Every May, I look forward to the Tulip Time festival in Holland. It’s one of Michigan’s most unique events and a favorite of mine. A celebration of both the beautiful tulip flower and city’s rich Dutch heritage, it’s famous worldwide, with people traveling from all over the earth to this small city near the shores of Lake Michigan. The 2016 festival kicks off this Saturday, May 7th.
Photo courtesy of Tulip Time Festival, Inc.
Holland is just up the road from my house. It seems like at least half the families here in West Michigan have a Dutch last name. There’s a saying in these parts that, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.” I don’t have the appropriate surname, but I am part Dutch. My husband is too, so we fit right in.
But you don’t have to hail from The Netherlands to enjoy Tulip Time. There are tourists from literally every corner of the world, and they come by the tour bus full. (When I see Europeans there, I always wonder why they don’t just go to the actual Netherlands which are much closer to their home?) Be prepared to put up with crowds and long lines. Weekdays and early mornings are quieter times to visit.
In keeping with the festival’s name, the city is blanketed with thousands of colorful tulips, all in full bloom. The Dutch who settled the area are credited with bringing the flowers to America. You’ll find parks full of tulips, the sidewalks lined with them and entire fields painted with the bright blossoms. It’s a beautiful sight to see and worth the trip alone. But that’s not all there is to Tulip Time. Here’s my must see and do list to get the full Tulip Time Festival experience:
Visit Windmill Island Gardens and you can check off several items on my list:
1. Tour De Zwaan Windmill – You’ll find the De Zwaan Windmill at Windmill Island. (There is an admission fee to enter Windmill Island Gardens.) It’s an authentic windmill brought over from the Netherlands and rebuilt on the current site in the 1960s. The windmill is still fully operational. You can even purchase a bag of flour ground by the mill. A tour takes you inside the windmill all the way to the top where you can venture out onto the walkway that provides access to the blades. You’ll also get a brief history lesson and explanation about how the windmill works while on the tour.
I know it may not sound all that exciting, but you have to trust me on this one. It’s very cool to see how the windmill works. The mechanically inclined persons in my family especially enjoy it. I like the history and the tour guides in authentic Dutch dress are a bonus.
The line for the tour is very long during the festival, especially on the weekends. It’s shorter if you go on a weekday. If you’re going on a weekend, try to get there when the gardens open and be first in line.
2. Eat at Tante Nellie’s Dutch Kitchen – You’ll find Tante Nellie’s set up in a large catering tent at Windmill Island. Much to my children’s dismay, we stop here to eat lunch every year when we visit. On their menu of authentic Dutch food are Pigs-in-a-blanket (Sausage wrapped in pastry. Can’t really go wrong there.), and the most delicious pea soup you’ll ever eat. I know, I know. Pea soup? You’ll have to trust me on this one too. As a life long member of the I-Hate-Peas Club, I was surprised to find that I like it. They also have very tasty desserts like Oliebol, which is basically a Dutch doughnut. (You can never go wrong with fried dough either.) If your kids won’t eat the pea soup, don’t worry. There are other concessions at the garden, and the carnival midway in downtown has tons of food choices.
3. The Historic Dutch Trade Fair – This is also located at Windmill Island. (You will get your money’s worth out of that admission. Not surprising, since the Dutch are known for their frugality and love of good value.) Reenactors in colonial dress re-create a Dutch settlement camp and even have items handcrafted, “in the old way,” for sale. A metalsmith with pewter wares, a trapper selling real pelts and women making yarn on spinning wheels are just a few of the thing you’ll find there. I’m a history buff, so this is a favorite of mine. The boys always like the musket-toting 18th century soldiers.
Other things to see at Windmill Island – The Post House, an exact replica of a 14th century wayside inn, a working antique Amsterdam street organ, an antique Dutch carousel, a miniature model of The Netherlands, a playground, fudge shop and gift shop.
4. Neli’s Dutch Village – Neli’s is America’s one and only Dutch Theme park. Yep. I know. Sounds weird. You have to trust me. I’m asking you to do that lot today, huh? I told you Tulip Time is one of Michigan’s most UNIQUE festivals. Somtimes unique is code for strange and wonderful.
A very kid-friendly attraction, at Dutch Village you’ll find amusement rides including chair swings, old-fashioned peddle pumper cars and Harry’s Windmill Ride, a cross between a windmill and a Ferris wheel. There’s also a petting zoo and playground that includes a wooden shoe slide.
Photo credit: Anna Harris
Historic buildings staffed with interpreters dressed in Dutch costume give you a taste of what life was like in the old country. Shops are filled with imported Dutch treats and treasures. You can also dine on Dutch cuisine at The Hungry Dutchman Cafe. It’s worth going just to see the looks on people’s faces when you tell them you went to a Dutch theme park, and you don’t mean Amsterdam. There is an admission fee to enter Dutch Village.
5. Veldheer Tulip Farm – Remember those fields of tulips I told you about? You’ll find those at Veldheer Tulip Farm, along with lovely tulip gardens you can tour, and a big selection of tulip bulbs for purchase. Photo opps of the kids tiptoeing through the tulips abound here. Just be careful not to tiptoe ON the tulips. They frown on that. There is an admission fee to tour the garden.
6. The Wooden Shoe Factory – The DeKlomp Wooden Shoe & Delft Factory is also at the tulip farm. You can watch them make shoes and paint the only authentic blue and white delftware made in the United States. Be sure to take home a pair of your own wooden shoes. But keep them away from the dog, because apparently they’re great chew toys. Our dog ate both pairs that belonged to my boys.
7. Dutch Dancing in the street – You can not leave Tulip time without seeing at least one Dutch Dance performance. You’ll come across them in downtown, at the city parks and at Windmill Island and Dutch Village. Dancers in traditional Dutch costume perform traditional Dutch folk dances all while wearing those bulky wooden shoes. It’s a spectacle like no other.
Photo courtesy of Tulip Time Festival, Inc.
8. The Volksparade – There are a few different parades, but The Volksparade or People’s Parade is by far the most interesting. Thousands of locals in traditional Dutch dress march and dance through downtown with brooms, sweeping and scrubbing the streets. Apparently this is to get them cleaned up for you and I. If you’ve been to pristine downtown Holland before, you know it’s unlikely that the streets would every actually be dirty enough to need scrubbing. The Dutch believe cleanliness is next to Godliness.
9. KinderPlatts – This event takes place in Kollen Park, and as the name suggests, it’s for the kids. Games, crafts, hands-on activities and entertainment keep children busy while teaching them about Dutch culture and history.
10. Tulip Lane – Six miles of streets in downtown are lined with 200,000 tulips in bloom. You can see these by foot or car.
A few other things to know about Tulip Time:
- Many attractions charge admission, so be prepared to pay.
- As I mentioned earlier, there are thousands upon thousands of people visiting the festival. Weekends especially are crowded. Prepare to be patient and wait in line. Parking can be tricky. Plan on parking then walking and using the shuttle buses as much as possible to avoid all the traffic.
- There is a carnival midway downtown as well as street food.
- There are hundreds of events taking places including live ticketed shows and fireworks. Events very day-to-day. Check the complete schedule online to plan your visit.
- Downtown Holland is also home to many one-of-a-kind boutiques, galleries, restaurants and gift shops. Leave yourself some time browse.
- You’re just miles from Lake Michigan. If you have time, take a stroll along one of the local beaches.
If you’re Dutch, you’ll totally get it. If not, just go with it. It’s fun. Trust me.