The city that breathes science out of every pore.
One of the places I visited during my 2022 spring stay in the Netherlands was Leiden, a city in southern Holland and the home of the Netherlands’ oldest university. Apparently it was named the European City of Science for 2022, which couldn’t be more appropriate based on my experience of its vibe. You can even visit the Ehrenfest autograph wall at the Leiden University where important physicists have signed their names for about 100 years now and even Einstein’s sink in the lecture hall opposite the wall, which is now sort of a science relic. Just make sure you are smarter than me and actually arrive during university office hours so that they will let you in…
As a university city, Leiden is a hotspot for museums and you’ll probably find something for everyone. First off, there are the popular Molen de Valk museum about windmills inside the only windmill still within the city, the Hortus botanicus botanical gardens (the oldest in the Netherlands) and the Young Rembrandt Studio, where the famous Dutch painter learnt to paint (this one is free to visit), as well as an impressive 17th century public library the Bibliotheca Thysiana. There is also a massive and very old Museum of Ethnology, but personally I was more interested in the CORPUS and the Booerhave science and medical museum.
THe science vibes, featuring Einstein’s pen
The CORPUS is an interactive museum journey through the human body inside a giant sitting human model and it looks absolutely awesome. Since I wasn’t sure when exactly I would be in Leiden, I didn’t book my ticket in advance and missed my chance to see it, because you can only visit it by joining a tour and all the English tours were fully booked on the day. In fact, I really should have planned my visit to Leiden better, but it was sort of a last minute decision to go there, so if you have had the chance to see CORPUS, please let me know how it was in the comments!
My visit to the Boerhaave museum was more successful and I would definitely recommend it to all the science nerds out there. Named after Herman Boerhaave who was a 17th century Dutch physician, the Boerhaave museum is primarily focused on the history of medicine and general science, which of course means a lot of astronomy in the early days. They have some fascinating mechanisms, such as the oldest heliocentric planetarium in the world, as well as lots of gruesome historical anatomical models and medical instruments – I don’t think I’ll ever recover from seeing the practice cloth dolls which were used to train physicians assisting during births. The exhibitions related to the research of Dutch Nobel Prize winners also cover some of the more modern engineering and science achievements, but I would say you need to be at least somewhat interested in the workings of the human body to enjoy this museum – it is housed in a former plague house, after all.
CORPUS & The Boerhaave museum
Like practically all Dutch cities, Leiden is comprised of pretty historical buildings and water canals, but surprisingly, it also has a small hill with an equally small castle. The Burcht van Leiden is a circular 11th century fortress, which was built on top of an artificial hill known as a motte and used as the main defensive structure in the area for about two centuries until it became outdated. Nowadays it is rather difficult to find and far from what we normally imagine as a castle, as taller buildings have sprung up around it and it is now easy to confuse for a random park. You can see it in the photo gallery below, next to the cute cat thief who tried to steal my kibbeling lunch. Kibbeling is one of the typical Dutch street foods, which is basically bits of deep fried fish with a dipping sauce. There’s also lekkerbekjes, which are whole fried fish fillets, usually cod, hake or haddock, and you can get these at food stalls everywhere.
Burcht van Leiden
Besides history and science, Leiden is also full of interesting sculptures and quirky details out in the streets, which include a urinal monument, the top half of a German WW1 naval mine hanging on a chain above Hartesteeg 2 and various poems painted on the walls. There are over 100 poems written in their original languages scattered around Leiden, which were part of an initiative by the Tegen-Beeld Foundation between 1992 and 2005 and you can find the translations here. Even though their project has ended, new poems are still occasionally added by other locals initiatives. Also, as a fun fact: one of the oldest pubs in Leiden, De Vergulde Kruik, allegedly sold their now famous red-star logo to Heineken + if you are visiting during Christmas season, be sure to check out Leiden’s unique floating Christmas market.