9 highlights of Leeuwarden, the Netherland’s hidden gem

A small town in the north of the Netherlands, Leeuwarden packs a punch in terms of art, culture and history. Perfect for a city break without the crowds, here are nine highlights…

Team Wanderlust
29 March 2023
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1. Take a tour of the historic old town

Tour the historic old town (Jurjen Drenth)

You’ll discover plenty about this hidden gem on foot. Why not learn about its history through the eyes of a local? Take the Leeuwarden Free Tour, whose guide will bring the city alive with anecdotes, historical tales, and information about the landmarks and sights you’ll pass en route. Notable places to visit include Oldehove, a picturesque, leaning Gothic church tower in the medieval centre. Next to it is the Princessehof museum, a former city palace and the birthplace of renowned graphic artist Maurits C Escher which now displays a magnificent collection of ceramics. Check out the romantic, sweeping gardens of the Prinsentuin park, and Grote Kerk, the oldest and most architecturally important church in Leeuwarden.

For a different perspective, take a canal tour, and cruise past the city’s monumental facades and historic house and storefronts. Go by barge, a typically Friesian boat once used by farmers to transport livestock, tools, and hay.

2. Explore contemporary culture

Explore contemporary culture (Visit Leeuwarden)

While Leeuwarden has a lot of history, there are plenty of contemporary attractions to explore, too. Don’t miss the Blokhuispoort, a 19th century former prison which has been transformed into a cultural centre. Here you’ll find a mix of creative initiatives, pop-up shops, places to eat and drink, a library and even a hostel. Art is huge here; there is plenty scattered throughout the city, from murals to LOVE, a fountain containing two seven metre sculptured heads by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. Keep your eyes to the ground, too, for the Miniature People: tiny figures left at different locations by photographer Michel Tilma. There are also dozens of museums and galleries to visit, from the hidden Jugendstil-gem De Utrecht, to the museum celebrating Frisian sculptor Pier Pander. And if you’re looking for a more unusual way to explore Leeuwarden, hop on board an SUP to explore its peaceful, serene canals and waterways.

3. Admire the art

Admire the art (Mitch De Pon)

Leeuwarden could be seen as an open air gallery, thanks to the colourful expressions of street art and installations you’ll find all over the city. Take a guided, or self-guided tour of the graffiti and murals located on walls, street corners, and down alleyways and learn all about the artists and their inspirations. Don’t miss the modern Fries Museum which showcases Friesian culture, depicting arts, crafts and artefacts spanning the 13th to 21st century. The Mata Hari hall is dedicated to the life of the dancer and spy who was born here in 1876, while you’ll also learn about the famous Elfstedentocht 11-cities ice skating race (the biggest ice-skating tour in the world), and Friesland’s unique relationship with water. At the Princesshof, you can explore the permanent exhibition dedicated to innovative graphic artist, M C Escher, who was born in the building in 1898. The museum also displays a magnificent collection of ceramics including tiles, pottery and sculpture.

4. Enjoy live music

Enjoy live music (Jacob Van Essen)

Leeuwarden comes alive in the spring and summer with a range of musical events and festivals. In May, the vibrant Fries StraatFestival combines outdoor street theatre with live music, while the CityProms in June fill the city’s squares with classical tunes. One of the largest, free-to-attend classical music festivals in Europe, it combines upcoming talent and big names. A series of Sunday concerts takes place in the elegant Prinsentuin gardens in the summer, the perfect backdrop to a lazy picnic. And if you prefer something alternative, Into The Grave is a three-day heavy metal fest which sees iconic acts from all over the world performing in Oldehoofsterkerkhof’s atmospheric former graveyard.

5. Explore the boutique stores

Explore the boutique stores (Jacob Van Essen)

Leeuwarden has dozens of vintage, second-hand and thrift stores worth a rummage. Try Laura’s Wardrobe, located in the town’s smallest building, or De Plek Vintage, stocked with everything from cowboy boots to Hawaiian shirts and cute 80s polka-dot dresses. You’ll also find local boutiques, sustainable clothing and homeware stores, and Frisian speciality shops, mostly around the city centre. Kleine Kerkstraat has been voted ‘loveliest shopping street in the Netherlands’ several times.

6. Enjoy the the taste of Leeuwarden

Enjoy the the taste of Leeuwarden (Jurjen Drenth)

Fuel up at some of the city’s best restaurants. Indulge in a tasty lunch, or just a drink, on the floating terraces on the historic Nieuwstad canal. STEK is a relaxed eatery located in the old ‘bridge-man’s house’ by the Harlingersingel canal, serving coffee, cakes, open sandwiches, and, of course, grilled meats, while Grand Cafe de Walrus is an informal and welcoming restaurant catering for all-day dining. Local ingredients are at the forefront of the cuisine at restaurants such as Proefverlof, Eindeloos and Steef. Think dishes such as North Sea crab, langoustine with mango, or veal with roasted hazelnuts. Then sink a craft beer or two (they have over 250) at De Markies.

7. Stay in unique hotels

Sleep somewhere a little more unusual. The Post-Plaza used to be a post office and is now a luxurious hotel. The vast dimensions of this elegant, 19th century building also house the popular Grand Cafe. If you prefer something more spartan, spend the night in jail at the Alibi Hostel, an infamous former prison – you’ll sleep in a cell, complete with metal bars! If that sounds too unbearable, bed down in a brewery instead. In de Brouwerij is the ideal place for beer-lovers, with an on-site brewery and 11 stylish rooms. Just outside the city, set on a farm, is charming Hotel Weidumerhout which includes ten panoramic, glass-walled ‘cubes’.

8. Take a day trip to the Wadden Isands

Day trip to the Wadden Islands (Shutterstock)

When you fancy a break from the city, get some fresh coastal air in the nature-focused Wadden (or West Frisian) Islands, no more than a two-hour boat or ferry trip from Leeuwarden. A sweeping archipelago of four beautiful, green isles within a UNESCO World Heritage area, they offer sun, sea and beach. The closest, Schiermonnikoog, is considered to be the prettiest, thanks to its wide beach, picturesque village, and interesting flora and fauna. The island itself is a national park with mudflats and polders (reclaimed land), a lake and a duck sanctuary. Here you can also explore its WW2 Wasserman bunker and observation post. Outdoor activities available on the other islands include a 100% electric eco safari through the nature reserves and sand dunes of Ameland; seal touring and horseriding on Terschelling; and a tuk tuk tour and a dune safari on Vlieland.

9. Have an adventure in nature

Have an adventure in nature (Marcel van Kammen)

Within minutes of central Leeuwarden, Friesland’s natural beauty is never far away, and perfect for exploring by bike, or by hiking. Dozens of cycling routes will take you through striking scenery. Try the 31km journey through the nature reserve of Grote Wielen and along the Dokkumer Ee canal, or the 46km Leeuwarden to Burgum route, where you’ll also discover delicious local products along the way. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can even embark on the ultimate adventure: the 11 cities tour of Friesland. Cycling between cities including Sneek, Bolsward and Wijckel, you’ll pass rural water channels, rivers and lakes. On foot, explore the national park of Alde Feanen, home to 450 plant species and 100 species of nesting birds – don’t miss It Pettebosk, created as an educational forest for children, with bridges, grass paths, and a natural playground.

Feeling inspired?

For more inspiration, head over to the official Leeuwarden website.

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