Leiden is one of my favourite Dutch cities, and one of the most energetic and vibrant in the Netherlands. Much of the vibrancy comes from the presence of Leiden University’s 23,000 students – in a city of only 122,000 people, they make their presence felt. On a late Spring day, when the sun shines and the cold winter temperatures finally give way to some warmth, the city really comes to life. Boats take to the canals, people gather in canal-side restaurants, and the streets fill with cyclists and walkers.
It’s easy to dismiss Leiden as a smaller, less touristy version of Amsterdam, but that is to underestimate its appeal. For a small city, it punches well above its weight, and has played an outsized role throughout Dutch history. This is a city that witnessed the birth of Rembrandt; was home to the Pilgrim Fathers before they sailed for New England in the Mayflower; was one of the earliest and most important printing centres in Europe; and the university played a major role in the development of modern medicine.
As you walk around town, it’s hard to miss the role the university still plays in city life. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, with a history stretching back to the 16th century. Its array of alumni is as diverse as 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes; 19th century President of the United States, John Quincy Adams; and 20th century genius, Albert Einstein. University buildings are clustered around the city centre.
The university was founded in 1575 to reward the city for withstanding the Siege of Leiden – the bleakest period in the town’s history. As the most economically valuable town in the southern Netherlands, Leiden’s decision to side with the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule resulted in an all too predictable and brutal siege. The siege lasted over a year and caused famine and widespread suffering. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd, 1574, is still celebrated today.
The university’s illustrious history is matched by that of the city itself, which stretches back to around 50 AD and the Roman Empire. Today though, it is the extraordinary economic, cultural and artistic flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age that is the most striking feature of Leiden. This period of history is reflected in the picturesque canals lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, ancient churches, medieval alms houses and several surviving windmills.
We arrived in the morning and made our way to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, a fabulous offshoot of Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. The Leiden branch is home to one of the world’s most important collections from ancient Egypt, and has recently been reopened after being remodelled. We spent a couple of hours in the museum before walking through Leiden’s canal belt and settling down for lunch on the Oude Rijn canal.
The weather was so warm we decided to spend a bit more time strolling around the city. We popped into the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, and the place where tulips were first grown in Europe after being smuggled out of Turkey in the 16th century. Afterwards, we wandered through the Van der Werfpark, a popular green space that hides a tremendous tragedy.
Until 1807 Werfpark was all houses, but in January of that year a consignment of gunpowder exploded, killing at least 160 people, injuring thousands and destroying dozens of buildings. We passed by the magnificent Pieterskerk, and wove our way through the narrow surrounding streets before heading back to the train station – a satisfying day of exploration complete.