Leiden was Holland's first university city, and today offers an unbeatable combination of characterful architecture, high-quality museums and picturesque canals. This year the city celebrates the 400th anniversary of the birth of its most famous son: the artist Rembrandt van Rijn. The events are as diverse as a Rembrandt ice sculpture exhibition and a musical of his life. At any time Leiden is a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.
The obvious gateway is Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, which you can reach on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com), Jet2 (0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com), KLM UK (08705 074 074; www.klm.com) and ScotAirways (08706 060707; www.scotairways.com). From Schiphol Airport, Leiden's smart, modern station (1) is 16 minutes on the frequent fast train service, for a fare of €4.90 (£3.80) each way. By train, Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) will get you from London to Leiden via Brussels in five or six hours for as little as £69.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The city's form is dictated by two types of waterways. There are the defensive canals and moats that encircle the city with the oldest at the centre and the last, a 17th-century waterway marking the boundary of the city centre. Through the middle of the city, flowing from east to west, is the historical course of the Rhine, or Rijn, which marked the northern edge of the Roman Empire. It splits into two arms through the centre and flows out into the North Sea at Katwijk. The two main streets run parallel to the Rijn: Breestraat, a medieval street on one side, and the busy pedestrianised shopping street, Haarlemmerstraat, on the other. Within the city centre there are 35 hofjes - small courtyards with almshouses.
The tourist information centre (2) is at Stationsweg 2D (00 31 71 516 1211; www.leiden.nl), open 11am-5.30pm on Mondays, 11am-5.30pm from Tuesday to Friday and 10am-4.30pm on Saturdays. There is also a Rembrandt Info Centre as part
of the old cloth hall - the Lakenhal (3) - at Oude Singel 32 (00 31 71 516 5360; www.rembrandt400-leiden.nl), open 10am-5pm daily except Monday.
Opposite the station (1) is the Golden Tulip Leiden Centre (4) at Schipholweg 3 (00 31 71 408 3500; www.goldentulipleidencentre.nl), which has a weekend special of €69 (£49) double including breakfast. Closer to the centre, the Hotel de Doelen (5) has an fine canalside location at Rapenburg 2 (00 31 71 512 0527; www.dedoelen.com); a double room costs €95 (£68), with breakfast an extra €7.50 (£5.30).
TAKE A HIKE
The walk south along Rapenburg, part of an old defensive canal, takes you through the loveliest area of the city, and at times you sense that little has changed since Rembrandt was born. The mix of 17th- and 18th-century houses and monuments comprise possibly the best collection of herenhuizen (gentlemen's house) anywhere in the country. The eclectic mix of styles makes for a good crash course in classic Dutch architecture.
Halfway along the canal is a 16th-century former nunnery (6) where the university has its headquarters. Legend has it that after Leiden held out against Spanish forces in the 16th century, the citizens were offered a year with no taxes or the founding of the university; they chose the latter.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
You can eat afloat on a boat: De Waterlijn (7) at Princessekade 5. On dry land and opposite the fabulous Renaissance façade of the town hall (Stadhuis) at Breestraat 123 is Burgerzaken (8), whose name translates as "Civil Business"; it offers a wide selection of sandwiches, snacks and pancakes. Although the decor is very art nouveau, the exposed medieval fireplace behind the bar is a sight in itself.
Amsterdam does not have a monopoly on Holland's best museums. The Lakenhal (3) at Oude Singel 32 (00 31 71 516 5360; www.lakenhal.nl) is dedicated to the city and arts and crafts, and will be celebrating Rembrandt throughout 2006. The centrepiece of its exhibits, though, is a large triptych by Lucas van Leyden of the Final Judgement. Adults can marvel at the complexity of the mid-16th century work, while the children enjoy the Python-esque, monstrous fish that represents hell as it spits fire and eats the damned. The Lakenhal opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, noon-5pm at weekends, admission €10 (£7).
The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (9) at Rapenburg 28 (00 31 900 660 0600; www.rmo.nl) is the National Museum of Antiquities. It has a good Egyptian section, including the complete Temple of Taffeh, on show free in the entrance hall. This was presented to the nation after Dutch help on the project to save monuments threatened by the rising waters of the Aswan dam, on the condition that it should be freely accessible; to see the rest of the collection, the fee is €7.50 (£5.30). It opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, noon-5pm at weekends.
The best window shopping can be done along the southern arm of the Rijn, the Nieuwe Rijn. On a Saturday, this is a busy place with a large fruit, vegetable and fish market, but otherwise has an interesting selection of little shops. There is also a varied selection of small shops, for both new and second-hand goods around both of the main churches in the centre, the Pieterskerk (10) and the Hooglandsekerk (11).
The borrel, Dutch for an aperitif, is quite an art. To accompany the drinks, cheese, bitterballen (deep fried balls of meat ragout) and other snacks are eaten. The Grand Café de la Gare (00 31 71 512 6120), directly opposite the tourist office (2) on Stationsweg, is an opulent location to begin an evening. Alternatively, the old-fashioned bar, Café in den Ouden Marepoort (12) at Lange Mare 36 (00 31 71 514 3215) offers good beer and a convivial atmosphere.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Right next door at number 38 is De Brasserie (00 31 71 513 8855), with a simple, good-value menu. Half the appeal of the Poort van Leyden (13) at Haven 100 (00 31 71 524 0933; www.poort.nl) is the location: it is built into an old city gate and has a great view out over the water with a lively terrace in the summer. The Med-influenced food is excellent, too. These are among the restaurants that keep their kitchens open past 10pm, but it is advisable to check in advance if you want to eat late elsewhere.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Leiden's churches reflect its status as a city that absorbed floods of immigrants over centuries of European upheavals. The most noteworthy church in the city is the Marekerk (14), the first purpose-built Protestant church in the Netherlands. Completed in 1649, its round design sets it apart from the Catholic style.
The largest church in Leiden is the Pieterskerk (10); Rembrandt's mother is buried here, as is John Robinson, the leader of the English group that became the Pilgrim Fathers: a plate to his memory reads: "His broadly tolerant mind guided and developed the religious life of the Pilgrims of the Mayflower." Close to the north entrance is a spookily preserved mummified body from around 1700, discovered under the pulpit.
OUT TO BRUNCH
One reason the Pilgrim Fathers left town was because they regarded the Dutch as insufficiently pious - especially their relaxed attitude to the Sabbath. This has continued, and many places open the same hours on a Sunday as the rest of the week. Several cafes can be found at Pieterskerkchoorsteeg, just north of the Pieterskerk (10). On a fine morning, the Catwalk at Beestenmarkt (15), open 10am-6pm daily, is an ideal place for coffee and bagels.
A WALK IN THE PARK
The Hortus Botanicus (16), tucked away in the south-west of the city centre at Rapenburg 73 (00 31 71 527 7249; www.hortusleiden.nl), is one of Europe's oldest botanic gardens. The initial purpose was to help botany students, and later it was the location for the first planting of tulips in Holland. It opens 10am-4pm daily except Saturday from October to March, after which it opens 10am-6pm daily; admission €4 (£2.80).
WRITE A POSTCARD
If you're lost for words, just look around. A random selection of walls, usually close to street corners, bears poetry from some of the world's greatest wordsmiths. They include works by Pablo Neruda, William Shakespeare and WB Yeats, whose poem "A Coat" decorates the corner of Lange Mare and Oude Vest (17).
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
For the neusje van de zalm (literally "the little nose of the salmon"), to quote the Dutch equivalent, you can't beat a trip to the seaside. Take bus 32 from the station (1) to Katwijk, five miles away on the coast; the fare is €2 (£1.40), or you can buy an all-day regional bus pass for €5 (£3.50). Head north to Noordwijk along the well-marked footpaths through the dunes that act as protection against the sea; a sublime experience with which to end.
Additional research by Ben Bailey