The city is located on the river Spaarne, giving it its nickname 'Spaarnestad' (Spaarne city). It is situated about 20 km (12 mi) west of Amsterdam and near the coastal dunes. Haarlem has been the historical centre of the tulip bulb-growing district for centuries and bears its other nickname 'Bloemenstad' (flower city) for this reason.
Haarlem has a rich history dating back to pre-medieval times, as it lies on a thin strip of land above sea level known as the strandwal (beach ridge), which connects Leiden to Alkmaar. The people on this narrow strip of land struggled against the waters of the North Sea from the west, and the waters of the IJ and the Haarlem Lake from the east. Haarlem became wealthy with toll revenues that it collected from ships and travellers moving on this busy North-South route. However, as shipping became increasingly important economically, the city of Amsterdam became the main Dutch city of North Holland during the Dutch Golden Age. The town of Halfweg became a suburb, and Haarlem became a quiet bedroom community, and for this reason Haarlem still has many of its central medieval buildings intact. Nowadays many of them are on the Dutch Heritage register known as Rijksmonuments. The list of Rijksmonuments in Haarlem gives an overview of these per neighbourhood, with the majority in the old city centre.
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