Just north of the Afsluitdijk, 30km west of Leeuwarden, HARLINGEN is an ancient and historic port that serves as the ferry terminus for the islands of Terschelling and Vlieland, Harlingen is something of a centre for traditional Dutch sailing barges, a number of which are usually moored in the harbour. A naval base from the seventeenth century, the town straddles the Vliestroom channel, once the easiest way for shipping to pass from the North Sea through the shallows that surround the Frisian islands and on into the Zuider Zee. Before trade moved west, this was the country's lifeline, where cereals, fish and other foodstuffs were brought in from the Baltic to feed the expanding Dutch cities.
Harlingen has two train stations: one on the southern edge of town for trains from Leeuwarden; the other, Harlingen Haven, right next to the docks, handling trains connecting with boats to the islands. From Harlingen Haven the old town spreads east, sandwiched between the pretty Noorderhaven and more functional Zuiderhaven canals, a mass of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century houses that reflect the prosperity and importance of earlier times. However, Harlingen is too busy to be just another cosy tourist town: there's a fishing fleet, a small container depot, a shipbuilding yard and a resurgent ceramics industry. The heart of town is the Voorstraat, a long, tree-lined avenue that's home to an elegant eighteenth-century Stadhuis and the HannemahuisMuseum at no. 56 (April– June & mid-Sept to mid-Nov Tues– Sat 1.30–5pm; July to mid-Sept Tues– Sat 10am–5pm & Sun 1.30–5pm; 1.55). Sited in an eighteenth-century merchant's house, the museum concentrates on the history of the town and includes some interesting displays on shipping and some lovely locally produced tiles.