26km (16 miles) SW of Amsterdam
In Keukenhof, Stationsweg 166A, Lisse (tel. 0252/465-555; www.keukenhof.nl), gardens and flowers at their peak have short seasons, but if you're here in the spring, you'll never forget a visit. This park's meandering 32 hectares (79 acres) of wooded green are in the heart of the bulb-producing region, planted each fall by the major Dutch growers (each plants his own plot or establishes his own greenhouse display). Come spring, the bulbs burst forth and produce not hundreds, or even thousands, but millions (more than 7 million at last count) of tulips of hundreds of varieties, narcissi, daffodils, hyacinths, bluebells, crocuses, lilies, amaryllis, and many others. The color blaze is everywhere in the park; it's also in the greenhouses, next to the brooks and shady ponds, along the paths and in the neighboring fields, in neat little plots and helter-skelter on the lawns, and alongside the inevitable windmill. Keukenhof claims to be the world's greatest flower show, and around 800,000 visitors show up to evaluate this claim. Count on spending an entire morning or afternoon here, and grab a quick bite at one of several on-site cafes so that you don't have to go looking for a place to eat when you'd rather be enjoying the flowers. The park is open from around March 20 to around May 20, daily from 8am to 7:30pm. Admission is 15€, 7€ for children ages 4 to 11, and free for children 3 and under. Special train/bus connections run via Haarlem and Leiden.
The Bulb Fields
The largest bulb growers are in the southern part of Noord-Holland province and the northern corner of Zuid-Holland, with the heaviest concentration lying between Haarlem and Leiden. Each year from mid-March until late April, the bulb fields cover a strip of land 16km (10 miles) long and 6km (4 miles) wide with tulips, crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, hyacinths, lilies, and more. A signposted Bollenstreek (Bulb District) route that covers about 60km (38 miles) makes viewing the flowers easy (VVV tourist information offices provide a detailed "Bulb Route" brochure). Roadside stalls sell flower garlands -- do as the natives do and buy one for yourself and another for the car.
To tour the bulb fields from Amsterdam, either drive first to Haarlem, then south on the N206 through De Zilk and Noordwijkerhout, or on the N208, through Hillegom, Lisse, and Sassenheim. Alternatively, go south from Amsterdam on the A4/E19, past Schiphol Airport, to exit 4 (Nieuw-Vennep), and then northwest on the N207 for 8km (5 miles) until you hit the N208.
18km (11 miles) SW of Amsterdam
Selling flowers and plants nets around 1.5€ billion a year at the Bloemenveiling (Flower Auction), Legmeerdijk 313 (tel. 0297/393-939; www.floraholland.com), in the lakeside community of Aalsmeer close to Schiphol Airport. Every day, the auction vends 19 million cut flowers and 2 million plants, in 12,000 varieties, from 7,000 nurseries, representing 30% of the worldwide trade. So vast is the auction house that 120 soccer fields would fit inside.
Get here early to see the biggest array of flowers in the distribution rooms, and to have as much time as possible to watch the computerized auction. Buyers sit in rows in five auditorium-style auction halls; they have microphones to ask questions and buttons to electronically register their bids. As the bunches of tulips or daffodils go by the stand on carts, they're auctioned in a matter of seconds. A mammoth timer, which starts at 100 and counts clockwise to 1, determines the bidding: The winning, and only, bid is placed by the person who stops the clock. It's like a gigantic game of chicken. Press too early and you pay more than necessary; wait too long and someone else already has the lot.
The auction is held Monday to Friday from 7 to 11am (there's little point in arriving after 9:30am). Admission is 5€, 3€ for children ages 6 to 11, and free for children 5 and under. To get there from Amsterdam, take the train to Schiphol Station, and then Connexxion bus no. 198 from outside Schiphol Plaza to the auction entrance; the journey takes around an hour. By car, take the A4/E19 south to the Hoofddorp junction, then go southeast on the N201.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.