Utrecht city guide

I have one very particular memory about Utrecht. I was exploring around the Old Town, checking out every nook and cranny. I arrived at one of those book shops that seem like they’re almost in a different dimension. It was filled with that unmistakable old book scent. They sold some second-hand occult books and antiques. That’s how I still see Utrecht, a city full of secrets and mystery, cobblestones shrouded in mist like in Sherlock Holmes pictures. It’s obviously subjective, but there are sides to Utrecht that cannot be disputed. It held the torch of culture, religion and education in the Netherlands until the Dutch Golden Age. Utrecht was eventually surpassed by Amsterdam, but the two are almost “related”. To the point that some call Utrecht- Baby Amsterdam. I see it as more of an older brother, the more distinguished, experienced one.

Utrecht is a better tourist destination than Amsterdam. There. I said it. It’s not as crowded, it’s a little slower, you don’t trip over stoned foreigners sitting on a pavement. Utrecht is a place where you can experience the Netherlands without exhausting yourself physically and mentally. First thing you’ll notice is the complete lack of cars, everyone rides a bike here. In fact, the world’s largest bike garage is in Utrecht and one of the centrepieces of the newly renovated central railway station Utrecht Centraal. It’s one of those things you could never imagine existing, until you arrive in a city where everyone rides a bike. You start thinking “where do all these come from?” and you see people riding out from the underground like bees from a hive.

View of Utrecht Centraal, the central railway station of Utrecht

Utrecht Centraal, central railway station of Utrecht and the main raliway hub of the Netherlands

Utrecht’s love for everything on two wheels extends beyond storage facilities. Vast parts of the city are only open to pedestrians and bicycles. There’s even a rainbow themed track around the Utrecht Science Park. It stands for the inclusion of LGBT community and all sorts of different world views on the city grounds. If you’d rather into the history of these parts, then hop on a bike and ride about 3km south-east towards Bunnik. That’s where you’ll find the ruins of Castellum Fectio. Actually, they are more of an outline of what used to be an ancient Roman fortress. There isn’t much left, but the place definitely tells a story. You won’t see any parts of the actual buildings that once stood here as most of the materials were used to be build churches in Utrecht.

Out of all those churches none is more iconic than the St Martin's Cathedral (Sint-Maartenskathedraal in Dutch). Locally known as the Dom, it remains the most important landmark in Utrecht. What makes it so special? Well, with its 112.5 metres in height it is the tallest church tower of the Netherlands. But even more peculiar is that its bell tower is separated from the main building. Not separated-separated, I’m talking on-the-other-side-of-a-large-square separated. How did it happen? Sadly, it didn’t fly, or miraculously teleport away. In fact, it didn’t move at all. A part of the cathedral was blown away by a tornado and made space…for the square. It’s so cool, they didn’t bother rebuilding the cathedral, they just left it in two parts like that. You can climb the tower for a nice panoramic view of the Old Town.

Utrecht Dom Tower illuminated by coloured laser light beams

The Dom Tower, Domtoren in Dutch, Utrecht's most famous landmark and the tallest church tower in the Netherlands at 112.5 metres (368 feet) in height

What else is there to do outside of climbing towers and riding bikes? Well, Utrecht boasts very unique museums. Centraal Museum is an excellent pick when you are into contemporary art, and is hosting interesting exhibitions on regular basis. Museum Catharijneconvent is the place to go when you have a fling for religious art through the centuries. The nijntje museum, dedicated to the world famous white rabbit, created by Dick Bruna who lived his entire life in his native city Utrecht, should be on your list when you are with kids. The museum is also frequented by many Japanese tourists, with or without minors, since Nijntje is particularly popular in the land of the rising sun. Museum Speelklok is one you need to take a guided tour of. It houses some of those most bizarre musical machines in the world, including the one and only automatic violin. Sadly, only the staff can turn these things on, that’s why you need the tour. The Railway Museum is another appealing option. In fact, Utrecht has the largest train terminal in the Netherlands. The Spoorwegmuseum features a complete reconstruction of a train station from the 19th century. Their collection of wagons and locomotives from various époques is very impressive. That’s all super fun and engaging, but my favourite part of Utrecht are the canals. The biggest and most famous canal is de Oudegracht. They’re different compared to Amsterdam, for example, the canals here have an additional level to them. It’s connected to how houses were built back in the day. They had an entrance straight from the canal side, so you could just carry your groceries straight from the boat to your living quarters.


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