A Guide To Keukenhof
Keukenhof is Europe’s largest flower garden and the world’s largest flower exhibition. It’s known chiefly for its springtime display of tulips, a rainbow spread that covers an area of around 79 acres (or somewhere in the region of 26 football pitches). As you might expect from a spectacle of this size, its statistics are staggering – there are expected to be more than seven million bulbs in bloom for this coming season, between them showcasing no less than 800 tulip varieties.
Travel writer Ben Lerwill hails from the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, and has channelled his wanderlust into creating articles for National Geographic Traveller, The Independent, Wanderlust, Rough Guides, Time Out and BBC Countryfile and more.
The New York Times has described the sight as “like giant Mondrian paintings laid out on the ground,” and if there’s a more colourful attraction to be found in Europe, we’d be keen to hear about it.
So where is it?
With all those tulips? It could only be The Netherlands. Keukenhof is located in the little Dutch town of Lisse, which has been famed for its floriculture and bulb flowers for well over a century. Reaching the garden itself is straightforward. It sits 14 miles from Schiphol Airport, 20 miles from The Hague, 22 miles from central Amsterdam and 35 miles from central Rotterdam. And if you want to combine a visit here with another enduring element of Dutch culture, it’s also located a short drive from Haarlem’s Frans Hals Museum, an attraction dedicated to the famous Golden Age portraitist.
When does it open?
Keukenhof is more than a garden – it’s essentially an event. Open only for a two-month period each year, the show allows around 100 participating bulb companies to flaunt their floral wares to tourists and trade visitors. Given the time-sensitive nature of the display itself, all exhibitors are obliged to supply their bulbs to Keukenhof in the autumn, to ensure planting can be synchronised in time for the main event. The opening dates for 2016 run from Thursday 24 March to Monday 16 May, with entry permitted between 8am and 6pm daily. An adult ticket costs 16 euros, and you’ll pay a further 6 euros for a car parking space. On a less prosaic note, there’s no extra cost for the heavenly smell of seven million flowers.
When was it first established?
The word “keukenhof” translates literally as “kitchen garden”, and the name dates back to its original purpose in the 1400s: providing fruit, herbs and vegetables for nearby Teylingen Castle. The garden later gained a castle of its own – Keukenhof Castle, built in 1641 – and saw its grounds expand in size over the centuries. It wasn’t until 1949, however, that a group of Dutch bulb exporters developed the notion of using the venue as an open-air exhibition site for their flowers. The very next year saw the first staging of the springtime event. Visitor numbers for the inaugural 1950 show were an impressive 236,000, but things have moved on apace – last year Keukenhof drew some 1.17 million visitors.
What can I expect from a visit?
While tulips dominate the event, they’re not the only flowers on show: orchids, hyacinths, roses, daffodils, narcissi, carnations and a whole swathe of other varieties are also exhibited. And don’t expect a simple grid of squared-off flowerbeds and identikit pavilions – huge effort goes into forming an attractive, creative layout across the site. Last year the design centred on a Vincent Van Gogh theme, while this year visitors can explore individual gardens themed on everything from romance to Delft Blue porcelain. Bulb shops and a wide range of cafes and restaurants are also on site.
Why is The Netherlands so closely associated with the tulip?
The colourful perennial is today seen as the Dutch national flower, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that it was first seen in the country. Tulips grow wild everywhere from North Africa to the Central Asian mountains, and were reportedly first cultivated more than 1000 years ago in the Middle East. Their arrival in Holland came in the late 1500s, when a Flemish botanist travelled here to take up a post at Leiden University, bringing with him a selection of tulip bulbs procured in Vienna. These were subsequently planted – the flowers flourished under Dutch growing methods, and a long-term love affair was born. Within decades the country was witness to “Tulip Mania”, a period during which a premium tulip bulb could sometimes fetch the equivalent of ten times the annual salary of a labourer.
What if I’m not here in spring?
If your travels here fall outside of the main eight-week window, there are still some worthwhile year-round diversions to enjoy. Keukenhof Castle itself, topped by imposing conical turrets, is open for guided tours twelve months a year – its art collection is particularly good. And by diversifying the plant species in its garden, the castle now claims to be able to offer flowers in bloom regardless of the season. For a meal out in Lisse, meanwhile, try booking a table at the aptly named Vier Seizoenen (Four Seasons) restaurant – the menu changes monthly.