Utrecht has long been considered to be the Netherlands' beating heart due to its vitality, friendliness, and cultural significance. With over 200 restaurants, many different attractions located within walking distance, and a huge number of special events and festivals all through the year, guests of all ages will enjoy a weekend (or even longer) wandering around the city.
The fourth largest populated city in the Netherlands, Utrecht is home to more than 300,000 people. With history dating back to the High Middle Ages (around 650 BC), the city has been the home of Christianity, the head of the republic, and one of the most important fortified cities in the entire country. The city is also home to the largest university in the country, Utrecht University. In 2012, the city was named one of ten “unsung” places in the world by Lonely Planet. The city also uses its own, exclusive currency, the Utrechtse Euro.
Any visit to Utrecht should start at the Tourist Information Center, which is located at the base of the Domtoren. The educated staff there will be able to give advice to visitors, help them book tickets to attractions, give them recommendation of where to dine and shop, and answer any questions guests might have.
Below are the “Top 10” must see attractions in Utrecht –
- Canals and Shipyards - One of the most distinctive features of the city is its many different canals and shipyards, which are unique to Utrecht. The “Oudegracht,” built in the 12th Century was designed to actually change the Oude Rijn river’s course and functions as a kind of elongated harbor. In the 13th Century, with the addition of the large castles in the city, shipyards were built to allow the canals to be used as “second” streets. The canals and shipyards are now frequently used as centers of entertainment for the city, and guided tours can be taken.
- City Castle Oudaen - Originally built in 1276, this castle is now also home to a brewery, catering establishment, and conference center.
- Dom Tower - Standing at 369 feet tall, Dom Tower is the tallest church tower in the country. Guests can climb as high as 312 feet to the panoramic viewing area, which provides unparalleled views of the city. Dom Tower is only accessible with a tour guide, which can be booked through the Tourist Information Center. Guides will tell the story of the tower, and it can be provided in English and Dutch. Additional informational sheets are available at the front desk in German, Italian, French, Japanese, Hungarian, Spanish, and Russian (as well as English and Dutch).
- Lombok - Lombok District shopping market, walking distance from Utrecht’s Central Station, is considered the very heart of the city. The market is home to shops full of knickknacks, exotic and local delicacies, baked goods, and more. Wander through the market and enjoy the early 20th Century architecture located on narrow streets (known as “worker’s houses). Check out the new mosque, the De Ster sawmill, the (hand dug) Merwede Canal, and the recently renovated Cereol factory.
- Miffy Museum - World famous Miffy walks childhood guests through a miniature world all their own. Starting at Miffy’s house, children enter directly into her world through exhibits meant to educate through exploration, dancing, sniffing, crawling, and playing. Each room is dedicated to a separate subject and approach different real-world activities like going to the zoo or visiting the doctor. There is also a full art room that offers creative workshops.
- Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie - The Waterlinie is actually part of a combination of 22 different fortresses, including Fort Honswijk, Fort Everdingen, and Fort de Bilt. The Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie was one of the important lines of defense of the town and is an official national monument and historical site. The waterline, which runs from the Biesbosch to the Zuiderzee, is mostly still intact, as are the majority of the forts located on that waterline.
- Papal House - The second oldest historical building in the city, the Papal House (also known as Pauschuize) was built by the only Pope in Dutch history, Adrianus VI. He was elected as Pope and died a year later and was unable to actually live in the home. The interior was furnished as a palace and became the home of the Royal Commissioner in the 19th Century. It now functions as a tourist attraction as well as an event space.
- Railway Museum - The museum was built for families to experience the history of the railroad, starting with the Great Discovery exhibit. The exhibit starts with guests riding a mine lift backwards through time to a time before the steam engine was invented. The museum also features the first steam locomotive invented in the country, the De Arend, as well as a roller coaster in the Monsters of Steel exhibit.
- Rietveld Schröderhuis - The highlight of the De Stijl art movement, the Rietveld Schröderhuis (or Rietveld Schroeder House) was designed and built in 1924. Using the properties of De Stijl (seamless transitions with open walls, use of primary colors, and flexible walls), the house was restored in 1985 and is accessible only with a guided tour that must be booked in advance.
- Botanical Gardens - Located at Fort Hoofddijk, the botanical gardens provide guests with a view of many different types of plant life from all across the globe. Featuring thousands of unique plant species, the gardens are part of the local Utrecht University and are open from March through November.
Besides the “top ten,” there are many other museums - the Aboriginal Art Museum, the Museum Speelklok, the Sonnenborgh Observatory, and the Betje Boerhave Museum among them.
In addition, guests can take one of the many different guided walking tours (city walk, nature walk, hotspots, and Trajectum Lumen) that can be booked at the Tourist Information Center.
The city of Utrecht is known for its special events and festivals, having the second largest amount of them in the entire county (behind only Amsterdam).
Located in the Botanical Garden, the Bier and Appelsap Festival is held annually in May. Literally translating to beer and apple juice, the festival is designed for guests of all ages and is divided into six themed areas - circus, music/theater, creative, nature, science, and sports/games. Food trucks are also available on site for hungry festival guests. This unique festival teaches dance moves, offers lectures with local park rangers, puts on treasure hunts, and creates a bike course.
In June, the city is host to the Supah Dupah Festival. This fest focuses on eclectic music of all varieties for guests over the age of 18. Bringing in well-known Dutch artists, the festival is the longest running of its time in the town.
Due to the city’s history as a food center, there are also frequent food-based festivals and events held. One local favorite is the Vorkje-Prik Fest, held in June and July. This festival revolves around the wide variety of different food trucks that are located in the city. With a selection of great, local live music as well as activities for children, the family friendly Vorkje-Prik Festival is a hit with both locals and visitors to Utrecht. It is very similar to the Spoon Festival, also held in June, that offers mobile kitchens, a local market, and free children’s activities.
Utrecht is also known for its wide variety of cultural special events and opportunities. With theater (at Theater Kikker and Stadsschouwburg Utrecht), cinema, concert halls, and performance stages located all over the city, Utrecht is home to the European Brass Band Championships, the Theater Na de Dam, and more. Check out the Ultagenda for additional information and specific dates and times of any activities.
In conjunction with that cultural significance, the end of September and the beginning of October features the Netherlands (or Dutch) Film Festival. Running for more than 30 years, the film fest lasts ten days and plays film of all length and subject matter (documentaries, television dramas, and arthouse films).
Dining and Shopping
Stop by the Lombok market for local delicacies, coffee shops, and unique “living room” cafes like Cafe Lombok, which serves food fresh from the market. In fact, the city has more than 200 different restaurants featuring all types of cuisine options. There are also a huge variety of shopping options in Utrecht. Guests can buy Miffy gifts, Holland souvenirs, and typical products found in Utrecht at the Tourist Information Center. There is also the Lombok shopping area, which offers local goods and second-hand treasures. For guests looking for a more contemporary shopping experience, there is Hoog Catharijne (the biggest indoor mall in the country), which is attached to Central Station.