It’s curious how we sometimes look farther afield when we think of travelling to beautiful places, while overlooking the gems in our very own backyard. I’ve lived in Amsterdam for about thirty years and I’ve been to Utrecht many times before, usually for a meal or a concert. I never really thought much about the city until recently when two expats I chatted with, on separate occasions, gushed about how much they love Utrecht. That prompted me to plan a day trip to Utrecht. This time, I told myself, I would just wander around the city and check out the attractions of Utrecht at my own pace. I discovered many things to see and do in Utrecht and at the end of the day, I found myself in love with this gorgeous city as well!
Things to see and do in Utrecht
Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands and also one of the oldest. The city’s history goes back to the 1st century AD when a Roman fort was built on the shores of the Rhine River (at the time, the Rhine River followed a more northerly course in the Netherlands than it does today), marking the northwestern border of the Roman Empire. Through the centuries, Utrecht played a significant role in the Netherlands’ history as a religious and cultural centre. These days, the city is home to the country’s largest university, whilst its location in the geographic centre of the Netherlands makes it a vital road and rail hub.
The map below shows the main attractions in Utrecht as well as my walking route around the historic city centre.
Vredenburg to Oudegracht
I started my walk at the Utrecht Central Station which opens out into the Hoog Catharijne shopping mall. From here, I made my way to Vredenburgplein (Vredenburg square) and continued along the Lange Elizabethstraat and Steenweg (two shopping streets), the Mariastraat (with its many restaurants) and the Speelklok Museum (an interesting museum dedicated to mechanical music instruments) to the Oudegracht (Old Canal). Along the way, I stopped for brunch at the beautiful Olivier Belgian café.
At the Oudegracht (Old Canal), I crossed the Maartensbrug (bridge) and continued my walk along the eastern bank of the canal. The Oudegracht largely follows the ancient path of the Rhine River. One of the things that makes Utrecht so unique is the structure of its canals, which have the street on the upper level and warehouses and wharfs at the water or canal level.
Many of these warehouses have been converted into restaurants, art galleries, cafés and homes. One of the best things to do in Utrecht is definitely a stroll along the Oudegracht, one of the most beautiful canals in the Netherlands!
Zeven Steegjes (Seven Lanes)
Near the end of the canal, I turned right towards the Zeven Steegjes (Seven Lanes) neighbourhood and continued past the Geertekerk (church) to the Pelmolenweg. This neighbourhood, commissioned by the Church, was built in the mid-19th century for labourers with families. Due to the prevalence of diseases at the time (such as cholera), the houses and lanes were designed with a focus on hygiene and ventilation. For instance, the straight lanes in an east-west axis were designed to channel wind through the neighbourhood.
I made my way back to the Oudegracht and on to the Tolsteeg. This little corner, at the end of the Oudegracht, is packed with bustling cafés, including the Louis Hartlooper movie theater, a beautiful building in the style of the Amsterdam School of Architecture.
I continued my walk towards the Nicolaaskerkhof in the heart of the Museum Quarter, where the Nicolaïkerk (church), Utrecht Centraal Museum (municipal museum with art, design and historical artifacts) and Nijntje or Miffy Museum (a museum dedicated to the popular Miffy cartoon character whose creator, Dick Bruna, was born in Utrecht).
The Nicolaïkerk (Nicolai Church) has an interesting attraction: a 16th century clock, one of the oldest church (tower) clocks in the Netherlands. The clock still works and the warden was happy to demonstrate its workings.
I continued my stroll down the Lange Nieuwstraat (Long New Street) and passed the Beyerskameren, a complex of charming 16th century houses.
From here, I made my way past the Utrecht University Museum and Oude Hortus (old botanical gardens) to the Nieuwegracht (New Canal). Narrower than the Oudegracht, the Nieuwegracht is lined by beautiful houses and shady trees, making it delightfully picturesque.
I followed the canal up to the Pausdam. In one corner of this gorgeous square is the Paushuize (Pope’s House), the official residence of the Commissioner of the King for the province of Utrecht. This stately house can trace its history back to the 14th century and owes its name to Adriaen Florisz, who was born in Utrecht and became Pope Adrianus VI in the 16th century (the only Dutchman to become Pope).
Dom Church and Tower
Just up the road from the Paushuize is the Pieterskerk, an 11th century church. From here, it’s a short stroll to Utrecht’s most iconic building: the Dom Church and adjacent Dom Tower.
Construction of the current Gothic-style Dom Church or St. Martin’s Cathedral began in 1254 and continued till the 16th century. Work on the Dom Tower started in 1321 and ended in 1382. The Dom Tower, at 112.5m (368ft), remains the tallest church tower in the Netherlands.
A violent storm destroyed the nave in 1674, effectively separating the church from the church tower. It was never rebuilt but visitors can see the outline of the structure in the pavement of the square between the church and the tower. Visitors can also walk around the impressive cloister next to the church.
Oudegracht cafés and a colourful tunnel
From the Dom, I made my way back to the Oudegracht and continued to the Stadhuis (City Hall). Just around the corner, I spotted the entrance to a tunnel and decided to check it out. The tunnel featured cool lighting effects and led me to the wharf level of the Oudegracht. I stopped here, at the Humphrey’s café, for a drink and to watch the boats pass by.
Before heading back to the station, I followed the path of the Oudegracht past countless cafés and restaurants, such as the Winkel van Sinkel café/restaurant. I stopped for a beer at the Oudaen Brewery, which is housed in a historic castle-like building. From here, I made my way back to the station.
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Other Utrecht attractions
Two other Utrecht attractions that I didn’t visit but can absolutely recommend to architecture buffs is the Rietveld Schröder House, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Railway Museum. Built in 1924, the Rietveld Schröder House is a prime example of ‘De Stijl’ architecture, a design that was way ahead of its time.
The Railway Museum is housed in the 19th century Maliebaan railway station and features, amongst others, a collection of steam locomotives.
Walking tour and more info
You’re welcome to follow my walking route through Utrecht’s historic centre or you can book a private walking tour of Utrecht. Visit the city tourist board for more info about events, other attractions and tours.
Where to stay in Utrecht
Though Utrecht can easily be visited as a day trip, I strongly recommend staying for a few days to explore the city and soak up the vibes. There’s a large variety of accommodations, from luxurious five-star hotels such as the Grand Hotel Karel V to small boutique hotels and B&Bs. I can recommend the gorgeous Hotel Beijers (housed in a beautifully-restored 17th century city palace) and the B&B Gregorius (located on the serene Nieuwegracht).
How to get to Utrecht
Utrecht is the most well-connected city in the Netherlands by road and rail. The easiest way to get to Utrecht is by train. Amsterdam is just 30 minutes away (by train or car), making Utrecht a perfect day trip from Amsterdam, or an alternative base from which to visit Amsterdam. Check for train schedules.
If you’re staying longer in Utrecht, I recommend a visit to the nearby De Haar Castle in the village of Haarzuilens. Read more about De Haar Castle.