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Leiden Netherlands: windmills, canals, museums and bugs

Leiden Netherlands

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.

children in Leiden Netherlands

Leiden is quieter than Amsterdam, but just as pretty.

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.

statue in Leiden Netherlands

This WWII memorial is just one of the many beautiful things there are to spot on a wander around Leiden city centre.

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.

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De Valk Windmill Museum is in an authentic building dating back to 1743.

De Valk

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.

Children playing with model in windmill museum, Leiden Netherlands

The exhibition space in De Valk included models of windmills, so visitors could learn how they work.

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!

windmill in Leiden, Netherlands

Efforts are being made to preserve Holland’s remaining windmills.

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.

inside de Valk windmill museum Leiden Netherlands

Millers’ tools were on display on the top floors of De Valk.

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.

Leiden Netherlands

Leiden is a calm, pleasant place for a wander.

Places to eat in Leiden

bagel with walnuts and goats' cheese

Bagels and beans had a wide range of bagels on the menu.

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.

poffertjes being cooked on a stall

We bought freshly cooked poffertjes from a market stall.

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.

toppings for poffertjes Netherlands

We could choose from a range of toppings.

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

children in Leiden Netherlands

Leiden is close to several Dutch cities. It was also very close to Wassenaar, where we were staying.

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:

A week at Duinrell theme park with Canvas Holidays

Windmills at Kinderdijk, near Rotterdam in Holland

A morning at Gouda cheese market

Music boxes and Old Masters at Mauritshuis, the Hague

A photo tour of Delft

What to see in Rotterdam in one day

Things to do in Leiden

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.

This post contains affiliate links. I might earn a small amount of commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Leiden in the Netherlands_ things to see and do

9 Comments

  • Plutonium Sox
    January 24, 2020 at 1:28 pm

    Ohh it looks amazing! I always get jealous of the food when I read about your trips. I need to go back to the Netherlands soon, I’ve been a couple of times but never really travelled around much. I would quite like to go on a cycling holiday there when the children are a bit older.
    Nat.x

    Reply
    • Nell
      January 27, 2020 at 10:28 am

      It’s SO good for cycling. Really safe, and lots of cycle paths go through woods and along pretty canals, oftern nowhere near roads. I’m planning on taking ours there for a cycle break some time in the next couple of years, too.

      Reply
  • Katja Gaskell
    January 27, 2020 at 9:14 am

    I think I would have chosen the poffertjes over the mealworm bagel too! I knew nothing about Leiden before reading this, it really sounds like a lovely place to visit. I really like the idea of exploring an old working windmill too.

    Reply
    • Nell
      January 27, 2020 at 10:29 am

      It’s a fairly chilled place, which made it very appealing. I’d definitely go back there for a relaxing break.

      Reply
  • Mauchi Heinert
    February 3, 2020 at 10:31 am

    Holland has such amazing places, so much to see! Thanks for sharing, I didn’t know about Leiden before reading.

    Reply
    • Nell
      February 3, 2020 at 7:49 pm

      It hadn’t been on my radar before either, but I’d definitely go back there.

      Reply
  • Lauretta Wright
    February 9, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    Crikey – what a brilliant comprehensive guide to Leiden. I loved Amsterdam so I’m sure this smaller, picturesque destination would be idea. The Naturalis museum sounds awesome and I love the idea of the Windmill. That’s what I love about reading blog posts – getting to learn more about destinations that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. Fab post Nell! x

    Reply
    • Nell
      February 9, 2020 at 7:34 pm

      Yes, blogs often give you an insight beyond the standard guide book material, don’t they? Thanks for stopping by and reading my post. x

      Reply
  • scots2travel
    March 2, 2020 at 7:22 pm

    This brings back good memories. We loved the canal boat tour as well. And the food!

    Reply

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