It’s a shame that the Netherlands is basically synonymous with Amsterdam, when it has several overlooked cities that offer a range of exciting experiences and beautiful scenery. One of these is Leiden, a sprawling city that feels like a university town.

Home to Leiden University, this city is a center of learning, but students have always been good at finding ways to have fun. Leiden has a wide variety of restaurants and fast food options, and its nightlife offers what you’d expect of any university town around the world.

But what really sets Leiden apart is its cultural and historical offerings. It has been a university town since 1575, and it has a good variety of historical and anthropological museums that tell its history and place in the world.

Main street in LeidenLeiden observatory

This canal-streaked city is also filled with amazing architecture that showcases the Netherlands’ seventeenth-century boom.

Leiden canal

You just have to walk the streets to get a sense of the deeply entrenched past that seeps through every stone and every wall in the city. The winding streets suddenly open onto leafy parks and quaint bridges, and the main canal features impressive canal houses that’ll give you a true sense of the Netherlands’ architectural identity.

Bridge in Leiden city

Leiden park near canal

What to do in Leiden:

There’s a lot to do in Leiden, but some options are definitely more affordable than others. The first and most obvious activity is to just walk around and drink the city in. Leiden is breathtaking, and walking around is wonderfully free. Like most other Dutch cities, the center of Leiden is easily traversable on foot. The city center is only a short walk from Leiden Central, and you’ll even be able to spot a windmill before you reach the city proper.

Leiden town hall

Once you’ve sated yourself on the winding streets and charming canals, you can direct your wandering more pointedly. Dotted around the city you’ll find historic almshouses. Most of these were built in the 16th and 17th centuries to give respite to the sick and poor. They’re little hidden gems that you might stumble upon at your leisure, or seek out on your walks.

Leiden ArchitectureOld church in Leiden

As you search for the almshouses, make sure to pay attention to the sides of buildings. You might find your favorite poem painted on a wall. Literature is splashed – literally – all over the city of Leiden. You’ll find English sonnets, Russian prose and Spanish love poems. The wall poems of Leiden have something to offer any traveler, resident or casual passerby. You can find a walking tour and maps on

Wall poetry - Leiden

Museums to Visit in Leiden:

Hortus Botanicus:

If you like plants, or just generally like pretty things, the Hortus Botanicus or Botanical Gardens of Leiden should be your next stop. This is the playground of young botany students and professors with more knowledge than you could imagine, and you can visit it for about 7,50 euros. If you are a bit cash-strapped, just walking around the gardens gives you beautiful glimpses of its impressive glass structures and overflowing vines.

Hortus Botanicus

Museum of Antiquities:

The Rijksmuseum van Oudhede, or Museum of Antiquities, plunges you into the ancient world. Reminiscent of the great British Museum in London, this museum has an impressive façade that is worth a look itself. But once you go through its towering doors, you’ll immediately be faced with a transplanted temple, all the way from Egypt.

The museum proper features artifacts and information about the classical world, Romans in the Netherlands and the Near East. The museum also has special exhibits. The tickets are a bit pricey at 9,50 per person, but the exhibits are well worth it.


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Museum Boerhaave:

If you’re in the mood for something a bit more… physical, you can visit the Museum Boerhaave. This museum covers the history of science and medicine in the Netherlands, and you’ll find everything from medical photographs to astronomy instruments in its collection. At the moment, it’s closed for renovations, but it’ll open again mid-2017 when it will be bigger and better and even more interesting.

These are only a couple of amazing museums in Leiden.

Leiden town hall

When to go:

Leiden is a joy year-round, but of course, the city sparkles a bit more over the summer months. At this time, every city in the Netherlands is overrun by tourists from all over the world, so be prepared for crowds and lines. If you manage to find a nice day in Spring or Fall, that might be a better option, although Leiden is a wonderful place for a Winter stroll and a hot chocolate as well.

Windmill visible from Leiden street

How to get there:

Leiden Central is one of the big hubs of transportation in the Netherlands. It has direct links to Amsterdam and is only about 40 km away by train. If you’re driving, the route is easy to find and well-marked on the actual road.