On a latticework of snug Medieval streets and alleys, Utrecht is rich in history but is also a university town with pulsating nightlife and exciting culture.
Up to the 17th century Utrecht was the base of economic power in the Netherlands, as well as being the centre of Christianity until the Reformation.
This city produced the only Dutch pope, Adrian VI, while the 112-metre Dom Tower of St Martin’s Cathedral and the numerous churches and monasteries all point to the might of the former Archbishopric of Utrecht.
The main canal through the centre of Utrecht, the Oudegracht, is distinct for its beautiful quayside set a few metres below street level.
Dick Bruna, creator of Miffy, was an Utrecht native, and his much-loved cartoon rabbit has inspired a museum and even appears on a set of traffic lights near the Centraal station.
You could travel the world and not see anything quite like the cityscape along the Oudegracht (Old Canal). This waterway was started in the 12th century to alter the course of the Oude Rijn, a branch of the Rhine Delta.
The earth excavated during the construction was piled onto the banks to reduce the risk of flooding.
This left the canal significantly lower than the rest of the town.
And then, when the locks were installed in 1275, regulating the water level, unique quays and cellars could be built on the waterside, with tunnels linking with the wealthy fortified houses and warehouses on the level above.
You can step down to the tree-lined wharfs, where the old cellars are now private residences, offices, shops and cafes with outdoor seating.
This charming scene is echoed by the parallel Nieuwegracht (New Canal) a couple of streets to the east.
2. Dom Tower
The oldest and highest church tower in the Netherlands was once attached to Utrecht’s St Martin’s Cathedral.
Standing 112 metres tall, this emblem for Utrecht was built between 1321 and 1381 and has a ring of bells cast by the Hemony Brothers in the 17th century that can be heard throughout the old city.
The Dom Tower has stood alone since 1674 when a storm destroyed the cathedral’s nave, and you can trace the outline of this lost structure in the paving of the Domplein below.
If you’re going up, be prepared because there are 465 stairs to the highest viewpoint at 95 metres.
On the way the guide will point out historical details like the bells, the largest of which weighs more than 8,160 kg.
And when you do make it to the top the panoramas are awe-inspiring, extending to Amsterdam 40 kilometres to the northwest.
The first cathedral at this site was founded in the 7th century, but this was also the exact location for the Roman fort of Traiectum.
The many layers of history beneath the Domplein (Cathedral Square) have been excavated and this intriguing netherworld has been opened up to the public since 2014. Before you go beneath the cobblestone square there’s an introductory film zipping you through 2,000 years of history and recreating the fort that was founded in 45 AD.
Once you’re underground you’ll be equipped with an “interactive torch” which you can shine on exhibits like Roman foundations, Roman paving, Roman fibulae, Medieval coins, a preserved human skeleton and traces of the demolished Gothic nave.
With each discovery you’ll get interesting titbits about Roman and Medieval Utrecht.
4. Dom Church
The choir and transept of St Martin’s Cathedral deserve a look for the many finely carved memorials, as well as the many signs of iconoclasm from the 16th century.
One major monument left unscathed is the tomb to the 14th-century bishop Guy of Avesnes.
Also see the impressive cenotaph created to hold the heart of the 16th-century Bishop George van Egmond.
More understated are small the Emperors’ Stones (Keizerssteentjes) in the floor of the choir, commemorating the Holy Roman Emperors Conrad II (d. 1039) and Henry V (d. 1125), who both died while in Utrecht and whose bowels and hearts were buried in the cathedral.
Check out the altarpiece, which was defaced in 1572 during an iconoclastic riot.
The cloister garden has a lovely view of the cathedral’s chevet, with bas-reliefs in its gables depicting the life of St Martin.
5. Rietveld Schröder House
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rietveld Schröder House is the only building to have been constructed entirely using De Stijl principles.
Gerrit Rietvelt was the architect, and the house was commissioned in 1924 by socialite and De Stijl collaborator Truus Schröder.
The design was a rejection of old-fashioned bourgeois ideals like propriety, in the face of a radical new openness towards family relationships.
So the interior is almost completely without walls, using flexible sliding partitions instead.
The reliance on clean horizontal lines and primary colours are hallmarks of De Stijl, while the house is furnished with original pieces designed by Rietvelt, like the iconic Red-Blue Chair and the minimalistic Zig-Zag Chair.
Truus would live here until she passed away in 1985 and spent long hours gazing over the polder landscape from the upstairs window.
6. Railway Museum
The Dutch National Railway Museum is right in Utrecht at the old Maliebaan station building (closed 1939), with a large extension behind dating from the 2000s.
The different “worlds” here lead you on a trip through time, starting with The Great Discovery in the early 19th century when steam engines were first adapted for transport.
You’ll see an exact replica of the Netherlands’ first steam engine De Arend, and experience the golden age of rail transport at Dream Journeys, dedicated to the Orient Express.
The majestic Art Deco locomotives of the 30s and 40s are the centre of attention at Steel Monsters, while Trial by Fire is a timeline of the 200-year evolution of rail travel narrated by Rutger Hauer.
Finally, Trains Through Time guides you along the platform in an industrial environment, past historic locomotives and displays of signal machines, signs, ticket dispensers and even a WC from the royal train for Queen Emma (1858-1934).
7. Centraal Museum
A showcase for Utrecht and its culture and history, the Centraal Museum is set in a Medieval cloister at Nicolaaaskerkhof.
Here you can learn about movements like Utrecht Caravaggism, when local 17th-century painters like Hendrick ter Brugghen, Abraham Bloemaert and Gerard van Honthorst adopted Caravaggio’s techniques like chiaroscuro.
There’s more fabulous art by the Utrecht-born Mannerist Joachim Wtewael, Renaissance painter Jan van Scorel and the portraitist Paulus Moreelse.
Bringing you up to modern times, you can see inside Miffy Creator Dick Bruna’s studio, which has been moved piece by piece to the top floor of the museum.
Last but definitely not least, the museum also holds the world’s largest single collection of works by De Stijl designer Gerrit Rietveld.
8. Museum Catharijneconvent
The venue for this captivating Christian art museum is the former Order of Malta Catharijneconvent (St Catharine’s Convent), founded around the turn of the 12th century when it became the first monastery for this order north of the Alps.
The museum presents a complete history of the Catholics and Protestants in the Netherlands, via Medieval manuscripts, vestments, polychrome carvings, gold and silverware, richly decorated book bindings, altarpieces and numerous paintings.
There are works by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Jan van Scorel, as well as thought-provoking modern pieces like a stained glass window by Marc Mulders, painting by Jan Toorop and sculpture by Shinkichi Tajiri.
9. Utrecht University Botanic Gardens
In the 1960s Fort Hoofddijk, a former defence on the New Dutch Water Line (more on that below), became the setting for Utrecht University’s main botanic garden, often touted as the best in the country.
The collection was first put together in the 1600s, and the Oude Hortus by the University Museum was the place where Europe’s first gingko biloba was planted in the 18th century.
A highlight of the new location is one of the largest rock gardens in Europe, composed of more than 2,100 tons of rocks transported from the Ardennes.
See the oldest flowering plants in the world at the Evolution Garden, the Tropical Greenhouses growing orchids, vanilla, mangoes and bananas, the multisensory Discovery Garden and the Japanese and Chinese species in the Bamboo Bush.
If you have a deep interest in botany you can also take a tour with a trained guide.
10. Boat Trips
You’ll get a fine perspective of the Medieval city’s wharf cellars, bridges, canal houses and monuments like the Dom Tower on a cruise along the Oudegracht and the former moat, the Stadsbuitengracht.
Rederij Schuttevaer is a tour company in business for 50 years, with hour-long cruises departing seven days a week from the central Viebrug.
If you want to see more there’s a 90-minute tour, taking you from the historic Oudegracht to the newer neighbourhoods of this constantly growing city.
There are also packages combining a cruise with lunch, cheese tasting or a visit to a museum.
And if you’d prefer to follow your own nose, there’s a choice of companies on the Oudegracht providing electric boat hire, canal bikes (pedal boats), stand-up paddle boarding and canoeing in summer.
11. Museum Speelklok
An attraction to put a smile on your face, the Museum Speelklok in the former Buurkerk is dedicated to vintage automatic musical instruments.
Nearly all of these musical clocks, music boxes, pianolas, orchestrions (self-playing orchestras) and street organs are in working order and serenade you as you make your way through the galleries.
Extra special are the “Violina” and the renowned street organ, the Arabier.
The museum shows off the craftsmanship that goes into these mechanical wonders, and its restoration workshops is an industry leader.
In winter 2018-19 there was an enthralling exhibition for high-tech musical robots, while a permanent activity for kids is a treasure hunt through the museum to help a monkey find his favourite tune.
12. Nijntje Museum (Miffy Museum)
Dick Bruna’s former home and studio is right across the road from the Centraal Museum on Agnietenstraat.
A museum for Bruna’s beloved creation, Miffy, opened here in 2006 and in 2016 this was reworked as a hands-on Miffy-themed attraction aimed purely at toddlers and young children.
Inside, they’ll be immersed in little worlds based on Bruna’s books, visiting the zoo, taking Boris Bear to the doctor, taking a picnic in the forest, tucking Miffy into bed, mowing the lawn in the garden and baking a cake.
Kids can also get creative in the art room, which hosts supervised workshops on weekends.
13. Lombok District
For a change of air, you can reach this multicultural area a few minutes on foot from the Centraal station.
It’s not just the place name that’s Indonesian, as even the streets take the names of islands and people from the former Dutch East Indies Colony.
The bustling Kanaalstraat has to be your first port of call for its exotic grocers, bakeries and butchers.
The street is heralded by the enormous Ulu Mosque, unveiled in 2016. People from all over Utrecht come to Kanaalstraat for specialty ingredients, as well as for the best Turkish, North African and Surinamese restaurants in the city, interspersed with a sprinkling of cafes for hip young things.
Elsewhere, the Houtzaagmolen De Ster dates from 1739 and is the only preserved wood sawmill ensemble in the Netherlands.
14. Hire a Bicycle
More than a third of all journeys in Utrecht are made by bike, more than any other mode of transport.
In fact, bicycles are so ubiquitous in the city that a smart solution was needed to store them.
In 2017 the world’s largest cycle garage opened close to the Centraal station, which when fully completed at the end of 2018 had space for 12,500 bikes across three floors.
So if you want to blend in, you’d better start pedalling! The compact city centre is best seen on two wheels, and there’s a good choice of hire shops seconds from the station or at key locations like Vredenburg and the Domplein.
15. St. Willibrord’s Church
Completed in 1877 after two years of construction, St Willibrord’s Church is a beautifully formed neo-Gothic building with a level of ornamentation quite unusual for a Dutch church.
This is down to its Roman Catholic denomination, and stepping inside you’ll be greeted by radiant stained glass, polychrome carvings and intricately patterned painted walls and ceiling.
The choir is most profusely decorated of all, with no shortage of gilding on the exuberantly carved reredos.
Something interesting to note about the choir is that the windows are extra high to allow as much light as possible, because the church is surrounded by houses.
16. Trajectum Lumen
In Utrecht you have to take one evening to walk this free light art trail in the centre of the city, starting at Vredenburg.
The project was launched in 2010 and the number of installations has increased with each year.
As of 2018 there are 19 artworks, at spots charged with history and no little atmosphere around the Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht, using the Dom Tower as a reference point.
You can download an app and use GPS to navigate the route.
On the way you’ll get interesting snippets about the city and can test how well you know Utrecht with a quiz.
In the western Leidsche Rijn district, this 300-hectare park was named for Máxima, then the princess and now Queen of the Netherlands.
Officially opened in 2013, Máximapark is the green core of a large expansion project for Utrecht, beginning in the second half of the 1990s.
It’s as large as Utrecht’s city centre and in the last five years has been voted as the Netherlands’ favourite park.
For people out for exercise, Het Lint (The Ribbon) is an eight-kilometre car-free asphalt path weaving through the park.
On average this circular route is six metres wide, and offers ample space for joggers, strolling families, skaters and cyclists.
18. Papal House
The only Dutch pope, Adrian VI was born in Utrecht in 1459 and had a fascinating life, becoming the tutor to the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1507. Later he was appointed Grand Inquisitor for the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile.
Not long before becoming pope in 1522 Adrian had this house on Kromme Nieuwegracht constructed in the Renaissance style.
It’s the second oldest building still standing in Utrecht’s historic centre.
Adrian never got to stay in this residence as he died just 20 months into his papacy, and in the 19th century the house became seat of the Royal Commissioner.
On an ordinary walk through the city centre the Papal House warrants a stop for its ornamental stepped gable and narrow bands of brick and natural stone.
But if you happen to be in Utrecht on the last Sunday of the month there’s a free tour in Dutch, with English info provided by a booklet.
19. StadsKasteel Oudaen
On your trip along the Oudegracht you’ll come upon this dignified tower, which has a history that can traced back to 1276. The Stadskasteel Oudaen was rebuilt in brick sometime in the 14th century and is named for the Oudaen family who lived here from 1395. The Dutch Reformed Church took over the building in 1758 and turned it into a retirement home, a role it kept until 1965. These days this fortified house is home to a brewery/restaurant, brewing 75,000 litres of beer a year in the basement.
You can head in for a tasting , or sign up for a tour to see more of this unique building and find how the brewery’s tripel, dubbel, pilsner, white beer and bock beers are made.
As Utrecht developed eastwards at the end of the 19th century the landowner Baron van Boetzelaer van Oosterhout sold this parcel of greenery to the city on the condition that it be turned into a public park.
The Wilhelminapark opened in 1898 taking the name of the newly crowned Queen Wilhelmina.
In an upmarket patch of Utrecht, the park is very genteel, fringed by mansions and townhouses and with a stately promenade running north to south.
On this route you’ll pass a pretty teahouse with a thatched roof, dating to 1925. There’s a big body of water, the Wilhelminavijver, in the centre and a wartime remnant on the edge of the park in the form of the EXbunker.
This German command bunker from 1943 was threatened with demolition before being turned into a contemporary art space in 2014.
This top-notch museum is a repository for the University of Utrecht’s large collections for medicine, zoology, botany, archaeology, geology and also the history of the university.
There are antique scientific instruments, a particle accelerator, an old-school cabinet of curiosities with a historic collection of taxidermies, an intriguing exhibition comparing human and animal skeletons, while kids can put on a lab coat and conduct experiments in the Youth Lab.
Something you won’t come across very often is the Bleuland Cabinet, with numerous human skeletons, as well as preserved organs and foetuses (perhaps not for everyone!). Admission also grants you access to the old Hortus, which was Utrecht’s botanical garden from 1723 to 1920. There’s a set of beautiful old greenhouses and an orangery, while growing outside is that gingko biloba planted around 1750 and a medicinal herb garden.
22. Kasteel de Haar
Pierre Cuypers, the man behind Amsterdam Centraal and the Rijksmuseum building was hired by the Rothschild family in the early 1890s to conduct a complete reconstruction of this Medieval castle.
Kasteel de Haar is the largest castle in the Netherlands and a convenient day out from Utrecht by train or car.
Cuypers laid out the park, and also designed the castle’s rich fittings, as well as much of its furniture.
The sense of opulence is inescapable, from the intricate neo-Gothic mouldings of the Central Hall to the collections of 16th and 17th-century tapestries and the antique Chinese and Japanese ceramics.
Look out for the many references to the Van Zuylen and Van de Haar families, in coats of arms and in their family motifs (a column and a diamond pattern). The Van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar family still resides at the property in September, and has entertained the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Roger Moore, Coco Chanel and Gregory Peck in these walls.
23. Nationaal Militair Museum
About 15 minutes by road on the way to Amersfoort, the National Military Museum covers the past, present and future of the armed forces.
This relatively young attraction only opened in 2014 and came about after the Army Museum, formerly in Delft, merged with the Military Aviation Museum at this site in Soesterberg.
The collection deals with the history of warfare, going back to Stone Age arrowheads and swords and armour from the Middle Ages.
But it’s the modern technology that is most compelling, namely the seven jet fighters, two tanks and a M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System.
One of the rarest pieces on show is a German V2 rocket from the Second World War – the Netherlands being the first country in which this weapon was deployed.
Opened by King Willem-Alexander in 2014, the TivoliVredenburg is a phenomenal live music complex.
It was built on the site of the old Muziekcentrum, home to the Grote Zaal symphony hall, which has been kept intact.
This is one of five music venues at TivoliVredenburg, and, amazingly, each one has been designed for a different musical genre.
Ronda is for pop, and can house 2,000 spectators, Cloud Nine is for jazz, Pandora is mainly for electronic music, while Hertz is for chamber music.
This groundbreaking layout allows the complex to host classical music on the same night as a techno rave.
The halls are all linked by walkways and congenial squares in a building designed like a “vertical city”. TivoliVredenburg is at its best during music festivals when you can roam the squares and halls to see what you can find.
In the course of centuries of conflict the Dutch discovered that they could turn their low-lying setting into a defensive advantage.
And come the 17th century, Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange set about building the Dutch Water Line.
Sluices in dikes and forts allowed a big swathe of the Netherlands to be flooded, effectively turning the country into an island and stopping invaders in their tracks.
Throughout the 19th century the Dutch Water Line was moved east to incorporate Utrecht, which is why the city has a constellation of fortresses on its doorstep.
There are 12 to visit close by, but if you have to narrow it down to a couple, Fort Blauwkapel (1821) is very pretty, with a picnic area, jetty on the water and hiking trails.
Fort bij Vechten (1870) meanwhile has an interactive museum about the Dutch Water Line, with a big open air model of the system that can be flooded like the real thing.