Visit Leiden on a Day trip from The Hague

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 by the Spanish army. The city was liberated in 1574 and a year later founded the first Dutch university, which quickly became a leading center of learning in Europe. The town declined in the late 1700s due to the collapse of the textile industry and the war with Napoleon, but recovered in the 19th and 20th centuries as 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 10am every Saturday.  Perhaps a better option is to follow along with me, beginning at the train station below.

Start Your Free Walking Tour Here!

Exit the northwest side of the station and turn right.  At the end of the block on your right, walk under the train overpass pass and down Schuttersveld until you notice the Windmill Museum (Molen De Valk).  The nominal six euros 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 it’s 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.

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 the Morchpoort, a picturesque city gate from the 1600s that leads directly to the Morschbrug bridge –   a perfect place for selfies.

Then turn right around and continue down Morsstraat, a narrow, Renaissance-era brick pathway lined with cute shops, relaxed cafes, and small businesses. After half a kilometer you’ll find yourself on the Blauwpoortsbrug – a wide, open area featuring a beautiful harbor with docks, boats, and restaurants.  It is here that you can 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 17th & 18th century buildings is a delight for fans of architecture and history and makes for great photo opportunities on the odd sunny day.

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 your visit, get back on the Doelenbrug to find the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world dating from before the 16th century. It’s a nice visit, but the gardens are well hidden and difficult to find without these careful directions.

From the Rijksmuseum, go back across 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.

After an hour in the jungle, consider exploring the nearby Old Leiden Observatory. (right) Founded in 1633, this science and astronomy museum is a must for nerds, geeks, and stargazers – but for the rest of us the mixed reviews indicate better experiences elsewhere.

Reversing the earlier directions, return to the Rijksmuseum/Doelenbrug area on the Rapenburg canal and again walk 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, a scientist or a bibliophile, but perhaps not a stop for a typical family or romantic couple.

Resume walking on down the Rapenbrug you will soon reach another bridge, the Nonnenbrug. Cross it and continue straight ahead, down Kloksteeg for a bit and you’ll soon see the spectacular 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 his family is still buried in front of the pulpit.

Just across from the Pieterskerk, you’ll see a nondescript wooden door.  If you push it open, you might get to enter one of the two dozen publicly accessible ‘hofjes’ or courtyards of Leiden.  A generous benefactor allowed the poor to live in these enclaves during medieval times. Now they enchant visitors with lush gardens and adorable tiny houses when they’re open.

Circle around the church to find the Galerie (right) 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. (left)  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, and eventually Burcht van Leiden (Leiden Castle, below) reveals itself.  Built in the 11th century, the castle is now a 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!

Now it’s time to go back to the rail station.  Leave the fortress the way you came, but rather than retrace your steps, bear right and find the main exit through this gate (left) and 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 (below).

Take a right and 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 bridge (Blauwpoortsbrug) just ahead. Go over the waterway, bear right, and follow Stationweg for eight minutes to reach the trains.