Leiden Postcard

How to Take a Day Trip to Leiden from Utrecht

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Leiden: The Ultimate University Town

Leiden offers the perfect day out from Utrecht, as it is just 35 minutes by train to the ancient township. Being a student city, Leiden has affordable dining, cheap activities and lively cafes in amazing historic locations as well as reasonable hotels. But don’t let the size of this little town fool you, it has a lot to offer the curious tourist!

A Brief History of a Small Settlement

Leiden started life as a major textile center in the 1400s, producing fine wool cloth for international markets. During the Dutch revolt against Spain in 1572 it endured two sieges and occupation by the Spanish army. The city was liberated in 1574 and a year later founded the first Dutch college, Leiden University, which quickly became a leading center of learning in Europe. Unfortunately, the town declined in the late 1700s due to the collapse of the textile industry and the war with Napoleon, but recovered over the next two centuries to become a hub of science, culture, and education. Recently the aeronautical giant Airbus has brought in two hundred highly technical jobs to the “city of discovery”.

HISTORIC LEIDEN FROM THE AIR (2022)

Discovering Historic Leiden on Foot

As with many Dutch towns, Leiden is best explored by foot and one can easily see the most important sights in a single day. Start early to avoid the midday crowds and plan on strolling about three kilometers to see the best stuff. There are walking tours available, costing between 20-80 euros per person depending on size, time, and excursions. The only free English one is a two-hour tour beginning at the Beestenmarkt at 10 am every Saturday. Perhaps a better option is to follow along with me, beginning at the train station.

Start Your Free Walking Tour Here!

Exit the northwest side of the station and turn right (see map). At the end of the block on your right, walk under the train overpass and down Schuttersveld until you notice the Windmill Museum (Molen De Valk). The six euro entrance fee is fair for a modest museum which can be enjoyed in less than an hour, including a visit to the top which offers a spectacular view of the city. Afterwards head south along the canal on the Kiekpad towards a modern, brick bridge.

Leiden Windmill
MOLEN DE VALK - LEIDEN'S WINDMILL MUSEUM

Beyond this bridge, you’ll find the National Museum of Ethnology, a celebration of artifacts from science, the arts, and daily life. At 15 euros per ticket (less for kids & elderly) check their website first to see if it’s your thing.

Moving on, continue south past the museum on Binnenvestgracht through a leafy brick street to a daunting city gate from the 1600s called the Morspoort, which was part of a large military barracks until the last century. The nearby crossover is known as the Morsbrug Bridge (below) – a perfect place for selfies.

Morspoort Gate & Bridge (Morsbrug)

Continue down Morsstraat, a narrow, Renaissance-era brick pathway lined with cute stores, relaxed cafes, and small businesses. After half a kilometer you’ll find yourself on the Blauwpoortsbrug – the Blue Harbour Bridge. The century-old bridge is surrounded by a wide, open area featuring a beautiful harbor with dockside shops, pleasure boats, and wonderful restaurants.

BLAUWPOORTBRUG - THE BLUE PORT BRIDGE

Go across the Blauwpoorts bridge and make a right along the waterline going south on Prinsessekade for a minute then onto the Bostebrug, a featureless bridge that provides a great view of the waterways downtown. Continue down the right-hand side of Kort Rapenbrug towards a split in the road at an old English pub and you can’t miss the famous Rapenburg Canal. (below)

The Rapenburg Gracht is a major attraction and perhaps the prettiest canal in Holland. Strolling past dozens of Renaissance-era buildings is a delight for fans of architecture and history, and makes for great photo opportunities.

THE BEAUTIFUL RAPENBURG GRACHT

Not too far down this canal on the left, cross the small bridge (Doelenbrug) to visit the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities – established in 1818. Adults pay 14 euro (w/audiotour), but offspring under 18 are free, making this a great value for a museum of this calibre. The collection is primarily ancient artifacts from Egypt, Greece and Rome with some Asian, European and local keepsakes as well. It’s a large building, so you’ll need at an hour to zip through, or two if you want the full experience.

RIJKSMUSEUM VAN OUDHEDEN -A NATIONAL ANTIQUITIES MUSEUM

After being inside for so long it’s time to get some fresh air. Exit out the front of the museum and get back on the Doelenbrug to find the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world dating from the 16th century. It’s a nice visit, but the gardens are well hidden and may be difficult to find without the map provided below.

FROM THE RIJKSMUSEUM TO THE GARDENS

Crossing the bridge, continue straight down Doelensteeg for a block where you take a hard left at the small canal. (Doelengracht) Follow this minor waterway south for another block until you see the entrance to the gardens, clearly marked (see map above).

With both inside and outside displays, the gardens are a delight in early spring, late summer, and autumn – but not so much in winter.

HORTUS BOTANICUS - LEIDEN'S BOTANICAL GARDENS

After an hour in the steamy glass jungle, consider a visit to the nearby Old Leiden Observatory. (below) Founded in 1633, this science and astronomy museum is a must-see for nerds, geeks, and stargazers – but for the rest of us, the mixed reviews indicate better experiences for a typical tourist can be found elsewhere.

THE OLD LEIDEN OBSERVATORY

Reversing the earlier directions, return to the Rapenburg canal and continue walking down the right side away from town. You’ll soon reach the Academy Museum of History on the corner – with its library of rare books, old photographs, obscure maps, and important papers from scientific reports dating back 400 years. Again, a wonderful time if you’re a collector or a scientist, but perhaps not a stop for a family vacation or a romantic couple.

Resume walking on down the Rapenbrug you will soon reach another bridge, the Nonnenbrug, (the Nun’s Bridge) Cross it and continue straight ahead leaving the canal behind, down Kloksteeg and you’ll soon see a spectacular cathedral.

STUNNING SAINT PETER'S CATHEDRAL

The Pieterskerk, (Saint Peter’s Church) was built in about 1100, but over the last 900 years the many additions, repairs, and reconstructions have changed the building considerably, creating a complex and interesting past welcomed by history lovers.  For example, this was a pilgrim’s church, and many of the congregation left on the historic Mayflower ship as it began its voyage to America in 1620.  Later, Rembrandt and his relatives attended this church regularly and many of his family members are still buried in front of the pulpit.

THE CHURCH HAS BEEN AN IMPORTANT LANDMARK FOR CENTURIES

Circle around this church to find the Galerie (below) and discover an alleyway full of delightful shops, wonderful galleries, and endearing cafes – this is Pieterskerk-Choorsteeg.

FOLLOW THE PATH TO THE RIGHT

Take your time checking out all the cute details of this charming path until you come out on Breestraat, a nice wide avenue, and once a major tram route. You might be distracted by this busy shopping district, but stay the course and walk straight. right across to Maarsmansteeg. In another 100 meters or so you’ll find yourself at an open area featuring the narrow Nieuwe Rijn canal. Cross this waterway on nearby Hoogstraat, then take a right at the next intersection by the ICI Paris XL.

This is the Oude Rijn canal, and you should follow it until you get to a small pedestrian bridge. (above) Past the bridge a few yards, you’ll take an important right turn onto Van der Starrepad, a mysterious secret alley that leads to something wonderful!

THE OUDE GRACHT - FOLLOW THE GREY ARROW

Negotiating these tight alleyways is confusing until you realize you are slowly circling something big and eventually the spectacular Burcht van Leiden (Leiden Castle) reveals itself.

LEIDEN CASTLE IS A MUST-SEE ATTRACTION

Built in the 11th century, the castle grounds are now a historic public park after time as a military fortification. Aside from its compelling history, it offers 360-degree views of the city and best of all it’s free!

Now it’s time to return to the rail station. When you leave the fortress rather than retrace your steps, bear right into the maze and find the main gate (photo) then turn RIGHT as you exit out the portal. (below)

EXIT THE CASTLE OUT THIS GATE - THEN RIGHT

Continue down Brugsteeg until you reach the Nieuwe Rijn again, a big, open area crowded with lively cafes and shops (below).

FOLLOW THE NIEUWE RIJN AT THIS PLAZA

Now, follow the nearby canal for 200 meters. When it splits, bear left and follow Aalmarkt as the waterway gets wider on your right. After a minute, go right over the Kippenburg Bridge and continue north up Apothekersdijk for 300m, then take a right on Prinsessekade and head towards the huge blue harbor bridge (Blauwpoortsbrug) you already know. Go over the waterway, bear right, and follow Stationweg for eight minutes to reach the trains.