Last Updated on 18th February 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
A little off the beaten tourist track and somewhere between the Hague and Amsterdam, you’ll find one of the most beautifully preserved historic city centres in all of the Netherlands. Oozing with charm, visit Leiden and you’ll be guaranteed the opportunity to truly step back in time in this medieval time warp.
After all, once in Leiden, you’ll have the opportunity to wander along endless waterways, soak up architecture dating back centuries, escape the crowds of Amsterdam… And that’s not all! Here are some of the top reasons to visit Leiden and why you must add the Dutch city to your bucket list ASAP!
A brief history of Leiden
Home to the oldest university in the Netherlands, as well as the oldest botanical gardens in Holland, Leiden has no shortage of historical and cultural attractions. And while the best of Leiden can probably be seen in a day, you’ll likely want to spend a long weekend here in order to truly soak up the historical ambience.
If you want to make the most of your time in Leiden, then it’s well worth following the Leidse Loper (Leiden Loop). This self-guided, self-paced walking trail traces 24 historical attractions and points of interest in the city centre. The trail can be downloaded via a free app. If you’re looking for a tour with a guide, then it might be worth booking this 2-hour walking tour of the city.
The Miniaturist was filmed in Leiden!
For those who have not seen the Miniaturist, it’s a period drama based on the book of the same name. Set in the 17th-century, it follows the story of newly married Nella Oortman and was based on a doll’s housed now located within the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
The historic nature of the city, as well as filming incentives which were just not available in Amsterdam in previous years, have drawn numerous film crews to the small university town. In fact, little has changed in the street plan of Leiden since the 17th-century.
Today, it’s possible to wander the streets of Leiden and discover several filming locations from the movie. While some of the movie was filmed within the iconic Pieterskerk, many of the waterway scenes were shot in the Rapenburg Canal area of the city.
Leiden is less touristic than Amsterdam
If you want to visit a city which has the feel of Amsterdam and yet skip the crowds of the Dutch capital city, then Leiden makes for the perfect escape from Amsterdam. Easy to see as a day trip from Amsterdam or the Hague, Leiden is home to several windmills, countless waterways, and plenty of churches.
Pieterskerk and the Pilgrims in Leiden
By far the most famous building which Leiden has to offer is St Peter’s Church. Dating back some nine hundred years, no one is quite sure as to the history of the church. Although no longer consecrated, and as such, no longer used for services, the former ecclesiastical building has played an incredibly important role in the history of the city.
For it was here where the symbol for the keys of the city’s crest were taken; one key signifying heaven, the other earth. For those with an interest in American history, it’s also worth noting that the church has a Mayflower connection.
After all, it was in Leiden where some of the pilgrims settled to escape religious persecution from the English before voyaging to North America on the Mayflower. However, due to several factors, such as businesses open during normal hours on Sundays in Leiden, the Pilgrim Fathers found that the Netherlands was not pious enough, thus contributing to their eventual departure.
University of Leiden
The University of Leiden is the oldest in the Netherlands and dates all the way back to 1575. Legend has it that as a reward for defending Leiden against Spanish attacks, the residents of the city were given the choice between not paying taxes for a period and the founding of a university. The residents chose the university.
And thus, the University of Leiden was founded. The Leiden Observatory can also be found in the city, was founded in 1633, and is the second oldest university observatory in the world. Another highlight of the university is the sweat room, so-called because, in previous years, the students would be left in the room to await their diploma results. Today, it’s a right of passage for graduating students to sign their names on the wall of the room.
Water and Canals
So iconic is the water in Holland that the nearby city of Delft comes from the word ‘delven,’ meaning delving or digging. Canals are an essential part of nearly every Dutch city and Leiden is no exception. On a sunny day, there’s no better activity than to wander around, camera in one hand, seeing where your feet take you…
Established shortly after the university, the oldest botanical gardens in the Netherlands remain free for students of the University of Leiden to visit to this day. And, for a small fee, members of the public can visit the extensive gardens and greenhouses too. Open on a daily basis, the gardens date all the way back to 1590.
While a feature of many a city in the Netherlands, one of the things that Leiden is best-known for are the boat terraces located along the city’s main canal. As such, one of the best things to do in Leiden on a warm summer’s evening is to sit out with your friends and drink some local beer… On a boat!
Plenty of Cobbled Lanes
From the architecture of the waterfront houses to the bars spilling out onto the lanes, there’s no denying that Leiden is absolutely adorable. In fact, pretty as a postcard, Leiden is so picturesque that once you’ve taken out your camera, you’ll find that it’s hard to put it away again!
Leiden has lots of hofjes
And while we’re on the subject of cobbled lanes, it’s worth noting that Leiden is home to some of the best-preserved and historic hofjes of any city in the Netherlands. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s worth noting that this term is the Dutch word for a courtyard surrounded by almshouses.
Hofjes can be found in several Dutch cities including the settlements of Haarlem, Amsterdam, and of course, Leiden. Many have been in situ in Leiden for centuries and 36 courtyards remain to this day. Out of these 17 hofjes are open to the public and provide an oasis of calm in the heart of the city.
Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden
While one of the best small museums in Amsterdam is that of Rembrandt’s studio and house museum, what you may not know is that the iconic Dutch painter was actually born in the pretty university city of Leiden before he left for the Dutch capital of Amsterdam when he grew up.
Rembrandt was the son of a miller and today, it’s possible to visit the district where the iconic Dutch painter was born (which is around the late Gothic Pieterskerk Church). Highlights of this area include Rembrandt Bridge and the site where the painter was born. While the house where Rembrandt was born no longer stands, a gablestone marks his birthplace.
Beer Culture in Leiden & the Heineken Star Bar
Belgium and The Netherlands are well-known for their beer culture. However, what you may well not know is that the red star on the Heineken logo was quite literally ‘discovered’ on a bar sign in the centre of Leiden. Since the Middle Ages, the star has been used on many a beer logo as it represents the five elements/ ingredients of brewing; water, yeast, hops, barley, and the ‘art of brewing’.
The Café de Vergulde Kruik (the Gilded Jar Café) can be found in the very heart of Leiden and opened in the late 1800s to students, locals, and tourists alike. Home to wooden panels, stained glass windows, and a charm which can be found in few places to this day, the bar’s original logo was purchased by Heineken for the sum of 35 guldens.
Poems on the streets
Leiden is the kind of place you’ll enjoy visiting, even if you’re not necessarily a ‘museum person’ per se. While there are several interesting museums (the Rijksmuseum is home to an incredibly impressive Egyptian collection), the real charm of Leiden comes in the form of wandering along centuries-old streets. In saying that, in more modern times, poems have been painted onto the sides of many of the buildings throughout town.
Events are always happening in Leiden
Due to its status as a student town, Leiden always has some kind of event going on. If you really want to experience a local tradition, then it’s worth visiting the city on the 3rd of October. On the day, many shops are closed and people are given the day off work.
Leiden Sundays are pretty laid back
Whether you want to enjoy brunch with friends or stroll along the city’s many canals in search of filming locations and hidden gems, then Sundays in Leiden are as laid back as you like. Though most businesses maintain the same hours as the rest of the week, the city has a cool and laid-back ambience about it.
You can take a day trip to Keukenhof Gardens
The largest flower gardens in the world are that of Keukenhof, which are only open for a few weeks each year. Though most tourists opt to visit the tulips and hyacinths as a day trip from Amsterdam, if you’re looking to cut costs and enjoy a lesser-known Dutch city, then you might opt to instead visit Keukenhof as a day trip from Leiden.
During Keukenhof opening hours, there’s a special bus that goes from Leiden Centraal straight to the entrance of Keukenhof. The bus takes around half an hour. Purchase your Keukenhof skip-the-line ticket here and save on precious exploration time so as to explore the gardens.
How to visit Leiden, the Netherlands
Leiden has easy to use and incredibly navigable transport links to the rest of the Netherlands and beyond. In terms of flights, there’s a direct train which goes straight from Schipol airport directly to the Leiden Central Station.
For those looking for the perfect Dutch escape without the hustle and bustle of larger Dutch cities, then it’s worth booking a longer stay in Leiden. Though less crowded than Amsterdam, or even The Hague, you’ll still want to book your stay well in advance to get the best deals. Check the best accommodation prices and availability here.
If you want to see the nearby tulip fields from March to May, then Leiden makes for the perfect base from which to explore the wider region of Holland. And for those who want to get to know Leiden on a more local level, then this 2-hour guided walking tour will show you some of the city’s best sights during a relaxed wander around Leiden.