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Leiden is a town in the Netherlands. The city is known for its university, and for it's beautiful, if rather small, city centre.
Leiden is best reached by train. The journey takes 15 minutes from The Hague, and 20 minutes from Schiphol, the principle airport in the Netherlands. The journey from Amsterdam takes between 30 and 40 minutes.
Most trains arrive at Leiden Centraal, which is 500m North-West of the City Center, and 1km from the City Hall. Leiden Lammenschans station is on the opposite side of the city center, just over 1km from the City Hall. If you do not feel like walking from the station to the centre you can take a bus (ask which ones go to the Breestraat bus stop); this costs 1 E during off hours.
In spite of the two highways around Leiden (A4 and A44), the centre of Leiden isn't easy to reach by car. It is best to try and park your car at the transferium (FREE parking) and continue your journey by bus. For this transferium you have to follow the A44 and then take exit 8 (Katwijk, Leiden Transferium). There are also parking lots on the Morsweg (south-west of the town centre) and on the Langegracht (north of town centre, near the station). These parking lots are crowded though, and there's no guarantee there will be space here, especially during the summer.
Leiden train station is a central hub for the local bus network, so if you want to go anywhere local your best bet is to go here and ask around.
- Rijksmuseum van Oudheden / National Museum of Antiquities - includes an outstanding collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, and a small temple that was given to the Netherlands by the Egyptians for their help with the Aswan monuments transfer project. It also features an exhibition on the archeological history of the Netherlands including dug-up burial treasures and the like. http://www.rmo.nl/new/home.html
- Hortus Botanicus - The botanical garden of the university has recently been completely refurbished. During the summer, this is the place to hang around and just enjoy the sunshine, and nature. Some of Leiden's cultural activities also take place here. Next to this is the Akademiegebouw (Academy Building) which is an old convent that was converted to house the university when it was founded in the 16th century.
- Pieterskerk - The Church of St. Peter (the patron saint of the city) is a 16th century church, in late-Gothic style. An feature which Americans will find interesting is that this church is associated with the Pilgrim Fathers, whose leader John Robinson, lived in the nearby Pieterskerk Choorsteeg (house is marked with a plaque). The church itself features a small exhibition on the Pilgrims in Leiden. People buried here include the physician Boerhave, the painter Jan Steen (of Rijksmuseum fame) and the aforementioned Pilgrim leader Robinson.
- Museum Boerhave - The Boerhave Museum, named after the 16th century physician and biologist Boerhave features an extensive exhibition of scientific equipment from 1600 onwards. Highlights include the Theatrum Anatomicum (a mock-up of a lecture theatre where anatomical lessons were held), the 's Gravesande demonstration experiments (first demonstration experiments to show Newtonian physics), the first microscope, the first helium liquefier and the first Fahrenheit thermometer. If you are in any way technically minded, your visit to Leiden is not complete without going here.
- Rijksmuseum voor Volkerkunde - The National Museum of Ethnology shows the culture of native peoples around the world in a refreshingly open-minded way. A good, well thought-out museum with lots of background information in its bookshop, extensive library, and computer screens that are strewn about the museum. Of special interest are the temporary exhibits.
- Museum Naturalis - A museum of natural history just a short walk from the Central Station. The main part of the museum tells the story of life on earth through bones, fossils, etc. The museum also features a collection of specimens from extinct animals, including bones from a Dodo. The museum is meant to be accessible for all ages; the temporary exhibitions are often (partially) aimed at children.
- Canals - Oude Rijn - The oldest branch of the Rhine river is little more than a city canal here. Historically, this waterway is what gave the area it's importance, first as a Roman border, then during the Golden Age as a trade route. Nowadays, river traffic doesn't use this branch and the river just serves to fill the city's canals with water. The area between the Oude Rijn and Nieuwe Rijn is one of the most undisturbed bits of Leiden - go here if you like walking along canals without getting run over by shoppers. On the other side of the city centre (Weddesteeg, Galgewater) is the place where the canals recombine - this is one of the most beautiful spots in Leiden, with a windmill, the old city gate, a small park, and a wooden bridge over the river (see also the image at the head of this article).
- Keukenhof - Leiden is used as a base by many to explore the tulip district in April and May. From the Central Station, there are special busses going directly to Keukenhof. (Bus service 54). If you want to avoid half an hour in a cramped bus for an extra 500 metres walk, just ask which busses go to Lisse (50, 51 and 57 i.a.).
- Beaches - During the summer, many of the locals will go to the seaside towns of Katwijk and Noordwijk to enjoy the beach. Both are about 30 minutes by bus (leaves from the Central Station). Keep in mind that if you go here by car in the summer, the roads leading there are going to be very busy.
During the autumn or spring, you might want to consider hiking along the beach from one to the other, and then take the bus back to Leiden. This hike is not recommended during the summer, when the beach will be filled with sunbathers, but can be beautiful on a really windy October afternoon, for example. The hike takes about 2-3 hours. If you start in Katwijk, go north (sea on your left), if you start in Noordwijk, go south (sea on your right).
If you want a more quiet beach experience (or enjoy hiking in the dunes more than lying on the beach), go to the Oosterduinse Meer area just north of noordwijk. Because the cities are not built up to the sea here, the dunes are still intact, and this is one of the largest dune areas in the country. Also, driving around the area between Katwijk and Lisse (of Keukenhof fame) you get to see the flower fields (the good season is April-May) without too many tourists.
Note that musea in Leiden are free on Wednesdays.
According to many Leiden is the home of the first give-away shop, which can be found at Hooglandse Kerkgracht 4. Open Thursdays and Fridays 1400-1700 and Saturdays 1100-1700.
There are two main shopping areas, one being the Breestraat, the other being the Haarlemmerstraat. The Haarlemmerstraat is a pedestrian area that mostly features clothing stores, music stores and the like, while the Breestraat is a regular street that has things like bookshops and 'niche'-shops such as a classical music store and an antiques store. The area in between these streets has shops, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops of all kind. Note that 'coffee shop' is a Dutch euphemism for 'place where they sell drugs'.
Leiden is a city of students, so most restaurants in the city centre will be aimed at low-price, decent-but-not-haute-cuisine food. Restaurants of note are:
- Malle Jan Decent food in the Nieuwsteeg near the Pieterskerk
- Donatello's Good Italian food in the Haarlemmerstraat near the Beestenmarkt
- Cafe Einstein hosts parties for international students from the university (meet foreigners who have been in Leiden for a while)
- Konningedag Queens Birthday celebration on 30th April. Traditionally Amsterdam was the only place to be seen on Konningedag. Leiden has recently started putting more effort into the celebrations and there are now more people selling second-hand junk on the streets (a traditional Dutch pastime on Queens day) and also a number of live acts in the squares at the Beestenmarkt and at the end of the Breestraat.
- Third of October celebration. On this day, the people celebrate that Leiden was liberated from the Spanish on the 3rd of October 1574. They were liberated by de Geuzen the beggars, a group of Dutch freedom fighters in the time of the Eighty years war. The story goes that a boy was sent to scout the Spanish positions. Finding them abandoned, he returned to the city with a kettle full of food (Hutspot, a traditional Dutch dish featuring mashed potatoes, carrots and unions) The citizens, being extremely hungry after months of siege, feasted upon this contraband of war, and on the herrings and bread which the Geuzen brought in.
There are a lot of traditions surrounding this event. Citizens of Leiden (and anyone else for that matter) can register for free Hutspot and herrings, which will then be handed out by the city on the 3rd of October. There is also a reveille of the Major, the Rector of the university and other dignitaries, to commemorate the siege. Many restaurants will also be serving Hutspot and herrings on and around the 3rd of October.
Since the liberation of Leiden led to the establishment of the university (given as a reward for endurance under siege), the celebrations tend to involve a lot of drinking, and continue throughout the night. Also prominent is a large carnival, although the rides can be quite expensive (E15 approx). Book in plenty of time as the town fills up very very quickly, and also the main avenues and train station will be filled with the carnival and revellers.
- Leiden Tourist Office (http://www.leidenpromotie.nl/english/index.html/) - the official website for Leiden tourism, provides a good guide to attractions, events and information