Leiden, Netherlands: Europe’s Most Underrated City

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Leiden, Netherlands: Europe’s Most Underrated City

It is no secret that studying in the UK is expensive. However, as part of the EU (for the moment at least), the option of studying abroad is one which a growing number of young people take up. This appealed to me, and after doing some research I settled on the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

I had enjoyed visiting Amsterdam a couple of times during my teenage years, and was excited about the prospect of discovering another city and getting to know the Netherlands better. I knew that the university was well respected, but apart from that I knew little about Leiden and whether it was a nice place to live. Luckily for me, it turned out to be just that.

The city is relatively small and has a population of around 350,000. Its centre is compact, and it has all the amenities you would expect from a settlement of this size. I was delighted to discover that it is also an extremely beautiful place, and I immediately knew that I would be happy to spend a year there.

It is a bit like Amsterdam on a smaller and less touristy scale. While its famous neighborhood throngs with visitors, Leiden is much less visited meaning that it has a much more authentic feel to it. While its size means that there is less of it, its narrow streets, canals, and historic buildings can rival anything Amsterdam has to offer.


The old city is built within a ring of canals. These helped defend it from attack and originally they were flanked with walls. Today the walls have been knocked down, but two gates still guard the entrances to the town. Inside the ring, Leiden is crisscrossed by smaller canals as well as several ‘haven’ or harbours. These are the boats dock when they enter the city, and there are also several houseboats which are permanently occupied. Some of these are impressive two-storey constructions, which look as comfortable and large as any apartment I have lived in.

The canals are lined with traditional Dutch houses, with their large windows and intricate gables. Most are tall, thin, and extremely photogenic. In other parts of the city a maze of small alleys weave back and forth, adding further character to the place.

Leiden is more than just a historic treasure, however – it is a living city with a lively atmosphere. As one of the top universities in the country, it is full of students and this means that there are plenty of things to do. There are some great bars around including De Twee Spieghels, which hosts live jazz bands several times a week, and De Bonte Koe, a converted butchers shop that has a lovely unique feel to it.

During the summer, the city really comes to life, and the many parks are packed with people enjoying themselves. Sofas start appearing outside houses, and the residents set themselves up outside to enjoy a day in the sun. Some pubs and restaurants have barge-top seating allowing you to relax on the canal, and watch the boats go past.

My favourite time of the year however, is the third of October. This is a festival that is only celebrated in Leiden, and which dates back hundreds of years. In 1574 the Dutch were at war with the Spanish, and Leiden found itself under siege for six months. Food became scarce and things were looking bad for the inhabitants. Eventually the siege was broken and the people celebrated with a huge street party. This quickly became an annual tradition and every year the city shuts down for several days.

The canals are lined with traditional Dutch houses, with their large windows and intricate gables. Most are tall, thin, and extremely photogenic. In other parts of the city a maze of small alleys weave back and forth, adding further character to the place.


Don’t even think about trying to get anything done during the festival, it takes about an hour to walk a few hundred meters! The streets are packed with people and often the crowds come to a halt as the processions pass by. A funfair can be found near the train station, and stages are set up around the city for bands. Drink flows freely long into the night.

Another thing I enjoyed about living in Leiden was that its central location made it easy to see other places and attractions. The Hague is nearby and, while not the prettiest, it is still a nice place and worth a visit because of its important role in international affairs. Utrecht is also not too far away, and its well-preserved city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site. Another quaint city – Delft – is also easily reached, and due to the country’s small size, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Germany are all just a couple of hundred miles away. Denmark is also nearby, check out rejstil.dk for flights and travel tips. For hotels, you can check out Lacoly.

There are several beach towns within a bike ride’s distance and during the summer months these make a great day trip. The beaches are picturesque, but it does take a certain amount of courage to have a dip in the North Sea. A final bonus is that Leiden is in the heart of flower country and at the right time of year, the surrounding countryside erupts into rainbows of colour. The Netherlands is famous for its flowers and it doesn’t take long to reach the fields from the city.

I thoroughly enjoyed my year in Leiden and I think it is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. It is a great place to live, and I would recommend it to any students thinking about studying abroad. Although I am not complaining, I can’t understand why it is not more visited. It has all the charm of Amsterdam, and is just forty minutes away on the train. If you are looking for a day trip then think about giving Leiden a go, its lack of tourists and authentic feel make it a great place to obtain a deeper understanding of Dutch culture.

Also check out Max’s travels in Potosi, Bolivia.

Max Serjeant

Max Serjeant

Max Serjeant is a writer and journalist from the UK. He has traveled extensively in Europe and Latin America, and lived in three different countries. Along the way he has hung out with Mexican guerrillas, climbed active volcanoes, and visited refugee camps. To read more of his work visit his website www.maxserjeant.com.

1 Comment

  • Erika

    Sounds like a beautiful place. I never would have thought to visit!

    May 18, 2017 at 11:36 pm