An old market town at the heart of an agricultural district, LEEUWARDEN was formed from the amalgamation of three terpen that originally stood on an expanse of water known as the Middelzee. Later it was the residence of the powerful Frisian Stadholders, who vied with those of Holland for control of the United Provinces; tracks from this period can still be found in Leeuwarden. These days it's Friesland's capital, a university town with a provincial air, its centre a discordant blend of modern glass architecture and traditional design. While it lacks the concentrated historic charm of many other Dutch towns, it does have a number of grand buildings and two outstanding museums. Most appealing is a compact town centre, almost entirely surrounded and dissected by water, along which big barges nudge their way through.
If you've just arrived from Friesland's immaculate coast and countryside towns, Leeuwarden is initially a bit of a disappointment, with the southern part of the town centre near the station an indeterminate, careless mixture of the old and new. Heading north, high-rise blocks and shopping centres line Wirdumerdijk into the centre of town at Waagplein, a long, narrowing open space cut by a canal and flanked by cafés and large department stores. The Waag itself, now converted into a restaurant, dates from 1598. Walking west, Nieuwestad is Leeuwarden's main shopping street, from where Kleine Kerkstraat, a turn on the right, leads to the Oldehoofster Kerkhof, a large square-cum-car park near the old city walls.