The beautiful city of Utrecht lies in the heart of Holland. Thanks the students to for Utrecht’s buzzing café and bar scene – and low prices. But this is no university service town, with its canals and cobbled lanes Utrecht has an appealing beauty that is best explored on two feet and with plenty of time to wander.
Fly into Amsterdam and take the train to Utrecht Central Station – within half an hour of landing you could be exploring this vibrant student town with plenty to keep you entertained. Check out our list of the top ten things to see and do while you’re in town.
1. Climb the Dom Tower
Only time for one highlight? Make it the Dom Tower, the city’s landmark and the tallest and oldest church tower in the Netherlands. The 112-metre tower peaks out from behind buildings in every corner of the city, and even when you can’t see it you’ll most likely be able to hear one of its 13 bells, which weigh up to 18,000 pounds. Fill your lungs and head up the 465 steps to the top for breathtaking views out over the city and surrounding countryside, before heading inside the French Gothic church itself to stroll the medieval courtyard and check out the fifteenth century frescoes. Tickets cost €9 for adults and €5 for children aged 4-12.
2. Be moved by music at TivoliVredenburg
Opened in summer 2014, the TivoliVredenburg is the largest music centre in the Netherlands. It offers a shared venue for every conceivable type of music, from classical chamber music, jazz and pop, right through to heavy metal. The decidedly modern building has space for nearly 8,000 spectators across five halls, each one designed by a different architect, and at its heart you’ll find the legendary symphony hall, designed in the 1970s by Herman Hertzberger. Check out the events calendar on their website and try to take in a concert while you’re in town, or simply call in to the ground floor café for coffee on the canalside terrace.
3. Take a Belgian beer tour
It’s only a short hop from Utrecht to Belgium, and the Beer Café Olivier makes it even shorter, offering a proper Belgian night out in the heart of the city. Take a seat in the enchanting former Church of Maria Minor to work your way through the extensive range of Belgian specialty beers, both draught and bottled. Try a Leffe or Hoegaarden on tap (from €3.70) or sip a bottle of Achel, Duvel or Vedett (from €3.50). You can of course line the stomach here as well, with Belgian specialties such as waffles, fine chocolate pralines and of course moules frites.
4. Dine in style
Once Utrecht’s tallest building, the thirteenth century turret-topped Stadskasteen Oudaen has been pressed into use as a medieval defence tower, an alms house for the Dutch Reformed Church and as offices for the Roman Catholic student association Veritas. Today it’s open to all and houses one of the city’s most popular restaurants, with two large terraces along the Oudegracht. Order the delicious pumpkin soup (€8.50) or lobster risotto (€11.50) followed by the catch of the day or a veal escalope (mains €21.50) before spending an afternoon touring the brewery, discovering the brewing process and tasting three different homemade beers (€16.75, over 18s only).
5. Make your escape
The Pandhof is the cloister garden of the Dom Tower and, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful courtyards in the country. Even better, it’s in the heart of the city, making it the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle. Wander through the small plots of herbs and ornamental plants, separated by pristine hedges to reach the fountain at its centre, topped by a bronze statue of Hugo Wstinc, a fourteenth century priest, studying a book. You’re surrounded on three sides by an impressive Gothic cloister, the fourth is the Neo-Gothic entrance, perhaps the most photogenic of all. Spend a few minutes enjoying the calm of the Pandhof, listening to the bells of the Dom Tower and feel the city melt away. Open daily 10am¬–4.30pm (from noon on Sundays).
6. Be king of the castle
Imagine a fairytale casltle. Does it have circular turrets topped with witches hat shaped roofs? A drawbridge and towering battlements? A glassy moat reflecting it in all its glory? Then you might just be imagining Schloss de Haar. This medieval castle was built in the fourteenth century, destroyed and rebuilt in the fifteenth century, and then abandoned and left to decay during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1982, the castle was eventually rebuilt in its original style by its new owner, the young Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar, under the supervision of celebrated Dutch architect P. J. H. Cuypers. The renovation was not confined to the castle, it also included the gardens, the chapel and even the nearby village of Haarzuilens, making this a vast masterpiece that is unique in Europe. Take a guided tour to discover the castle’s turbulent history and the glamorous life of the Van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar family before taking a walk through the scenic grounds of the castle, with their old gardens, streams and romantic chapel. The tour costs €14 for adults and €9 for children aged 4–12 and includes entrance to the garden.
7. Delve into history
Discover 2,000 years of Dutch history directly below Utrecht’s Domplatz at the unique visitor centre DOMunder. The secrets of the city will be revealed as you explore Domplein through the centuries, starting with the Romans, who first founded the castellum of Traiectum here in 45 AD, and leading right through to the terrible storm that brought down the nave of the Gothic cathedral in 1674. Become an archaeologist for a day and descend into the darkness of the excavation pit to use your interactive torch to uncover the exciting chapters in the history of the Domplein and the city of Utrecht. Tickets cost €10 for adults and €7.50 for children and students and the tour lasts 75 minutes. The audio is available in English. Closed Mondays.
8. Tour Rietveld Schröder House
Utrecht is home to one of the most influential pieces of modern architecture in Europe, the Rietveld Schröder House. This small single-family dwelling was built in 1924 for Truus Schröder-Schräder by Gerrit Rietveld, an architect and designer who was part of the De Stijl (The Style) group, who developed a functional and pure aesthetic defined by its use of primary colours and straight lines. Truss Schröder-Schräder wanted a house without walls and the resulting building, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, fulfilled her brief, and is today seen as a perfect example of De Stijl principles. Book in advance for an audiotour (Tuesdays to Sundays at 11am, noon, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm), available in English. Admission is €14 for adults, €8 for 13-17s and €3 for children 12 and under.
9. Step into the light at Trajectum Lumen
Want a new perspective on Utrecht? Take the Trajectum Lumen journey of discovery, a trail of light-based artworks by artists from the Netherlands and abroad, that is free to enjoy every single night of the year. Wait for dark and set out on the trail from Vredenburg, spotting artistic lighting arrangements of every conceivable colour illuminating the buildings, streets, canals and bridges. A relaxed stroll through all of the light installations takes approximately an hour and a half. You can pick your own way through the city, follow a route map or join a guided tour (€10) on Saturday evenings. The lights shine daily from sunset until midnight.
10. Stay in style
The Eye Hotel is situated in a lovely location in the lively neighbourhood of central Utrecht, surrounded by cafés, restaurants and fashion and designer stores. But it is the “eye for detail” used in the 36 rooms that makes this chic hotel the best place to stay in town. Rooms are beautiful but functional, with designer details such as original artwork and bespoke furniture combining with well thought out amenities such as cots, changing tables and baby baths in the family rooms and double showers in the romantic suite. Rooms start from €90 and can be booked online. Breakfast is an extra €12.50pp.