In this blog I am taking you on a visit to the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. This garden has a special place in my heart and it makes me happy to be able to share this feeling with you. The reason this Hortus Botanicus is extra special to me is because I was born in Leiden back in 1945 and I still live in the city with great pleasure today.
Before we’ll enter the garden, I’ll briefly introduce you to my home town first. Leiden is a city in the west of the Netherlands. It is situated about 48 km (30 miles) south of Amsterdam and about 24 km (15 miles) from Amsterdam airport. Although the city isn’t that big, with only 120,000 inhabitants, it is most definitely worth a visit. Leiden is a beautiful and old Dutch city in the heart of the area known as Holland and as it’s a bit off the beaten track, it’s still crowd free. Unlike Amsterdam, in Leiden you can walk along the canals peacefully.
In this series of blogs, Henk Schrama explains how to avoid crowds by visiting botanical gardens around the world.
A brief introduction of my home town: Leiden, the Netherlands
Leiden’s history goes far back and for a long time it was the second biggest and most important city of the Netherlands after Amsterdam. Leiden closely follows Amsterdam with its amount of canals and bridges and has a total of 28km (17 miles) of water ways and 88 bridges.
World famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden on July 25, 1606. He spent the first 25 years of his life living and working in Leiden and you can take a guided tour through the city to visit all the places where he was born and where he painted. These tours also take you to the still existing Latin school where he was a student.
Leiden is also home to the oldest University of the Netherlands. The University of Leiden was founded in 1575 and over the years has evolved into one of the most modern universities in the world. The University now has a bio-science park that houses an array of medical and bio pharmaceutical businesses. One of those: Janssen Pharmaceutica, is one of the leading companies in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
How to get there
You can easily experience the city from the water by hopping on an enjoyable canal cruise or by renting your own boat for a few hours. Because Leiden has a very compact city center, it is also a great city to explore by foot.
The city boosts over 2,800 monuments, countless churches, windmills, 13 museums and several courtyards that are all in close proximity of each other.A medieval stronghold surrounded by beautiful old canal houses marks the middle of the city center. Both the historic and modern side of the University make Leiden a dynamic and lively open air museum. You can find lots of useful information about the city on visitleiden.nl. Information is available in Dutch, German and English.
Learn how to avoid crowds with our book on overtourism and smart traveling during and after covid.
Hortus Botanicus - Leiden, our first botanical garden
Leiden’s Hortus Botanicus is the oldest botanical garden in Western Europe and was founded by the University in 1590. The Hortus is situated directly behind the University’s Academy Hall with its entrance at one of the most beautiful canals of the Netherlands, het Rapenburg. It is a 15 minute walk through the city center to get from the train station to the entrance of the Hortus.
The Hortus Botanicus has a special location within the city as it is built on top of the old, demolished city walls and is surrounded by a beautiful ‘singel’. A canal that surrounded the old city and was used as a defence against invading troops, similar to a massive moat. Although in English all Dutch waterways are called canals, the Dutch differentiate between ‘singel’, ‘gracht’ and ‘kanaal’ and most cities only have ‘grachten’; man-built water ways within cities. As soon as you enter the garden through the wrought iron gate of the University’s Academy Hall, you’ll experience a particular atmosphere, caused by the combination of old and new. Century old buildings are connected through a modern glass house in which you can find the winter garden.
What I personally like most about the botanical garden in Leiden is how it blends in with its surroundings. Due to the extraordinary location, the Hortus has a lot of unique views of the garden, with the singel in the background, which keeps the Hortus interesting, even after the fiftieth visit. There are benches at most of these special viewing points and all througout the garden for you to enjoy the view and surroundings in peace for a while. Some of them are placed in covered areas, creating the perfect spot to enjoy the early spring sun.
What to look for in this botanical garden?
The garden spans over 10 acres and is divided into smaller, themed, gardens based on the plants in them. In addition, there are greenhouses where you can find multiple special plants and trees. The latest information about the collection can be found on the garden’s multi language website: hortusleiden.nl
Leiden’s botanical garden houses a range of special trees, most of which are incredibly old. The garden has around 30 trees that are over 100 years old amongst which is a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron) that has been growing in the garden since 1716, a golden rain tree (Common Laburnum) that’s over 400 years old and a very special Japanese Maidenhair tree (Gingo Biloba) from 1785.
The hortus also has one of Europe’s largest collections of ferns, displayed at both the inside and outside Fern Garden. But the greenhouses harbor more than just ferns. Inside them you can find numerous collections of plants of which the orchid collection is the most spectacular.
The warmest greenhouse is the Victoria greenhouse where the massive Giant Water Lily (Victoria Amazonica) grows. The leaves of the Giant Water Lily can grow to span over 1 meter and weigh up to 4 kgs. This water lily also has largest flower in the world, which blooms in summer. A very special happening as the flower only opens up at the end of the afternoon and blooms for just two nights. The first night the flower is white and smells like pineapple. The second night the flower turns pink and has no smell at all.
Visiting during COVID
Although I have visited the garden numerous times in my life, I had to do some extra research for this post. I visited the garden on October 31, 2020 and at that time most of the trees had beautiful autumn colors but the garden also had to deal with the pandemic. Due to COVID-19, you had to go online to book a ticket with a pre-selected timeslot. For each timeslot the Hortus allows only a limited number of visitors in, to make sure everyone could keep a safe distance to each other.
Inside the garden, face masks are mandatory and there are two walking routes that avoid you from bumping into people. The standard entrance fee is 8 euros but there are countless of options for a reduction and entrance is free with the Dutch ‘Museumjaarkaart’.
I recommend visiting the botanical garden on Saturday as on this day the old observatory, also located on the garden’s premises, is open to the general public. The observatory is only open during the weekends. For more information about the observatory, visit their website.