While Amsterdam is crowded and trying to get rid of some of its tourists, you can find an alternative destination that is worth visiting for a day trip. The historical center of Leiden offers an escape from the craziness of the Netherlands’ capital. This smaller, less touristic city, has many of the things Amsterdam has, it has canals, museums and a long vibrant history full of art, war and science.
The city now has a new urban nature style park that reminds us of parks in metropoles around the world: Leiden’s Singelpark. The park that is built on top of the now demolished city defensive walls and has already been compared to New York City’s The High Line. While the walk does bring back memories of the Promenade Pantée in Paris or the city walls surrounding Lucca in Tuscany, this walk is unique. It is modern yet historic. It is urban yet quiet. Most importantly, unlike those other famous walks this one is a bit more low key as it is new and yet relatively undiscovered. I love it.
In this blog I want you to accompany me as I walk around the brand new city park. The Singelpark connects existing and new parks and trails in the heart of the historic city center. The walk follows the former city walls that protected the city against attackers trying to get into the city. The walk is about 6km (3.7 miles) and you can easily spend a day if you also visit a museum or two. It is a perfect get away from Amsterdam and highly recommended as a day trip.
About Leiden's Singelpark
Before I tell you what historic sights you will see on your walk, I need to give you some background information about the walk. Since the 17th century, the City of Leiden was protected by a large brick city wall with a large moat. With warfare techniques advancing throughout the ages, this type of city defence became outdated and obsolete. City walls and other defence structures were demolished. In Leiden this happened around 1860 and 1870. But while the walls might be gone, two historic city gates and one defense tour are still there as well as the canal that surrounds the city. And what has also survived is the gigantic star shaped city moat.
How to get to Leiden from Amsterdam
The city of Leiden is located about 35 kilometres (22 miles) from Amsterdam and has a completely new walking path that takes you around the historic city centre. You can easily get to Leiden by taking a train from Amsterdam Central Station. The ride takes about half an hour. Trains leave every 15 minutes.
Navigating the 4 Singelpark zones
As part of a citizens’ initiative, the city has build bridges over canals and installed a massive walking path. The once defensive line of the city has now become a park called ‘Singel park’ which literally translates into Moat Park. Newly laid paths and modern bridges now connect different parks that have already been in the area. The walking route is very new and still not completely finished (February 2021), there are areas where you have to take a quick detour. Despite that some of it is still under construction, it is already a major success. You can find more information at www.singelpark.nl.
So let’s get started. Although there isn’t a single starting point and you can start the walk everywhere around the park, I am starting my walk at Leiden’s east side. The historic city centre is sort of square shaped. We follow the route anti clock wise going from East to North , to West and South and finish again where we started.
The walk takes you to some historic places and buildings while blessing us with a beautiful view of canals and the historic buildings.
Finding Leiden's Singel Park
Finding Singelpark is easy and you can start anywhere. If you arrive by train just walk into the city. The first bridge you cross is already the West side of the Singel. You can walk in any direction, do it partially or fully. Do whatever you like!
Singelpark East Side – Direction the Netherlands’ Green Heart
Although you can start your walk on any side, we start our walk on the east side of the city park. While you can’t see it anymore from the singelpark, this area was surrounded by the traditional Dutch polder landscape. Just outside the city used to be a peat meadow area with many farms. Nowadays, just outside the city you can still visit the green area called the Green Hart of the Netherlands.
Things to see and do - East
- Industrial complex
- Van Gogh’s Cemetary
- City beer walk
- Leiden’s poems
- City gate: Zijlpoort
Starting East. The start of our tour is De Plantage, a small but pretty park located about 100 meters from my house. This area of the city is especially beautiful in spring when thousands of blue crocuses cheer up the place. This place also has sentimental value for me personally. When I was 10 years old, back in 1955, this is where I would first travel alone. From my parents home in Oegstgeest I would take the tram to the park where an ice cream man would sell multiple flavours from his bike. The tram, which you can see on the photo below, was in service until 1960 after which the area lost its meaning within the city.
On the corner of the Plantage is a nice bar named after the area. Café Plantage is a traditional Dutch pub (Bruin Café) that comes with a pool table and darts. When the weather is good, and covid rules allow for it, you can sit outside.
Opposite the cafe you can also see something special about Leiden. On one of the walls of a house you can see a large poem painted on the wall named Natur und Kunst by Wolfgang von Goethe (photo 3). This is part of a major art project around the city where over 120 poems, in multiple languages, have been painted on buildings. More information can be found on www.muurgedichten.nl
Horse driven barges & Van Gogh’s family cemetery
Around the corner from the house with the poem we arrive at the Utrechtse Veer (photo 4). It is from this place where ferries and transport boats would leave to go to the city of Utrecht located about 50km East. For centuries ships were the fastest and most reliable mode of transportation within Holland. Horse driven barges were the way to go until trains replaced them half way through the 19th centuries.
From the Utrechtse Veer we take a bridge over the Nieuwe Rijn (translates in new Rhine river). This is where we take one of the parks ( ?..) unique and new pedestrian bridges (photo 5). We now walk around the Groenesteeg cemetery that was built after emperor Napoleon banned burring corpses inside charges in 1811. The cemetery, which is an official monument since 1978, is where 12 family members of Vincent van Gogh are buried including his mother Anna Van Gogh – Carbentus (1819-1907). On the cemetery you can find lots of beautiful old trees including the thickest tree of Zuid-Holland (photo 6).
19th century Urban Industry complex
As we start to leave the cemetery we can already see a large industrial complex from the 19th century. This is a major flour mill that was closed in 1988 and was abandoned for decades. Now, the city is working hard to transform the giant concrete structure into a modern complex with lots of different functions (more info: www.demeelfabriek.nl). The mill will also become part of the Singel Park walk as they are building a park on the premises (photo 7). Unfortunately, the mill isn’t yet fully reconstructed and you will have to walk around it.
Anker Park and Zijlpoort
From the mill, we go into the Anker Park, a green island in between the industrial complex and a large historic city gate called de Zijlpoort. From this park, you have a beautiful and free view of the Zijlsingel where you can still find historic docked ships (photo 8).
This is where we once again take on of the newly installed pedestrian bridges as we cross the Old Rhine River. From the bridge you can look right into the heart of the historic city. After crossing the bridge we reach the Zijlpoort one of two out of eight old gates that remained. This gate was built in 1667 and is build in the classical architecture style (photo 9). Next to the Zijlpoort is a Roman Catholic cemetery which was founded in 1828 and boosts a monumental chappel that was built in the same year. Similar to the previous cemetery, this one also has lots of trees and greenery bringing a very calm and unique atmosphere to this final place of rest (photo 10).
Singelpark North Side – Direction Amsterdam
Things to see and do - North
- Energy Park
- Modern bridges and park
- Molen De Valk windmill
Beyond the outskirts of the city you can find lakes, more polder areas, Schiphol Airport and a bit further north the capital of Amsterdam. Directly north of the Singelpark, you can find a large urban area.
The cemetery also marks our first route change in the city walk. After walking around the eastern side of the former city wall we will now start to make our way on the northern side. The moat (or Singel) in Dutch also changes name from this point onwards. While we have been walking around the Zijlsingel, named after the gate, we will now walk next to the Herensingel and Maresingel.
In this part of the route we get into a newly refurbished park. We walk through large stretches of greenery before we reach Leiden’s old gas plant. This large industrial complex was the Netherland’s first gas plant and was operational from 1848 to 1967. The heavily industrial area has been completely refurbished and is now called the Energy Park.
All industrial buildings are in the process of being refurbished but like the area around the mill plant, you cannot yet walk through it. You have to walk around it. For which you have two choices: you can walk inside the moat via the Langegracht, a former city canal, or you can continue to follow the moat and walk outside the historic city center and re-enter the route at the Warmonderbrug (bridge).
I prefer this last option as you will pass the Marepoortbrug, yet another bridge that gives you a beautiful view of the heart of the city (photo 12). This is also the place where horse pulled boats would leave to go to Haarlem and from there to Amsterdam. This is where you can also stop at a nice Dutch bar where you can sit in a white porch (photo 13).
A massive windmill in the heart of the city
As we re-enter the route, we walk towards Molen De Valk a huge windmill within the city center. The moat once again changes names as we now enter the Rijnsburgersingel. This is where you can also see Leiden’s more modern architecture with high rise buildings (for Dutch standards) around the city’s train station (photo 14).
The windmill itself is definitely worth a visit. The windmill that was built in 1900 (photo 15) now has a museum and operational water wheel. You can also climb the windmill from which you have a nice view into the city and surrounding areas. You can find more information about the windmill on their website: www.molenmuseumdevalk.nl.
We continue our walk from the windmill towards one of Leiden’s large museums. The museum Volkenkunde, which is the Dutch word for ethnology museum, is located on the Morssingel (yes the moat changed names again). The museum building was once the academic hospital and became operational in 1873. From 1937 onwards it became the museum and is one of the world’s oldest ethnology museums in the world boosting a large collection of interesting objects from our the world. You can walk around the museum which is also located inside a (sort of) park.
Leiden & museums
Although Leiden is a relatively small city with just over 120,000 citizens, it is home to several major and diverse museums. Next to ethnology museums there is also the National Museum of Antiquities, fine art museum De Lakenhal and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center where a full T-Rex dinosaur is on display.
West Side - Sea side
Things to see and do - West
- Train station
- Gallows gate
- Rembrandt’s park
- City center detour
Although you can’t see the sea from the city, Leiden is closely located to the sea. The NorthSea is only about 15 minutes away by car to the west. Katwijk and Noordwijk’s beaches and dunes lie to the west of the city.
We turn the corner westwards at the museum and continue our walk on the sea side of the Singelpark.
After leaving the museum’s terrain, we stumble on Leiden’s second remaining city gate: de Morspoort. This brick gate dates back to 1669 and was the Western access into the country. The gate is shaped as an octagonal and also served as a prison.
Leiden’s darker history: Gallows gate
The gate was also infamously known as the Galgenpoort which translates into ‘gallows gate’ for a reason. It is in this area where prisoners were transported to the Gallows Field (het Galgenveld) on the Rhine river. At Gallows Field those that were sentenced to death by hanging were executed.
Nowadays, there are little reminders of the gates darker history. Over the centuries the area has developed into quite a cosy area with bars and restaurants. Especially in summer, when the sun is shining, the area transforms into a large outside terrace where locals and tourists mingle and people have a drink and eat.
Leiden and Rembrandt
Next to De Morspoort you can find yet another park called De Put. This is a small and cosy park that has a nice playing ground for kids that includes a ship. The park is named after the 17th century small city windmill that used to be there. Nowadays, a nice replica has replaced the mill.
We now cross the Rembrandtbrug (Rembrandt’s bridge) named after Leiden’s most famous son. The bridge itself is quite unique. It is a large double drawbridge completely made out of wood. Like the windmill this is also a replica. The bridge that was originally here, was bult in the 17th century to 1817. From 1817 until 1983 a pedestrian ferry brought people from one side to the other.
From the bridge you have a good view into the city from the West. The water here carries a morbid name. It is called Galgenwater which translates into Gallows waters. Those convicted didn’t have far to go from the before mentioned gate. It was here where Gallows Field was located. Those coming into the city over the water were reminded by the death that crime was not tolerated in the city of Leiden. You can now also see the stadstimmerwerf (which translates into) city’s carpenter workshop. This building dates back to 1612 and lots of old historic ships are docked here.
This is also the area where Rembrant van Rijn was born and raised. After crossing the bridge named after the painter you get into de Weddesteeg. An alley where his family lived. His father was a miller and the mill he worked at the Rijn mill gave the family its name. The mill where Rembrandt’s father lived was comparable to the Molen de Put replica.
Next to the alley we can see the Rembrandt park and we are at East-South corner of our journey. This means that we are halfway. The park itself has a statue of a young Rembrandt. In the summer the statue is surrounded by flowers and you can sit and relax on the water side.
Horse drawn barges connecting Leiden with The Hague
Leiden & Rembrandt
Now considered one of the world’s greatest artists in the history, Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden in 1606. Rembrandt grew up in Leiden and attended the city’s relatively new university.
Although his works are now on display all around the world, you can walk in the footsteps of a youn Rembrandt in his home town of Leiden.
The Rembrandt Park has two areas. In the middle you can find het Noordeinde where another gate into the city was located named the White Gate. This gate was an important entry point from the Middle Ages until 1862/65. In 1638 a canal was dug from this point to the Vliet river. From here people and horse drawn ferries and barges connected the city of Leiden with The Hague.
A noteworthy building. This building is the 1916/1917 built offices of the local newspaper: Het Leidsch Dagblad. While originally designed as an office by city architect Dudok, it is nowadays operated by the local courts and probation offices. On the other side of the street is another statue of Rembrandt.
Interesting detour into the heart of the city
After the Rembrandt park we arrive at the Groenhazengrach where we will make a little detour away from the Singelpark into the old city. You can cross the water here and enter into the city through the Rembrandtpark. Inside the old city city center you can find the Groenhazengracht. Nowadays this is a very quiet area between the outer city moat and the Rapenburg canal. Historically this area wasn’t that quiet. This used to be Leiden’s Red Light District.
When you walk around the canal you can find a painted gate. This painted limestone gate is called the Doelenpoort and dates back to 1648. This used to be the access to the Sint-Joris doelen (Sint-Joris targets) and used to be the practice grounds for the Leidse Schutterij, the local militia. From 1818 to 1960, military barracks were located right here as well as cooking school. This military cooking school is where my father was taught how to cook potatoes in the 1930s. Nowadays, the University occupies most of the buildings here.
Leiden Botanical Gardens
After the small detour inside the old city limits, We will continue our route by going back to the Witte Singel. On summer days you can enjoy the water sideIn summer you can see lots of students doing so.
This is where we get near the grounds of Leiden’s botanical garden and where we can no longer follow the water. You now have to make a choice. You can either walk through the botanical gardens and pay the entrance fee or walk around it following the water on the other side. I prefer the route through the botanical gardens.
But first we will go to the other side of the singel to visit the university library. We walk there via the romantic Paterbrug
A little down the road is the 1983 built University Library. This library might not be so impressive from the outside, inside it has some very remarkable collections. The library is home to the world’s largest collection of books about Indonesia for example
Leiden is a University city. The city’s University was founded in 1575 by William of Orange after the city’s heroic defence against the Spanish invaders during the 80 year war. It is the oldest university in the Netherlands and consistently ranks amongst the top-100 universities in the world. Famous alumni and professors include Rembrandt van Rhijn, John Quincy Adams (6th US President), Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and many members of the Dutch royal family. Website: UniversiteitLeiden.nl.
From the University Library you can cross into the historic city center by following a romantic bridge: the Paterbrug. On the Witte Singel itself you can also find interesting modern architecture. At number 70 and 72 an interesting block of houses can be seen. The block of houses is shaped circular and was designed by architect Jesse. Due to its circular form it is known as De Draaimolen which translates into the Carousel. Another piece of quality architecture can be found at street number 92 to 97. These mansions are given the status of national monuments.
The Botanical gardens are stunning. It is full of special trees, ferns and other plants and flowers. The gardens were founded in 1590 and are the oldest botanical garden of the country.
I wrote a separate article about the botanical gardens for Avoid-Crowds.com. For the Singelpark it is very enjoyable that you can follow the water through the botanical garden. You can access it on one side and exit at the end through a tourniquet.
If you don’t want to walk through the botanical garden you can go around it. For this route you take the Vijfde Binnensvestgracht. No matter how you decide to walk, you can see the observatory, the oldest University observatory in the world.
Singelpark South Side – The Hague’s side
Just 15 kilometers to the South, you can find The Hague where the Dutch parliament and lots of international organizations are located. The city itself is also worth a visit. There is lots to see and in the summer you can combine a citytrip with a day at the beach in Scheveningen.
On the SingelPark South Side you can find the buildings of the observatory are located on the premises of the botanical garden right on the point where our route takes its last turn and we walk the southern part of the route.
Things to see and do - South
- Botanical Gardens
- Gnomes and trolls
80 year’s war and the Siege of Leiden
The Eighty Year’s War (1568-1648), also known as the Dutch war of independence, was a revolt against the king of Spain, who ruled over the area. Leiden found itself in the middle of this war and was sieged by Spanish troops. The city was able to keep the troops out by the strong wall and the moat on which the Singelpark is build. The wall and defence only just held long enough for rebel armies to reach the city and chase away the Spanish on October 3, 1574. The night before, a part of the wall collapsed.
By passing the bridge Vreewijkbrug we reach the Boisotkade where the regional archive of Leiden is located. This building from 1893 has neo-gothic style and is also home to the American Pilgrim Archives. In 1996 this building was extended with a modern looking style on the right side.
Next to the archive is an old bridge over de Vliet river named Vlietbrug. From this bridge you have a good view city inwards where you can see two other old brick bridges: Molensteenbrug and Sint Jeroensbrug. De Vliet is a river that flows within Leiden’s canal system. Over the ages the river has been made into a canal and looks like a regular Dutch city canal.
De Vliet is historically a very important part of the city of Leiden. On the 3rd of October 1574, it was on this river where Leiden was liberated after the siege by the Spanish army. An army of Geuzen (Seabeggars / Protestant rebels) sailed into the city. De Vliet is also home to one of Leiden’s largest fraternity houses named after the heroic Geuzen who liberated the city. At Huize des Gueux on Vliet 15, 32 male students live together in one large household.
By crossing the bridge you enter De Boisotkade where you can enjoy an almost French rural atmosphere with large mansions and lots of green. At the other side of the singel.
Behind this area is De Doezastraat which used to be yet another city canal named de Koepoortsgracht named after the city gate, de Koepoort (cow gate) that used to be here. The gate was demolished in 1874 and a large shopping street has replaced the canal.
After crossing the Doezastraat, the route continues through de Jan van Houtkade. At this site, the city wall used to be accompanied by large brick defensive structures. One of these brick structures, named Wall Tower Oostenrijk, survived.
English landscaping in a Dutch city center
At the end of the Jan van houtkade we will pass a busy street called de Korenvaarstraat and we enter the Plantsoen area where we started our journey. This is where the city moat changes names for the last time and is now called Zoeterwoudesingel named after the village East of Leiden.
The Plantsoen was built between 1835 and 1842 and is inspired by English landscapers. It was built on top of the demolished defensive walls and structures. Around the water, stately manions were erected on the Zoeterwoudesingel. Since 1867 the park also has an aviary with live birds which was replaced by the current one in 1939. You can also find a bronze statue by local artist Jan Wolkers named Moeder en Kind (mother and child).
The Plantsoen is a popular place in all seasons. In February 2021, a cold Nordic front plunged the entire country into freezing temperatures. The water surrounding the Plantsoen froze and became an ice skating hotspot with thousands of locals flocking the area to enjoy the beauty of a traditional Dutch winter that can be seen on many old paintings from famous Dutch artists.
As our tour comes to an end gnomes occupy the park
More recently, gnomes have moved into the park. Many trees are decorated as houses for gnomes and elfs which is especially enjoyable for small children. The park is also home to the Wilhelmina Linde a large tree that was planted in celebration of Queen Wilhelmina’s inauguration in 1898. The trees is protected by a nicely designed fence that features a large W with a crown.
At the end of the park, I recommend stopping for a drink at Café Het Plantsoen. It is where I bought icecreams as a young boy back in 1955 and where our tour ends.