Let me introduce you to my hometown, and probably the love of my life: Utrecht. I moved here over a decade ago and decided I never wanted to leave, ever again (well, except to travel that is). Since then, The New York Times, Lonely Planet and the Tour de France have all discovered Utrecht and were unanimously blown away by my hometown. And rightfully so.
Top things to do in Utrecht
Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in The Netherlands, dating back to Roman times. By the time the Dutch republic was formed in the 16th century, Utrecht was one of the most powerful political and important religious epicenters of the region. Nowadays, Utrecht holds the position of ‘4th largest city in The Netherlands’ with the largest student population in the country. But most of all Utrecht has a gorgeous and compact medieval city centre, surrounded by canals and their wharves (now used for terrace space by cafés and restaurants), lush parks to relax and great cafés for people watching.
- How to get to Utrecht, The Netherlands?
- Utrecht: getting around
- Top things to do in Utrecht
- Daytrips from Utrecht
- Restaurants in Utrecht
- Hotels in Utrecht
- Utrecht is easy to get to from all airports in The Netherlands, but Amsterdam Airport is closest and directly connected to by train. Check out all cheap flights to Amsterdam.
- With your OV Chip Card you can hop on a train to Utrecht, the city is right in the heart of The Netherlands and easy to reach by public transport. Plan your train journey online.
- By bus
You can easily walk within the centre of Utrecht, everything is really close together. If you’re staying outside the city centre, the buses will definitely come in handy. You can buy a day ticket for €6 and you can check timetables on the UOV website.
- By boat
Utrecht is surrounded by water and discovering the city from canal-perspective is a must. Instead of going on a canal tour, I highly recommend hiring a small boat or even a kayak for a few hours.
- By bike
Be a Dutchman for a day or so and discover Utrecht by bike (if you dare!). You can easily rent a bike to take you around town for a day or two. If you’re a little nervous about cycling in a city with ten thousands of cyclists (nope, not kidding about this), I can highly recommend taking this bike tour.
Number one on everyone’s must-see list: the Dom tower. It’s visible, no matter where you live in the city. Whenever I come home from one of my trips I greet the Dom tower with a ‘hello big sir’ as seeing the Dom, means that I am truly home. Anyway, the tower and church were separated in the 17th century by a hurricane and when you climb the 465 steps to the top of the tower, you can see the cobbles on the street lining out where the middle of the church used to be. The view from the top is excellent, by the way.
The Dom Square is the centre of Utrecht for a reason. Two thousand years ago a Roman fortress was built here and the remains have been excavated. If you go Dom Under you can see the foundations of the fortress.
Discover Utrecht after dark by following the artistic path through the historical city centre: Trajectum Lumen. The path leads from Vredenburg to Nieuwegracht past several installations by light artists. Most of these artworks are really subtle and have a special story to them. You can take a tour with a guide or download the route to take the walk yourself.
Basically, Centraal Museum is Utrecht’s treasure chest. Holding everything from an old Viking longboat (that was actually dug out of the mud, two streets from where I live) to applied arts from the Utrecht School and De Stijl. There is a beautiful Gerrit Rietveld collection to admire, as well.
The famous architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld was born and bred in Utrecht. His designs and, especially, furniture, are world-famous. Did you know that he designed the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam? In Utrecht Rietveld built more modest houses, where ordinary people still love today. All, except for one. The Rietveld-Schröderhuis was specially designed for Truus Schröder who wanted to move somewhere extraordinarily after her husband passed away. And an extraordinary house she got. Even to this day, the fixtures of the house and especially the way Rietveld designed the windowsills shake the design world. Rietveld-Schröderhuis made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List for a reason. If you want to visit, make a reservation online before you go.
Utrecht is actually still in mourning, as Utrecht-born and father to Miffy, Dick Bruna has passed away not so long ago. When I moved to this city, over a decade ago, I would sometimes see him in the city centre and that would put a smile on my face. Miffy is, of course, his most famous creation, but in the Nijntje Museum, you can see much more of his work. The museum is, of course, very child-friendly, but also quite fun for ‘bigger children’.
Cycling in Utrecht
I can’t imagine not cycling in Utrecht. But then, I guess it’s in my Dutch DNA. You will see hundreds and hundreds of bikes parked all over the city, so if you’d like to give cycling a go: please know that you won’t be the only one and that we Dutch can be quite ruthless cyclists (our will is the law, as we say). If you have little time to spend in Utrecht, but still feel like seeing a little more than just the highlights, I really recommend joining this bike ride with a guide. You will start near Central station to continue to hotspots such as Maliebaan and Miffy square while discovering lesser-known areas like Lombok and Wittevrouwen.
The Museum Catharijnenconvent is the home to the best collection of medieval religious art in The Netherlands and basically, tells the history of Christianity. The manuscripts are beautifully lit and the special exhibits are excellent.
Whilst wandering the streets of Utrecht you may just stumble upon a giant street organ placed in a window of a beautiful historic building. Well, that’s Museum Speelklok. It hosts a great collection of player organs from the 18th century onwards. You can take a tour, including demonstrations of all the organs (which is a bit much, to be honest), but the visit to the restoration workshop is brilliant.
Louis Hartlooper Complex
The Louis Hartlooper Complex is now a cinema for art house films, and it’s perhaps my favourite building in Utrecht. It’s a monument built in 1927, in Amsterdamse School style. The vertical lines and tainted glass windows are stunning. It used to be a police station, but after excessive renovation became a movie theatre.
Molen De Ster
A real Dutch windmill, in the middle of the city? Absolutely! Utrecht actually has more than one windmill near the city centre, and of one them, is rather easy to visit: Molen De Ster, in the popular Lombok neighbourhood, just a few minutes walk from the central station. The windmill was built in 1739 and beautifully restored. You can have a drink in the little café.
Take a free walking tour
Who knows best about hidden gems? Locals, that’s right! Every Saturday and Sunday (and in summer on Wednesdays) you can join a local on a free walking tour through the centre of town and you will hear the most amazing stories. Like why there was a battle on between Miffy and Hello Kitty, and where poor people in Utrecht were once tucked away. Highly recommend.
Fort aan de Klop
Utrecht is surrounded by fortresses, from medieval times up until World War II these fortresses were used to protect the middle of The Netherlands and Holland. Soldiers would flood the land, whilst keeping the fortresses. Most of them were just standing there, unused for decades, until a while ago quite a few around Utrecht were turned into museums or restaurants. Close to my house Fort aan de Klop is a fine example. Once used by soldiers during the First World War, now a restaurant with a great outdoor space. Very popular with families on the weekend.
Utrecht bloomed under Roman rule, over two thousand years ago. And the city is set along the northern border of the Roman Empire. Under the Dom in the city centre, Roman ruins were found, but a little outside the city centre even more remains were found, a whole settlement called Castellum. It’s actually a stone’s throw from where I live! The site was completely rebuilt to show how it must have looked thousands of years ago. Inside, you can still see many roman excavations, though sitting down for lunch at the café is also quite a treat.
If you get lost in the small streets of Utrecht city centre, don’t fret. As chances are you will probably end up in one of the pretty courtyards of town, like Dorstige Hartsteeg, Andreashof or Bruntenhof. These cosy courtyards are often surrounded by small, beautiful historical buildings, sometimes dating back to the 13th century when they were often used by the church to house the needy. Most of the houses have been well-kept and are so picture perfect.
An afternoon walk at Beerschoten estate
The Beerschoten estate is a few kilometres from Utrecht, near De Bilt and Den Dolder. It’s a small nature reserve where you can take a few short hikes in the woods. The first holds a pretty surprise: sand dunes! Read all about a walk at Beerschoten estate.
Hurray, there’s a brewery right in my neighbourhood. Brouwerij Oproer (oproer meaning riot) brews organic beers in an old storage facility next to Zuilen train station. They have several of their own beers on tap, as well as many (obscure!), bottled international craft beers. If you’re into vegan food, the menu on offer is perfect for you.
The colour kitchen
The colour kitchen is a restaurant training young people with small hopes for a bright future. These youngsters are from all walks of life and have various ethnical backgrounds. This results in a very colourful choice of dishes on the menu. You can visit the restaurant at Oudegracht or hop on a bus and visit the Zuilen based restaurant in a gorgeous old school building.
Streetfood Club is one of the hottest restaurants in Utrecht, at the moment. A with good reason. The restaurant is set in a beautiful old building sporting an amazing tainted glass ceiling. Grab a spot at the bar or at one of the small tables, order a cocktail and some Asian and Mexican inspired street food dishes.
Blackbird coffee has been the hippest place in town for coffee, for quite a while now. Perfectly situated along Oudegracht you can sip a perfectly made cup of coffee while people-watching outside or oogling the vintage bikes inside.
The Karibu Café is one of my more recent favourites. The café is set a little bit outside the city centre, though well-worth the detour. You can order breakfast or brunch all day at Karibu and there are any vegan options available. My personal favourite is shakshuka. If you happen to walk in a little later in the day, there are some really nice wines and beers on offer too.
Vegetarians and vegans should really visit Gys (with two branches, one at Voorstraat and one at Amsterdamsestraatweg). The café is a great place for coffee or lunch and there are both dishes with or without meat on the menu. Whichever you chose, all the food is prepared with local and organic produce.
Near the city centre, Broei is such a cute place for coffee or afternoon drinks. It’s actually a concept store, and everything you see is for sale. Having said that, the (organic) food and drinks are excellent.
It’s a little out of the way but the Brouwerij Maximus is well worth the bus trip or bike ride. You can visit the brewery, but it’s just as great to just sit outside in the sun and taste the seasonal beers or the specials on tap. The hoppy beers (like high hops or pandora) are my favourites.
The Antony Hotel
Without a doubt, The Anthony Hotel is one of the loveliest new hotels in Utrecht. It’s set in one of the most colourful streets in the city, in an old convent. I’d stay at The Anthony Hotel for its location alone, but the rooms are pretty awesome too. All soft pinks, cosy reds and red copper fixtures. A mix of high-end design and pure Dutch gezelligheid. And the old convent courtyard has been transformed into the amazing outside seating area. Perfect for your morning coffee or an afternoon drink.
Seriously, BUNK is just amazing. When I moved to the city, this was quite a strict protestant church. But the church community moved on and left the building to be turned into an amazing hotel with rooms for every budget. The hotel offers budget pods, but also rooms decorated with fine beds and lovely carpets. The restaurant is pretty popular and a good place for drinks or dinner.
If you want centrally located and a beautifully decorated room, Mother Goose is for you. It’s just a lovely boutique hotel in one of my favourite streets in the city. The canals are just a minute’s walk away, as are most of the famous Utrecht landmarks. The rooms are decorated modernly, leaving the details of the historical building uncovered.
Mary K is an old canal facing house that has been turned into a boutique hotel and every room has been decorated by a different artist. Sustainability is key in this hotel and all materials that have been used is organic or recycled. Your breakfast consists of lovely local produce.
Articles about Utrecht you may enjoy
- De Stijl, celebrating 100 years of Dutch Design
- De Stijl: spot Dutch design on Dutch streets
- Utrecht: a real Dutch city
- The ultimate craft beer guide to Utrecht
- Discover Utrecht: by foot, bike and boat
- A visit to Soestijk Palace
- Utrecht: inside Rietveld-Schröder house
Utrecht, The Netherlands
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