Almost ten years ago I set sails in Leiden, a small little city, near Den Haag and Schiphol airport which has vibrant characters and charismas. I was directly in love with the city and still do. My first encounter with Leiden went even way back than 2007, when I lived there as an international student. It was in 2004, when my eyes had not only been enchanted by the lovely small canals of the Nieuwe-Rijn but also by a man, who now is my husband. However, I am not going to tell you about my love life through this blog, I am going to tell you why Leiden has to be one of your primary destinations when visiting the Netherlands.
There are many things you can do in Leiden. This city can entertain everybody, at any age. While Amsterdam offers crowded streets and canals, coffee shops and Red Light Districts stereotype tourists, queuing for the Van Gogh and Rijksmusem and sometimes moody locals with the we-are-fed-up-with-the-tourists kind of face, Leiden offers knowledge and discoveries. So when you have seen enough Amsterdam, why not go to Leiden? Here are the five reasons why you have to visit Leiden.
Ok, call me very subjective because I am an alumnus of Leiden University but I do think this is one of the most important facts about Leiden. The University of Leiden is the oldest university in the Netherlands (from 1575). The faculty buildings are spread all over the town, both in the old and new part of town. My faculty, the Faculty or Arts, is at the centre of town, right close to the Rapenburg, where Het Academic Gebouw, the building where you hold your thesis defence or doctoral promotion and where you, as a fresh graduate, can leave your signature in het Zweetkamertje (literally translated: Sweating Room), maybe next to the royals like Princess Beatrix or King Willem-Alexander or men of history like Churchill or even Nelson Mandela. Here is where I wrote mine.
Next to Academic Gebouw is Hortus Botanicus, which is the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. Since 1590 it has become a part of the University as a research garden. Because of its history, Hortus Botanicus has a large variety of plants from all over the globe. It is worth the walk on a sunny spring or summer day. Leiden has also Naturalis. It is a museum where you can see T-Rex bones, old plants and other fossils, geological artefacts and many more. Naturalis is at the other side of the town, not that far away from the train station (with car or bus. It is quite far in walking distance) and the famous building of the LUMC (Leiden University Medical Centre) of the faculty of Medical science.
Two most well-known and most visited canals in Leiden are the Nieuwe and Oude Rijn, as their position is in the middle of the city. After about ten minutes of walking from the central station to the city centre you will see the canals automatically after crossing Beestenmarkt to Haarlemmerstraat. The latter is the main street of the city, where you can shop or just wander around. At a very busy junction on Haarlemmerstraat you can see the Harteburgkerk, an iconic building of the main street. If you walk further through the Haarlemmerstraat, which is quite a long street, it will lead you to the old harbour, de Haven and one of the last remaining city ports, de Stadspoort. A very beautiful and serene place to rest after a long walk in spring and summer time.
By the way, when my husband and I recently celebrated our 10th anniversary, we stayed at the most beautiful boutique hotel in Leiden, De Barones van Leyden. It is a small boutique hotel (only five suites) with elegant characters. The interior design is perfectly renaissance. I usually don’t like that kind of style because I think it can be a little bit dodgy (sometimes). However, this was not the case at the Barones van Leyden! I really love it! We stayed in the blue suite, which has that typical Dutch renaissance room. Superb! We had a beautiful painting as the centre piece of the room, a duplicate of one of the famous paintings of Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, the girl with a blue dress. Gorgeous!
Near by the Nieuwe Rijn you can go to the Burcht, a medieval motte castle men made to eventually observe the flow and business at the Canals (Nieuwe and Oude Rijn), which during the medieval times played a very important role for the economic life of the city. From the top of the Burcht you can enjoy the beautiful view of Leiden from above. On top of the Burcht you can see the Hooglandse Kerk, a protestant church which built in the sixteenth century. Nowadays the church is not only being used for religious proposals but also for concert or graduation ceremony. I had my bachelor graduation ceremony there!
Rembrandt van Rijn
Speaking about medieval and Renaissance, one important icon in Dutch art history is Rembrandt van Rijn. He is one of the reasons why most tourists and travellers come to Leiden, as it is his home town. In Leiden you can try to walk down the history of Rembrandt throughout the city centre. It is a walking route where you can discover where Rembrandt was born, the atelier where he learned to paint and the Latin school where he went to. For more information about this route, click visit leiden.
The world bowl in one city
Because of the university, there are thousands of international students in Leiden, which means diversity. That leads to the variety of eateries around the city. Even though it is not as huge as the China Town in Den Haag, Amsterdam, New York, Los Angeles or other metropoles around the world, in Leiden you will find numerous small eateries which offer good food in large amount and low prices, pretty tempting, especially for students. Nice cafés and restaurants are also easy to find in the centre of Leiden. There are many options along the Nieuwe Rijn, just like Annie’s Verjaardag, Dende, Aan de Rijn, Einstein and many more. I have been to Dende and Aan de Rijn and I would recommend it to you. Not only you have a nice view and good vibe, they also have good food.
If you want to taste something different and crave for the variety that Leiden has why not try Bungamas, an Indonesian small eatery which serves authentic Indonesian Food. There is also another Indonesian eatery in Beestenmarkt, Selera Anda, but I would prefer Bungamas. You want to try Thai food take away? I would recommend Tapa-Thai in Stationsweg. During my study years, after having a day of internship at the Volkenkunde Museum (which is just around the corner from Tapa-Thai) I would go there and ordered some Thai green curry dish to take home. For me alone, one dish from Tapa-Thai would save me to two or three meals. In Noordeinde, a street near to Rapenburg, which is in walking distance from the university you will find diversity in culinary world, from the Irish pub North End, to the East African cuisine in Djebena.
The child factor
Now that I have a daughter, everything I do when travelling has to be put into consideration for her travelling comfort. Luckily I have a very easy kid, an explorer and down to earth one, so travelling with her (up until this point) has never been a problem. Oh, and she also loves Leiden, thanks to all the stories I have told her. However, I do promise to help you on how to entertain your child when travelling. I honestly can say that Leiden is a child friendly city. Why? Because there are quite a lot of activities you can do with your child in Leiden.
I have mentioned the Hortus Botanicus and Naturalis. Both Museums are very child friendly and they can learn tons of new knowledge there. My little red pepper is very eager on learning about geography, science and nature, so she was very excited when I said we could go to see T-Rex in Leiden (at the moment there is a new exposition about the T-Rex in Naturalis). It is a very useful place when going with children. Visit the website for further information about opening hours and special collections. In Hortus Botanicus children can learn new sorts of plants they have never seen before.
If you have a car, maybe you can go to a city nearby; Noordwijk, where you can go the Space Expo, just right next to the ESA building (ESA is the NASA of Europe). This museum is also a favourite of my little red pepper. Her bucket list (and mine) is to go to the NASA in the USA.
Because of the canals, you can also rent a boat in Leiden and go around Leiden with it. If you don’t have the skills to row the boat, just go with one of the “rondvaart” boats in de Beestenmarkt or in de Nieuwe Rijn. It’s a little bit touristic but it is not as crowded as the boats in Amsterdam. Or get around by bike. It will be quite difficult if you have small children but if you have older children you can rent a bike at the train station. When human culture a.k.a anthropology amazes you and your child then you can go to Volkenkunde Museum, which is in walking distance from the central station. They have many collections from all over the world, specifically from Asia and Africa.
My daughter would have fun even when we only went walking. I went for a walk with my little red pepper along the Rapenburg, Breestraat, Hogewoerd and Nieuwe Rijn. While walking I told her the story of me and her father in this city along the way. She would not want it any other way. But then again, maybe it is me being too positive with my child. The streets in Leiden can be a little bit challenging for those little foots. Many streets are still made from stones instead of asphalt. So be sure to wear sport shoes or a good pair of sneakers or sandals. I also would not recommend wearing heels or wedges if you want to walk through the city. If you have a stroller be sure you have a steady and firm one when travelling in the Netherlands.
So there you go, my point of view of Leiden. My hometown of the twenties. I will forever have Leiden in my heart as the city has helped me get through tough times during my study and the first few years in the Netherlands. Do you have more questions about spending times in Leiden or curious to know more tips from me? Let me know in the comments below or send me an e-mail.