Leiden – a wonderful base for a tour of southern Holland

By William Kemp
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The canals of Leiden are especially beautiful at sunset.

by William Kemp, Austin, Texas

The Netherlands is among the most densely populated countries in Europe. Our one-week visit in June 2012 confirmed that there are a lot of people, but it also exposed my wife, Paula, and me to very pleasant lifestyles and very beautiful countrysides. 

Preferring to avoid large cities, we made our headquarters in Leiden, an old city that is lightly covered by the travel guidebooks. Leiden is home to the oldest university in the country, founded in 1575. 

The city offers many historic sites and has lots of canals, which can be toured by boat. Through Home Away (Austin, TX), we located an apartment at Hogewoerd 144 (property No. 282938) for $649 a week. The lessor was The Right Vacation Rental (Media, PA), a division of Untours, which provided useful information such as where to find grocery stores, bakeries, ATM machines, etc. (We especially liked One Pot, a store that sells prepared meals.) 

The apartment was clean, bright and well stocked for preparing simple meals.

Getting there

Upon arrival at Schiphol airport, we headed for the train station within the airport. We learned that our American credit card with a magnetic strip was not acceptable for purchasing train tickets — neither from a machine nor from staff — so we found an ATM machine to get euros. 

In general, we observed that the Dutch are not fond of using credit cards. For example, the grocery stores we went to would not accept them. Using euro bills in denominations higher than 20 was also frowned upon. 

Trains to Leiden departed frequently. The Dutch trains were fast, on time and very quiet. 

From the Leiden train station, we took a taxi to our apartment, making it an easy process to get there, even with our luggage. 

Exploring the city

Unfortunately, it rained for several days during our stay, limiting the time we could spend taking self-guided walks through the city. 

The walks on our list included the Leiden loop walk, which visits nine historical sites; the Rembrandt walk (Rembrandt was born and raised in Leiden); the Pilgrims walk (the Pilgrims stayed in Leiden before sailing to America), and the almshouses walks. (Almshouses were collections of small apartments circling a central courtyard that were constructed centuries ago by wealthy people to house retired employees, elderly clergy and other categories of low-income citizens.)

Information on these walks is available at the visitors’ center near the Leiden Centraal train station. 

The Right Vacation Rental put us in touch with Edmond Van Putte, a travel guide. We engaged him to take us on a walk of Leiden for an afternoon (145, or $186). 

A thatch-roofed house on a lake near Ankeveen.

We spent the time seeing the sights and learning about the history and culture of Leiden. The city is so ancient that many of the sights were difficult to locate on the narrow streets and alleys, which were laid out in a haphazard manner. It would have taken us a lot of time to figure out the layout of the city, but Edmond was able to lead us efficiently from one sight to another. 

One of the highlights of our stay in Leiden was attending a free organ concert at the 16th-century Pieterskerk church. We also enjoyed shopping at the outdoor markets that are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Dutch cheeses were so delicious! 

Another highlight was climbing up the stairs to the top of a reconstructed, operating windmill. We learned how a windmill functions while getting great views of the city. 

We also enjoyed a boat trip through the canals of Leiden. 

Outside excursions

Paula and I spent three days taking side trips — two days in Amsterdam and one in The Hague. In Amsterdam, where we had scheduled a “museum day,” we had to wait over 45 minutes in heavy rain to buy tickets for the Van Gogh Museum. In hindsight, we should have purchased the Museum Card (45), which would have given us immediate entry. 

The card provides free access to almost all of the museums in the Netherlands and is valid for one year. 

On our second day in Amsterdam we took the walks described in the Rick Steves guidebooks. As is always the case, the sights selected by Rick Steves were interesting and the commentary on each of them contained just the right amount of detail. 

Our trip to The Hague (15 minutes from Leiden by train) was marked by stormy weather, but that did not detract from the beauty of this lovely city. 

The walk from the central train station to the center of the city took about five minutes. At the visitors’ center located in the central library, we obtained a brochure describing a self-guided tour focusing on the city’s architecture. The contrasts between the ancient and modern architecture were extreme, but it all fit together, giving The Hague a very stately appearance. 

As we completed our walk, the rains returned, so we decided not to go to the nearby beach or on to Delft. 

A ride in the country

I think only China has more bicycles than the Netherlands. There are always thousands of them parked at the train stations. 

Their system of bicycle trails is amazing, so one rarely has to ride on a street with cars and buses. Rather than rent bicycles for use in Leiden, we decided to hire Edmond Van Putte to lead us on a day-long bike ride into the countryside east of his home in Weesp. 

Edmond met us at the Leiden Centraal station and accompanied us to Weesp. We rented bicycles near the Weesp train station (7.50 per day) and he led us to his nearby home, where he picked up his bicycle and our lunch. 

Bill and Paula Kemp on a bike ride in Weesp. Photo by Edmond Van Putte

We rode through the outskirts of Weesp and on through fields and pastures, the land, like a good portion of the land in this country, below sea level. The lowest elevations, too wet for crops, are maintained as pastures for cows, resulting in the Netherlands’ being a major exporter of butter and cheese. The higher elevations, still below sea level, are suited to growing crops. We didn’t see flower fields because they are located to the west in the sandy soils near the North Sea. 

When we came to the River Vecht, we had to ride up to get to the water level. The rivers in the below-sea-level areas must be maintained within dikes to keep them from flooding the reclaimed areas. 

As we looked out into the distant lakes, we could see the traditional sailing ships that use Muiden as their home port. Muiden, at the mouth of the River Vecht, is a small, fortified town with an attractive harbor. Nearby is the Muiderslot, a well-preserved medieval castle. 

We rode on to Naarden, one of the best-preserved fortified towns in Europe. The star-shaped fortifications are massive. 

Riding through nature

Our trip changed focus as we rode along the Naardermeer, a protected nature preserve. The bike path passed through forests, and as we gained elevation and got above sea level we entered an area of heather. Edmond pointed out mounds that were actually Bronze Age burial sites. 

We stopped for tea and ginger cake at a teahouse in Graveland. It was nice to get off the bikes — we were getting a little tired — but the scenery was so fascinating that we didn’t want to stop riding. 

Refreshed by our rest, we followed Edmond through an area of lakes with crystal-clear water, coming upon a beach area that was accessible only by bicycle or boat. 

We rode along the River Vecht again as we returned to Weesp. After stopping for photographs in front of two large windmills, we returned our bikes to the train station. We were tired, but the effort was well worthwhile. 

We had seen so many different things in one day, getting a different perspective of the Netherlands. 

Edmond purchased train tickets for us and put us on a direct train back to Leiden. It was a wonderful day! 

Edmond’s fee for the day was 215 ($276), including all train tickets, lunch and our stop for tea. 

When we left Leiden at the end of our stay, we used a taxi service, Taxi de Groot (phone 071 512 3300), which charged only 41 to take us to the airport. They ask that you make reservations at least two days before your departure. 

To take in all of the sights in Leiden and the surrounding areas, one week was not long enough.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
The canals of Leiden are especially beautiful at sunset.

by William Kemp, Austin, Texas

The Netherlands is among the most densely populated countries in Europe. Our one-week visit in June 2012 confirmed that there are a lot of people, but it also exposed my wife, Paula, and me to very pleasant lifestyles and very beautiful countrysides. 

Preferring to avoid large cities, we made our headquarters in Leiden, an old city that is lightly covered by the travel guidebooks. Leiden is home to the oldest university in the country, founded in 1575. 

The city offers many historic sites and has lots of canals, which can be toured by boat. Through Home Away (Austin, TX), we located an apartment at Hogewoerd 144 (property No. 282938) for $649 a week. The lessor was The Right Vacation Rental (Media, PA), a division of Untours, which provided useful information such as where to find grocery stores, bakeries, ATM machines, etc. (We especially liked One Pot, a store that sells prepared meals.) 

The apartment was clean, bright and well stocked for preparing simple meals.

Getting there

Upon arrival at Schiphol airport, we headed for the train station within the airport. We learned that our American credit card with a magnetic strip was not acceptable for purchasing train tickets — neither from a machine nor from staff — so we found an ATM machine to get euros. 

In general, we observed that the Dutch are not fond of using credit cards. For example, the grocery stores we went to would not accept them. Using euro bills in denominations higher than 20 was also frowned upon. 

Trains to Leiden departed frequently. The Dutch trains were fast, on time and very quiet. 

From the Leiden train station, we took a taxi to our apartment, making it an easy process to get there, even with our luggage. 

Exploring the city

Unfortunately, it rained for several days during our stay, limiting the time we could spend taking self-guided walks through the city. 

The walks on our list included the Leiden loop walk, which visits nine historical sites; the Rembrandt walk (Rembrandt was born and raised in Leiden); the Pilgrims walk (the Pilgrims stayed in Leiden before sailing to America), and the almshouses walks. (Almshouses were collections of small apartments circling a central courtyard that were constructed centuries ago by wealthy people to house retired employees, elderly clergy and other categories of low-income citizens.)

Information on these walks is available at the visitors’ center near the Leiden Centraal train station. 

The Right Vacation Rental put us in touch with Edmond Van Putte, a travel guide. We engaged him to take us on a walk of Leiden for an afternoon (145, or $186). 

A thatch-roofed house on a lake near Ankeveen.

We spent the time seeing the sights and learning about the history and culture of Leiden. The city is so ancient that many of the sights were difficult to locate on the narrow streets and alleys, which were laid out in a haphazard manner. It would have taken us a lot of time to figure out the layout of the city, but Edmond was able to lead us efficiently from one sight to another. 

One of the highlights of our stay in Leiden was attending a free organ concert at the 16th-century Pieterskerk church. We also enjoyed shopping at the outdoor markets that are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Dutch cheeses were so delicious! 

Another highlight was climbing up the stairs to the top of a reconstructed, operating windmill. We learned how a windmill functions while getting great views of the city. 

We also enjoyed a boat trip through the canals of Leiden. 

Outside excursions

Paula and I spent three days taking side trips — two days in Amsterdam and one in The Hague. In Amsterdam, where we had scheduled a “museum day,” we had to wait over 45 minutes in heavy rain to buy tickets for the Van Gogh Museum. In hindsight, we should have purchased the Museum Card (45), which would have given us immediate entry. 

The card provides free access to almost all of the museums in the Netherlands and is valid for one year. 

On our second day in Amsterdam we took the walks described in the Rick Steves guidebooks. As is always the case, the sights selected by Rick Steves were interesting and the commentary on each of them contained just the right amount of detail. 

Our trip to The Hague (15 minutes from Leiden by train) was marked by stormy weather, but that did not detract from the beauty of this lovely city. 

The walk from the central train station to the center of the city took about five minutes. At the visitors’ center located in the central library, we obtained a brochure describing a self-guided tour focusing on the city’s architecture. The contrasts between the ancient and modern architecture were extreme, but it all fit together, giving The Hague a very stately appearance. 

As we completed our walk, the rains returned, so we decided not to go to the nearby beach or on to Delft. 

A ride in the country

I think only China has more bicycles than the Netherlands. There are always thousands of them parked at the train stations. 

Their system of bicycle trails is amazing, so one rarely has to ride on a street with cars and buses. Rather than rent bicycles for use in Leiden, we decided to hire Edmond Van Putte to lead us on a day-long bike ride into the countryside east of his home in Weesp. 

Edmond met us at the Leiden Centraal station and accompanied us to Weesp. We rented bicycles near the Weesp train station (7.50 per day) and he led us to his nearby home, where he picked up his bicycle and our lunch. 

Bill and Paula Kemp on a bike ride in Weesp. Photo by Edmond Van Putte

We rode through the outskirts of Weesp and on through fields and pastures, the land, like a good portion of the land in this country, below sea level. The lowest elevations, too wet for crops, are maintained as pastures for cows, resulting in the Netherlands’ being a major exporter of butter and cheese. The higher elevations, still below sea level, are suited to growing crops. We didn’t see flower fields because they are located to the west in the sandy soils near the North Sea. 

When we came to the River Vecht, we had to ride up to get to the water level. The rivers in the below-sea-level areas must be maintained within dikes to keep them from flooding the reclaimed areas. 

As we looked out into the distant lakes, we could see the traditional sailing ships that use Muiden as their home port. Muiden, at the mouth of the River Vecht, is a small, fortified town with an attractive harbor. Nearby is the Muiderslot, a well-preserved medieval castle. 

We rode on to Naarden, one of the best-preserved fortified towns in Europe. The star-shaped fortifications are massive. 

Riding through nature

Our trip changed focus as we rode along the Naardermeer, a protected nature preserve. The bike path passed through forests, and as we gained elevation and got above sea level we entered an area of heather. Edmond pointed out mounds that were actually Bronze Age burial sites. 

We stopped for tea and ginger cake at a teahouse in Graveland. It was nice to get off the bikes — we were getting a little tired — but the scenery was so fascinating that we didn’t want to stop riding. 

Refreshed by our rest, we followed Edmond through an area of lakes with crystal-clear water, coming upon a beach area that was accessible only by bicycle or boat. 

We rode along the River Vecht again as we returned to Weesp. After stopping for photographs in front of two large windmills, we returned our bikes to the train station. We were tired, but the effort was well worthwhile. 

We had seen so many different things in one day, getting a different perspective of the Netherlands. 

Edmond purchased train tickets for us and put us on a direct train back to Leiden. It was a wonderful day! 

Edmond’s fee for the day was 215 ($276), including all train tickets, lunch and our stop for tea. 

When we left Leiden at the end of our stay, we used a taxi service, Taxi de Groot (phone 071 512 3300), which charged only 41 to take us to the airport. They ask that you make reservations at least two days before your departure. 

To take in all of the sights in Leiden and the surrounding areas, one week was not long enough.