Among the list of European cities that inspire nostalgic sighs and sparkling eyes, Amsterdam ranks high. The Dutch capital is a pristine picture of most travelers’ hyperbolically beautiful notions of a European city trip that combines culture and cocktails, cycling along perfect canals under blue skies and churning windmills on the way to the risqué thrills of the Red Light District.
Except that this isn’t Amsterdam.
It’s Leiden, a smallish student city located no more than a 35-minute train ride from Amsterdam or any of the three other most populous and important cities of the Netherlands. Hidden in plain sight, Leiden goes mostly unnoticed by travelers transiting through its Central Station on their way from Amsterdam to the Hague and Rotterdam.
The city is smaller than it feels. Despite having a population density similar to that of New York City, the official population of this medieval man-made island and the connected neighborhoods outside the moat that surrounds it is comparable to New Haven, Connecticut, and its land area is no more expansive than that of a spacious American university campus.
But it’s no Amsterdam: in fact, a strong part of Leiden’s local culture and history is that it’s not its posh, powerful, and more popular older sibling on the other side of the imaginary line between the provinces of North and South Holland. The city has a singular atmosphere, its own traditions, and even a trademark accent distinct from those of each of the four urban pillars that together form the densely-populated Randstad area—the Dutch equivalent of a Boston-Washington corridor—in which Leiden finds itself in the near-exact geographic middle.
Many of the discreet local cultures that comprise the mosaic of the present-day Randstad emerged during the Eighty Years War. Leiden’s own story of singularity begins dramatically on October 3rd, 1574, when the Leidenaren of the sixteenth century ousted their Spanish Habsburg imperial rulers.
For contemporary Leidenaren this meant a valiant victory and political and cultural autonomy. For residents of and visitors to Leiden today, it means one of the best festivals on the Dutch calendar.
Every year on the second day of October, the city’s businesses close up early; and that night, the cobblestone roads along and between the canals erupt into a city-wide festival that’s somehow both one of the country’s biggest and best and at the same time mostly unknown outside a two- or three-town radius around Leiden: Leids Ontzet, or the Relief of Leiden.
For two nights, the sacred cultural norm of “just be normal” goes out the window. The second day of Leids Ontzet features more day-drinking, more city streets packed with stands selling beer and raw herring and fries with mayonaise, and the kermis, the giant fair that sprouts up overnight next to the Central Station and for two days devours the entire northwest corner of town.
As a reward for the valiant defense of Leiden that gave us the modern-day Leids Ontzet celebrations, in 1575 William of Orange, the founding father of what would become the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands, endowed Leiden with the very first university of the Netherlands.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Leiden University was an international center of philosophy and science; and in the 21st, it’s not only one of the most prestigious universities of the continent and the university where all future kings and queens of the Netherlands are educated, but also one of the biggest drivers of cosmopolitanism and the international community of Leiden.
Together the many international students and the equally plentiful expats form a key part of Leiden’s local culture—you’ll never take a stroll through the Wednesday and Saturday street market or through the alleys along the Rapenburg Canal without hearing the sounds of English and half a dozen other languages in the space of a few minutes. At times Leiden, with its not-quite 150,000 residents, feels more intensely international than Amsterdam or the Hague.
And this makes a difference for travelers. The thriving expat scene is constantly organizing events for newcomers and passers-through to dip their feet into Dutch culture and dive head-first into local culture.
The International Student Network hosts the odd roadtrip and a traditional local hutspot dinner during Leids Ontzet, but those looking for less hand-holding or a bit of distance from the student scene normally turn to the lively local Couchsurfing scene.
Also a handy hospitality network for travelers visiting the city, Couchsurfing is a cultural exchange community, and in Leiden it’s best known for its weekly Wednesday “Language Lab” at Café de Keyzer—known lovingly by locals and internationals alike by its Dutch diminutive, ‘t Keizertje—as well as hosting theme parties and events for everything from the Dutch Sinterklaas to an annual Halloween party that’s become a staple of the annual expat social calendar.
Modern Leiden is a multicultural amalgamation of its own local identity and the globalism that’s always been a fundamental part of that identity, from offering asylum to the English refugees who would later become the American pilgrims of Plymouth Rock to carving out a position as an international center of art, science, and scholarship during the Dutch Golden Age. In Leiden today, you can see that global identity literally written on the walls of the city.
Leiden launched its Muurgedichten or “wall poems” project in 1992, sponsoring the painting of over 100 poems in nearly as many different languages on the walls of buildings of every sort throughout the city. The result is a city whose physical bricks and mortar are covered in the many languages of global society, painting a picture as diverse as the residents who see a sliver of home when they walk past a poem in Polish, Arabic, Japanese, or English.
Travelers looking for a seedy coffee shop full of joint-smoking tourists or a wild night of electronica-fueled partying may wish to step off their flight in Schiphol airport and directly onto the next Amsterdam-bound train. But those looking to spend a few days in a city with its own unique local culture that’s somehow both authentically Dutch and patently international should instead take the train fifteen minutes in the opposite direction, right into the heart of the Netherlands.