From June – August 2015, I was lucky enough to spend some time in the beautiful city of Leiden in the Netherlands. This was the first place that I spent an extended period of time abroad when I graduated from my Master’s program in May 2015, and it maintains a special place in my heart because of the great times I had there at the start of my “journeying” phase of my twenties. I was able to visit again for about a week in March 2017 as well, while I was living and teaching the Czech Republic. In terms of lifestyle, atmosphere, and the people I met there, it is quite possibly my favorite place that I’ve visited in the world. Dutch people work an average of just 29 hours per week with generous paid vacation and social benefits, are avid cyclists who get plenty of exercise, and live in a charming, historic country with plenty of culture and a high standard of living. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Netherlands regularly ranks among the happiest countries on the planet, with UNICEF ranking its children as the happiest.
Situated on the Oude Rijn (Old Rhine) in South Holland between Amsterdam to the north and the Hague to the south, Leiden is a city full of history, character and charm. It is centered around Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands, founded in 1575. Most of the friends I made there were PhD students at the university, and I’m grateful to be in contact with them to this day. Some have called Leiden a “little Amsterdam” due to its similar charm, its canals, windmills, houseboats, typical Dutch architecture, red brick streets, and cycling culture. With a population just over 120,000, however, Leiden offers a much quieter, laid-back day-to-day atmosphere than Amsterdam. It is also much less expensive. For these two reasons, I would definitely recommend it as a base for anybody thinking of spending some time in the Netherlands.
While Leiden definitely has a relaxed feel, that does not mean that there is any shortage of things to do there. While it doesn’t offer the excitement of Amsterdam or the global importance of the Hague, it can be a great place to establish an active and rewarding social life – especially for young people. It is city with a long and interesting history to explore, and an intellectual center full of world-renowned museums. It has tons of great restaurants – many of which are inexpensive. It is an extremely bike friendly city, and plenty of interesting outlying areas are accessible by bike – including the beach in the summer. And thanks to the Netherlands’ excellent public transportation, Amsterdam is only 35 minutes away by train; the Hague, only 20 minutes.
One further point: if you are native or confident speaker of English, the Netherlands is one of the easiest places in the world to travel. 90% + of the population is able to converse in English, and most are fluent. So, while it can be nice to learn some Dutch for the sake of courtesy or personal enrichment, you will be able to function very easily in English. Restaurant menus, street signs, public transportation schedules and the like are often written in Dutch and English. When they are not, there is virtually always somebody available to translate.
Without further ado: my comprehensive guide to Leiden!
Step 1: Get a bicycle!
I strongly advise you to buy or rent a bicycle for the duration of your stay in Leiden. It is basically a requirement to properly experience the country and its culture. Cycling is so ingrained in Dutch life that I have even seen a man who required supplemental oxygen riding around on a recumbent bike. I have also seen people transporting large objects such as pieces of lumber and small appliances in one hand or in their bike baskets. Likewise, rain or otherwise inclement weather is not much of a deterrent for a Dutch cyclist determined to get from point A to point B. Bike lanes abound throughout the country, and where they don’t, bikes have the de-facto right of way. They are widely available, inexpensive, and easy to sell when it comes time to leave. If you’ll only be in town a few days, renting will cost you 10-15 euros per day.
You can cover a lot more ground on your bike than you can on foot, and if you are the type who likes spontaneity like I do, cycling is a great way to discover the city naturally at your own pace. It was exploring the city by bike – sometimes with the help of friends, but often on my own – that I discovered much of what you see detailed below. A bike also opens the possibility of excellent “road trips” in the area!
Check out Budget Bike if you are looking to buy, or Easy Fiets for rentals. If you plan to be there for a month (or more) Easy Fiets is probably your best option, since you can “lease” a bike for 10-15 euros a month, depending on the model.
Cruise the Rhine and its canals
A great way to get the lay of the land when you arrive in Leiden is to take a cruise. It is inexpensive (10 euro), pleasant, and will help you to understand the layout of the city, and well as rough outline of its history and some of its important sites. It takes about an hour to be transported around the whole canal system of the city. You will be given a headset that will give you a comprehensive tour of the city in your native language. Nine languages are available as of 2018, including French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian. Cruises run every half hour between 10:30 AM and 4 PM each day. For more information, click here.
Take a walk down Haarlemmerstraat
Haarlemmerstraat is Leiden’s main shopping street. While this may not sound exciting on the surface (at least it wouldn’t sound exciting to me), this part of town has a certain charm about it, and it’s more than just your usual chain stores. Along this street are several nice cafes to have a coffee and a snack, and some great, cheap lunch places. Have a nice bagel sandwich with a coffee at Bagels & Beans or – if you are in the mood for a “grab and go” – get yourself a cheap, delicious kebab or falafel from one of the many shops along the way. Halfway down the street is the striking Harteburg Church. Check its website for opening hours: at the time of writing, it is open on Mondays from 12:30-4:30 and all other weekdays from 8:30-4:30.
Remember to park your bike for this one. Haarlemmerstraat is a pedestrian only street.
Leiden is a major intellectual center of Europe, and its many museums do not disappoint: especially for a history buff like myself.
- Museum Volkenkunde (Museum of Enthnology): This fascinating anthropology/archaeology museum will give you an of fascinating cultures civilizations on every continent. The “Buddha room” is a must-see section of the museum, with various works of Buddhist art and sculpture from all over Asia – much of it ancient. In addition to the interesting exhibitions, this museum features an excellent cafe and library as well. Entry is a bit pricey compared to some other museums in Leiden, but the quality of the exhibitions really makes it worthwhile. Entry for most adults is 14 euro and 6 euro for students. At the time of writing, there is a GroupOn to get in for 8 euro. More information available at TripAdvisor.
- National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden): This fascinating museum is one of the best windows into the ancient world I have encountered in my travels. Full of artifacts from Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and much more, this museum features periodic exhibitions on various themes. At the time of writing, there is a particularly intriguing exhibition on the concept of time in various civilizations which I truly wish I was in town to see. 2018 happens to be the museum’s 200th anniversary year, so there is a special light show on the museum’s history for visitors to enjoy. More information on the museum is available at its website.
- Leiden American Pilgrim Museum: As it turns out, Leiden has an interesting place in American history as well. Before heading off the New World to establish Plymouth colony in modern-day Massachusetts, the English separatists known as the pilgrims made their home in Leiden. This was because the Netherlands was a bastion of religious toleration in the 1600s, while in England, the pilgrims met with persecution for practicing their faith. Eventually, the pilgrims decided to leave Leiden because they feared becoming too Dutch and losing their British cultural heritage. This small museum will give you some insight into the life and times of the Pilgrims and their journey to Leiden and eventually the New World. The entry cost is only 5 euros. More information about the museum is available at its website and TripAdvisor.
- De Valk Windmill Museum: Windmills are iconic in the Netherlands, and inside this unmistakable piece of Leiden’s skyline is a museum that brings you back to a bygone era in the Netherlands, when early windmills brought the country great prosperity. You can go outside near the top of the windmill for an excellent panoramic view of the city. Do note that the stairs in the building are steep and there is no elevator. At times it is more like climbing a ladder than a stairwell. If you anticipate trouble with this, I recommend skipping this attraction. But if you’re up for it, it’s only 4 euro and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. More information on TripAdvisor.
Visit De Burcht and have a meal or drink nearby
As far as European castles go, De Burcht is nothing to write home about. It’s a small fortification that offers some nice views of the city and a place to go for a short walk or just relax and have a picnic with friends. Built in the 11th Century, it is a Leiden landmark, and no visit to Leiden would be complete without at least stopping by. There are several small restaurants and cafes in the area that offer a nice outdoor atmosphere for a meal and a drink as well. It is also in walking distance to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum (see above) and Hooglandse Kerk, so it would be a good idea to try to see all of these on the same day.
Pick up some fresh vegetables and delicious cheese at De Markt
Leiden’s street market (“De Markt”) is a 900-year-old tradition, and takes place every Wednesday and Saturday in the city center from 9:00-17:00.
The Dutch are not especially well known for their cuisine, but their cheese – particularly the aged Gouda – is both world famous and out of this world. I ate entirely too much of it while I was there, and I don’t regret one second of it. I recommend stopping by De Markt for this reason alone.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to stop by. You can get cheap, delicious fresh vegetables here, as well as pickled herring, or a nice stroopwaffel. The best reason to go, though, is simply get a taste of a Dutch tradition that long predates the world of supermarkets we live in today. While there certainly are supermarkets in the Netherlands, these sorts of street markets are still a major part of the daily life of the people here. More information about the market is available here.
Explore the Kagerplassen (Kaag Lakes)Leiden may be a mid-sized city, but it is only a short bike ride away from some of the most beautiful countryside of South Holland. A number of quaint villages are located on the Kaag lakes, including Warmond, which I had the opportunity to visit. Pick a sunny and breezy afternoon to cycle along the windmill, tree, and flower lined trails to the various lakes. Once you arrive at the lakes, you will see that they are a popular destinations for locals with boats, as well as those interested in various water sports. Of course, a simple swim and picnic would be as nice a way to spend your day on the lakes as any, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.
If you are an adventurous cyclist, this cycling route will give you a wonderful tour of the entire region. It takes about 5 hours to complete and will start and end in Leiden’s city center. Personally, I recommend taking a bit more time, stopping for a while along the way at the places that most interest you, and having a more leisurely pace so that you can really take it in. Of course, that is my travel style and yours may differ. You really can’t go wrong regardless of how you choose to approach it.
The Kagerplassen is connected to Leiden’s Oude Rijn canal system, so it is possible to journey here from the city by boat as well. I’ve visited both ways, and recommend doing both if you have the time and ability to do so. Though I have never rented a boat to sail here and have instead hitched a ride on a friend’s boat, I don’t have experience with boat rental companies. I did, however, find this one, which seems to have a good reputation.
If you have a boat, rent a boat, or make a friend with a boat, the following views and serenity await you!
Cycle to the beach at Katwijk
Katwijk is a wonderful little seaside town accessible in a leisurely half hour/forty-five minute bike ride from Leiden. It is located about 9.6 km (less than 6 miles) northwest of Leiden, and you will have the right-of-way for the entire journey with bike paths and bike lanes. It is much less busy than the Hague’s popular Scheveningen beach, which is of course worth visiting in its own right. Kaywijk, however, offers a nice, easily accessible day on the North Sea. Enjoy the sea breeze, sunshine, local food, and overall good, relaxing vibes. Just don’t expect the water to be warm!
- Eat some Greek, Turkish, and Mediterranean food: I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and was surprised to find that Leiden offers an abundance of selection of these cuisines, to appeal to all tastes and price ranges. If you are looking for a cheap souvlaki or gyros, Canteri’s is a great choice. Their $3 pita sandwiches were a staple for me when I lived in Leiden. If you prefer the Turkish take on things, you will appreciate the abundance of doner kebab places throughout the city as well. Although its name escapes me now and I can’t find any information about it online, there is an excellent Turkish grocery store just around the corner from where the canal cruises begin. It is right across the street from the “Duke of Oz” Australian pub: another place worth checking out, especially if you would like to meet some expats
- Try Surinamese Food: Have you ever heard of Suriname? I must confess: I hadn’t heard of it either before I came to the Netherlands. It is a former Dutch colony in South America, and Dutch remains the official language there. The diverse, eclectic culture of the country combines Dutch, African and indigenous elements with the customs of large communities of East Indians and Javanese, among others. The result of this unlikely meeting of cultures is one of the more interesting cuisines I have ever tasted! The easiest way to describe it to someone who has never tasted it is “something between Indian and Mexican,” but that is really an inadequate description. It is just one of those things that you have to try! Luckily, Surinamese food is very cheap and generally available to the lunch take-away market. There are places all over Leiden and you can’t go wrong picking one at random. Roti Huis is as good a place as any to start.
- Try Indonesian Food: Indonesia is another former Dutch colony, and its delicious cuisine has really caught on in the Netherlands as well. Unfortunately, you will pay a pretty penny for it in the Netherlands (approximately $15-20 per meal), which will make you sad if you’ve ever visited Indonesia and spent $3 for something better and more authentic. Still, Indonesian food is delicious, and I recommend giving it a try while you are in town: especially if you have never tasted it before. Sumatra House is a good option, but again, it would be hard to go wrong.
- Very Italian Pizza:Being from Northeastern Pennsylvania, I grew up with excellent pizza all around me and have very high standards! While the name “Very Italian Pizza” (and yes, they do sometimes go by the name “VIP” as well) is admittedly comical, this is actually a very nice Italian style pizza place. Don’t expect New York style pizza by the slice, but do expect a reasonably priced opportunity to get your pizza fix. I was actually introduced to this place by Italians that I stayed with during my time in Leiden. Of course, they never advertised it as being the same as pizza back home, but they did give it their hearty endorsement as far as Dutch pizza options go. More information here
Bars & Nightlife
I will preface this section with a simple statement: Leiden is not Amsterdam! Do not expect a lot of excitement here. If, however, you are like me, and enjoy a leisurely beer under the stars, next to a canal, along with great conversation with fun and interesting people, then a night out in Leiden is for you. Here are a few local places that I recommend checking out.
- Einstein: Einstein’s is a Leiden staple, and great place to spend a warm summer evening at a table near the canal. It’s mostly a young crowd, consisting of university and graduate students from Leiden University; but not exclusively so. It is a laid back atmosphere and a good place to chat and meet people. Like many bars in Leiden and the Netherlands in general, it is also open at lunch time, serves coffee, and doubles as a cafe. They also serve food, although it is nothing a write home about. More information here.
- Lemmy’s: Biercafe: Named for the founding bassist of the 80s rock band Motörhead, this spot offers a great selection of more than 100 beers and 50 whiskies in a laid-back rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere. The walls are covered with posters and records for 70s-80s rock bands and artists, and this is generally the music that is playing when you visit. I’m not a big fan of Motörhead, but I still really enjoyed the music selection as a fan of the rock music of that era. More information here.
- Stadsbrouwhuis: This is another craft beer hub that also has a great food menu. Out of all of the major bars in Leiden, I recommend having dinner at this one the most. Add to that its atmosphere of being right on the canal, and you’ve made a great choice for a night out. More information here.
- Vrijplaats: Literally meaning “free space” in Dutch, Vrijplaats is a cultural center of sorts. If you like live music, this tiny venue offers and intimate atmosphere to take in some of the local bands and artists. When I visited here in 2017, I think I paid about 5 euros to see 10 different artists over the course of about 4 hours. It is generally an indy/folk/rock sort of vibe, but there were musicians of various styles suited to a variety of tastes. They also provide a forum for art exhibitions, public debates, film screenings, and more. Overall, my visit here was one of the more memorable nights of my return visit to Leiden and I highly recommend checking it out. More information here.
The Bottom Line
Leiden is a wonderful place to visit, and though I’ve only had the opportunity to spend a few months there, I can imagine it would be a great place to live as well. Amsterdam and The Hague get all the love when it comes to traveling to the Netherlands, but any traveler would be remiss if they overlooked the charming city of Leiden. If you plan to visit, I hope you find this guide helpful. If you hadn’t planned to visit, I hope this guide has inspired you to do so!