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Leiden University (Netherlands)

Picture a charming Dutch city with windmills, canals and tulips; Leiden is all that and more.


It's also remarkably historic, as the birthplace of Rembrandt, a place where Pilgrims worshipped prior to sailing to the U.S. and the site of a major victory by William of Orange against the Spanish siege in 1574.


Following this military win, residents of the city were told they could have free taxation for a couple of years, or a university -- and thus was born Leiden University, the first university in the Netherlands.


Here are some of the highlights from my visit!


De Valk Windmill Museum
De Valk Windmill Museum

Leiden city


The first thing you'll notice about Leiden is just how close it is to everywhere else in the Netherlands; in fact, from the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, it was an easy 30-minute train ride directly into town.


A 5-minute walk from the station, and you already come across a windmill over a canal.


De Valk Windmill Museum

It's also a quick bus ride to the famous Keukenhof Gardens, a tulip-lovers paradise.


Keukenhof Gardens entrance
Keukenhof Gardens entrance
Keukenhof Gardens
View of tulip fields from Keukenhof Gardens
View of tulip fields from Keukenhof Gardens
View of tulip fields from Keukenhof Gardens
View from the windmill
View from the windmill
Tulips at Keukenhof

Here, around 7 million bulbs are planted by hand every fall.


They then bloom from March to May, an absolute must-see.


Tulips at Keukenhof
Tulips at Keukenhof
Tulips at Keukenhof

Leiden has around 150,000 residents, many of whom are affiliated with the Bio Science Park, the largest cluster of life sciences in the Netherlands and one of the most successful in Europe.


In fact, there are many research spinoffs from Leiden University here.


Leiden University hospital near the Bio Science Park
Leiden University hospital near the Bio Science Park

It's also not far from the European Space Agency.


City Hall
City Hall
Leiden city
Leiden city

Taking a boat tour is a great way to get to know the place, but walking around on foot, you'll easily stumble across the many poems aesthetically painted on buildings.


There are around 150 in total, written in a variety of languages.


Wall poem
Wall poem
e.e. cummings poem
e.e. cummings poem

Another thing you'll notice is just how flat the country is, so it was a bit surprising to come across a mound in the middle of the city.


On top of the mound, however, are the ruins of a strategically-placed castle, which is nowadays a popular hangout and park.


Leiden Castle
Leiden Castle
View from Leiden Castle
View from Leiden Castle
Leiden's cathedral looking very Harry Potter-esque!
Leiden's cathedral looking very Harry Potter-esque!
View from Leiden Castle
View from Leiden Castle
View from Leiden Castle

When the sun comes out, so do the people, and there are plenty of nice places to grab a bite or drink on or around the canals.


Leiden city
Leiden city

Campus and academics


Founded in 1575, Leiden University started with three main faculties: theology, law and medicine.


By the end of the 16th century, the university included four important institutions that attracted students and scientists from all over Europe: an impressive library, the botanical gardens, a fencing school and an anatomical theatre.


Hortus Botanicus
Hortus Botanicus cafe
Hortus Botanicus cafe
Great place to study or have a coffee
Great place to study or have a coffee
The botanical gardens
The botanical gardens
Leiden Uni library
Leiden Uni library

Throughout history, many important figures have attended, including Rembrandt (though he dropped out), John Quincy Adams and members of the Dutch royal family (Queens Juliana and Beatrix and King Willem-Alexander).


Main academic building
Main academic building

Nowadays, it is made up of 34,000 students and 6,000 international students split across its two campuses in Leiden and The Hague.


It's currently ranked in the top 100 in the world (77th in the Times Higher Ed World Rankings, 2024 - similarly to UNC and USC) and is focused on making a societal impact.


Loved these mail trucks, symbolic of the openness of the country
Loved these mail trucks, symbolic of the openness of the country

In fact, it was once the site of protests from staff members when their Jewish colleagues were no longer allowed to teach during World War II.


There are various monuments to this cause around the city.


Monument to free speech
Monument to free speech
'Baggage' monument to the Jews deported from this area
'Baggage' monument to the Jews deported from this area

This history has had a lasting impact, as freedom of speech and being able to voice opinions have remained important to the university, which is always hosting lectures and various debates from all viewpoints (sometimes controversial ones, too) on campus.


Main university building
Main university building

Leiden's campus culture is that of a social university; although academics are important, the social student experience is very important, too.


It offers 16 English-taught bachelor's degrees, all of which have the flexibility to add a minor or a study abroad experience.


It's the only Dutch university with a full faculty of archaeology and also offers unique programs in African Studies, International Studies and Security and Urban Studies.


Leiden University

The two most competitive programs that have a limited number of spots (Numerus Fixus), however, are International Relations and Psychology.


Study spaces
Study spaces
Study spaces

And for students who are particularly skilled in the arts, they can add electives or a practicum experience at the Royal Conservatoire or Royal Academy of Art via Leiden's Academy for Creative and Performing Arts (ACPA).


Humanities building
Humanities building

In addition, Leiden happens to be home to possibly my favorite study space I've ever seen, a secret spot housed within the Arsenaal building.


Arsenaal Building
LOVE this greenery, including the chairs!
LOVE this greenery, including the chairs!

Finally, like most Dutch cities, finding housing in Leiden can be really challenging, but they do have 300 rooms in Leiden and 300 in The Hague, available on a first-come, first-served basis -- so it's important to apply for your course early.


Admissions building
Admissions building

One way to avoid the housing crisis is to look at the Dutch university colleges, which are small, selective honors colleges housed within research universities like Leiden.


Leiden University College is located in The Hague, and students live on campus for the first two years.


Its liberal arts degrees focus on the global challenges of Peace and Justice, Sustainability, Prosperity and Diversity.


Leiden Law School
Leiden Law School
Area directly outside the law school
Area directly outside the law school

Summary: Leiden University


Leiden is no doubt one of my favorite universities and cities in the Netherlands.


I loved soaking up the history as I walked through the streets, checking out the nearby Keukenhof Gardens, navigating the low bridges whilst onboard a canal cruise, reading the various poems painted on sides of buildings -- and more.


It's very much a student city, but it's also super close to Amsterdam for those wanting a big city experience on occasion.


And throughout its nearly 450 years of history, the university continues to do a great job equipping students with the skills and knowledge to improve the societies of today.


Leiden city
Keukenhof Gardens

 

Interested in applying for college or grad school in the Netherlands?


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G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

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