Two Sides to The Netherlands

If you’ve been thinking about a trip to Europe but you can’t decide where to go—or are intimidated by the French—I encourage you to consider The Netherlands. The country is seething with history, art, cosmopolitan cities, whimsical villages, and really lovely people who all seem to speak at least seven languages.

At the end of July, My Dad and I visited the smaller, Oxford-like university town of Leiden before taking the train to Amsterdam to meet my Mom and a group of her friends for the Urban Sketchers International Symposium. The last time I was in Amsterdam, I was surprised and overwhelmed by how sprawling it was; Kyle and I spent a lot of time getting lost down meandering roads that dead-ended into canals. Overwhelmed and beguiled, I’ve wanted to return ever since, so couldn’t pass up this opportunity to go back to Amsterdam.

Leiden, on the other hand, came to us by (metaphorically) throwing a dart at a map of The Netherlands. Dad and I decided to add a few extra days to our trip and Amsterdam was fully booked—like, the entire city’s hotels and Airbnbs were booked months in advance—so my Dad suggested Leiden. An easy train ride from Amsterdam, Leiden felt like a hidden oasis amidst the crush of Amsterdam’s High Tourist Season. Known as the birthplace of famed Dutch Baroque painter Rembrandt van Rijn, Leiden is also home to The Netherlands’ oldest public university founded in 1575, which has attracted the likes of René Descartes, John Quincy Adams, and 16 recipients of the Nobel Prize, including Albert Einstein.

We rolled into Leiden, where it was raining steadily, early in the morning just off the overnight flight from America and the train ride from Amsterdam with almost no sleep. I was dreading the inevitable dazed scramble to find somewhere to while away the jet lag until hotel check-in time. I’m no stranger to falling asleep, while standing, in a museum or sleeping in a rental car after an international flight, but I prefer a proper nap. So, when the saint at the hotel desk told us the room was available, I could have kissed her. The Golden Tulip hotel turned out to be an excellent selection. Chic, comfortable, modern, with an American sized bathroom, it was the perfect blend of convenience and comfort, making our stay in Leiden even more delightful.

Leiden is a perfect European city. It is exactly the right size to be able to walk nearly the entire city-center in one day. It oozes charm from its multitudes of small canals, brick paved streets, hollyhock lined alleys, and gabled roofs. Two or three main bustling plazas, filled with outdoor cafes that overlook busy canal intersections, quickly give way to quiet, secluded gardens and intimate bars. The overall effect gives Leiden a dreamlike, lost-in-time, quality that is familiar to places like Bruges, Old Town Edinburgh, and Florence. On our first night, we went to a French restaurant called Bistro Malle Jan: it had a walled garden patio, complete with twinkle lights, and a supremely kind and patient waitress. While my Dad and I both felt very guilty that Kyle and my Mom weren’t with us, we managed to soldier through a few beers and glasses of summery rosé, fix-prix dinners of pasta and steak, and chocolate cake for dessert.

Without the enormous tourist draws of the Rijksmuseum, Red Light District, and international glamour of Amsterdam, Leiden is the perfect city to slow down and wander, to discover what’s at the end of a twisting alley, to relax and watch the canal boats float along, all while enjoying Dutch hospitality. If you’re in Leiden and decide you do want to visit the busier Amsterdam, it’s only a 20-40 minute train ride away! Because of its proximity to the city, which is one of the busiest for tourists in the world, we were shocked that Leiden was pleasantly not swamped with visitors, even in late July.

Where Leiden was relaxed, Amsterdam absolutely crackled with the energy and heat of thousands of tourists, exactly 2,500 houseboats, and record-breaking soaring temperatures. This time around, I didn’t underestimate her. I brought my own beautiful map from my favorite brand of travel guide: Eyewitness. I studied this map very carefully. I prepared for the city to pull me under and wanted to be able to go with the flow, so I only planned two things: a trip to the Rijksmuseum and a rijsttafel dinner at Blauw. Both were excellent! Rijsttafel or “rice table” is an Indonesian-Dutch fusion meal that incorporates around 30 different small dishes or sides, with rice. The Dutch colonized parts of South East Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, all of which are represented in the excellent international cuisine in Amsterdam. These, right alongside bitterballen, stroopwaffles, and Gouda. I recommend being a little adventurous while you’re there!

Amsterdam was everything I remembered, but where in September things were chilly and grey, in July it was sweltering and bursting with color. Everything is so Dutch, like in Leiden, but on a massive scale. It’s exuberant and unique, mystifying and friendly. The people are gracious hosts to thousands of sweaty tourists and I can’t wait to join their ranks again sometime soon.

Both Leiden and Amsterdam are unlike anywhere else in the world, except perhaps, the rest of The Netherlands.

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