One of my aims on my recent visit to the Netherlands was to find a city that could offer an alternative tourist destination to Amsterdam. Why? Because, although Amsterdam is undeniably beautiful, and interesting, it is also packed with visitors. The figures are hard to estimate, but at least 17m tourists went to Amsterdam in 2016. And the figures are rising, to the extent that new measures are being implemented such as increased tourist taxes and a clamp-down on AirBNB.
All of this means that, not only is Amsterdam often unpleasantly crowded, but space is at a premium, so that hotel rooms can be hard to find and are often very small. In my quest to find an alternative I came up with Leiden, a university city with canals and cafés galore. A bit like a smaller version of Amsterdam (although I didn’t notice any drugs or a red light district – which might be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view…)
Leiden: A Canal Based City
Like Amsterdam, Leiden is a canal-based city. Ringed by a 6 km moat, it has a total of 28 km of canals and 88 bridges. In fact it has more canals than any other Dutch city apart from Amsterdam.
You can take a cruise along the canals, passing houseboats, historic buildings and old warehouses. Look out for the two oldest bridges in Leiden – the 12th century Visbrug (“Fish Bridge”) and the Koornbrug (“Grain Bridge”), built in 1642. Then there is Rapensburg, once described as “the most beautiful street in the world”.
The Medieval Defences of Leiden
As well as the canals, Leiden is interesting for its medieval history. At the centre of the town is the Burcht, an 11th century citadel on a small mound (this must quality as the only hill I’ve ever climbed in this otherwise flat part of the country). The castle was built to defend the town from possible attack from the nearby Rhine river. Today you can walk around the park that was once a moat, and climb up to the wall at the top of the Burcht to get views over the city.
As the town around the citadel grew it was in turn surrounded by a wall. Nothing remains of this today, although you can see where it would have run, alongside the outer canal. However two of the gates – the Morspoort and the Zijlpoort – remain. There is also one small tower (the “Gunpowder House”) on the southern boundary of the old city – somewhat bizzarely this is now in use as an Escape Room!
A Historic City
Leiden has the oldest university in The Netherlands, founded in 1575. As you walk around you are reminded that you are in a university town: where another city might have street art, Leiden has fragments of poetry and scientific formulas painted on the sides of its buildings. A part of the university that visitors can enjoy is the Botanic Garden, the oldest such garden in the country with 10,000 plants from all around the world.
Another interesting feature of Leiden’s history is the hofjes (almshouses with old courtyards). There are around 35 of these, built by wealthy benefactors between the 13th and 19th centuries. They are still lived in by elderly people or students, but some of the courtyards are open to visitors. You can pick up a walking trail at the Tourist Information Office.
Museums of Leiden
There is much more in Leiden than you could see in a day, including at least 12 museums. There are several branches of the Rijksmuseum, covering geology, natural history and antiquities. And there is the American Pilgrim Museum, which tells the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and their voyage to America in the 17th century.
Many visitors to Leiden will be keen to explore the works of the artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who was born here in 1606. Unfortunately, the Museum De Lakenhal, which has an impressive collection of works by Rembrandt and other artists, is currently closed (re-opening early in 2019). However, you can visit the Rembrandthuis, where the artist lived and worked.
Leiden as a Base
Leiden would make a good base for a stay in The Netherlands. It has frequent direct trains to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, as well as to Delft and Den Haag. And, although it isn’t particularly touristy, the presence of the university means that there is a flourishing café culture, with lots of bars and restaurants.
What do you think? Have you been to Leiden? Would it make a better base for tourists than Amsterdam? Let me know in the comments below.