If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam, consider exploring Leiden: a student city with the coziest vibes that is home to the oldest University in the Netherlands. In this guide, I will show you the best things to see in Leiden and how to discover the typical Dutch sights while not feeling like a guidebook-led tourist.
Here are the contents of today's post:
- 1 Getting around Leiden
- 2 Where to stay in Leiden: Cool Leiden Hotels
- 3 Best Things to Do in Leiden in Two Days
- 3.1 Take a boat tour of the Leiden canals
- 3.2 Climb to the top of the Museum De Valk windmill
- 3.3 Explore the oldest botanical garden in The Netherlands
- 3.4 Climb to the top of the old fort for views of Leiden
- 3.5 Inspect precious artifacts at Japan Museum SieboldHuis
- 3.6 Enjoy Golden Age art in Museum de Lakenhal
- 3.7 Feel like a child at the science Rijksmuseum Boerhaave
- 3.8 Learn more about the artist’s origins at Young Rembrandt Studio
- 3.9 Visit the hidden almshouse courtyards
- 3.10 Go shopping in Leiden
- 4 Where to eat in Leiden
Getting around Leiden
How to get to Leiden: Leiden is only 40-minutes away from Amsterdam if you go by train, making it the perfect outing for a day trip or a weekend. One way ticket from Amsterdam Centraal to Leiden Centraal would cost 9,60 EUR.
The city center itself is quite small, with everything in walkable distance. However, there is a special bus line that runs along the museum route, called OV-museumlijn 10. A day ticket costs 4,30 EUR and lets you travel as much as you want between 10 AM and 5 PM. Payment is by card only, or you can use your cash at the VVV Leiden which is visitor information next to the train station. Realistically all the museums are in close proximity except for Corpus Leiden.
You can also rent a bike to get around. There are OV bikes available at the station, which is great if you have a name card for your travels. If not, you can rent a bike for as low as 10 EUR a day at Easy Fiets. I explored the city both on foot and on bike and got very different impressions, so I recommend doing a little of both!
Where to stay in Leiden: Cool Leiden Hotels
Stay in a historic property at Castle Oud-Poelgeest
I explored Leiden on three different occasions, the first of which was during the winter season. That time I got to stay on the premises of a small castle property in Leiden, Kasteel Oud-Poelgeest. This castle dates back to 1640 and currently hosts guests in the revamped stable wing.
It combines the best of both worlds: a tranquil historical setting locaated just outside of the city center. It’s only 7 minutes by bike from the Leiden Centraal train station to the gates and 20 minutes away by public transport. Rooms start from 90 EUR per night.
If you choose this option, I also recommend biking around the area all the way to Kasteel Endegeest which is now housing a psychiatry ward. This will bring you close to the Corpus Leiden museum and through the Zeeheldenwijk neighborhood. You’ll pass through rich Leiden suburbs with ornate houses, little chalets, and cozy boutiques.
Stay in the heart of Leiden inside the Pieterskerk
Villa Rameau is a part of the Pieterskerk, Leiden’s main church. Surprisingly, this townhouse is very modern and has the best possible location, just a stone’s throw away from all the main landmarks. It has a 9.4 rating on Booking.com and its little wonder since the backyard literally faces the church’s facade. Prices start at 225 EUR.
Need more ideas? Other top-rated Leiden hotels include:
Hotel Boutique Hotel Steenhof Suites is located on the canals and has a fantastic 9.5 rating on Booking.com. Prices start from 115 EUR.
Hotel ExLibris Boutique Hotel is only two minutes away from the Pieterskerk and only 100 meters from the Hortus Botanicus botanical gardens. Prices start from 107 EUR.
Hotel Boutique Hotel d’Oude Morsch is very close to key museums such as De Lakenhal, Boerhave, and Volkenkunde with fantastic views over the water. Prices start from 118 EUR.
Best Things to Do in Leiden in Two Days
I was surprised by all Leiden had to offer—from its many museums to the cozy stores and atmosphere. There is plenty to keep you busy for two or three days and it’s unlikely that you manage all of the places on the list. Don’t skip out on the museum visits: Leiden has a lot to offer in that regard. Just keep in mind that most of them are closed on Monday and most museums close at 5-6 PM. Without further ado, here are the top things to do in Leiden.
Take a boat tour of the Leiden canals
Taking a boat tour in Leiden is an absolute must! Not only will you get a fresh perspective of the city from the water, but you will also learn a lot about the city’s history and its main attractions. There are several companies that offer boat tours in the very center.
I recommend skipping the closed boats if the weather allows. Go for a tour in one of the open boats instead. You will get a feel for the atmosphere and have fun passing through the many bridges.
I took a tour with De Leidse Rederij which costs 10 EUR. This is cheaper in comparison to some other companies. The departure times vary depending on the month but generally, there is a boat every hour in summer and every hour and a half during autumn.
One of the best parts of the tour is that you’ll be able to see things that a pedestrian can’t. We were sailing past historic structures like the Leiden Observatory, going through passages under bridges that fork in different directions, spotted hidden artworks and secret gardens.
The information from the guide helped me tie the things I learned in the museums together into a cohesive narrative. This is also a great way to learn more about Rembrandt’s Leiden. You will see the windmills that were owned by his family and more.
Website: https://www.leidserederij.nl/| Price: 10 EUR | Address: Apothekersdijk 5
Climb to the top of the Museum De Valk windmill
Don’t miss the opportunity to explore a still functional windmill 5 minutes away from Leiden Central Station. I absolutely loved visiting this museum. You start by making your way through the livable first-floor quarters, gradually climbing up the windmill as you learn about its history, the impact of windmills on The Netherlands and how the business came to a close.
Once you’re three floors up, you get to enjoy fantastic Leiden views from the platform that was used to operate the windmill. It’s not scary at all and the views are the highlight of the visit. If you go even further up, you will get a glimpse of the windmill’s operating mechanism from the inside.
Keep in mind that there are a lot of one-way narrow staircases, so if you have any mobility issues, it’s not the right museum for you. It is super fun, however, to feel like an explorer or a miller as you climb through the mill in search of interesting objects and see the hard work behind the classic image of Dutch windmills.
Website: https://molenmuseumdevalk.nl/ | Price: 5 EUR | Address: 2e Binnenvestgracht 1
Explore the oldest botanical garden in The Netherlands
Hortus Botanicus is a must-visit for your Leiden trip. This beautiful botanical garden was founded in 1590 as a part of the Leiden University. Regardless of the season, it’s the perfect breath of summer. I visited the gardens during the winter season and walking through the various greenhouses was a tropical experience.
Entrance tickets cost 8 EUR for adults. If you end up going on Wednesdays or the weekends, you can take a combined tour of Hortus Botanicus with a visit to the Old Observatory and experience the world of astronomy. Guided tours are running at 11:30 AM, 1:30 PM and 3:30 PM. The tours cost 4 EUR for adults, but there is plenty to do for regular visitors.
Website: https://www.hortusleiden.nl| Price: 8 EUR | Address: Rapenburg 73
Climb to the top of the old fort for views of Leiden
De Burcht is an old 12-century keep sitting atop of a hill in the middle of a public park. It’s open to the public and once you climb the staircase to the top of the wall, you’ll be able to enjoy impressive views over the city rooftops and the St. Peter’s Church in particular.
The day I chose to climb the Burcht, an initiation ceremony for the Leiden University students was taking place inside. Apparently, there are many university clubs that the students can opt in to join, and then have to complete initiation tasks of various degrees of repulsiveness in order to join the club.
I caught them on their ‘graduation day’, midway through all the hand-shaking as they climbed the walls in their dirty clothes. I found the whole thing hilarious, especially since it was just before the first study week of September (they had to get all that stuff out of the way so that the students could focus on their studies), and was only a little disappointed my university offered nothing of the sort.
Inspect precious artifacts at Japan Museum SieboldHuis
The Japanese collection of the SieboldHuis is very humble but also fascinating. It dates back to a time when Japan was just starting to open up to trade with foreign countries and The Netherlands were its sole trading partner. Even with that in mind, the Japanese still restricted Dutch visitors and denied them free movement across the country.
They also forbade sharing any maps or route knowledge with foreigners, which made information all the more valuable. The Japanese museum in Leiden was compiled from artifacts that Philipp Franz von Siebold sneaked out of Japan between 1823 and 1829 during his stay at Dejima.
The museum is supported by the Japanese Ministry of International Trade, and this is not the only place in Leiden where you can spot Japanese influences. You will also find a Japanese garden in the Hortus Botanicus as well. The plants that ended up in those gardens were also brought through trading, and the garden is now kept in memory of Siebold. The entry price is 8,50 EUR for adults.
Website: https://www.sieboldhuis.org | Price: 8,50 EUR | Address: Rapenburg 19
Enjoy Golden Age art in Museum de Lakenhal
I strongly recommend visiting Museum Lakenhal during your trip. This beautiful museum just underwent a major restoration that made me fall utterly in love. It combines the modern layout and sense of space with paintings by the best artists of the Golden Age. You will find works by all key artists, especially Rembrandt who grew up in Leiden.
It was especially nice to learn the history of Leiden through the paintings that recorded the city’s key events. One of the key events that were immortalized in paintings over and over again was the Siege of Leiden during the Eighty Years’ War. The bloody past left many traces in the city, including the festival of 3rd October held in remembrance of the terrible hunger the citizens had to withstand.
The hunger was so strong that after all the rats were eaten and the city was completely demoralized, its mayor volunteered to commit suicide in order to give his citizens something to eat. This selfless act was painted many a time and you will definitely see it throughout the museum. Nowadays, Leiden citizens can get free bread and herring on the 3rd of October in celebration.
Did you know that Leiden was famed for its fine weaving and beautiful fabrics? In fact, the city owed its prosperity to the weaving trade all through the middle ages. This is another way in which the museum blends the past and present, by using the age-old weaving techniques to create wool cloth patterns that you can buy in the museum. If you are interested in that aspect of the trade, check out the Leiden Weaver’s House which is a small museum featuring all kinds of weaves.
Website: https://www.lakenhal.nl/ | Price: 12.50 EUR| Address: Oude Singel 32
Feel like a child at the science Rijksmuseum Boerhaave
This interactive science museum is absolutely perfect for a family visit. There’s a lot of discoveries waiting to be made in the anatomical theatre, the medicine section, and, of course, astronomy and navigation. The museum keeps the visitors thinking with fun exercises such as naming the ingredients in a medieval medical kit (there are a lot of herbs), remembering which navigation tool does what, and learning about hygiene and the progression of medical sciences.
As you go through the different sections, you will get closer to modern times and will get to see the bulkiest calculators you’ve ever seen, aka the first computing machines. Oh, and not to mention working the rotary phone (a surefire way to drive the kids mad) and playing Pacman.
Website: https://rijksmuseumboerhaave.nl/ | Price: 13 EUR | Address: 10, Lange St. Agnietenstraat
Learn more about the artist’s origins at Young Rembrandt Studio
If you’re interested in learning all about Rembrandt’s path, the Young Rembrandt Studio at Langebrug 89 is a good starting point. In this house young Rembrandt spent his time learning painting from his master Jacob van Swanenburgh. Here you can learn about the artist through a free 7-minute video mapping experience.
If you’d like to trace Rembrandt’s life throughout Leiden, there is a guidebook called Rembrandt Route made by the Leiden Discovery. It uses augmented reality to guide you through the city and highlights the key spots you shouldn’t miss. It only costs 2.95 EUR and can be purchased at the tourist information center at Stationsweg 26.
Website: https://www.visitleiden.nl | Price: free | Address: Langebrug 89
The Leiden Courtyards tour is a fantastic route put together by Leiden Discovery. It includes 35 different properties, 17 of which are open to the public. The rest are either extensions or have unique facades which are interesting to see. You can find the complete list either in the booklet which is sold for 3,50 EUR at the Leiden Visitor Centre or through this page. This is one activity I didn’t get enough time for yet, but I will update the section with my preferred gardens as soon as I visit.
Go shopping in Leiden
Haarlemmerstraat is the main shopping street in Leiden. If you are looking for nice stores, don’t miss my favorite Oil & Vinegar if you are after gifts. For cozier boutiques, vintage and second-hand try the small streets like Pieterskerk-Choorsteeg. There’s an excellent store there called Second Trend filled with thrifted high brand clothes. You will find more stores in the Pieterskwartier neighborhood, such as the House of Items which is a lovely little gift shop.
Where to eat in Leiden
- Bistro Malle Jan has a delicious and very affordable menu. In fact, the staff offers a plat du jour for 10,50 EUR which is a daily special. I was here for dinner and the place was completely full, so I recommend making a reservation.
- Bistro Noroc is a cozy cafe in the heart of the Pieterskwartier, making it the perfect lunch stop after you’ve done some shopping. I recommend booking a spot for lunch as the place can be quite full. I’ve had a warm salad with grilled vegetables, chorizo and sour cream which was delicious.
- Pakhuisleiden is the perfect spot for lunch or dinner as it’s close to all the major museums, and just two steps away from the Hortus Botanicus gardens.
- Einstein cafe is the place to go if you want to grab a beer and some light snacks by the Leiden canals. There are great views to enjoy and plenty of typical Dutch side dishes. My meal here was comped by Leiden Discovery.
More things you can do in Leiden for a longer stay:
- The Naturalis Biodiversity Center is a history museum that features gigantic dinosaur skeletons, has over 40 million objects and is in the top five natural history collections in the entire world.
- Take a trip to the Meijendel, the Dutch coastal dunes, rich in birdlife, walking trails and cycling paths. They are reachable with bikes but will probably require a day trip on their own.
- Journey through the human body in CORPUS. This museum is great for families with kids, but is pretty pricey with tickets at 18,75 EUR and no kids under 6 allowed. Entrance is by certain time slots only, so advance booking is required.
- Go on a steam train ride at the Stoomtrein Katwijk. The ride costs 9 EUR and will take you on a ride along Lake Valkenburg. The ride will last 30 minutes.
- If you have the time, visit Volkenkunde – the National Museum of Ethnology. There are many fun activities awaiting, like a Maori Haka workshop. The museum celebrates indigenous peoples from all corners of the world, and will take you on a journey of ancient cultures and modern lifestyles.
These were my top things to do in Leiden! I hope this helps you plan a wonderful getaway and get the most out of all the culture Leiden can offer. What are the things you’d like to do most in Leiden? Let me know in the comments down below!
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