Leiden: Holland’s Secret City

This semester I am lucky enough to be studying abroad in the beautiful city of Leiden, The Netherlands. ‘Where’s that?’ you might ask and I wouldn’t blame you…  For me and, I think, for many others, it came as a rather a surprise that The Netherlands consisted of more than just Amsterdam since this capital city, with its concentric canals and neon red lights, has rather monopolised the presentation of Holland to the outside world.  But there does exist a land outside this city and, amongst the flat landscape, tulip fields and windmills, nestled somewhere along the West Coast, 45 minutes from Amsterdam and 15 minutes from The Hague, the pretty city of Leiden bustles along, a largely undiscovered and untarnished gem.

A student haven, like our very own St Andrews, Leiden makes an ideal weekend break or day trip from Amsterdam. Here are my top 4 reasons to pay Leiden a visit.

  1. Canals, cafes and cobbled streets

leiden586f4b62675e1fcd5dd69c10f6eb1495Amsterdam isn’t the only city able to claim gorgeous canals, Leiden has a fair few and each one seems to be more and more beautiful. From the Rapenburg with the old Academy building to the Nieuwe Rijn, Leiden offers a chance to wander the canals in peace, without the usual tourist crowds. The canals play home to bars and cafes a plenty, live music and even paddleboarders – find yourself a canal-side bar, order a fresh mint tea (or something stronger) and people watch – there’s nothing better.

However, if you can bear to drag yourself away, make sure to potter around the side streets, Leiden’s hidden gems are just around the corner. Plus there are a lot of cobble stones – a nightmare to cycle over but very pretty to look at.

  1. Bikes, Buildings and Botanical Gardens

leidenca709897d4645c8db9a50c1968c83634I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many bikes as I’ve seen in Leiden. If there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing, I can’t even begin to imagine how many there are in The Netherlands… Leiden (and Holland in general) is the perfect place to cycle, as it’s almost completely flat. However, this does mean that people in Holland pretty much scorn any health and safety precautions: Helmets? No way! Brakes? Who needs them? Simultaneously smoking a cigarette, balancing a bag of shopping on the back and talking on your phone? All in a day’s work! I would honestly recommend a trip to Holland to simply just marvel at the Dutch cycling skills: I’ve seen dogs standing on the back of the bike, three people on one cycle and people dragging their suitcase along behind them, without even a sweat. These guys have serious skills.

If you’re brave enough to join them, cycle along and appreciate the beautiful architecture and the Botanical Gardens. Just don’t crash!

  1. Windmills and Culture

leiden66d5ecdf4b8bbf3a537a8a1110188522On my walk to class I get to pass two windmills and there’s just something extremely novel, special and Dutch about them – Leiden even has a windmill museum if that’s your thing, or you can just snap a few pictures.

As for culture Leiden has something for everyone with its rich history. You can enjoy international films, multiple museums, live music and the most important festival in Leiden – Leidens Ontzet – a celebration on the 2nd and 3rd of October commemorating the end of the Spanish Seige in 1547. This is celebrated by a fun-fair, a parade, a fireworks and water display, pole-vaulting over the canals, the eating of raw herring and white bread, beer-drinking, street partying and live music with thousands of people on the canal. Not something to miss.

  1. The view from above

LEIDENf43c852c9aaf46427c92f5e28af89d7aWith Leiden being unusually flat, it is sometimes hard to fully appreciate the beauty of the city – largely because you can only see it from one angle. However, a view from above solves this. There are two main great places to see Leiden from above: the first, the old fortress – the Burcht van Leiden. Climb up a simple twenty steps and you get a view of the whole city.

The second place to get these amazing views is from the top of the department store V&D in the centre of Leiden. This has to be my favourite place in the whole city as you can grab coffee and cake with friends and soak in the stunning surroundings – perfection.

So, next time you’re in The Netherlands, drag yourself away from the bright lights of Amsterdam to go to the calm and exquisite city that is Leiden.

Images sourced from Pinterest