Leiden's history

Situated at what has traditionally been an important junction where waterways and roads cross stands a city that will enchant you: Leiden. The city is famous for its almshouses, university, museums and glorious history. The spirit of the Golden Age lives on here, a place where Rembrandt was born and inspired so many other influential painters. But even after this era Leiden continued to attract scientists, artists and industry. The canals, the historical buildings, the alleyways, the treasuries of knowledge, culture and science: Leiden is definitely worth seeing.


The Relief of Leiden, is still celebrated every year, right up to the present day, with a gigantic local party.

The Relief of Leiden

By the end of the 15th century Leiden was the largest city in the county of Holland. This was largely due to the international cloth-making industry. The economic tide began to turn with the advent of the 16th century, however. The reformation led to mass prosecution of Protestants. In 1572 Leiden joined the Dutch resistance against Spain's oppression. The city was occupied by the Spanish.

The people of Leiden succumbed to disease and starvation and the Spanish nearly conquered the city. However, they successfully drove the troops out on 3 October 1574. The great liberation, known as Leidens Ontzet or the Relief of Leyden, is still lavishly celebrated today. This huge party is not the only result of the Spanish occupation; the city also allegedly was given the university as a reward for its heroic resistance.

The Relief marked the beginning of a new Golden Age. In 1577 tens of thousands of Dutch people from the south flocked to Leiden on account of their Calvinist faith. These were experienced textile workers and business people who helped revive the failing wool industry in Leiden with new products, techniques, capital and labour.

Leiden was the second largest city in the Republic after Amsterdam. The population quadrupled despite major plague epidemics. The city was expanded in 1611, 1644 and again in 1659 and the network of canals was laid out in its current incarnation. At the height of the boom around 1670 the city was densely populated by some 60,000 people.


Leiden University is the oldest university of the Netherlands.

Leiden University

In 1575, Leiden had the distinction of becoming the first city in the northern Netherlands to have a university. Legend has it that the university was a reward for the heroic resistance to the Spanish occupation. Leiden University became one of the leading universities in Europe and the tremendous degree of freedom of conscience stimulated the school's growth.

Decline and revolution

Leiden's wool industry was steadily declining in the 18th century: jobs dried up and people moved elsewhere. The downturn caused by the failing wool industry led to unrest. The ongoing war waged by Napoleon only aggravated the situation. The final straw came when Leiden was struck by catastrophic disaster. A ship carrying gunpowder exploded on 12 January 1807, destroying dozens of houses and killing at least 160 people.

The 19th century

After 1815 the city began to show signs of recovery. Leiden's industry began to diversify in the second half of the century with emerging new sectors such as metal, printing and canning. 
The beautiful retail buildings offer unequivocal proof that prosperity started picking up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Leiden is the City of Keys; the motif of keys can be seen all over the city.


Leiden underwent a dramatic transformation during the last 30 years of the 20th century. In the 1960s, Leiden was a rundown industrial city with the university as its main claim to fame. By the early 1980s the industries had disappeared, and unemployment was rampant. However, the city managed to bounce back by tapping into new sectors.

The Leiden Bio Science Park and other high tech companies in the Leeuwenhoek deserve special mention. Today, Leiden has a low unemployment rate and one of the most highly educated populations in the Netherlands.

Nowadays, the restored historic city centre is an especially pleasant place to live. With all of its monuments, museums, ancient alleyways, canals and moats, Leiden also continues to attract an increasing number of tourists and day visitors who appreciate the city's charms.

The keys to Leiden

Leiden is the City of Keys; the motif of keys can be seen all over the city. This dates back to 1293 when a city seal depicting Saint Peter featured on official documents of the ‘stadt Leyde’. In his hand the apostle carries a key. The combination of Saint Peter and a key is a well-known symbol taken from the Bible. The well-known church of Leiden carries his name, the Pieterskerk.