Visit Leiden On A Day Trip From The Hague

Exploring Leiden:  Where Canals, Culture, And Curiosity Converge

Leiden offers the perfect day out from The Hague, as it is just 15 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!

Leiden started life as a major textile center in the 1400s, producing fine woolen 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.

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 nominal 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.  You can well imagine its focus on Dutch history, engineering, and culture, so if that’s your passion this is a must-see.  Otherwise, head south along the canal on the Kiekpad towards a modern, brick bridge.

Molen De Valk - Leiden's Windmill Museum
Morspoort Gate & Bridge (Morsbrug)

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, and then allow a couple of hours to see it.

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

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.  It is here that you can also take a lovely canal tour on the water – generally about 10 euros a head and well worth it if you have the time.

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 you can’t miss.  Continue to the right side, striding along the famous Rapenburg Canal.

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 on the odd sunny day.

Blauwpoortbrug - The Blue Port Bridge
Rapenburg Canal
Rijksmuseum van Oudheden -a national antiquities museum

From the Doelenbrug, straight down Doelensteeg to number 12, where you take a hard left at the small canal.  Follow the waterway for a city block until you see the entrance to the gardens, clearly marked (see map).   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 Garden

After an hour in the jungle, consider exploring the nearby Old Leiden Observatory.  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 elsewhere.

Not too far down on the left, consider crossing the small bridge there (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, and you’ll need at least an hour to zip through, or two hours if you want the full experience.

After being inside for so long it’s time to get some fresh air, so exit out the front of the antiquities 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.

Old Leiden Observatory

Reversing the earlier directions, return to the Rapenburg canal and continue walking down the right side.  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 or 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, down Kloksteeg for a bit and you’ll soon see a spectacular cathedral – the Pieterskerk, Saint Peter’s Church.

The cathedral is from 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.

Bear to the right at the Galerie, then straight ahead 200m
De Pieterskerk – Saint Peter’s Church
Pieterskerk 1698

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

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

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

Follow the arrow to find the secret door to the castle
The mysterious 11th century ruins of Burcht van Leiden (Leiden Castle)

Now it’s time to go back to the rail station.  When you leave the fortress rather than retrace your steps, bear right in the maze and find the main exit gate (Photo) then turn RIGHT as you pass through the portal.  Continue down Brugsteeg until you reach the Nieuwe Rijn again, a big, open area crowded with lively cafes and shops (Photo).

Now, follow the 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.

The open plaza at the Neiuwe Rijn canal
Burcht van Leiden Gate - turn right as you leave