Unsurprisingly, the majority of visitors to the Netherlands flock to Amsterdam. But perhaps you are looking for an alternative Dutch city to visit or an easy day trip from Amsterdam?
Leiden, located between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, is an often-overlooked small city which oozes charm. It’s a perfect day trip from either city
To help you make the most of your time there, here’s how to spend one day in Leiden, exploring its highlights on a self-guided walking tour.
Why is Leiden worth visiting?
Visit Leiden for all the charm of Amsterdam, but on a smaller scale and minus the crowds. However, to describe Leiden merely as a scaled-down and quieter version of Amsterdam would be doing the city a grave disservice.
Leiden has endless canals along which to meander, ivy-clad university buildings and first-rate museums. With its perfectly preserved historic centre, dating from the 17th Century, Rembrandt’s home town has enough to keep most architecture buffs occupied for a week. Home to one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands – some refer to Leiden as the Oxford of the Netherlands – it has a lively student vibe.
Leiden self-guided walking tour
As Leiden is small enough to be explored on foot, exploring its highlights on a walking tour is very easy. And it can be completely free!
This walking tour is designed to guide you to the best bits of Leiden, rather than steering you to visit every attraction the city has to offer. But I will mention other places near the end of this post in case you want to take a look at them.
For example, when I spent a day in Leiden, I did not visit any of its museums. This was partly due of a lack of time but largely because it was a glorious day.
This two-mile circular self-guided walking tour of Leiden starts and finishes at the railway station. At a leisurely pace, you could complete it in as little as two hours. However, if you have the time, I encourage you to go off-piste if you see something that captures your interest.
Let’s start exploring the Leiden’shighlights. Exit the station and walk straight down Stationsweg and you will reach a bridge. To the left of this bridge is a canal known as Singel.
Singel & Molen de Valk
What you can see here is Leiden’s well-preserved moat or Singel. Dating from the 16th and 17th Centuries, Leiden’s moat ran alongside a fortified wall.
Although that wall has long since gone, the windmill (Molen de Valk) which would have sat on top of the wall remains. If you are curious about a working windmill, you can visit the Windmill Museum. The entrance ticket costs €5.
Carry on walking along the main street and you will hit the market square (Beestenmarkt). When you reach the big canal, turn right along Galgewater.
Galgewater, literally translates as “Gallows Water” and is named after the field where executed corpses were placed on public display. Let that be a warning to others should they fall foul of the law!
Today, this canal is lined with historic houseboats. Keep your eyes peeled for Carpenters’ House, which is one of Leiden’s most iconic buildings, on the right at #20.
Built in 1612 for the workers who were building the city, this quintessentially Dutch house is now a subsidised housing complex for pensioners. If you can, stick your head through the gate to take a peek at its lovely garden courtyard.
The windmill that you can see at the end of this street is a replica of a 17th Century windmill, Molen De Put (“Post Windmill”). When you reach this windmill, take a left and cross over the bridge. On the right, just after you reach the other side of the bridge, is Rembrandtplein.
One of the Netherlands’ favourite sons was born in Leiden in 1606 in a house that faced this square. Sadly, this building is long since gone but there is a plaque on the modern building that replaced it.
Rembrandt’s well-to-do family sent him first to Latin School and later to Leiden University at the precocious age of 14. However, he wasn’t interested in academic pursuits and moved to pursue an artistic career in Amsterdam at the age of 17.
A life-size statue of a young Rembrandt examining a later self-portrait takes centre stage in this square.
Continue down Weddestag. After two blocks you will hit the Rapenburg canal. Turn right to walk alongside this canal until you reach Leiden University on your right.
Leiden University & Botanical Gardens
Through a set of imposing wrought iron gates stands the Main Academic building of Leiden University.
Leiden was the Netherlands’ first university, founded by William of Orange is 1575. In addition to Rembrandt, its alumni include John Quincy Adams, René Descartes, Henry Fielding and Dutch monarchs and prime ministers. Albert Einstein taught here.
Leiden’s Botanical Gardens (Hortus Botanicus Leiden) are located at the end of the university’s courtyard. The entrance ticket costs €8.
Continue along Rapenburg canal, cross the next bridge which will bring you onto Kloksteeg and, in one block, St. Peter’s Church.
Pieterskwartier & St Peters Church (Pieterskerk)
Dating back to 1390, St. Peter’s Church is the oldest in Leiden. Originally a Catholic church, it became a Protestant church in the 16th Century.
The area around the church is charming but also important historically, especially for American visitors. Fleeing religious persecution in England, in 1609 a group of Pilgrims came to the Netherland. They first came to Amsterdam, eventually settling in Leiden in the area around St. Peter’s Church.
Make your way back to Kloksteeg and continue along this street and then along Wolsteeg until you reach Leiden City Hall. Cross the busy Breestrat, walk around the side of City Hall and you will reach Leiden’s Rhinefront Market.
Leiden’s Rhinefront Market
Here, at the place where the New Rhine meets the Old Rhine, was where the merchants of old used to unload their wares.
Today, bars and restaurants unload their food and drink to grateful customers. It is also the site of a market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Walk across the covered bridge (Koornbrug), along Burgsteeg, and up the set of steps to the Burcht.
Dating from the 8th or 9th Century, the Burcht is an artificial mound built to offer protection to Leiden’s residents in times of siege. It housed a castle from 1150 onwards.
Take the steps to walk around the top of the wall for panoramic views of Leiden.
From the Burcht, make your way along Haarlemerstraat. At Beestenmarkt, turn right to return to the railway station.
If you have more than one day in Leiden …
Here are my suggestions if you have more than one day in Leiden.
Visit the American Pilgrim Museum (Beschuitsteeg 9)
This would be my top choice if you have more time or if it’s a rainy day.
Housed in the oldest residence in Leiden (c. 1365), the Americal Pilgrim Museum is stuffed full of original features and historical items and gives you a window into the lifestyle of a 17th Century Leiden inhabitant.
The entrance ticket costs €5.
Visit the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) (Steenstraat 1)
A museum that punches way above the size of its city, the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde celebrates world cultures through displays of art and artefacts.
The entrance ticket costs €15.
Take a Leiden canal boat tour
See Leiden from a different perspective.
After burning all those calories walking, you might be ready for a relaxing canal boat tour. Two companies operate regular tours from Beestenmarkt. A 50-minute canal boat tour will cost you €10.
Why you should spend more than one day in Leiden
Leiden proves that there is more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam. And thanks to the efficient Dutch railway system, Leiden and other historic towns such as Delft, Gouda, Haarlem and Utrecht, are all easy day trips from Amsterdam.
Better still, as Leiden is very much a student city, it is affordable and has a good selection of bars and restaurants for a city of its size.
Lastly, is visiting the Keukenhof Gardens and the Dutch tulip fields on your travel bucket list? If so, Leiden is the best to place to base yourself to visit the greatest flow show on earth.
Therefore, why not stay more than one day in Leiden? You’ll be glad that you did.
Where to stay in Leiden
I stayed at Ibis Central Hotel, a 3-star hotel opposite the train station. Small room but an excellent location and clean and basic. It cost €135 per night, including breakfast and city tax.
How to get to Leiden
Leiden has fast and frequent links to other major Dutch cities. For example, it’s just 30 minutes or so from Amsterdam or Rotterdam, and a mere 12 minutes from the Hague.