How to spend a relaxing weekend in Leiden
Nestled in between two of the Netherlands most well knows attractions: Amsterdam and the Lisse tulip field, lies the university city of Leiden. Home to the country’s largest botanical garden, birthplace of Rembrandt, awash with interactive scientific museums and picture-perfect 17th gabled houses lining the many canals are but a few reasons why spending a weekend in Leiden is well worth it!
Top 10 things to do during your weekend in Leiden
Leiden has a long and prosperous history, one which can be seen and felt intimately when walking along the canals of old town. Many of cities historical buildings date back to the 15th and 16th century when Leiden was firmly planted on the map thanks to its flourishing textile manufacturing; renowned printing & publishing industry and the University, which still attracts leading scientific scholars.
The picturesque gabled houses in old town are souvenirs from the 17th and 18th century, when both the country and Leiden prospered, entering into the so called ‘Golden Age’. Leiden gave birth to Rembrandt in 1606, the artist was instrumental in transforming Leiden into the epicentre of Dutch artistic Renaissance.
16 Nobel prizes later and many, many scientific breakthroughs later the city has coined the motto ‘City of Discoveries’. Get ready for an education weekend. Leiden has the capacity to surprise you in ways you never deemed possible.
Boat ride on the canals of Leiden
The city of Leiden is second only to Amsterdam when it comes to number of canals and bridges. Most of the canals were built from the 17Th century onwards; some to protect the city others to manage transport and supplies to the inner city. These days they serve as idyllic passageways for locals and tourists looking to explore the city from a different vantage point. Start your weekend Leiden by getting a feel for the lay of the water and jump on a canal cruise and sail around the city. Expect to pay €12 for a one-hour boat ride.
Walk the Leiden Discovery Trail
No better way to discover Leiden than to wander around its many different alleys, peek into the curtain less windows of the gabled houses and grab a coffee on the vibrant Beestenmarkt. The city of Leiden has come up with an app to facilitate you on your gander around town, in the form of the (free) Leiden Discovery Trail. The activity is a fun thing to do in Leiden when it is sunny as it leads you through all the prettiest corners in town, explaining 28 of the most scientific discoveries that took place on these exact locations. Pick up the map at the tourist office or simply download the app.
Grab a bite to eat in the 15th century Pieterskerk
Without a doubt one of the coolest things to do in Leiden is to pop into the Pieterskerk. The church was deconsecrated in 1975 and now serves as an event location. At the time of visit (2021) there was a large swing hanging in the middle of the church, a highlight for kids and adults alike. The menu consists of a variety of small dishes, sandwiches and local beers served in an idyllic setting.
Visit one of the many museums
For such a small city, Leiden has an astonishing array of museums – each more interactive & interesting than the next. They form the perfect backup plan for a rainy day, provide entertainment for the kids and are sure to enthral even the most ardent museum critic. Make sure to set aside some time on this weekend Leiden to visit at least one. My personal top three are: Naturalis, the cities natural history museum; The National Museum of Antiquities displaying treasures from ancient Egypt & Greece and CORPUS, offering an intriguing journey through the body.
Hunt down the most exquisite hofjes ( inner courtyard or almshouse)
Dotted across Leiden are no less than 35 groups of hofjes (almshouses). The hofjes were built to provide food and shelter for the elderly and poor of the city. Historically the hofjes were paid for my rich citizens trying to buy their spot in heaven, as was the custom in the 16th and 17th century. The buildings are small in size, made out of red brick and built around a beautiful inner courtyard.
These days the almshouses no longer serve their original purpose, instead they are home to the average joe. If you are a fan of walking spend your weekend in Leiden hunting down the prettiest hofjes, consider it a treasure hunt! If you want to be absolutely sure you see them all than pop over to the visitors centre and get a map of the “Walking tour along Leiden’s almshouses”, for the price of €2.50.
Visit De Valk Windmill
The city of Leiden once contained no less than 19 windmills inside the city. These days there is but one left: De Valk Windmill. The mills dates back to the 18Th century and was built to house two miller families inside (yep, the actually lived inside). A quintessential thing to do in Leiden is to check out the windmill, at least from the outside. After a brief hiatus between 1966 and 2000, the mill is once again fully operational and used for milling. The inside of mill has been turned into a museum, which delves into the secrets of living inside the mill as well as the operating mechanism. Ticket price start at €5 and can be bought at the entrance. Please note the mill is not wheelchair accessible.
Rent a bicycle and explore the city
The Netherlands and bikes are intricately entwined. Anyone who has stepped foot on Dutch soil can attest to the millions of bikes zooming past, on any given hour of the day. As a non-avid biker with zero balancing skills, I am not a huge fan of this two wheeled modus of transport. However, the cities of the Netherlands and their inhabitants are extremely well attuned to cyclists: Large cycling paths are available on all roads, every red light has a ‘go’ button available to push within arm’s length of the cyclists and there is a healthy respect of right of way for cyclists. So put aside any fears you might have and rent a bike during your weekend Leiden. Prices start at €10 a day for a regular bike and €25 a day for an electric bike.
Go shopping for local souvenirs at the Pieterskwartier
Pieterskwartier is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Leiden and was created with the 12th century Pieterskerk at the heart. The neighbourhood is web of little streets, lined with even smaller houses that contain shops, restaurants, museums and a few hofjes. If you are looking to get an authentic little souvenir made by a local artist, this would be the place to start your search.
While the city of Leiden is very quaint during the day, it is once dusk, sets in and the canals and little streets illuminate with their soft golden light, when the real enchantment begins. There is nowhere better to be beguiled by the city than Pieterskwartier at dusk. Make some time during your weekend Leiden for an evening stroll through this neighbourhood, finish it off with a delicious meal or refreshing drink in one of the many restaurants and bars available on every corner of the street.
Check out de Hooglandse Kerk
This 15th century Gothic church is the largest in Leiden. The church was originally decorated with 24 alters, large stained glass windows and elaborate frescoes, a far cry from the stark interior these days. The 16th century saw a number of revolts in the low countries which culminated with Willem of Orange seizing control of the country. The church was transformed into a protestant church containing white washed walls and plain glass. As was common in the day it served multiple purposes: Location for mass, harbouring troops and even the storage of grain. It might not be one of the main places to visit in Leiden, but it worth a little peek if you have some additional time.
Visit the largest botanical gardens in the Netherlands: Hortus Botanicus
The Hortus Botanicus is a lush botanical garden filled with plenty of treasures from the fauna & flora world. The garden is the oldest in the Netherlands and one of the first botanical gardens in the world dating back to the 16th century. A walk around the botanical gardens will bring you by ancient bee hives (the honey of which can be bought in the on premise store), a forest of ferns, a Chinese garden complete with bamboo and waterlilies and last but not least a Japanese garden. This little garden is a testament to the long standing relationship between Japan and the Netherlands. The Hortus Botanicus is a wonderful thing to do in Leiden with kids! Expect to pay €8 for an entrance ticket. After your walk around the garden grab something to drink or a small nibble in the Hortus Grand Café.
Day trips from Leiden
Don’t allow your weekend in Leiden to confine you to the city walls! There is plenty of adventure to be had in the vicinity of the city.
Below you will find three fun day trips from Leiden, if none of these happen to strike your fancy check out these alternative weekend trips from Amsterdam to give you a few more options.
Tulipfields in Keukenhof
Every year from the end of March to middle of May the region around Leiden explodes into patches of colourful tulips. This is the bulb growing heartland of the Netherlands! There are several different options to catch a glimpse of the magical tulip fields, the easiest of which is a visit to the Keukenhof park. Keukenhof displays over 7 million different tulip bulbs each year and is a very popular day trip from Leiden. Be sure to book your tickets in advance and get there early to avoid the crowds. Keukenhof is located 19km from Leiden and is accessible by either car (25 min ride) or bicycle (1h bike ride).
Katwijk aan Zee
Should your weekend in Leiden coincide with a sunny day, consider a daytrip to the seaside. Katwijk aan Zee is a town located on the North Sea just 11 kilometres from downtown Leiden. It is easily reachable on bicycle (30 min ride) or by car (20 min ride). The little town has a scenic promenade, perfect for a relaxed walk and is home to the oldest lighthouse in the Netherlands. Weather permitting head down to one of the kitesurfing schools and learn a new skill! Alternatively chill out on the beach and enjoy some vitamin D.
A short 9 kilometres or a 30-minute bike ride from downtown Leiden lies the picture perfect Duivenvoorde castle. This beautiful medieval castle was once the home of the Van Wassenaer family, after 5 centuries it changed hands a few times before the final owners the family Schimmelpenninck van der Oye finally took up residence. To this day, descendants from this family still live in parts of the castle and on the castle grounds. Part of the castle is open to the public for a visit. Walk around the 14 grand and lavishly decorated rooms and learn all about the history of Duivenvoorde. Ticket Prices prices for adults start at €13,5 and are to be purchased in advance, online. The ticket contains an optional audio guide.
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