Bicycles and boat-lined canals are everywhere you look in this historic, beautiful city. Amsterdam?? No, Leiden, a small, friendly university “town” of approximately 117,000 inhabitants – and only a 20 minute train ride from Schipol airport. We have often returned to Leiden after discovering it in the mid-1970’s and think it is one of the most interesting and manageable cities in the Netherlands.
The easiest way to arrive is by train. The station is centrally located within walking distance of several hotels and is also the place to rent bicycles. If you exit the station and walk a couple of blocks down the main street, Stationsweg, you will find the VVV (tourist office).There you can purchase a wide variety of maps and city guides, get help finding a place to stay, find out about special events, and buy gifts or souvenirs. Next door is the ANWB, an office of the automobile association of the Netherlands. This is another resource for maps, books, and other accessories often needed by travelers. Though most Netherlanders speak English, not all ANWB tourist information is available in English. It is still worth a stop.
Leiden is a great place for those who like to walk or bicycle. The VVV can help you lay out a route that focuses on your interests. The staff is very knowledgeable, not only of the normal tourist attractions, but also of the workings of the city itself. On a recent visit we were trying to find a particular Indonesian spice to take home. With the help of the friendly VVV staff member, we had an enjoyable walk and were able to check out several stores that carried Indonesian food products. Several months later, back at home, we are still enjoying our purchase and the memory of tracking down an unusual souvenir.
Speaking of food, I would be remiss in not mentioning the outdoor market held on Wednesday and Saturday. Walking through the market, smelling the stroopwaffels (syrup waffles) being prepared and looking at the colorful produce is a sensory delight. This market has been in existence for 900 years!
Bicycling in the Netherlands is as accepted as automobile travel or walking, perhaps more so. Leiden has many dedicated bike lanes which are equipped with bicycle height travel signals. Bicycles are treated as cars and bicyclists are expected to obey the same rules. I first learned that lesson when I was reprimanded by an automobile driver for not taking the right of way.
The city’s history dates back to Roman times and includes more “recent” sites such as the church, St. Pieterskerk, from which the pilgrims departed for America. History is best experienced by walking the streets ofLeiden, occasionally stopping to look at the architecture or stepping into a church or visiting a museum.
Leiden has twelve museums.One of the most significant is the National Museum of Ethnology with exhibits from around the world, including masterpieces from Asia, Africa, and South America. A recent special exhibit focused on the Borobudur monument inJava,Indonesia. Another was a display of photographs of nomads above the Arctic Circle. The exhibits are very user friendly and well displayed. The museum also owns a Balinese gamelan. Visitors are welcome to enjoy a practice session each Sunday morning.
The National Museum of Antiquities is the most comprehensive museum of its kind in the Netherlands. It is known for its outstanding collection of antiquities from Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. Entering the museum, a visitor is immediately faced with the 1st century AD Egyptian Temple of Taffeh.That is just the beginning of your experience.
For a different kind of museum experience you might consider a visit to the Hortus Botanicus, the Leiden University Botanical Garden, in the center of the city. It’s the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands and a wonderful place to enjoy the plants as well as the tranquility of the site. It’s especially pleasant on the unusual hot day you may experience in Leiden.
Leiden offers a variety of small, international restaurants as well as typical local spots such as the Stadcafe a few blocks from the train station and across the street from the VVV. The garden at the Stadcafe is a particularly appealing place for having a light lunch or drinks and getting a sense of the city and its people. After a day of touring by foot or by bicycle, one of the things we enjoy most is sitting in a canal-side restaurant, sipping a Heineken, and simply enjoying the ambiance of Leiden, the oldest university town inHolland.
Written by Joan Malling for EuropeUpClose.com