Leeuwarden: exploring the unmissable Dutch north

Let’s be clear: you need to visit Leeuwarden. Amsterdam may be the capital of the Netherlands, Utrecht might be the coolest, and Den Haag might be the second-largest city, but guys, you’re missing out if you think the north doesn’t have anything to offer.

The closest you’ve probably come to the north of the Netherlands is Giethoorn which becomes so popular with tourists during the summer that it’s almost impossible to wander around those crowded canals.

Look, the other cities are great and all, but there are plenty of places up north that will tickle your fancy too.

I’m here to fly the flag for Friesland. It gets a bad rap from a lot of people, for various reasons, which we’ll go into another time, but if you think we’ve got nothing to offer up here, you’re highly mistaken.

Leading with Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden is Friesland’s capital. Maybe that name rings a bell? It should, because it was the Cultural Capital of Europe a mere two years ago, bringing a wave of incredible acts and festivals to the city throughout the year.

Leeuwarden is well worth a visit. It offers all the charm of larger-scale cities in a smaller, more intimate setting. Its cobbled side streets have gritty stories to tell, it’s overflowing with culture and street art, and its main shopping street sits canal side, along with stacks of cafes, bars and restaurants which offer you the perfect spot for some riveting people watching.

Summer day in Leeuwarden? What a dream. Image: M.M.Minderhoud/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0

How to get to Leeuwarden

If that’s tickled your fancy, you’ll need to know how to make it to the north in one piece.

Luckily, it’s super easy. From Amsterdam, you’re a mere two-hour train journey away from Leeuwarden’s centre. Once you’ve made the journey, you can hop straight off the train and be in the hustle and bustle within five minutes. From other Dutch cities it’s just as simple.

Of course, taxi services and buses are widely available too, but these could end up making your journey a heck of a lot longer, which means less time to enjoy Leeuwarden!

What can I do there?

Leeuwarden is brimming with fantastic museums, shops, bars and unique experiences that you can’t turn down. You can easily spend an entire day getting lost down the side streets and stumbling upon new areas that just demand to be explored.

Let’s look at four of the best things you can do if you want a quick peak into Leeuwarden’s history and culture:

Fries Museum

Fries as in ‘frees’ not ‘fries’ – sadly not about hot chips, but still a great place to visit in Leeuwarden. Image: Larissa Bakker/Pixabay

If you’re looking to dive into the story of Friesland, you need to head to the Fries Museum, which sits on Wilhelminaplein, just three minutes from the train station.

Although the museum itself is almost 200 years old, it sits in a newly built building, and it’s full of amazing exhibitions that will tell you all you need to know about the north of the Netherlands. You can grab yourself a guided tour (in English, too!) or spend some time taking it all in at your own pace.

It’s not all just about Friesland though. The Fries Museum hosts other exhibits throughout the year, and there’s plenty for kids to see and do it’s incredibly interactive and can keep you busy for a few hours, especially if the weather isn’t on your side.

De Blokhuispoort

A visit to Leeuwarden isn’t complete without checking out De Blokhuispoort. Image: Frits de Jong/Pixabay

Another incredible place to visit is De Blokhuispoort, an old prison building which is now home to entrepreneurs, shops, restaurants and even a library.

Wander through the prison gates and catch a glimpse of the surroundings for Frisian criminals back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s open seven days a week and you can take a guided tour of the old prison each day at 2 PM or 4 PM.

If you fancy seeing what life was like for criminals who had to spend their nights locked up in a cell, you can even stay overnight in Hostel Alibi. This fantastic hostel offers shared or private dorm rooms for single or group travelers and is an amazing experience that you don’t see every day.

Not sure you’re quite ready to spend the night locked in the same room as former criminals (what if ghosts do exist!)? Maybe you’d like to eat your lunch at Proefverlof, where you can dine on locally sourced food within the (revamped) prison walls, or out on the terrace and right on the waterfront. It’s a gorgeous spot to unwind for a moment and take in the laid back attitude of the city.

Fancy a bird’s eye view of the city? For those of you who aren’t afraid of heights, there are two ways you can do this in Leeuwarden.

Take in the views at Achmeatoren…

Whew! You can see all of Leeuwarden from here! Image: Wutsje/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

For the highest highs and the most panoramic views of Leeuwarden, head to the Achmeatoren. But beware: this tower isn’t open often. You have to check their website for the open days, and they’re few and far between. Lucky you if you land an open date though, because the view from 115 metres up is stunning, and on a clear day you can even see the Wadden Islands.

…or, at Oldehove

Grand and old, the Oldehove is the Pearl of Leeuwarden. Image: Anniek93/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

So there’s a second option if you just manage to miss the opening dates for the Achmeatoren. Head to the Oldehove, known as the Pearl of Leeuwarden. It’s a wonky tower that watches over the city and was built simply because the people of Leeuwarden wanted a tower higher than the Martinitoren in Groningen.

Spoiler alert, the Oldehove is not bigger than the Martinitoren. The unmissable leaning power of this tower meant that all building work had to be ceased in 1532 (just three years after building work actually began), for fear of it toppling over altogether.

From its opening in March, the Oldehove is open daily, but only in the afternoons. You can climb to its peak of 39 metres (tiny in comparison to the Achmeatoren!) and gaze over Leeuwarden in all its glory. There’s even a glass panel for those daredevils amongst you who wish to stare death right in the face.

Once you’ve seen these four incredible sites, you’re more or less inaugurated into Leeuwarden and can spend the rest of the day people watching, canal-side whilst you sip a beer and snack on a portion of bitterballen.

Whilst that’s by no means everything there is to see and do in this charming city, these starter activities are enough to get you into the swing of things. Wander the side roads, see where they take you. I promise there’s something great to see or do around every corner.

Have you had a chance to visit Leeuwarden? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: M.M.Minderhoud/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2020, and was fully updated in October 2020 for your reading pleasure.

Simone Kynaston
Simone Kynastonhttps://nether-netherland.com/
Simone lives way up north, where the wind blows harder and there’s an extra language to learn. She’s the world’s slowest cyclist because confident Dutch cyclists scare her and her screams can be heard for miles. When she’s not exploring the country and collecting expat friends along the way, she’s obsessed with finding the most delicious Dutch snacks, and she thinks that joppiesaus is the best invention ever.


  1. Nice story! Leeuwarden is truly a lovely place! Great bars and lovely old buildings. Another recommendation for tourists is coffeeshop Repelsteeltje (not only just for coffee :P) but it sits in an amazing old building. You can just have a nice drink there or something stronger if you prefer.

  2. I love Leeuwarden! But didn’t know about the prison, I’ll be checking that out next time I’m there, looks brilliant! Thank you for the tip.

  3. I’m sold! It looks so beautiful there but I’m not going to lie, slightly disappointed that the Fries Museum is not in fact about friets.


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