Amsterdam’s Keukenhof Gardens: Tiptoe Through the Tulips

March 11, 2016 by

Day Trips, Europe, Festivals & Events, Things to Do

Keukenhof Gardens in season

Keukenhof Gardens in season

If you’ve got a thing for flowers, color, beauty, history and sweet-smelling air, the Netherlands’ Keukenhof Gardens, not far from Amsterdam, is the place for you. It’s gorgeous. So gorgeous, in fact, that no one has ever taken a bad photograph there. Well, not of the flowers anyway.

Keukenhof is the world’s largest flower garden, with more than 70 acres (around 32 hectares) of parkland filled with more than seven million bulbs — tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, narcissi, gladioli. But mainly it’s about the tulips, of course, since this is the Netherlands. And you can’t get lost in the gardens because there is one big landmark to guide your way — yep, it’s a windmill; after all, this is the Netherlands. Tulips, tick. Windmills, tick. I haven’t gotten to clogs yet, but I will …

History of the Keukenhof Gardens

Flowers as far as the eye can see at Keukenhof.

Flowers as far as the eye can see at the Keukenhof Gardens

The tulip gardens at Keukenhof were established in 1949, the idea of W.J.H. Lambooy, the then-mayor of the nearby town of Lisse. He and and leading bulb-growers thought an annual open-air flower exhibition would be a good thing — largely for the local bulb-growers to be able to exhibit and sell their wares.

They decided on the Keukenhof estate, using the former herb and vegetable garden area of the 15th-century Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren. Hence the name of the place: Keukenhof literally means “kitchen garden.”

These days, the park includes seven inspiration gardens (ideas for you to try in your own, somewhat smaller, plot at home!); bronze sculptures by Dutch artists scattered around the place; changing exhibitions of flowers; and tents or kiosks from local bulb-growers where you can order your favorites, which will then be delivered around September when the bulbs are in their deepest hibernation, gathering strength for next year. Every year about three billion (that’s 3,000,000,000!) tulip bulbs are produced in Holland.

Tulips in the Netherlands

One of the most amazing things about tulips is their variety and color. Every year Dutch growers breed new strains of the flower. Which brings me to more history and the most amazing thing I discovered in my investigations of Keukenhof: Tulips are not Dutch at all! Well, they are now, about 500th generation (if every year is a generation for a bulb?). But they do not grow wild in the Netherlands and never have.

Tulips have the run of the place at the Keukenhof Gardens.

Tulips have the run of the place at Keukenhof.

In fact, the natural habitat of the tulip is the rocky, dry, mountainous regions near the border of China and Russia. The kind of flat, below sea-level, damp earth of the Netherlands is the tulip’s least favorite environment, although I’m sure by now they have adapted. And the Dutch are very good at draining soil, let’s face it. So how did tulips get to the Netherlands? And why did they become such a national symbol?

Carolus Clusius, a botanist who worked in Vienna, met with the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, A.G. Busbequius. Busbequius gave him some tulip bulbs, a flower he had first seen in the gardens of Constantinople (now Istanbul). In fact, the tulip’s name is thought to come from the Persian word for turban (toliban which, when changed into Latin, became tulipa) because there was a visual similarity between the hat and flower. Clusius then took a job at Leiden University in Holland and planted his tulip bulbs.

From there, tulips became the new black. Tulipmania followed, with speculation in tulips reaching such dizzying heights (and losing so many Dutch their fortunes, houses and peace of mind) that the government stepped in during 1637 to stop the tulip windhandel (literally “tulip wind trade”). Now the tulip is no less desired, or valuable, but the trade is more even-tempered. It is also now firmly a Dutch symbol and foundation of the country’s economy, its roots in the East largely faded into history.

Tulips + Ukulele = Tiny Tim

More tulips at the Keukenhof Gardens

More tulips at Keukenhof

But not only have tulips been important to one country, they were crucial in the life of one short man with a high voice: Tiny Tim. His 1968 hit song, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” made him a worldwide star. It wasn’t an original but a cover of the song written in 1929 by Nick Lucas (the song had four other incarnations on the pop charts through the 20th century).

I think Tiny Tim was the only one to add ukulele, though, and that made him a standout! Married live on “The Tonight Show” surrounded by 10,000 tulips, naming his daughter Tulip, finally being buried in a coffin full of tulips — no one could say Tiny Tim was not grateful for the leg up tulips gave him in life. A useless but fascinating fact: Tiny Tim’s televised wedding to Miss Vicki in 1969 attracted 84 percent of the American TV audience, coming second only to the moon landing in ratings during the 1960s. I bet producers these days wish they could match that. Perhaps if Britney surrounded herself with tulips and … but back to Keukenhof.

Keukenhof Gardens Trip-Planning

The Keukenhof Gardens deliver.

The Keukenhof Gardens deliver.

In 2016, the Keukenhof Gardens are open from March 24 to May 16. The rest of the year, the bulbs sleep — not a bad gig. But during those few open weeks, the flowers really deliver. The sheer scale immerses you in color and fragrance. Part of what makes the gardens so special is that they’re only open for approximately eight weeks each year. There’s no theme-park style manipulation of nature here. No hothouse tricking the bulbs into thinking it’s spring year-round. The flowers bloom from March to May, so that’s when you can go and see them. Perfect.

Many day trips to Keukenhof are available from Amsterdam, and it’s also easy to get to the gardens by public transport from Amsterdam or Haarlem. There’s even a bus that goes directly to the gardens from Amsterdam Airport Schipol.

One final word of advice: Keukenhof Gardens is a big place. You’ll be doing a lot of walking. You probably shouldn’t wear clogs. (And you thought I’d forgotten …)

>> Plan your trip to Amsterdam with our Insider’s Guide.

— Philippa Burne

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17 Responses to “Amsterdam’s Keukenhof Gardens: Tiptoe Through the Tulips”

  1. Susan Says:

    Great article, makes me feel like I’m right there smelling the flowers. As it is, I’m surrounded by mounds of snow and yearning for spring. Thanks for giving us all a glimpse of these gorgeous tulip gardens.

  2. anil james Says:

    I will surely go to this place in this april, thanks for so much detailed information

  3. Martha Says:

    Great…fantastic…thanx a lot for sharing…..I luv it……martha

  4. Anne"beach condo"Peterson Says:

    Great place.. i would plan to visit this place soon… i would like to see for my self these lovely colorful flowers.. and bring my camcorder with me.. 🙂

  5. Jen Says:

    We will be going to Kuekenhof in a few weeks with our family. The gardens opened March 18 so they should be primed and ready for us when we arrive. Ironically, the theme of USA friendship will make it interesting as our family visits us here in Germany.

  6. Angela Says:

    Enjoyed reading this entry and seeing the photos. My husband and I are visiting Keukenhof tomorrow. We are from the U.S. and have been planning this trip for many months. Looking forward to it! Thank you.

  7. ann Says:

    A friend from Michigan facebooked that she is there at Keukenhof right now, but here in Alberta, Canada we have 2 ft of snow and more on the way. Our tulips bloom beginning in May, and might last a few days until the deer roam through the neighborhood…sigh…thanks for adding this to my travel wishlist.

  8. mary jean clauss Says:

    Nit-picking correction: tulipmania investors lost not their piece of mind but their peace of mind. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

  9. Scott Mc Says:

    Hi Mary. Yes, indeed. After a while we all lose pieces of our minds, which really undermines our peace of mind.

    Thanks for the correction.

  10. tstchrm1 Says:

    it so intresting……….

  11. Nedo Says:

    Every year in April you can see lovely tulips everywhere in Istanbul.

  12. Elaine Says:

    I visited the keukenhof Gardens five years ago while the tulips were blooming, and I remember thinking that this must be the most beautiful spot on the face of the earth.

  13. asiah Says:

    Will be visiting again in future to see the tulips

  14. Growing Peppers Says:

    I love the tulips! They made me feel like I am the most beautiful woman on Earth when someone would give me Tulips. I am one of the tulip mania investors who would buy five to 10 dozens of tulips just for my garden. I hope someone could give me tips in cultivating tulips in a hasty and efficient way. It would mean a lot to me. Thanks.

  15. A Will Says:

    Mary you have some beautiful images of tulips here.

  16. Bob Hilscher Says:

    Hi there, My wife, Jean, and I spent a couple of days at Keukenhof Gardens, near Lisse. We always knew that The Netherlands (Holland) was famous for its tulips. As gardeners, seeing the gardens at Keukenhof, just simply took our breath away! It was amazing. Without a doubt, Keukenhof Gardens is the world’s biggest outdoor gardens. For those who might like to see some pictures from our trip, they are at:

    While in Holland, Jean and I also spent a day at the village of Zaanse Schans where we got to see their large collection of windmills. For us, a trip to Holland just wouldn’t have been complete without seeing windmills in action. If anyone would like to check out the variety of windmills that we saw, they are at:

  17. halimah Says:

    Oh my God…it’s very beautiful,,,I like it and I love it very much… 🙂 hopefully I can go there someday… 🙂 because there is no tulip garden in my country (Indonesia)”imaging” if I have friend from Holland, I wanna look around her country with her in Tulip Garden and if she wants to know more about my country, I’ll accompany her to look around my country…