8 best things to do in Utrecht

There is much more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam. In fact, there are few places that come as close to sampling a taste of authentic Dutch culture than its neighbour Utrecht.

The magic of Utrecht lies in its architecture that reveals its deep-rooted history and the different eras that have shaped the city. Originally founded by the Romans, the city has a rich cultural legacy and is home to stunningly well-preserved historic sites and gorgeous canals with wharf cellars – traditional medieval storage facilities.

Today, Utrecht has evolved into a modern city that boasts a thriving arts and culture scene, mostly car-free city centre with restaurant-filled streets and a friendly, young population that is fluent in English.

Conveniently located just 25 minutes by train from Amsterdam, at the very heart of the Netherlands, Utrecht is perfect for a more athentically Dutch experience and as a base for visiting other highlight destinations too.

1. Revel in the history of Utrecht’s ancient Dom Square

Around AD 50 Romans laid Utrecht's foundations right in the Dom Square. If you pay close attention, you'll see the coloured lights in the street outlining where the original walls of the Roman castellum, or tower, once stood.

The Gothic Domtoren, added to the cityscape in the 14th century, stands at an astounding height of 367 feet (112m) in the heart of the square, making it the tallest tower in the Netherlands. It is the most celebrated symbol of Utrecht, also bestowing it the nickname Domstad (The City of the Cathedral, in English). One of the tower’s most impressive features is its 14 bells, weighing a whopping total of 70,548 pounds (32,000kg) and each with its own biblical name. The panoramic view is worth conquering the 465-stair climb too, but exterior renovations mean tickets to a wheelchair accessible lift are currently also available.  Although the work won't be completed until 2024, the tower continues to welcome visitors.

The Dom Church, also called St Martin’s Cathedral, is located behind the tower and also warrants a visit. The tower and church were separated by a tornado in 1674 to never be rejoined again. What remains of the church is still an impressive sight to behold: upon entrance you will discover its stunning marble interior with high arches, stained glass windows and mysterious tombs. In the square, look down to spot the stones with deviating colours that reveal how these two iconic structures used to be united.

Dom Square Utrecht (Image: Olena Znak/Shutterstock)Olena Znak/Shutterstock

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2. Explore the city through unique routes

When arriving at the Dom Square, make sure to pass by the tourist information centre (VVV in Dutch). Not only can you rent your typical Dutch bicycle here, they also offer folders with stunning cycling and walking routes throughout Utrecht’s city centre and its suburbs. See the quaintest and quietest courtyards hidden all over the inner city, local hotspots and concealed alleyways you would normally miss.

In for a bit more of a challenge? Outside Escape offers an immersive walking tour through the city that is delivered right to your mobile phone. The tour is filled with riddles and brain teasers, turning the city into one giant escape room.

Utrecht centre (Image: Mistervlad/Shutterstock)Mistervlad/Shutterstock

3. Eat and drink like a king at Oudaen

Sitting pretty along one of the most beautiful canals and directly across from the largest bookstore in Utrecht, you'll find elegant stadskasteel Oudaen. Historically, the castle was used as a medieval defence tower but today it houses a local brewery, café and muhc-loved restaurant. Be sure to sample some of the local beers in a beer tasting or enjoy an authentic dish from their in-house kitchen.

Oudaen has an impressive backstory and owns one of Utrecht’s most famous werfkelders, or wharf cellars – essentially historic storage spaces along the canals that have been repurposed as shops and restaurants. Not only are these specific to Utrecht, they also allow scenic views of the Oudegracht, Utrecht's main canal, especially at nighttime.

Utrecht City castle (Image: www.hollandfoto.net/Shutterstock)www.hollandfoto.net/Shutterstock

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4. Explore Utrecht under the stars  

During the night, Utrecht becomes the most charmingly lit-up city with a flourishing nightlife. On a summer's night, be sure to take an evening stroll along the illuminated canals and marvel in the romance that the city has on display. Then, stop at a local terrace to sample a taste of Utrecht’s nightlife and drinking culture.

Is the Dutch weather raining on your parade? Make a stop at Belgian Beer Café Olivier. The café seems unassuming from the outside, but once you enter, you'll find yourself in a welcoming church that dates back to the 1860s. The menu boasts plenty of speciality Belgian beers and a selection of lunch and dinner plates as well as bar snacks.

5. Whistle your way through the Railway Museum

If there’s one museum to add to your to-do list, it's the Railway Museum. The museum, first established in 1927, opens the doors to a wondrous world of train history. The collection spans over two centuries and showcases real-life train carraiges and freight cars. What truly makes this museum one-of-a-kind is its dedication to creating an interactive experience, making it a fun venture for everyone. Conveniently, there is a shuttle train from Utrecht Central Station that will take you directly to the museum. All aboard!

Utrecht Railway Museum (Image: Anton Havelaar/Shutterstock)Anton Havelaar/Shutterstock

6. Immerse yourself in a fairy tale at Kasteel de Haar

To escape the city buzz, spend an afternoon strolling around the peaceful castle grounds of Kasteel de Haar. For the real Dutch experience, cycle there on an easy-breezy hour-long ride from the city centre.The medieval keep is the largest castle in the Netherlands and dates back to the 13th century. The castle grounds include a massive geometrical garden and mythical forest that allow you to wander the premises for multiple hours.

But it’s not just the outside that is impressive – once inside, marvel at the cathedral-esque interior that includes sculptures, tapestries and other intricate artwork. The lavish residence has also played host to a flurry of famous faces, from Coco Chanel to Brigitte Bardot. The castle's intriguing history is best uncovered with the help of a comprehensive audio guide.

Castle de Haar (Image: MPPhotograph/Shutterstock)MPPhotograph/Shutterstock

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7. Stay overnight in a contemporary church at BUNK Utrecht

Located a stone's throw from Utrecht Central, you really cannot be more better placed for exploring than staying at BUNK. This hotel was formerly a church but has been converted into a hotel – by now you must know the Dutch love to repurpose their landmarks – and it now includes a restaurant that serves up a range of different cuisines with unusual twists.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner can be included in your stay and the food is served in the main hall, which features a quaint bar and an impressive Quellhorst organ, which is still used for unique evening concerts. For another fun night out, you can visit the nearby TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht’s main concert hall that hosts concerts and events throughout the year.


A post shared by Bunk Hotels (@bunkhotels)

8. Go green in oasis that is the Utrechtse Heuvelrug

If you love the outdoors, visit the Utrechtse Heuvelrug – a stunning national park located just under a 40-minute car ride from the city. The landscape of the park is a remnant of the ice age, dating back to over 130,000 years ago. The vast wilderness of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug includes pine forests, grasslands, lakes and plains. If you’re lucky during your hike or while enjoying a quiet picnic, you might be able to spot deer, foxes or European pine martens. The area is also home to over a hundred species of birds. This green wonderland is perfect for taking some time to disconnect and discover the often under-appreciated nature of the Netherlands.

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Lead image: Olena Znak/Shutterstock


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