Without question the most popular place to visit in the Netherlands is the city of Amsterdam. As a tourist destination it tends to excite a lot of people, but I think one of the best things you can do there is leave. Now, I mean that in the nicest possible way! Because of its location, Amsterdam is a perfect place to base yourself when visiting the Netherlands. Nearby, you’ll find plenty of other cities and destinations that will help you better appreciate this corner of the Low Countries. Of the many choices available, a day trip to Utrecht has to be one of your picks.
Although considerably smaller than Amsterdam, Utrecht is still the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. With strong historic ties to the Church in the Netherlands and the country’s largest university, there’s no doubt of its importance. In order to make the most of a day trip to Utrecht (or longer), here is a guide to the city.
Getting to Utrecht
One of the great things about making a day trip to Utrecht from Amsterdam is how close it is. You can arrive in Utrecht in under 30 minutes by train, meaning its super easy to have an early start to your day. Utrecht train station, and the giant shopping centre attached to it, is right on the fringe of the Old Town. The shopping mall above is quite pretty lit up in the morning too as it happens. A brief stroll and you’ll find yourself already in the heart of Utrecht.
Public transport is certainly one way to go, but to get from Amsterdam to Utrecht you could also consider renting a car. That way you have a little more freedom, even though the trains are pretty great.
The University Quarter
If like me you’re visiting on a Saturday, you’ll be met with empty streets on a Saturday morning. This is especially the case in the University Quarter, the northern end of the city centre. Everyone, including the students, is either still in bed or at one of the local markets. That makes the area a perfect place to start your visit as you can explore hassle-free.
If you find your way to Breedstraat, you’ll uncover the Fabric Market. Take away a few of its modern touches and it likely hasn’t changed in centuries. A couple blocks away behind the Janskerk in Janskerkhof square you’ll find the local flower market. Even early on a cold winter’s day, the local florists were getting setup, brightening up the brick paved square.
While roaming around the University Quarter, there are plenty of other sights to see too. For starters there’s the quite distinctive water tower that pops up above the rooftops of the low residential area. There’s also the cute lift Drift canal which neighbours some truly delightful buildings from across different eras. As you’re in the northern end of town, it’s also a great chance to explore the moat that surrounds the city’s old town. More on Utrecht’s canals later though.
Like most places in the Netherlands, you can expect to find some good coffee places in Utrecht. In the University Quarter on Voorstraat there’s a number of places, including The Village which was just opening up as I arrived in town. The Village has an indie/hipster vibe but also some really friendly baristas and quality coffee.
Not far away on a corner you’ll find De Ontdekking which felt more like a casual student cafe. Make sure to try their croissants, delicious. Closer to the town centre and Oudegracht canal you’ll find plenty more cafes. With a cosy and elegant feel is Carla’s Conditorie, a bakery with plenty of slices and cakes.
The Centre of Utrecht
After recharging with coffee, it’s best to find your way to the centre of Utrecht – Domplein square. This square surrounding the city’s Cathedral is home to plenty of attractions on its own, not to mention the Utrecht Tourism Office. Once you’ve work your way to the square, the office should be open so that you can better plan the rest of your day.
While in Domplein, make sure to head behind the Cathedral and visit its beautifully secluded cloister courtyard. Known as the Pandhof Domkerk, the gardens are meticulously designed, as is the architecture actually. Next door, it’s hard to miss the extravagant design of the Academiegebouw. As the ceremonial centre in which the university hosts functions, this neo-Renaissance building is certainly one of the more grand buildings in Utrecht.
As you walk about the centre of the city, keep an eye out for a thin bronze strip running along the ground. If you do spot it then you’re looking at where the walls of the Roman settlement Trajectum once stood. While walking around Domplein you should come across these markings among the brick pavers.
Climbing the Cathedral Tower
An icon of Utrecht, the Dom Tower is a much beloved landmark of the city. Visits to the cathedral tower are only available by a guided tour, where you’ll learn the tower’s history and climb 465 stairs to reach the top viewing platform of the tower. In fact, at 112 metres tall, the Utrecht Dom Tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands.
When you visit, at first it may seem strange how far the church tower is from the cathedral. It’s only once the cathedral’s history is explained that it begins to become clear. Christianity first reached Utrecht thanks to the missionary Willibrord who built a church to St Martin among old Roman ruins. Around the church, where the cathedral now stands, the city of Utrecht would form.
Successive devastating fires claimed the church and first cathedral, so the current Gothic Cathedral of Utrecht actually dates back to 1254. The Dom Tower was later added and completed in 1382. Now, at this stage, the tower was actually adjoined to the cathedral. In what is likely one of the most defining events in Utrecht history, a tornado hit the city on 1 August 1674. The violent winds flattened the nave of the church, thereby separating the tower from the church. So grief-stricken was the city by this tragedy that the remains of the nave were left in place for over 150 years!
This history of the tower and the tornado of 1674 is shared with you as you slowly make your way up the lower floors of the tower interior. This includes quite a medieval room lit by candlelight that is actually rented out for functions, including weddings. Other levels break up the 465 stairs and include a room where the tower’s 13 heavy medieval bells safely hang.
A benefit of the 11am tour is that you get to hear the Dom Tower’s carillon performance up close. Standing directly outside the room of city carillonneur, Malgosia Fiebig, you get to be surrounded by music as she plays the special performance that occurs each Saturday from 11am. It’s really quite something.
Finally, after reaching the second highest level we were treated to views of the city. Well, actually we were treated to views of fog, which is apparently quite rare in Utrecht. The views from the top were actually worse due to the scaffolding and thicker fog. Unfortunate, but that’s how things turn out sometimes. Thanks to the power of Lightroom, the below image is far clearer than the view ever was to the naked eye.
The hour-long guided tour starts from the Tourist Information office with tours on the hour from 11am to 5pm. Tickets for adults are €9.
DOM Under Tour
Although a tour of the Dom Tower does a good job of teaching you some of Utrecht’s history, it’s not quite the complete picture. No, for that I highly recommend taking the DOM Under tour. This tour not only walks you through the city’s history, from the Romans to the fateful tornado of 1674, but you actually get a chance to see it.
The tour starts by taking you downstairs into the cellars where you’re actually already among Roman ruins. As I was the only English speaker there that day, I actually had a private tour to start with. The tour guide walked me through various facets of Utrecht’s history, for instance explaining that the current Domplein square was raised several metres over the centuries. This of course explained why the wall ruins were in the building’s cellar rather than at street level.
After an informative video, we were ushered up outside and led down some stairs in Domplein square. Below Domplein we were greeted with a vast chamber filled with remnants of the former Roman settlement’s walls. We were then treated to a convincing audiovisual recreation of the 1674 tornado. Once the storm had calmed, we were handed headphones and a torch and sent on a little hunt of sorts. Scattered throughout the ruins were little sensors that when scanned would trigger audio clips. In my mind, it’s a really clever setup to get visitors invested in the history.
The DOM Under tour lasts 75 minutes, with multiple sessions throughout the day and tickets costing €11. I was concerned the underground parts would feel claustrophobic but it turned out to be fine.
The Stadhuis Quarter
To the west/northwest of the Domplein and centred on the Oudegracht canal you’ll find the Stadhuis Quarter. Generally the most lively part of Utrecht, this quarter has numerous shopping streets and plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants. Besides the canal that runs through it, you’ll find the odd landmark worth checking out.
Of course, given that the quarter is named after the Town Hall, ie. Stadhuis, it’s safe to assume there’s that to see. An incredibly unconventional building, it’s worth taking a look at the town hall to see if its divisive architecture appeals to you or not. Further up the canal you can also spot the Stadskasteel Oudaen, an old converted city castle. Dating from 1276, the castle was one of the first stone buildings in Utrecht and among the assorted waterfront buildings, it definitely stands out.
Definitely one of the coolest surprises I came across during my day trip to Utrecht was the Ganzenmarkt Tunnel down to the Oudegracht’s edge. That may sound very uninteresting, but I failed to mention the warping light display that makes it look like the psychedelic tunnel from Willy Wonka. Chuck in some graffiti and you’ve got a hidden gem right there.
Canals of Utrecht
It’s probably time that I fill you in on all the canals you can find in Utrecht. It wouldn’t be much of a Dutch city without canals, now would it?
Whereas the canals in Amsterdam feel broad and wide-open, Utrecht’s canals feel more vital as the buildings close in around them. Along many stretches of the canals you’ll find outdoor seating areas as well as the city’s signature wharf cellars. These water-level cellars are basically built under street level and open out to the city’s waterfront. Inside them you’ll find everything from restaurants and bars, to art galleries and even people’s homes.
Now to the canals themselves. By far the most popular is the previously mentioned Oudegracht, aka. the old canal. Winding its way through the centre of the city, this canal offer some of Utrecht’s most scenic spots in my opinion. Looking alone the Oudegracht first thing in the morning is a hauntingly beautiful sight. I can only imagine how fun it is to sit down by the canal during summer in Utrecht.
Also running through the city is the smaller Nieuwegracht, which joins with the Drift in the city centre. Then there’s the jagged moat that encircles the old town of Utrecht and links up with the Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht as well. Generally the city moat is lined more by parkland, which makes sense given its historical use as a defensive fortification.
The Dom Quarter
A considerably more peaceful side to the city can be found in the Dom Quarter to the east. It’s little alleys with pretty shop fronts and greenery remind you that even in the city centre there are residential areas. Besides the canal fronts, this was my favourite part of the city to wander about.
However, it’s not lacking in sights either. Likely the most noteworthy attraction in this quarter is the Paushuize. One look at the building and you can tell it is important, and indeed, it was the home for Pope Adrian VI. The only Dutch pope in history, that a local of Utrecht rose to that position further validates Utrecht’s religious importance.
For those looking to delve into the culture of Utrecht, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. The city has a number of museums that each delve into rather curious corners of Utrecht’s culture, from the Museum Speelklok on music boxes, to the Miffy Museum that celebrates the locally created picture book character. None though compare to the eclectic nature of the Centraal Museum.
If I were to only list a number of the exhibits, you would have a hard time finding a common theme. Really the only common element moving from room to room is the city of Utrecht. The Centraal Museum manages to cover a spectrum of art and history that includes modern art, archaeological artifacts, Miffy, a medieval cargo ship, audio-visual media and tributes to multiple key artists.
Where else can you admire medieval portraits and then witness a photo gallery of a photographer’s troubled neighbour? What’s odd is that it somehow works and has you wondering, what’s in the next room? Situated in the Museum Quarter, entry to the Centraal Museum costs €13,50 for adults.
Evening Canal Tour
If you haven’t already managed to include it in your day, a great way to cap off your sightseeing is with a canal cruise. Setting off from below the Gaardbrug, the boat tour gently works its way along the adjoining series of canals that loop around Utrecht. Along the way, the multi-lingual tour points out sights passing by. Even though I’d spent all day exploring Utrecht, the tour still managed to highlight things I’d previously missed.
Although cruising along in the evening may make sightseeing a little harder, the city is beautiful at night. The winter lights displays are particularly enchanting as you slowly drift underneath them. As the boat is all indoors, there’s no worry about getting cold out on the water. The lower vantage point also makes you really appreciate all the wharf cellars built in along the canal.
The canal cruises run hourly from 11am with the last one at 5pm and also takes an hour roundtrip. The most recent prices are €11.95 for adults.
A Day Trip To Utrecht
- While a day trip to Utrecht seems to be the most common approach, there’s definitely enough in the city to warrant an overnight stay. Looking back, that would have been my preference, given how many choices of hotels, hostels and guesthouses are available.
- As it’s only a short trip back, why not consider having dinner in Utrecht? If you’re there on a Saturday, consider making a dinner reservation as places can be fully booked even at 6pm. I got lucky with Graaf Floris who had space for me and have quite a tasty Runderstoofschotel, i.e. beef stew.
- It’s worth noting for your day trip to Utrecht, that the city has a free city Wi-Fi network. This should make getting about and finding things super simple.