For reasons I can’t explain , I have never been a big fan of the term “bucket list”. It’s a term that is derived from the old phrase “to kick the bucket” meaning to die and was apparently coined by the creators of the eponymous 2006 film to refer to a list of things you want to do before you die. It was kind of fun and quirky the first time you heard it, but after reading the 7 billionth Buzzfeed post about “a gazillion things to add to your bucket list that you have no hope in hell of ever experiencing”, the novelty kind of wears off. So I am rather resistant to make anything headed “Jeanne’s bucket list”. But of course, that does not mean that I don’t have a wishlist of things I want to do. I first made a list like this when I was in my early 20s and it included things like seeing Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss in Vienna (seen!); staying in a house on stilts in the Maldives (yet to happen); hearing Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia performed live (heard!); and watching orcas in the wild in British Columbia (still waiting…).
Also on that list was visiting Keukenhof garden to see the Spring tulips – and that has also been ticked off! Keukenhof (literally translated as “kitchen garden”) is situated in the small town of Lisse in the Netherlands. It gets its name from the fact that in the 15th century it used to provide herbs for the kitchens of Jacqualine, Countess of Hainaut’s nearby castle. The present garden, one of the largest flower gardens in the world, was established in 1949 by the then-mayor of Lisse, with the idea of presenting an annual floral exhibition where growers from all over the Netherlands and Europe could show off their hybrid tulips. Today, the park comprises a massive 32 hectares (just short of 80 acres) and 7 million bulbs are reportedly planted each year. It is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions too, and has attracts over a million visitors a year – remarkable, considering it is only open to the public for two months of the year. Here are some of the beautiful images from my visit as well as my top tips for visitors who want to tiptoe through the tulips at Keukenhof!
1. Time your visit
The gardens are open annually from mid-March to mid-May. Being living things, the bulbs will not flower on demand and much will depend on the weather in a particular year. But although peak flowering time may vary from year to year, the safest time to go is probably mid-April. Go too early and most flowers will still be in bud (and the weather is likely to be cold and wet); go too late and most of the displays will be past their prime. When you go will also to an extent determine what you see – they hyacinths, for example, tend to bloom early as do the narcissi, so the later you go, the fewer of them you would expect to see. But whatever time you go, something will always be in bloom, so don’t get too hung up on this.
2. Set aside at least half a day for your visit.
32 hectares is big. Very big! There is a lot to see, so if you want value for money, don’t think you are going to be able to skim through the gardens in an hour or two. All those selfies among the flowers take time to get right, and you may have to wait for a stray tourist to walk out of your perfect shot 😉 There are a number of restaurants in the gardens, so you could easily spend an entire day there.
3. If you are planning to arrive by public transport, book your ticket in advance.
It’s super-easy to get direct from the airport, or from central An adult entrance ticket to Keukenhof costs €16, but if you buy a travel combo ticket, you will get both the travel and entrance cheaper than you would if you bought them individually. You can ordert a combi ticket including both entrance to the gardens and bus trip on the Keukenhof Express bus from either Schipol airport (€24) or central Amsterdam (€29). Alternatively you can order a combi ticket including train and bus travel to Keukenhof from any station in the Netherlands for € 35.00 (2nd class) or € 40.00 (1st class) per person. Both these tickets are available online via ns.nl/spoordeelwinkel. The only downside of booking your ticket in advance is that you don’t get to choose the weather on the day of your visit. You might be lucky but we visited on a day when it started raining less than an hour after we arrived, which meant we spent less time there than I would have liked to. So if you are driving, I’d say wake up, look at the weather and then decide if today is the day – but be warned, the traffic jams to get in and out are significant, I’m told.
4. Take a map.
There are free maps available at the entrance – make sure you take one! The gardens are huge and without a map you are almost sure to miss something interesting. Keukenhof features a variety of different gardens and garden styles. For example, in 2016 there are the following gardens: the Golden Age, Delft Blauw, Vegetable, Romantic, Sensory, Beach and Vintage. All are subtly different in terms of design and plantings – some offer a woodland feel, some feature water, others are more formal – and it is well worth it trying to see them all. There are also five pavilions throughout the gardens, featuring restaurants and different indoor floral displays and flower-arranging demonstrations. There is also a working windmill. And did I mention the gardens are HUGE? Take my advice – grab a map!
5. Go early or late in the day, or wander further afield if you want to avoid crowds.
With over a million visitors packed into just two months, the gardens are never really going to be empty. But your chances of relative serenity are increased if you arrive as the gates open at 08h00 and make it inside before the tourist busses start disgorging their passengers. Alternatively, plan to arrive mid-afternoon when the early-birds have started going home and stay until closing time (19h30). It’s also true that many people will not even get to the more remote parts of the garden, so the further from the entrances you are willing to go, the emptier it is likely to be. Most people are basically like me: walk in, see the first banks of tulips, squeal, take pictures, and in their excitement they forget about any plans you had to explore further. So take the road less-travelled – or alternatively, go on a cold and rainy day like we inadvertently did. Instant crowd-control!
6. Don’t miss the sculptures
Keukenhof not only provides a superb space for viewing its seven million spring flowering bulbs, but it also functions as an outdoor art gallery featuring sculptures and other works of art nestled among the colourful tulip beds. Every spring, artists are invited to display one ore more of their works in the park – we were pleasantly surprised by the pieces we stumbled upon and it adds an extra dimension to your park visit. As an added bonus, all works on display are for sale – here is a complete listing of pieces currently on show, with prices.
7. Visit the indoor exhibits in bad weather
If you are unlucky enough to be rained on during your visit to Keukenhof, remember that not all the flowers are outside. Within the gardens there are five large indoor pavilions and there is a different indoor display in each of the. Some also contain bulbs but others show off cut flowers and host flower arranging demonstrations. Each week, there is also a themed exhibit focusing on a particular family of flowers like amaryllis, freesias, roses, anthuriums, lilies and more. It’s a bit like a mini Chelsea Flower Show, really!
8. Bring the kids!
You might think that bringing unruly toddlers to a garden filled with delicate tulips would be a bad idea – but Keukenhof is really well prepared for young visitors. Other than the park and flowers, there is also a petting zoo with sheep, rabbits, turkeys and the like; a maze; and several playgrounds. They will also enjoy seeing a working windmill. To entertain kids while tha parents enjoy the flowers, there is also a scavenger hunt which requires kids to use various landmarks in the park to answer questions, solve clues and unscramble a word to win a prize. They can also have silly photos taken with their feet in giant Dutch wooden clogs 😉
9. Bike through the bulb fields outside Keukenhof.
You might have seen the iconic images of fields of tulips in dead straight rows stretching as far as the eye can see, and imagined this is what Keukenhof looks like – but these are in fact the commercial bulb fields surrounding Keukenhof and not in the garden itself. The fields are privately owned and access is not included as part of the Keukenhof entrance ticket. But while Keukenhof may only be explored on foot, it is possible to explore some of the bulb fields on that most Dutch of vehicles: the bicycle. Bike rentals are available from a rental kiosk (Rent-A-Bike Van Dam) just outside the Keukenhof entrance, and maps can be obtained from tourist information offices and bike rental shops. Suggested routes are available ranging from 4 or 7 km around Keukenhof – ask the shop to mark on the map where the flowers are blooming best on the day of your rental. Bike rental at Keukenhof costs around €10 per day for standard bicycles and €20 for tandems or electric bikes. (In the interests of full disclosure I have to say that we never did manage to do the bike ride – by the time we left Keukenhof we were so cold, wet and miserable that we went straight back to town for a restorative beer! Next time.)
The closest airport is Amsterdam Schipol and a number of daily direct flights depart daily from London’s various airports.
The closest town is Noordwijk on the coast, which is about a 15 minute drive from Keukenhof. Alternatively, there is a direct bus from central Amsterdam, so staying in the city is also feasible.
Keukenhof is open annually from mid-March to mid-May (this year it is 24 March – 16 May), with the best time being about mid-April. The Keukenhof ticket office is open daily 08h00-18h00 but the gardens themselves are open 08h00-19h30. Tickets cost €16 for adults and €8 for kids aged 4-11 while kids under 4 go free. Parking on site costs €6.
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