You can leave a main street in Leiden, head down one of the many tiny, twisting alleys, and emerge a few centuries back in time. Narrow houses and buildings -- hundreds of years old and immaculately preserved -- border cobblestone streets and canals. Windows are edged with lace and filled with flowers and figurines. You expect Rembrandt to stroll by, or Jan Steen, preparing his palette. Maybe William the Silent will ride through, his frock coat waving behind him.

What takes you through this time odyssey is a feeling that nothing has changed. It's as if Leiden, a small Dutch city about 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam, has been preserved in a jar for centuries.

It is a joy just to wander and watch. Many-colored medieval fac ades are brilliant in the intermittent sunlight, with paint lines straight and crisp. Workers are seemingly everywhere, repairing the red brick walkways and cobblestone streets, or fitting stones into a broken wall. Preservation is always in process.

But under the centuries-old exterior of Leiden, you will find much more. The city is home to one of Europe's top universities. It has an unforgettable charm, a history with a link to America, and a municipal art museum that rivals collections of some cities 10 times its size. The city's attention to art comes as little surprise when you consider that Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Lucas van Leyden were born there. Not a bad artistic heritage for a city of 100,000.

We visited Leiden in early November, but whenever you go, you will likely be greeted first by a steady gale from the North Sea. We fought our way upwind for the half-mile walk from the train station, as long broad avenues give way to the tight winding cobblestone streets and brick walkways of the center city.

There the Burcht, or citadel, a man-made hill in the center of this totally flat city, yields a view of all of Leiden and the reclaimed land beyond. From the Burcht, a covered bridge leads you to the main shopping area along the Breestraat (Broadway). A street market is held here on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you are looking for doughnuts or chairs, fresh fish or a new sweater, you will probably find it in one of the many market stalls.

But we wanted to explore, and were content to wander through the city for hours. Leiden beckons to the curious. Narrow, curved alleys open to small courtyards, and then to lanes lined with cafe's and shops. The only distraction is the bustling of students from one university building to another, or the slow stroll of shoppers and lovers.

And, because it is Holland, bicycles. Everyone is on bicycles. The soft rattle of their fenders is constant in the streets.

The procession is never ending and ever changing. Bureaucrats pedal to work, their briefcases strapped behind them. Mothers ride along balancing their children -- sometimes one in front and one in back. Frequently two students roll by on one bike, one pedaling and the other balanced sidesaddle.

Students, in fact, are everywhere; the University of Leiden dominates the city. The founding of the university is deeply rooted in Leiden's history. In 1574, the Spanish held the city in a state of siege for five months. When the Dutch fleet finally managed to retake Leiden, the sailors found a devastated city: Half the population of 12,000 had died of fighting, starvation or disease. The Spanish fled from the invading Dutch and food was distributed to the starving citizens. Oct. 3, the day of liberation, has since been celebrated as a day of thanksgiving, with a massive celebration that draws thousands of visitors annually.

According to legend, after the siege Prince William the Silent of Orange offered the citizens a choice of relief from taxation or a university as a reward for their bravery and steadfastness. The people chose a university -- Holland's first -- as a permanent monument to the Siege of Leiden.

The university's presence spills over into nearly all of Leiden. When we visited Leiden's cathedral, the Pieterskerk, it was filled with tables, bright umbrellas emblazoned with Heineken logos, and beer kegs. In a typically efficient use of Holland's limited space, the Pieterskerk doubles as a university orientation hall.

Also in evidence in the Pieterskerk is America's link to Leiden's past: The Pilgrims lived in Leiden from 1609 until they sailed to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and the Pieterskerk is where they worshiped.

The Pilgrims came to Leiden to find a home where they could practice their religion without persecution. (Even in the 17th century the Dutch had a reputation for open-mindedness.) Some of them, fearing their children would lose their Pilgrim identities in Leiden's atmosphere of freedom, pushed on to the New World.

Plaques inside and outside the cathedral, placed by the American General Society of Mayflower Descendants, honor John Robinson, the Pilgrim leader who is encrypted there. Americans also hold a Thanksgiving celebration each year at the Pieterskerk in honor of the Pilgrims. In fact, after a visit to the Pilgrim Documents Center a few blocks from the Pieterskerk, you may wonder if Leiden's Oct. 3 thanksgiving provided the inspiration for the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving celebration in America.

Johanna Tammel, a volunteer at the center, had us pretty well convinced that our "uniquely" American holiday may indeed have Dutch roots. She spent several hours showing us around the one-room archive and exhibition hall. The center is packed with records of the Pilgrims' flight to Leiden and later voyage to America aboard the Mayflower and other ships. Researchers have charted the home town of each Pilgrim who came to Leiden. You can learn why they fled England, how they chose Leiden as a refuge, and what inspired them to make the journey across the Atlantic.

Learning about the Dutch influence on the Pilgrims and how this influence was transplanted to the New World can be an eye-opening study for those educated in American schools. If you are lucky, Tammel will be there to remind you that, among other things, "The Pilgrims learned separation of church and state in Leiden." And so it seems.

From the 14th to the 18th centuries, Leiden's economy depended largely on wool broadcloth, which was shipped throughout the world. Leiden's Municipal Museum de Lakenhal -- literally, "cloth hall" -- is housed in the original headquarters of the Cloth Guild, which was built in 1640. Part of the museum is devoted to Leiden's craftsmen and commercial history. Local guilds, including the tailors, basket-weavers, goldsmiths, glaziers, brewers and surgeons, are also represented. Leiden's cultural and political history is also on display -- there's a model of a Catholic chapel (a popular target for destruction by Dutch iconoclasts), and a heavy oak cask that accused female adulterers were ordered to wear. One popular exhibit includes the "hutspot," the iron cooking pot that the fleeing Spanish forces abandoned after the siege.

But the pride of the museum are the paintings by Leiden's favorite sons. Among the masterpieces on view are Lucas van Leyden's triptych of the "Last Judgement," Rembrandt's early work "Palamedes before Agamemnon," and Jan Steen's "Amorous Couple" and "Laban in Search of His Household Gods."

Leiden is also home to another kind of art: the Botanical Gardens of the university, which have been around almost as long as the university itself. The gardens were begun in 1590 and are among the oldest in Europe. Even on a blustery fall day, the gardens provided an ideal setting for a contemplative stroll, a cold bench for a quick rest, and a hint of the beauty that blooms in spring and summer.

All this exploring requires fuel, and bright and friendly cafe's can be found throughout Leiden. We stopped frequently, but our favorite place was the Camino Real near the university. It was filled with students and others drinking beer, coffee or jenever, a flavored Dutch gin, all to the lively beat of the cafe''s recorded country and western music.

But even Loretta Lynn on the North Sea doesn't detract from Leiden's medieval charm. The churches dating from the Middle Ages, the 17th-century buildings and, of course, the 400-year-old university all see to that. In Leiden, you're never very far from the past. Joan Ronnenkamp and Glenn Bonci are Washington free-lance writers.