Home of the country’s oldest university, Leiden is a charming town located between Amsterdam and The Hague. It attracts visitors with its old architecture, museums, charming canals and streets with lots of cafes and restaurants in the town center.
You may also be interested in my other posts about the Netherlands.
You can reach Leiden from Amsterdam city or Schiphol airport by train and explore the city by foot. Here are some of the things and activities you can see and do in Leiden.
When we visited Leiden for the first time it was a spontaneous trip and we didn’t have an itinerary. So, we just walked around the downtown exploring its streets, sights and had a lunch in one of the cafes on the central square near water.
When the weather is nice you will see the central streets full of people walking, sitting outside in the cafes and enjoying boat trips on the canals. If you arrive by train, start with Leiden’s historical city gate – Morspoort. Morspoort and Zijlpoort are the only remaining historical city gates of Leiden.
Head to Beestenmarkt – square in the city center – many boat trips through the canals of Leiden start here. Besides, Beestenmarkt is a nice central square with a big fountain in the middle and multiple cafes around it.
If you are not taking a boat tour, then from the Beestenmarkt walk alongside the De Rijn canal towards Burcht van Leiden. On the way there don’t miss Leiden Gemeenlandshuis (Government office) on Breestraat – the oldest government house in the Netherlands, and Leiden’s Weigh House on Aalmarkt street – a historical building where since the 17th century merchants came to weigh and trade their goods.
When the canal splits into two keep right and continue walking towards the city hall. Leiden City Hall (or Leiden Stadhuis) was built in the 16th century and currently is a home to Leiden’s municipality.
Next to the city hall is Koornbrug. Koornbrug is a historical bridge over Nieuwe Rijn. The stone bridge with a roof was a place where centuries ago people traded different grains including corn, where the name came from – Koorn (corn) brug (bridge).
Cross the bridge and head towards Hooglandse Kerk – a 700 year old Gothic church (which, of course, has undergone many changes since it’s been built in the 14th century).
Windmills – Molen De Valk and Molen De Put
The Netherlands is famous for its windmills and there are two you can visit in Leiden.
Molen De Valk is the 18th century windmill, which still has a working watermill. Molen De Valk is currently a museum – you can go on a tour, see inside the windmill, learn about its history and how it works. Check their website for the opening hours, entrance fees (it’s free with Museum Card) and other info.
Another windmill you can visit in Leiden’s city center is Molen De Put. Molen De Put is a rebuilt and working flour mill. The mill is usually opened on Saturdays and in the mill shop you can actually buy flour made on the mill.
Burcht van Leiden (Castle of Leiden)
Right in the middle of the city is a hill with remaining ruins of a castle from the 11th century – Burcht van Leiden. Go through the 17th century gates, up the hill and enter via the 17th century portal to inside the bricks walls. Inside you will find a walkway along the round walls with a great view to the city.
The entrance to the Burcht van Leiden is free and I would say it’s a must see landmark when visiting Leiden.
After the Burcht van Leiden take a walk alongside Oude Vest or Oude Singels, which once was the northern border of the city.
On the way there you will find Hartebrugkerk – another historical building and catholic church.
Walking on Oude Vest don’t miss Marekerk – an octagonal-shaped 17th century church. Inside the church there is a centuries old organ, which was renovated in 2009 and is fully operational these days.
Leiden has many interesting museums for you to visit and enjoy. These are just a few I would personally recommend:
Museum Volkenkunde – National Museum of Ethnology with exhibitions from around the world. It has a collection of items from Afrika, Asia, America and Oceania. Imagine our surprise when we came to Leiden and one of the first things we saw were Maori canoe and photos of haka performance (haka is a traditional Maori pre-battle dance, now performed mostly as a ceremonial dance on different occasions). Apparently, Museum Volkenkunde has an exposition on Oceania and it holds a New Zealand themed weekend once in a few years.
National Museum of Antiquities – National archaeology museum with collections of Egyptian, Greek & Roman artifacts. One of my kids’ favourites. What child would not be interested to see a real sarcophagus, walk inside the original Egyptian temple or look at the crocodile mummy in the museum?
I especially like the fact how Egyptian artifacts ended up in the Netherlands – Leiden University and its scientists helped with excavations and restoration works in Egypt. So Egypt and few other countries donated many artifacts to Leiden University.
Naturalis Biodiversity Center. A natural history museum is equally interesting for adults and children, with one of the largest natural history collections in the world. You will find rooms dedicated to dinosaurus times, life on Earth, huge collections of fossils, rock and minerals, and even a room dedicated to death (‘there is no life without a death’ they say).
Space Expo – Museum of European Space Agency (ESA). Well, Space Expo is not in Leiden per say, but it’s very close to it (15 min by car or 20 mins by bus from Leiden central station). If you are in this area (and especially if you are traveling with kids) I would recommend visiting Space Expo. Lots of interesting information, Soyuz capsule, original space suits, a model of the International Space Station and many other things making ESA Space Expo absolutely worth visiting.
Beach at Katwijk or Noordwijk
If you travel by car and the weather is nice why not go to a beach after you visited Leiden. You can go to either Katwijk town and beach or Noordwijk. Both are only about 15 minutes drive by car (or 20 minutes by bus) from Leiden, and both are much less crowded than popular Scheveningen in the Hague. Don’t expect it to be too hot on a beach in the Netherlands 😉 but it’s still nice for walks, scenery, fresh breezy air and some time away from busy cities.