Boats at the Leiden River © Roman Boed/Flickr

Leiden is home to some of the oldest buildings in the Netherlands; several are more than 500 years old. There are over 2000 monuments within the city limits, from city gates to churches to Leiden University.

The Oldest University in the Netherlands

Leiden University was founded in 1575 and is a thriving center of intellectual activity today with 18,000 students. There is no single campus, per se. In a way, the city of Leiden is its campus, and university buildings can be found all over Leiden.

One of the many interesting university buildings is Het Gravensteen, notable for its use of stone, which was unusual during the Middle Ages, when it was built. Before it became part of Leiden University, Het Gravensteen was a residence, a prison and a community gathering place.

There are still a few structures standing that pre-date the founding of Leiden University. Construction on the Pieterskerk began in 1121, and like many churches, was built in phases. It was mostly finished in the 16th century, and today is used for cultural events. Several notable individuals are buried there, including the painter Jan Steen and the “Pilgrim Pastor” John Robinson.

Dutch Hofjes and the Oldest Stained Glass in Holland

Not to be confused with the candy hopjes, a hofje is a Dutch almshouse, or home for poor people. At one point, there were as many as 35 hofjes in Leiden. There are still a few around the city, but the most well-preserved is probably St Anna’s Almshouse, which dates back to 1492. St Anna’s has been restored to show the small chapel built in 1509 for its residents, which contains the oldest stained glass in the Netherlands.

For a truly medieval experience, visit De Burcht on an overcast, windy day. This citadel, which was built on a man-made hill to elevate it above the surrounding area, is open to the public and gives visitors wonderful views of Leiden. A walkway runs along the inside of the upper level, and trees fill its interior.

Every major town in the Netherlands has its own weigh house, also known as De Waag. It was here that cheese and other items were weighed to determine their value before they were sold. The Leiden weigh house dates back to 1659 and was in use until the early 1970s.

There are several ways to enter Leiden, but the most interesting might just be by car. There is a small parking lot close to the well-preserved Moorsport City gate, which sports the Leiden coat of arms, featuring two crossed keys.

Rembrandt Didn’t Sleep Here

And while it is true that Rembrandt was born in Leiden, the house he grew up in is long gone. There is, however, a little plaque commemorating the spot where his house once stood on the side of a decidedly contemporary building.

The real beauty of Leiden is that there is a wide variety of things to do and see. It’s perfect for several day trips from Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft or Rotterdam. Visit on a Saturday and enjoy the outdoor market along the Niewe Rijn. Discover the narrow passageways and some of the Wall Poems painted on buildings around the city. Visit one of Leiden’s museums.

Leiden is also only about 20 minutes from Schiphol Airport, so it’s a perfect quick trip for anyone with a long layover. Just use a locker to store any luggage, hop on the train and enjoy.