flower bulbs are hand-planted in Keukenhof. The season kicks off with daffodils, crocuses and hyacinth. The tulips are usually not in full bloom until mid-April.

David and I felt extra-lucky to be in Antwerp, Belgium, this year from March 12-April 21. This put us in the neighborhood at peak flowering time. (Keukenhof is only 1h45m drive from Antwerp, a very short distance by our Texan standards.) This gave us the luxury of monitoring the bloom reports and weather and timing our trip to avoid holiday and weekend crowds. Easter is this weekend and it’s one of the busiest times at Keukenhof. We read nightmare stories about the traffic jams around Keukenhof and especially at Easter so wanted to avoid that at all costs. On the other hand, we leave Antwerp for Lithuania next Friday, so we were running out of time. Giving the tulips maximum bloom time while avoiding the Easter holiday and taking advantage of the best weather forecast for our remaining time narrowed things down to yesterday for us.

Even though we planned our visit for a Thursday, we decided we’d be best served by getting to the park right as it opened at 8am. (We were missing the Easter weekend bank holiday, but were still during the 2-week spring school holiday here so we worried about the potential for crowds.) That meant we pulled away from our Antwerp house just after 6am and ate breakfast on the road. It turned out to be a brilliant strategy and well worth a little lost sleep. Other than some traffic around Rotterdam, we made good time and were one of the first to arrive at Keukenhof, being directed to park only a few cars from the main entrance with a vast field of open parking spaces left behind us. By the time we left just after noon, cars stretched to the limits of that field and a solid line of cars and buses was streaming in.

No crowds when you’re one of the first to the park

We’d pre-purchased tickets, a printed guide and our parking ticket online via the Keukenhof website. The tickets would have let us skip any lines, but there were none at such an early hour and we were able to wander the park with only a few other people for over an hour, the only sounds being birds singing and the occasional airplane overhead en route to or from Schiphol Airport. [A video is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]

The only downside to arriving so early was that the sun was still relatively low in the sky and it was a chilly 49F. It was partly cloudy, too; a far cry from last Sunday’s bluebird skies and high in the low 70’s. Oh well, such are the vagaries of spring and it was still a beautiful day.

Keukenhof park occupies a stunning 79 acres of impeccably designed and maintained flower beds and other flowering displays, art and greenhouses. We entered via the main entrance on the south side of the park and wandered north and a little west before visiting the huge greenhouse and the center and continuing on to a working windmill on the eastern edge of the park. Arriving there around 9:15am, we booked an open boat cruise for 10:30 on the canals that cut through the flower fields adjoining the park. The cost was €6 each for a 45 minute boat ride, including an audio guide available in four languages. It turned out to be a good move to book the boat early as people were continuously streaming into the park and I’m not sure we’d have been able to get a seat if we waited much longer.

View of hyacinth fields from Keukenhof’s windmill

With time to spare, we explored more of the park, taking time for hot tea and a snack in one of the several cafes scattered around the park. There are several buffet-style cafes and restaurants in the park offering tasty dishes at not unreasonable prices. There are also ample immaculate and very modern toilets. The park claims to have free wi-fi throughout, but we were never able to reach any website, receive email, etc. despite our phones showing as connected.

Lovely spot for a tea break

In addition to the spectacular outdoor flower beds, Keukenhof greenhouses showcased vast beds of tulips in one, orchids and art made from orchids in another, and yet another displaying artistic creations made from roses and other flowers. Five hundred flower growers present creations of cut and potted flowers in over twenty flower shows.

By the time we got back to the windmill for our canal boat ride, the crowds were noticeably larger. The canal boats are low, open vessels with a single row along each side and 4 seats in the middle. Each seat has 4 audio jacks, each marked with a flag so you can choose your language. Two boats leave at a time and we arrived in time to be at the front of one line so had unobstructed views from the bow. Of course, that also meant an unobstructed and chilly breeze, but we were happy to pay that price…especially since the breeze smelled richly of flowers, particularly hyacinth.

Ultra-quiet electric engines power the boats so we glided silently through the colorful fields watching farmers gathering bushels of flowers or operating heavy spraying machinery. Beautiful and fascinating and so exotic compared to the farm fields back home!

When we stepped off the boat, we were stunned at the size of the crowd that now swarmed around the windmill. A long line waited to enter the windmill…where we’d wandered in easily earlier in the morning. Mobs of people crowded around flower beds and food vendors where there’d been no one. Photos of the flower beds free of fellow visitors would be almost impossible now. We were so glad we’d gotten that early start!

Where did all these people come from?!

Wanting to retain the benefits of being ahead of the crowd, we decided to eat an early lunch; besides, an early start meant we were already hungry. It turned out to be another good move as we were able to breeze through choosing our lunch and get a table by a window. By the time we’d finished eating, people were scrambling to stake out a table.

A lot more people around as we headed to our last pavilion

We visited the last of the pavilions we’d yet to explore in the far southwest corner of the park. As everywhere else, the flower beds were spectacular, but the pavilion itself held no more than a gift shop, café and toilets so we didn’t linger long. Feeling we’d covered the entire park pretty thoroughly, we made our exit around 12:30pm, a little under 4.5 hours since we’d arrived.

Compare this pic to the earlier one in the same spot: the crowds have arrived!
So much for parking a few spots back for later arrivals…and there’s another lot to the west of this just as full with more on the way

With plenty of time before we had to get our rent car back to Antwerp Centraal at 6pm, we took a back road to admire more tulip fields then stopped off to stroll the charming town of Delft, famous for its blue and white pottery.

Delft, Netherlands
Delft canal

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Find more details on the Keukenhof website. Tickets to Keukenhof are available here and can be purchased separately or as combi-tickets that include bus transportation from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Leiden, or Haarlem. I’ve read that buses can be full on weekends and holidays, and traffic jams are routine so allow for travel delays however you decide to travel. I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of getting an early start if you want to enjoy the beauty of the park minus the crowds. Online tickets are good for a single day only, but you don’t have to specify the date when you purchase them. Tickets are also available at the park. The basic entry fee is €16 for adults ; €8 for children 4-11. Credit cards are accepted throughout the park. The park offers luggage storage.

Of course, actual bloom times for the various flowers depends upon the weather. Tulipsinholland.com claims to do a weekly flower update starting in March (and apparently has in the past), but they are way behind this year and haven’t posted anything since March 7. They did, however, send me an update via email this past Tuesday so were current in that format. You can register for their email updates on their website.

Comments and questions are welcome!