I was on the hunt for an alternative tourist destination to Amsterdam when I discovered Leiden. It’s a bit like a smaller version of Amsterdam, a university city with canals and cafés galore. However it doesn’t have the same volume of visitors as the Dutch capital, meaning that it is less unpleasantly crowded and easier to find a hotel room. Another point in favour of Leiden is that it is a short train ride from Amsterdam, making it a convenient base for exploring the country.
So what are the top things to see and do in Leiden?
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”.
Exploring The History Of Leiden
Walking around the centre of Leiden, it is easy to imagine what the city would have been like in the Middle Ages. Quite apart from the canals and bridges, there are narrow streets and alleyways, and historic buildings everywhere.
A particular feature 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.
Leiden also has the oldest university in The Netherlands, founded in 1575. There are frequent reminders 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.
Medieval Defences Of Leiden
At the centre of the town is the Burcht, an 11th century citadel on a small mound (this must qualify as the only hill I’ve ever climbed in this otherwise flat part of the Netherlands). 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 the city walls today, although you can see where they would have run, alongside the outer canal. However two of the gates – the Morspoort and the Zijlpoort – are still visible. There is also one small tower (the “Gunpowder House”) on the southern boundary of the old city – somewhat bizarrely this is now in use as an Escape Room!
World Class Museums
There is much more in Leiden than you could see in a day, including many excellent museums. These are just a few that you won’t want to miss.
National Museum Of Antiquities
There are several branches of the Rijksmuseum in Leiden, but perhaps the most important is the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Museum of Antiquities). The is the national archaeological museum, based around the collections of Leiden University. Exhibits include items from early Dutch history as well as ancient Egypt and the Classical World.
Museum De Lakenhal (And The Rembrandt Route)
If you are keen to explore the works of the artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who was born in Leiden in 1606, a visit to the Museum De Lakenhal is essential. This has an impressive collection of works by Rembrandt, as well as by the old masters and modern Dutch artists.
Leiden American Pilgrim Museum
Located in a well preserved medieval house, the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum tells the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and their voyage to America in the 17th century. The rooms are furnished in the style of the 17th century and exhibits include maps and engravings as well as domestic artefacts.
The Wereldmuseum Leiden is one of the oldest ethnological museums in the world. Part of the Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of World Cultures), which also has branches in Amsterdam and Berg en Dal, it has artefacts from across the world including Africa, the Far East and the Americas. The collections aim to illustrate the historical development of different cultures.
Hortus Botanicus Leiden
Dating from 1590, the Hortus botanicus is the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands, and one of the oldest in the world. Its collections include 10,000 plants, featuring local and exotic species, and tropical plants in greenhouses. A Japanese Garden was added in 1990.
The botanical gardens are owned by the university, but visitors are welcome (there is an entrance charge). A choice of walking routes and audio tours allow you to explore everything the garden has to offer.
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, Haarlem 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.
For overnight accommodation have a look at the recommendations on booking.com.
What do you think? Have you been to Leiden? Would it make a better base for tourists than Amsterdam? Or would you prefer just to take a day trip from Amsterdam to Leiden? Let me know in the comments below.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.