Day Trip to Leiden, South Holland

Leiden, Netherlands, University town, old city, canal, boats, reflections

Elisabeth Pollaert Smith / Getty Images

Leiden calls itself the "city of discoveries", a reference to the centuries of scientific achievements that have taken place in this South Hollandish city of 120,000; some of the Netherlands', and the world's, best thinkers have trod these streets, from Nobel laureate H. Kamerlingh Onnes to Albert Einstein. For visitors, too, it's a place with much to discover: some 20 museums, several historic churches, a variety of world cuisines, and more can keep tourists busy for days on end.

How to Get to Leiden

  • By Train - Between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., four direct trains per hour connect Amsterdam Central Station with Leiden Central Station; travel time is about 30 minutes. For schedule and fare information, see the Dutch Railways (NS) web site.

What to See and Do

  • De Burcht - Take in a panoramic overview of Leiden's historic skyline from De Burcht, a hilltop fortress where the two branches of the Rhine meet in the center of town. In architectural terms, De Burcht is a shell keep, a stone fortification that circles an artificial hill (or motte), like that of Windsor Castle in the UK. Placards posted on the inside perimeter of the 12th-century fortress point out the essential landmarks of Leiden. 
  • Churches of Leiden - Leiden has more than its fair share of marvelous churches, chief of which are the late Gothic Pieterskerk and Hooglandse Kerk. Dedicated to St. Peter - the patron saint of Leiden, whose keys adorn the city coat of arms - the 16th-century Pieterskerk was the church of Separatist pastor John Robinson, 35 of whose followers set sail aboard the Mayflower to found Plymouth Colony in 1620. The Hooglandse Kerk is a 15th-century cruciform basilica dedicated to St. Pancras.
  • Leiden windmills - Two noteworthy windmills stand in central Leiden. Molen de Valk is both an active flour mill and a windmill museum; visitors can find wind-milled flour and other local products at the museum shop. Molen de Put (pictured), also open to the public (Sat., 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.), was a favorite subject of Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt's birthplace is just a few meters south on Weddesteeg; while his childhood home has since been demolished, there is a square in his honor (Rembrandtplaats) on the other side of the narrow alleyway.


Leiden's 20-odd museums - most of them located in the compact historic center - span a broad variety of topics, from arts and culture to history, to nature and science.

  • Art and Culture Museums - While the Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden's municipal museum, draws visitors in search of Old Masters and other classic Dutch art, its architecture and interior are attractions in themselves: this former clothmaker's hall is filled with relics from the mercantile activity that took place here in its 17th-century heyday. Just a few streets over, the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde explores world cultures in its permanent collection and immensely popular temporary exhibitions, which are coupled with thematic activities for adults and children alike; its 2010-2011 exhibit on the Maori culture of New Zealand was a smash hit that drew constant crowds. The smaller SieboldHuis, a personal favorite of mine, narrows its focus to just one rich culture: this former residence of Philipp Franz von Siebold, a physician, and consummate Japanophile, holds the late scholar's personal collection of Japanese artifacts, from tea ceremony implements to maps and prints.
  • History Museums - Somewhere between art and history is the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the national museum of antiquities, whose collection rivals that of Amsterdam's Allard Pierson Museum. The museum's whirlwind tour of ancient cultures starts with the walk-in Temple of Taffeh from ancient Nubia on the first floor and even includes a bit of Dutch prehistory. For a dose of American colonial history, head to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum; situated in a mid-14th-century house - the oldest in Leiden - its period interior resembles the homes that the Pilgrims left aboard the Mayflower for a new life in Plymouth Colony.
  • Nature and Science Museums - Children pour in from all over the country to see Naturalis, Leiden's natural history museum; as an adult, however, I can attest that it's just as much fun for us. Hundreds of taxidermied animals form the basis of the museum's permanent exhibit, but it's nowhere near as morbid as it sounds; rather, the museum is filled with the sound of ooh's and aah's as visitors admire animals from the ordinary to exotic, "captured" in the most lifelike poses. For live nature, the lovely Hortus Botanicus has a variety of trees, plants and flowers in its premises behind Leiden University. The university itself has been associated with countless scientific discoveries since its establishment in 1575; the Museum Boerhaave, named after scientist Herman Boerhaave - active in 16th-century Leiden - chronicles the history of science and medicine in the Netherlands since 1600.

Where to Eat and Drink

Like a characteristic student city, Leiden has a wide variety of restaurants - in terms of both price and cuisine - and a plethora of cafes where students can perch for hours with their textbooks (or laptops) and a cup of coffee. Local specialties include Leidse kaas (Leiden cheese), spiked with cumin and cloves and available at the semi-weekly open-air market, held Wednesdays and Saturdays on the Nieuwe Rijn.

  • De Catwalk (Steenstraat 30) - Diners can take in the lovely quay-side view at this cafe and luncheonette, located just opposite the site where Leiden's canal tours depart; soups, sandwiches and assorted snacks feature on their varied menu, but the real draw is the espresso-based drinks and rich Italian hot chocolate (in season).
  • Djebena (Noordeinde 21) - This Eritrean rarity stands out even on Noordeinde, a row of restaurants which includes some of the best Thai (Sabai Sabai), Indonesian (Surakarta), and British pub food (North End) in town. Come with friends and order a sampler of East African stews, served atop their irresistible injera, a fermented flatbread made of teff flour.
  • Eethuis Ak Al (Stationsweg 18) - Ak Al's tiled interior is about as informal as a typical kebab shop, but the food - made-to-order lahmacun (Turkish pizza), hearty soups and stews, and the best döner kebab in Leiden - far surpasses that of its competitors.
  • De Gaanderij (Nieuwstraat 32) - French-influenced cuisine at student-influenced prices is the house specialty at De Gaanderij, whose menu focuses on refined meat and seafood dishes; however, I loved the puff pastry-enrobed camembert with berry preserves, served atop risotto. Connected to the restaurant is the bar De Branderij, whose Art Nouveau-muralled walls à la Alphonse Mucha are worth a visit in themselves.

Yearly Festivals and Events

  • Leids Ontzet (October 3) - The Spanish occupation of Leiden ended in 1547, and Leidenaars celebrate the occasion to this day with a raucous carnival that draws crowds from the entire vicinity.
  • Leids Filmfestival (annually in October) - This yearly film festival features a cross-section of mainstream blockbusters from Hollywood and international film industries, as well as indie and art-house flicks, in Leiden's multiple movie theaters and even its museums.
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