Expat living in Leiden

When it comes to excitement and entertainment, you would be forgiven for unfavourably comparing Leiden to its bigger brother Amsterdam.

However, with thousands of expats choosing to live here, Leiden has more to offer than museums and sleepy middle class living!

I am one of the recent additions to its inwoners after leaving bustling Brussels one year ago. I have been pleasantly surprised by what I have found. In my former hometown, I was part of the international crowd, merely tolerated by the local inhabitants.

In Leiden I have been able to find a balance between being an expat and belonging to a local community. I am no longer a guest in my own town!

To explain further, I have written this article - a slice of Leiden living from an expat perspective.

Leiden in Numbers

 9th place for quality of life out of the 50 largest towns in the Netherlands
32.193 of its 117.145 inhabitants are non-Dutch nationals
Twinned with Oxford, 55% of its inhabitants are classed as highly educated compared to a 33% national average
 125 restaurants and 143 cafes and snack bars

Expats in Leiden

Leiden has a notable expat community with many people working at the nearby European Space Agency or for one of the many pharmaceutical companies. There are a few groups that meet on a monthly basis but do not limit themselves to non-Dutch members. As a consequence, all types of Leideners get the opportunity to mingle.

Fellow expats tell me they find Leiden attractive because it is small enough to keep a sense of community, a safety feeling and good public transport connections.

Bars & Reastaurants in Leiden

Another big plus for expats in Leiden is that there is a great choice of bars and restaurants, partly due to the relatively large number of university students, who often congregate at Annie’s Bar - a floating platform in the centre of town - while expat crowds tend to meet elsewhere too.

At present, the Brits go to Duke of Oz or Bad Habits where they can watch their summer sports with a bit of atmosphere. I prefer the North End English pub as there is more of a mix between expats and locals and it has an impressive whisky collection!

Due to the high number of picturesque canals in town, many café’s are situated on or by the water offering an ideal location for watching red-faced tourists struggling to manoeuvre their hired rowing boats!

Events in Leiden

Leideners love to party and thus, the city offers a rich and varied calendar of events. Yes, you will experience the excessively loud and happy crooning - I affectionately call "oom-pa" - music and you will know you are truly on your way to integrating when you, like me, find yourself singing along.

Local, exclusive events include the October 3 Liberation Day (celebrated like Queen’s day but with more herring!) and the International Whisky Festival.

The town also holds the Summer Lakenfeesten, which is kicked off every year by the Peurbakkentocht, a colourful parade of 55 "dressed-up" boats competing to win prizes.

While the actual spectacle does not quite live up to the official website’s claim that it is "comparable to the carnival in Venice," the sense of occasion and community - the whole town turns out - seems to detract from the often baffling boat décor.

Only in Leiden could you find a boat adorned with a giant "penis plant" replica. It is real life incarnation is the main crowd puller at the Hortus Botanicus!

Restaurants in Leiden

The Culinair is another summer festival highlight; a fairly chic weekend event where Leiden’s restaurants gather in one spot and set up in marquees to show of their best dishes. Many people complain that Dutch cuisine is a downside to expat life but around Leiden there is such an abundance of restaurants that is impossible not to find something to suit your taste.

I went to Culinair this year with my boyfriend Simon (a fellow Scot) and my Dutch neighbour Agnes. We thoroughly enjoyed the reasonably priced champagne and oysters in Koetjes and Kalfjes as well as a mini assortment of food from Buddhas, Fandango and ‘t Fust restaurants. We all agreed that the food quality was very good.

The official winner though was Viva Italia so maybe Dutch cooking still has a way to go...

Learning Dutch

For expats learning Dutch and facing the eternal problem of having no one to speak to, Leiden offers a solution in the shape of the Gilde Samenspraak. The Gilde makes the effort to pair you up with a volunteer with whom you are likely to have a rapport and therefore something to talk about!

One hour every week I now meet with a Dutch lady who speaks slowly enough for me to attempt a conversation and who has the patience of a saint. The initiative is free and a great way to learn both about the language but also about local life.

Get out & Socialise!

Many expats feel as though the Dutch never fully open their doors to them. A key upside to living in Leiden has been the provision of opportunity to get out and meet its inhabitants, be that in bars, at expat social events or at local festivals.

In my first year as an expat in Leiden, I have been impressed by the array of things to do in the town. I have also seen that my demonstrable willingness to integrate has been warmly welcomed. Now if only I could afford to buy a house here!

Useful links
General information about Leiden
Gilde samenspraak
Expat centre in Leiden

Helen Frew


Helen Frew

I am a freelance policy consultant. I was born in Scotland, worked mainly in Brussels and am now living in the Netherlands.

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