Having visited Amsterdam and Rotterdam more times than I can count, we made the decision at the beginning of the year that we would visit some of the smaller cities and towns in The Netherlands and after we visited Utrecht back in February, we were eager to see more. Therefore, we decided that Leiden, in South Holland, would be the next on our list. We took the overnight ferry from our hometown, Hull in the north of England across the North Sea to The Netherlands.
We only had just over 24 hours to explore what Leiden has to offer as a mini-break destination, so we hit the ground running the second that we arrived. We were not disappointed. In fact, it was perfect for a short visit. Therefore, if you are looking for your next European weekend break, Leiden should be a hot contender and here are 10 reasons why we loved it and why you’ll love it too.
As mentioned we arrived by ferry into Europoort, we then jumped on a bus to Rotterdam and then a train, which cost a mere €7 from Rotterdam to Leiden. It might sound like a hassle but it was super easy and only took around 1 hour. If you have ever taken a train in The Netherlands, you will know that they are always on time, clean and reasonably priced, especially compared to trains in England. The train is also a great idea if you fly into The Netherlands. As the country isn’t that big, the train journey from any of the airports, Schipol, Eindhoven etc, won’t take too long, between 25 mins to 2 hours at the most. And if you live in mainland Europe or are travelling around it, why not jump in the car, or hire one, and head to Leiden for a great long weekend.
The City’s History
Leiden has been a university city since 1575 and today university buildings belonging to Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands which is twinned with Oxford University and has thirteen Nobel Prize winners in its alumni, and Leiden University Medical Center can be found across the city. For more than four centuries, Leiden has been considered as one of Europe’s hubs of science with many important scientific discoveries being made in Leiden, in fact, the city’s motto is ‘City of Discoveries’. It’s not just science that Leiden is known for but also art as Rembrandt, one of the world’s most famous painters, is one of the city’s most famous sons. And Leideners are very proud of that fact, with streets, buildings bridges and even hotels in the city being named after him.
The Non-Touristy Vibe
Maybe it’s because there are so many students in the city, they simply outnumber the number of tourists or maybe the weekend we visited, at the end of October, there simply weren’t many tourists or maybe it’s just because Leiden genuinely has a very laid back and non-touristy vibe. It was lovely to walk around and see the city without a lot of gimmicky tours and attractions that people often feel that they have to do, that you often see in larger, more popular cities. Again, maybe because of the time of year we visited, but Leiden was busy, but not too busy, making it a pleasure to wander around without having to battle with crowds of people.
Choosing the right accommodation, as with any other city it super important. As Leiden is a small walkable city, I would highly recommend choosing a hotel in the city centre, especially if you are only visiting for a short period of time. I personally love walking out of my hotel into the hustle and bustle and maximising the time I have available for exploring and sightseeing. Therefore, we loved Boutique Hotel d’Oude Morsch, which is located in the former guardhouse of the barracks. It has 18 rooms all which are different and offer a unique atmosphere. Ours (number 3) was fantastic – located on the ground floor, modern, large and quirky with everything we needed for a great stay – wifi, flat screen tv, tea and coffee making facilities and a super comfortable bed. The breakfast at Boutique Hotel d’Oude Morsch was also amazing, it consisted of a buffet, fresh juices, hot drinks and eggs to order – I can personally recommend the warm croissants, yum!
Great Places to Eat
As we arrived mid-morning by the time we had dropped our bags off at the hotel and wandered around for a little while to get our bearings, it was time for lunch. We headed to Wagg restaurant located right in the heart of Leiden and as the sun was shining, even though it was late October, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to dine al fresco. The building, the city’s old weighing house, is beautiful and one that you really can’t miss as you wander the streets. The food and beer, there were loads to choose from and our waiter gave us some great tips about which ones to try, were great and it was the perfect place to hang out for an hour or so watching the world go by.
After an afternoon of sightseeing, we got showered and changed and headed back out on to the streets of Leiden to see what a Saturday night in the city had to offer. We headed to Stadsbrouwhuis, City Brewery for a few drinks and dinner. Luckily we had a table booked as by the time we arrived at 7.00pm it was standing room only. With so many draft beers on tap, choosing one was a tough choice but after trying a couple each we decided on our favourites and stuck with those all evening. Our food, Dutch steak and chilli, was nice, however, the focus of this place is very much the beer on offer and its popularity was evident.
I love a city that has a great cafe culture and there is certainly one in Leiden and I think that’s a lot to do with the number of students in the city. I don’t think we passed one without seeing at least half a dozen people tapping away on their laptops whilst enjoying a drink in the comfort of one of the cosy cafes in the city. As I am not a coffee drinker I always try to hunt down cafes that offer more than just coffee-based drinks. Therefore, when I came across CHCO Cafe by the Chocolate Company, located on Haarlemmerstraat I was in my element and it certainly did not disappoint. From chocolate cake to chocolate fondue and not forgetting iced chocolate and hot chocolate made with ‘hotchocspoons’, basically a wooden spoon with a lump of delicious flavoured chocolate on it which is stirred into a cup of boiling water – it really is a chocolate lovers paradise.
Aside from a pair of clogs, bikes and tulips, does anything say Holland more than a windmill? Even though I have visited The Netherlands more times than I can count, I have only ever had the pleasure of seeing an authentic windmill through the window of a bus and train, never up close. Therefore, when I saw the Molen de Valk, also known as “the Falcon,” within 2 minutes of arriving in Leiden I knew I was going to love it there. It was built in 1785 and became a municipal museum in 1966, containing a collection of objects used in the milling process.
There is also another windmill in Leiden – Molen De Put, which is located right outside the Boutique Hotel d’Oude Morsch where we stayed. It appears that is only open Saturdays and as we were there on a Saturday we were lucky enough to be able to see the sails rotating. Although not as big as the Falcon, it is still as intricate and beautiful.
Sooo Many Museums
If you are looking for a city with more museums than you can shake a stick at, then Leiden is the place for you. With 13 museums all within walking distance, there really is one to suit everyone’s taste. From CORPUS ‘journey through the human body’ right through to the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and of course not forgetting the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, I’m sure at least one of them will peak your interest. As our time in Leiden was short we only had time to visit one and we opted for the Museum Volkenkunde (adults tickets cost $14 each) – which was awesome and located a stone’s throw from our hotel. We wandered through the exhibits, which are divided into continents and show thousands of artefacts from throughout the years from that specific continent. We also visited the temporary ‘Cool Japan’ exhibit which displayed things which are, you guessed it, cool from Japan.
The Beautiful Waterways
As with most cities in The Netherlands, you will find waterways running through Leiden. In fact, behind Amsterdam, it has the most canals and bridges, 88 to be precise. Therefore, we had to take a boat trip during our visit. We headed to Blauwpoortsbrug, one of the major bridges in the city, and picked up our tickets from the shop, which is also the starting point, in the middle for our Bootjes en Broodjes canal tour (adult tickets cost $10 each). Our tour lasted 50 minutes, we passed a lot of Leiden’s landmarks and we got to see the city from a great viewpoint. Our tour guide gave commentary in both Dutch and English which was great as we learned about what we were seeing as we passed it. Unfortunately, it was raining when we took our tour, therefore, the roof and sides were up on the boat meaning photographs were kind of impossible, but I didn’t mind as it was nice to just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Even though there isn’t a main square in Leiden, where you would normally find a market, there is still a market in the city every Wednesday and Saturday. As we visited Leiden on a Saturday we got to see it for ourselves and I can confirm it is massive, no wonder it is considered to be one of the best in The Netherlands. Located in the area around the Nieuwe Rijn, you can find vegetables, fish, fruit, flowers, clothes and delicacies from all corners of the world, basically everything you could ever think of. A mistake we made was that we had lunch before we visited the market, we really should have gone hungry as every food stall offered samples – from locally produced cheeses to “haring” which is raw herring served with chopped raw onion and not forgetting “lekkerbekje” which are pieces of fried fish. Even though we didn’t try anything at the time, I did grab a packet of stroopwafel’s to enjoy when I got home and I’ll be honest they didn’t last long. If you are planning on hitting the market or any shop in Leiden, the stance on plastic bags in The Netherlands is the same as it is in England and you will be charged for them. Therefore, don’t forget your bag for life, travel bag, fold down bag etc.
We had a fantastic break in Leiden, proving that it’s not just the major cities that are worth visiting. It had everything we needed for a great weekend break and we would certainly recommend visiting and experiencing everything it has to offer for yourself. It is the perfect place for a chilled out short European getaway.