48 hours in Leiden

The tranquil canalside setting and dreaming spires of Holland's leading university city offer a relaxing alternative to the Dutch capital, says Simon Calder


This fine Dutch city is twinned, appropriately, with Oxford - both are sublime seats of learning and fascinating destinations. Leiden has none of the crowds that cram into Amsterdam, yet it is equally easy to reach from Britain. Besides wandering through exquisitely understated architecture, laced with canals, you can visit some first-rate museums and learn about the Pilgrim Fathers' connection with the city. And it has plenty of places to eat, drink and relax.


You can fly to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport from all over the UK. The airline with the most links is KLM UK (08705 074 074; www.klmuk.com), though you can fly from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester on British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com); from Heathrow on BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com); from East Midlands on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com); from Stansted on Basiq Air (00 31 20 206 8490; www.basiqair.com); from Birmingham on MyTravelLite (08701 564 564; www.mytravellite.com); and from Leeds/Bradford on Jet2 (0870 737 8282; www.jet2.com). Fast trains from Schiphol's station reach Leiden in 16 minutes; there are four an hour during the day, for a fare of €4.50 (£3.20).


The main railway station is on the north-west edge of the city. You can easily walk to anywhere in central Leiden from here, or rent a bike from the shop to the left of the main entrance; it opens 6am-9pm, Monday to Friday only. Stationsweg leads south past the tourist office , which opens 9am-5.30pm from Monday to Friday, 9am-4pm on Saturdays (00 31 71 514 6846; www.leidenpromotie.nl). Across the canal the street becomes Steenstraat, leading to Beesten Markt . The core of the historic city is south of here, on an island dominated by the Pieterskerk , while the commercial centre is east along Haarlemmerstraat.


For location, it's hard to beat the Mayflower (00 31 71 514 2641) on Beesten Markt , where a double costs €100 (£70) including breakfast. De Doelen (00 31 71 512 0527; www.dedoelen.com) is well-placed at Rapenburg 2 ; doubles start at €90 (£65) and breakfast is an extra €8 (£6) per person. The best budget alternative, at least in summer, is 12km north-west on the North Sea coast: beds at the Flying Pig Beach Hostel at Noordwijk (00 31 71 362 2533; www.beachhostel.nl) cost €14 (£10). You can get there in about half an hour from Leiden's station on bus 40 or 42.


From Beesten Markt , head west along decorative Morsstraat to the Morspoort , one of the old city gates. Go south from here, past the windmill and across the canal bridge, then left along the waterfront. A sharp right takes you to Rapenburg, lined with handsome buildings. Turn left along Kloksteeg to loop around Pieterskerk and into Pieterskerkchoorsteeg, lined with cafes. This brings you out on Breestraat, where the elaborate 16th-century façade of the Stadhuis confronts you.l Turn left along Koornbrugsteeg, which leads to the former corn exchange , straddling the New Rhine. Then follow Burgsteeg to its conclusion.


At the end of the walk, on your left (to the north), there should be a 17th-century gate guarded by the fierce lion shown at the top left of this page. It leads to the citadel (Burcht), at the confluence of the Old and New Rhine - the remains of a fortress raised on a man-made mound. Climb to the top for a fine panoramic view over this low-rise city.


You are spoiled for choice. At the foot of the citadel, the Restaurant Koetshuis (00 31 71 512 1688) is a stylish place for al fresco lunching. The Grand Café de la Gare (00 31 71 512 6120), directly opposite the tourist office on Stationsweg, has a lunch special consisting of soup, an overflowing sandwich, tea or coffee and, unusually, buttermilk, for €10.50 (£7.50). The opulent surroundings also comprise a good location to begin an evening's (or, if you insist, an afternoon's) drinking.


You will not need to drag yourself far from the Café de la Gare to reach the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde , Holland's ethnological museum. It occupies a huge former hospital at Steenstraat 1 (00 31 71 516 8800, www.rmv.nl). As you approach along the canal you pass some intriguing exhibits, such as a petrified hot-water bottle in a glass case. The museum contents largely comprise the 19th-century pilferings from Asia of Dutch explorers, particularly Java and Japan. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; admission €6.50 (£4.90). Move on to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden , the national antiquities museum (00 31 71 516 3163; www.rmo.nl); if you are too weary to tackle the whole thing, at least be sure to admire the superb Temple of Taffeh, on show free in the entrance hall during official opening hours: 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Friday, and noon-5pm Saturdays and Sundays. Admission to the rest of the collection is €6(£4.30).


The main shopping street is Haarlemmerstraat, with all the usual Dutch (and, increasingly, British) retail suspects. The shops along Breestraat are rather more individual, but for real choice you should probably wait until you reach Schiphol airport on your way home.


On a fine evening, the bars in the square on the northern side of Pieterskerk are enticing. If your idea of building up an appetite is to smoke some marijuana, the Goa Coffeeshop on Korte Mare will meet your needs.


On a fine summer's evening, you should try to get a table on the floating annexe of the Restaurant In Den Doofpot on the waterside at Turfmarkt 9 (00 31 71 512 2434; www.indendoofpot.nl). The menu is largely meat-based; helpings are generous and you may not have room for a crème brûlée to end the meal. For tasty, good-value Italian try Spiekeria at Pieterskerkchoorsteeg 21 (00 31 71 512 5999), which occupies a former butcher's shop; it is pictured above.


The yawning interior of the Pieterskerk contains much of interest. Close to the north entrance is a spookily preserved mummified body from around 1700, discovered under the pulpit. An alcove in the south-west corner is devoted to the story of the Pilgrim Fathers, in whose story Leiden played an important part. A group of puritanical English Calvinists formed a community around a pastor named John Robinson in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. In 1607, they decided to escape persecution from James I by going to the Netherlands, where there was religious tolerance. When they arrived in Amsterdam, conflict developed with other English separatists who had sought refuge before them. So in May 1609 they moved on by barge to Leiden, where they remained for 11 years. Concerns about the influence of Dutch youth on their children, and the difficulty of scraping a living, persuaded them to sail to the new lands of America aboard the Mayflower.


One reason the Pilgrim Fathers left town was because they did not regard the Dutch as sufficiently pious, in particular with 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. On a fine morning, the Catwalk at Beesten Markt , open 10am-6pm daily, is the ideal place for coffee and bagels.


The Hortus Botanicus , tucked away in the south west of the city centre at Rapenburg 73 (00 31 71 527 7249; www.hortus.leidenuniv.nl) is one of Europe's oldest botanic gardens; its initial purpose was to help botany students, and later it was the location for the first planting of tulips in Holland. It opens 10am-6pm daily until the end of October, admission €4 (£2.80).


After your repast, you will be extremely well placed to float off aboard a sightseeing boat. During the one-hour voyage you may find out more than you wanted to know about gables. Departures in the summer are at 11am, 12 noon, 1.30pm, 2.45pm and 4pm; the trip costs €4.50 (£3.20). It is operated by Rederij Rembrandt (00 31 71 513 4938, www.rederij-rembrandt.nl).


If you're lost for words, just take a look around you. 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 Langer Mare and Oude Vest .


The handsome windmill by the water's edge near the station is the Molenmuseum De Valk ("mill museum the falcon"), an 18th century structure that reveals much about the business of grinding grain. It opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturdays and 11am-4pm on Sundays, admission €4 (£2.80); call 00 31 71 516 53 53 53 for more information.