As we told you in our previous post about The Hague (check it out here), we are now proudly inhabitants of the Netherlands! And continuing our efforts to show that the Netherlands has way more to offer than just the hype Amsterdam, we would like to present you the lively and traditionally Dutch city of Leiden, which is just a half-hour trip from the Venice of the North.
Dating back to Roman times, Leiden is home of the oldest University in the Netherlands with over 400 years of existence. Located at the confluence of the Oude and Nieuwe Rijn rivers (Old and New Rhine) in the South part of the country, Leiden is also the hometown of one of the most illustrious Dutch painters: the globally famous Rembrandt van Rijn. With all its surrounding canals, Flemish architecture and traditional wind mills, Leiden is the perfect destination for those seeking the typical Dutch experience without the tourist crowd.
The history of Leiden revolves around the building of what would become the Burcht van Leiden (Fort of Leiden). Starting as an artificial hill built on the confluence of two branches of the Rhine, this settlement evolved to be a shell keep which suffered different sieges that defined the history of the city and of the country itself. The most famous siege started in 1573 and lasted one year during the Dutch Independence War or the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. Though ending successfully with the Dutch troops flooding the region to kick out the Spanish invaders, it brought a toll of thousands of deaths due to plagues and starvation. As a reward for its loyalty to the Orange royal family during the siege, King Willem I founded the University of Leiden, the first university in the Netherlands.
The XVII century was a prosperous period for Leiden mostly due to the booming textile industry but also due to the souring printing and publication industries. It became the second largest city during the Dutch Golden Era which attracted many artists whose works impacted the city history and turned it into the inspiration for landscape paintings. Although later on the city diminished in importance, Leiden has still a special place in the political, academic and cultural history of the Netherlands.
HOW TO GET TO LEIDEN?
As indicated in the title of this post, Leiden is about half an hour away from Amsterdam (36 minutes to be precise). Trains to reach Leiden from Amsterdam cost around 9-10 EUR and run every 5 to 10 minutes (you can purchase your ticket here). Leiden can also be reached from major cities in the Netherlands:
- From The Hague: the trip is only 12 minutes for a fare of around 3-4 EUR. Trains run every 5-10 minutes.
- From Rotterdam: the trip is around 30 minutes for a fare of around 7-8 EUR. Trains run every 15 minutes.
Leiden is a very reachable town, which makes it even more attractive. When staying for some days in Amsterdam, it's definitely worth going to visit this very Dutch town. And as a matter of fact, it will give you a breathe of fresh air far from the crowds of tourists populating Amsterdam.
PERFECT DAY ITINERARY IN LEIDEN
1. LEIDEN CENTRAAL
As the best way to travel in the Netherlands is undoubtedly by train (you can literally use the same card for the inter-city trains and for transport within every city in the country), our tour starts in the Leiden Central Station with its very modern looking façade.
2. MOLEN DE VALK
You cannot visit the Netherlands and come back without a picture of a windmill. However, in the Molden de Valk you can also have the experience of discovering what happens inside a windmill built in 1743. With its 30 meters, this symbolic windmill is the only one of the nineteen windmills built on the city walls of Leiden still standing.
Opening hours - 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday | Admission - 5 EUR
3. MORSPOORT CITY GATE
Back in the Middle Ages, when Leiden used to be surrounded by walls, it had eight access points. The Morspoort was the western access to the city and nowadays it is one of the two gates which lasted after more than 400 years of history. Although it was not the most pleasant way to enter Leiden since it was a place to display the bodies of hanged criminal, today it is a grandiose defensive monument with a patio for those looking for a refreshing pit-stop.
Heading South, across the Rembrandt bridge (a wooden drawbridge over the Galgewater canal), you can reach the Rembrandtplaats (Rembrandt's Square). Located next to the place where this famous Leiden citizen was born in 1606, it was created to celebrate the 400th birthday of the acclaimed painter from the Dutch Golden Era. The exact house where Rembrandt was born and lived until 1631 has been demolished but there is a small plaque in a building on the eastern side of the square indicating where the house once stood.
One of the most famous canals of Leiden, the Galgewater got its name from the gallows which were installed near the canal's banks to execute the outlaws of the time. Nowadays, this sinister side is no longer truth; this canal is used for rowing training and boat rides.
Built in the XIII century as part of the defensive moat system of Leiden, the Rapenburg evolved to be the most famous and fashionable canal in the city and maybe in the whole Netherlands. Flanked by imposing mansions, University buildings, museums and even the oldest botanical garden of the country, this enchanting canal was the address of rich merchants and famous faculty professors as well as Royal members during their studies' years.
7. PIETERSKERKHOF (PIETERSKWARTIER)
The Pieterskwartier is one of the oldest and perhaps the most traditional neighborhood of Leiden. It started with buildings around the county chapel of the counts of Holland built in the XII century which evolved to be Pieterskerk, a late-Gothic church dedicated to Saint Peter. As a matter of fact, the symbol present in the coat of arms of Leiden, the two crossed keys, refers to St. Peter's keys to Heaven, the patron of the city's church. The historical narrow streets of the neighborhood were home for the Pilgrim Fathers who fled England for more stability in the Netherlands before leaving for settling in America.
This cute looking street holds a bit of a eschatological past. What is known today as Langerbrug used to be a canal called Voldersgracth (the fuller's canal) during the flourishing of the Leiden's textile industry. Fullers were workers in the woolen cloth-making responsible for the step of cleansing of cloth to eliminate oils, dirt and other impurities. These fullers would stamp the woolen cloth with their bare feet for hours in large tubs containing a stinking mixture to help the process. The smell was really bad since the mixture often contained urine due to the whitening power of ammonium present in it.
9. GEMEENTE (TOWN HALL)
The town hall of Leiden stands in the same place since the Middle Ages. In the late XVI century, after been besieged by Spain, the city government decided to give the building a new imposing facade in Renaissance style to show the city's new prosperous phase. However, in 1929 a huge fire destroyed most of the building which was reconstructed maintaining the old facade with what remained of it but building up a completely new brick edifice behind it. The Renaissance facade is lavishly decorated with statues and niches with motifs about the Siege and Relief of Leiden.
At the banks of the Nieuwe Rhine, for over 900 years a street market is held every Saturday. In the past, it used to gather producers of butter, cheese, fish and cereals. As the market grew, the city council decided to build a fountain in 1693 to ensure the sellers of fish had clean water for hygiene and cleaning (as you can mark in the motifs of the fountain). The fountain would work only on market's days and some archaeologists have recently found out that the water was coming from a reservoir 10 meters high in the fort mountain of Leiden.
This is a must do if you are visiting Leiden on a weekend. Every Saturday the city centre of Leiden hosts one of the most traditional street market of the country. Dozens of stalls are lined along the canals' banks offering a myriad of products from fresh fruit and vegetables, colourful flowers and traditional cheese to clothes, fabrics and electronic gadgets. We strongly advise you to visit the traditional food trucks to taste true Dutch treats such as Kibbeling (battered chucks of fried fish with garlic or tartar sauce) or a fresh baked Stroopwafel (two thin layers of dough with a caramel syrup filling in the middle). The market takes place every Wednesday and Saturday from 9 a.m to 5 p.m in Botermarkt.
12. HOOGLANDSE KERK
Undoubtedly one of the most grandiose buildings in Leiden, the Hooglandse Kerk (Highland Church) is a Gothic church dedicated to St. Pancras with more than 700 years of history. Starting as a wooden chapel built by the orders of the Bishop of Utrecht in 1314, it followed the economical rise of Leiden throughout the centuries with great expansion works in a effort to be granted the right to have a cathedral in town. However, on the XVI century, after Haarlem getting the bishop seat and with the advent of the Reformation, the expansion works came to a halt and the church passed to the hands of the Protestants with a big riot which destroyed its inside decoration. From this period up to now, the Hooglandse Kerk had a very important social and religious role in Leiden, not to mention its influence on the city's skyline.
13. BURCHT VAN LEIDEN
With walls reaching an average height of 6,2 meters and thickness of 85 centimeters, Leiden's citadel fort is the cherry on the top (no pun intended) of our tour in the City of Keys. Walking along the battlements of this shell keep, you will have a breathtaking view of Leiden (especially the Hooglandse Kerke) and imagine all the history happening at this place: from the siege suffered by the 15-year old Countess Ada van Holland after her father Dirk VII died and her uncle Willem I not recognizing her as Countess to the siege that defined the war against the Spaniards in the war for the formation of the Netherlands. Even after all these battles, when the fort lost its military functions, the citizens of Leiden still see it as one of the main symbols of Leiden and its pride for the historical contribution to the foundation of the country.
14. Oude Rijn
After you are done exploring the Burcht Van Leiden and all historical information offered in the shell keep, you can continue north to wander along the beautiful Oude Rijn canal. The beautiful mansions flanking the margins and the classic Dutch bridges give a special charm to this canal, especially the Bostelbrug near the point where the Oude and the Niewue Rijn meet.
Ending the tour, you can check this modern piece of work of the recently renewed Catharinabrug (Catherine's Brige). This award-winning S-shap bridge is located in a booming commercial area of the city and allows pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Rijn after the encounter of the two branches of the river.
And now it's your turn to share your experience, thoughts and also tips to visit this Dutch jewel. Have you already visited Leiden? Which other attractions would you recommend? We look forward reading your comments in the section below.