This university town may be the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, but it hides its scale around a welcoming heart that makes you feel instantly at home. The cosy medieval centre is surrounded by layers of ultramodern new developments radiating outward. A few steps from a shining glass-and-steel department store, you will find a cobbled street, lined with warm cafes and tiny boutiques.
Every corner brings something new to discover: an exciting restaurant, a quirky museum, an art gallery, a quiet church, or a lovely canal view. This special mix gives Utrecht its unique appeal.
Outdoor cafe in front of the Bell Tower at the Domplein © Jurjen Drenth
Utrecht is around 30 minutes from Schiphol Airport, with a connection roughly every 15 minutes. Utrecht Central Station is the largest and busiest in the Netherlands, an efficient modern station with easy connections to the rest of the Netherlands and Europe. Its central position in the country also puts Utrecht at the heart of the Dutch bus and motorway network.
Netherlands, Utrecht, Central Station and City Hall © Jurjen Drenth
What to do in Utrecht
The best way to explore Utrecht is by hiring a bike, with boating the historic canals a close second. You can combine the two with a pedalo and tour the waterways that circle the centre. For something different, why not try a paddle board or kayak?
Almost everywhere you go, you’ll have the 14th-century Dom Tower, the highest church tower in Holland as an always-visible landmark. Climb the 465 steps to the top for an overview of the city’s other attractions.
In a square nearby is the Museum Speelklok, with its collection of antique timepieces, and the canal side streets radiating off it lined with tempting shops, cafés and bars. You can see the green spaces of the Wilhelminapark, with its lovely restaurant, and the University Botanic Gardens, with the tropical greenhouses that make a fun destination to visit in autumn or winter.
The skyline is filled with striking modern buildings, particularly around the university area. Look for the building that seems as if a UFO hit a tower block, and those with any interest in architecture will want to search out the Rietveld Schröder House, an icon of 1920s design and now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Artists will also enjoy the Dick Bruna House, home of the famous designer’s cartoon character Miffy. Opposite is the Centraal Museum of Utrecht, with its fascinating collection of Dutch fashion design, among other items detailing the history of the city.
The centrepiece of this museum quarter is the Museum Catharijneconvent and its priceless religious art collection dating back to the Middle Ages (not to mention a nice café). This whole area is made for walking, with a new discovery around every corner, whether it’s a medieval almshouse, traditional-style barbershop or a quirky new cold-brew coffee bar.
Utrecht city, view from Neude tower © Jurjen Drenth
Shop 'til you drop
The car-free centre of Utrecht is notable for its many small independent shops, with owners or staff happy to chat. You might discover a new Dutch designer, a throwback menswear boutique, a fascinating photo gallery or a handmade jewellery shop. Browse antique shops along the canals or find some new home decor on Zadelstraat.
There is also the indoor Hoog Catherijne, beside the Central Station, where locals hide out in bad weather to browse for the latest in fashion or to find a new gadget.
Shopping by the canal in Utrecht © Kieran Meeke
Nightlife in Utrecht
With the country’s largest student population, Utrecht has a thriving bar and club scene. From cosy traditional Dutch “brown cafes” and microbreweries to designer bars serving the latest cocktails, there’s a wide choice. Many cluster near the central Oudegracht (Old Canal), which curves through the centre of town. Look further out for the likes of brewpub De Kromme Haring, hidden away in a converted office block on Europalaan, for its range of own and guest beers. It’s the sort of place where you make instant friends.
The Oudegracht is a split level design, with its wide wharfs at water level now used as terraces for the bars, restaurants and clubs built into the former warehouses. Foodies love the wide choice of different restaurants throughout Utrecht, serving Dutch and international food.
Look around, and up and down, for food trucks, basement pubs, rooftop restaurants and industrial-chic cafes serving everything from simple sandwiches to vegan delights. A local favourite is the Rijsttafel (“rice table”) at any Indonesian restaurant – a good way to try new tastes as you sample the menu.
Besides the Oudegracht, another focal point is the Neude, a large plaza surrounded with places to eat, drink and go clubbing. This former market square holds the annual Christmas Fair as well as other cultural events during the year.
Revellers alongside Oudegracht. © Jurjen Drenth
Music and festivals
Utrecht’s youthful population helps support a number of major annual events. Festivals such LeGuessWho, for global music, or Soenda, for electronic music are well known. Other highlights include the Festival of Modern Dance the Netherlands Film Festival and the Utrecht International Comedy Festival. Many events use the TivoliVredenburg, whose five halls were specifically designed to showcase different types of music.
Five times a year, the city hosts a 'Cultural Sunday' when such venues fill with events ranging from theatre and opera to film and storytelling on a common theme. Most are free and a “language no problem” policy also help make the day accessible to all. No matter the time of year, winter or summer, there’s always something new to try in Utrecht.
Utrecht, festival signs. © Kieran Meeke
Where to stay
From bunk-bed hostels to luxurious boutique hotels, there is a wide choice of accommodation. The Mother Goose Hotel is one quirky boutique option in a converted medieval house, while the NH Hotel Utrecht has all you’d expect in an upmarket modern hotel chain. The recently modernized Park Plaza is good midrange option only a sort walk from the central station, and Stayokay Utrecht Center has student-friendly simple dorms or private rooms.
Discover Utrecht. If you’re looking for true Dutch flavours in an urban setting, Utrecht is your destination. Explore why this city has so much to offer, including top places to visit, eat and shop. Plus see an exclusive interview with music artist AnneLotte De Graaf from Amber Arcades. FIND OUT MORE