If you want to visit Holland, and are looking for a smaller, more compact city than Amsterdam, then Leiden is a good alternative. There’s no compromise on Dutch charm. Leiden has the largest number of canals and waterways in the Netherlands, outside of Amsterdam itself. Leiden is home to Holland’s oldest university, and the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn was born and raised there. On our recent trip to Holland we made a couple of excursions to scope out things to do in Leiden Netherlands. Here’s what we found.
History of Leiden Netherlands
Leiden Netherlands is perhaps most well-known these days for being the birthplace of Rembrandt. But the artist is just one of many notable residents. A lot of Leiden’s 17th Century streets remain intact. As you walk around you can see the same buildings that Rembrandt would have wandered past, as well as fellow Dutch Golden Age artists Frans Post and Jan Steen. It’s quieter than Amsterdam, but just as awe-inspiring.
Leiden University’s contribution to scientific knowledge is vast, and Leiden is known as the ‘City of Discoveries‘. The University is twinned with England’s Oxford University, and Albert Einstein spent time there. Thirteen Nobel Prize winners came through the doors of Leiden University, including Heike Onnes, a cryogenics pioneer who liquified helium for the first time, in 1908.
Leiden tourist attractions
For a relatively small city, there are plenty of things to do in Leiden Netherlands for families. Its museums are all more or less family-friendly. Museum de Lakenhal is a newly renovated homage to art and history. Visitors can see artworks including The Spectacles Pedlar by Rembrandt and The Astronomer by Gerrit Dou, who was Rembrandt’s first student. Rijksmuseum Boerhaave celebrates Dutch scientific and medical discoveries, and Museum Volkenkunde gathers 300,000 artefacts from around the globe. Fans of ancient civilisations will love exploring the collection of Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian artefacts at Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. There’s even a museum dedicated to the Pilgrims that fled England and found refuge in Leiden before they emigrated on the Mayflower to America in 1620.
Family-friendly museums in Leiden Netherlands
The Leiden museums most geared up for families are Naturalis, a biodiversity centre with a 66 million year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton; Corpus, a giant building shaped like a human body where families can learn about organs, how bodies work, and how to keep them healthy; and De Valk, an 18th Century windmill that has been turned into a museum.
De Valk means ‘the Falcon’. This tower windmill dates back to 1743. It’s now a museum, with some areas laid out as they would have been when the Falcon was a working windmill, and others turned into exhibition space, with models and information about the history of windmills in Holland.
Exploring the Windmill Museum
On the ground floor, original furnishings from the 1900s show what it would have been like for the miller’s family. Despite the relative comfort and cosiness of the living quarters, the millers would have lived a hard life, as we learned in a short film. They would have had very little sleep during stormy weather, and the work was often dangerous. We caught a glimpse of how dangerous it might be, when we tried to step out onto the platform around the windmill, which is open to public. It was a rainy, windy day, and D and I quickly dragged the children back inside the shelter of the windmill walls. We were taking no chances of them being blown off the side of the windmill!
On our way to the top floors, we learned that at their heyday, 10,000 windmills across Holland ground corn, made paper and acted as flood barriers. The position of their sails even served notice to the community about whether it was a time for rejoicing or mourning. The number of windmills in Holland has since dwindled to 950, but efforts are being made to preserve the remining buildings.
On the upper floors of De Valk, which had a dry and dusty feel,even though they were no doubt kept spotlessly clean, we saw the millstones used for grinding corn, and some of the millers’ tools. The children enjoyed their visit – going inside a real-life windmill is always going to be fun – and it was worth the charge of € 5,00 per adult and € 2,50 per child.
Other things to do in Leiden
The city’s 17th Century architecture makes Leiden a pleasant place just for a wander, which is what we spent a lot of our time doing. The city centre is set around dwellings with small courtyards, called hofjes. It’s well worth meandering around to try and see these little flower gardens, with houses snuggled around them. The city’s imposing 15th Century Gothic church, Hooglandse Kerk, is in the historic centre. Close by is the Zijlpoort, a 17th Century city gate decorated with lions, as well as the mythical figures of Mars and Medusa. Leiden’s Hortus Botanicus are the oldest botanical gardens in Holland, with a large collection of plants and birds from Asia, Southern Europe and South Africa.
Places to eat in Leiden
There are several places to eat in Leiden, with plenty of al fresco dining. The Zijlpoort, for instance, is now home to a brasserie with a canal view. As well as restaurants, you’ll also find plenty of nice cafes, like Bagels and Beans, an establishment with outdoor seating down a narrow side street. We decided against the insect bagel with crickets, mealworms and a grasshopper. Instead we chose delicious goat’s cheese and walnut bagels, with fresh juices, and the best iced coffee ever, according to D.
Something you must try at least once if you’re in Holland, is poffertjes. You can buy these small, rounded puffs of pancake from market stalls. They’re freshly cooked in front of you, in special pans, before being dusted with icing sugar and another topping of your choice. Nutella and Grand Marnier seemed to be popular at the stall we found in Leiden on market day (Saturday). The light, fluffy poffertjes are delicious just with sugar and butter. But the gooey extra toppings made them even more comforting on what turned out to be a rainy, but fun, day.
How to get to Leiden Netherlands
Regular trains run to Leiden station, and it’s only 35-45 minutes from Leiden to Amsterdam, or to Rotterdam. So if you made Leiden your base instead of one of the larger cities, you could easily go to Amsterdam or Rotterdam for a day. The Hague is even closer, as is Delft.
Driving in this part of the Netherlands is straightforward, with well-signposted, orderly roads. I’ve driven often in Holland, and always found it pleasant, so long as you bear in mind that cyclists have the right of way (which makes it great for cycling!). Even parking in Leiden is a memorable experience. We parked in the Lammermarkt garage next to de Valk. It’s an award-winning, 22-m deep, concrete spiral-shaped space with bright lighting and jaunty orange stripes running along the walls. It felt like the most welcoming multi-storey I’d ever been inside.
Places to stay in Leiden Netherlands
We stayed close to Leiden, in Wassenaar at Duinrell Holiday Park. Alternatively, there are several boutique hotels, B&Bs, guest houses and self-catering properties in Leiden itself. The larger Hilton Garden Inn Leiden is perhaps the most eye-catching hotel, with a collossal bronze-coloured statue of a seated man outside. It certainly grabbed our attention as we drove past on our way back to Wassenaar.
If you’re interested in reading more about things to do in the Netherlands, check out this section on our website. You’ll find other places to visit in south Holland here, and things to do in Rotterdam here. You can read more here:
You can find out more about the best places to visit in Holland, and what to do in Holland if you’re visiting with kids, on the Visit Holland website.
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