I’m surprised that more tourists don’t know about this adorable city with its gorgeous canals and rich history.
My recent visit to Utrecht marked the first time that I’d ventured out of Amsterdam to see more of the Netherlands. With the fourth largest population in the country, Utrecht felt lively but also somewhat relaxed and quaint after the commotion found on the streets of Amsterdam.
I was lucky enough to have a local guide for my trip to Utrecht. Roxy, a Dutch friend that Rob and I met in Australia, has lived in the city and was happy to show us all the best spots (though she wasn’t so keen for me to share all her city secrets here on the blog!).
Roxy told me that Utrecht is a truly a gem and it would be a shame if it became overcrowded, and of course I have to agree, though as a travel blogger I feel obliged to encourage responsible travel to all of the places that I have enjoyed visiting. Utrecht is definitely a destination that I would recommend.
How to get to Utrecht from Amsterdam:
From Amsterdam Centraal, you can buy an Intercity day return ticket to Utrecht Centraal. The journey only takes about 30 minutes and trains depart fairly frequently (a few every hour) throughout the day.
How to get around Utrecht:
While Utrecht’s old town is easily walkable, Rob and I actually rented bicycles for our day of exploration. This allowed us to visit some murals and cafes that aren’t included my suggested walking tour. If you like, you can do a bicycle tour to Utrecht’s hidden treasures on top of this walking tour which will give you the opportunity to see some exciting areas outside of the old town.
When to visit Utrecht:
Although Utrecht isn’t as busy as Amsterdam, it still does draw some crowds. The old town is where tourists go to explore and locals go to shop. It’s obviously going to be busier on weekends than on weekdays, and Saturdays are significantly busier than Sundays as there are some popular markets happening within the city.
Vredenburg Market – Utrecht’s largest market – takes place on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. If you can plan your visit for a Wednesday or Friday, they might just be the best days to go as you can visit the markets without the Saturday crowds.
As far as seasons go, I travelled in late autumn and thoroughly enjoyed all the pretty leaves, though I think anytime of the year would be nice. In the lead up to Christmas, there are festive light decorations on some of the main streets. Spring would also be lovely as the tulips would be in season, and in summer I’m told that everyone enjoys the nice weather by drinking and dining outdoors along the canals (though of course this is peak season for visitors so the city will be at its busiest).
1 – Buurkerk (Neighbour Church)
2 – Maartensbrug (Martin’s Bridge)
3 – Domtoren (Dom Tower)
4 – Domplein (Cathedral Square)
5 – Domkerk (Dom Church/St Martin’s Cathedral)
6 – Pandhof Garden
7 – Paushuize (Papal House)
8 – Nieuwegracht (New Canal)
9 – Oudegracht (Old Canal)
Utrecht self-guided walking tour:
Start your day by walking straight from Utrecht Centraal Station to the picturesque old town. Make your first stop Buurkerk (Neighbour Church). Although it’s not quite as glamorous as the Dom Tower across the river, this historic church still has an impressive bell tower that dates back to the 12th century. The church also houses the quirky Museum Speelklok – a cheerful museum of self-playing musical instruments!
It’s also worth having a peek at Huis Zoudenbalch while you’re here. This building has a medieval castle-like appearance and is situated on the street just behind the church. In the centuries since it was built in 1467, it functioned as an orphanage, a school, and housing. In 1903 it was mostly destroyed by fire but thankfully it was restored to look just like the original.
Next, head to Maartensbrug (Martin’s Bridge) which crosses the Oudegracht (Old Canal) as it winds through the city. This bridge is a great spot to snap some photos and to pick up a morning treat from the resident food truck. On my winter trip it was selling poffertjes (mini pancakes covered in butter and icing sugar or nutella) but I’ve heard that ice cream is sold there in the summer!
If you’re hungry for brunch or lunch, stop in at Stach which is right next to Martin’s Bridge. This cafe chain sells some truly delicious sandwiches and snacks – we tried the vegan chicken avocado sandwich with Sriracha mayo (so good!) and the gevuld speculaas which is sort of like a Dutch spiced almond cake that’s consumed during the holiday season.
Once you’ve had something to eat, head to Utrecht’s most prominent attraction… the Domtoren (Dom Tower)! At 112 metres (368 feet), this 600 year-old structure is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. You can usually climb the Dom Tower for a small fee and be rewarded with fabulous views over the city. Unfortunately the Dom Tower was undergoing restorations and was covered in scaffolding for my trip to Utrecht (one of the downfalls of travelling in winter) so I didn’t get to do this activity.
After descending the tower, exit into Domplein (Cathedral Square). This spot was where a grand cathedral once connected the tower to the church before it was destroyed in a freak storm (rumoured to be a tornado) in 1674. Brickwork on the ground marks the original position of the cathedral building’s walls.
The square also features a few interesting monuments such as the Resistance Monument, which is a statue of a woman with a torch representing the Dutch resistance during WWII. Nearby, there’s a plaque dedicated to the homosexuals who were persecuted (and often given the death sentence) during the Utrecht sodomy trials in the 1700s.
The inside of the Domkerk (Dom Church/St Martin’s Cathedral) is worth a look. Unfortunately many of the stained glass windows were destroyed during the war, and you can still see some of the damage from bombings on the interior concrete pillars. Sometimes there are performances happening inside – we were lucky enough to have some musicians playing orchestral music while we were there.
Next to the church is the Pandhof Garden which was one of my favourite stops in Utrecht. This secret garden is actually a former monastery garden surrounded by gothic architecture that dates all the way back to the 12th century. Walking through it feels like you’ve entered a magical scene straight out of Harry Potter!
As you walk out to the street behind Pandhof Garden, you might notice a marker on the ground that follows the street. This shows where a walled fortress once stood around the Dom Tower back in Utrecht’s early days – an impressive 2000 years ago – as part of the Roman Empire.
Down the street is the Paushuize (Papal House). This grand residence was built by Pope Adrianus VI before he became pope in 1522. Born in Utrecht, he is the only Dutchman ever to have been elected as pope. A modern statue of him also stands outside the house, which is now rented out for private events.
From the Papal House, walk along the Nieuwegracht (New Canal) for a few blocks. This gorgeous canal was built in 1393 and features a design that can only be found in Utrecht – a second layer of walkway that runs just above the water level.
You might notice the doors that lead mysteriously into the walls underneath the street. These were cellars used for storage back in the days when Utrecht was full of shipping merchants, but most of them are now privately owned or managed by the city.
Now cross over through the pretty streets to access the Oudegracht (Old Canal). Utrecht’s main canal has similar features to the New Canal except that it’s a little wider and some of the lower level cellars have been converted into shops or restaurants.
The Weesbrug bridge that crosses the canal is actually the meeting point for the Utrecht secrets bicycle tour, so you can plan to arrive here for the tour departure time if you’ll be doing this activity.
On your walk back to the old town, stop in at Cacao for an amazing hot chocolate! You’ll only need to order the tiniest size as it’s so decadent. If you’d prefer a harder drink, head across the canal for a beer at Kafé België which has a range of craft brews.
If you’re sticking around for dinner, head to Pannenkoekenbakkerij De Muntkelder. The Dutch will eat pancakes with syrup for any meal of the day, which sounds totally weird, but the savoury mushroom, cheese and onion pancake that I had was actually very good! This pancake restaurant is also unique as it’s located in one of the old cellars by the canal, so it kind of feels like you’re eating a meal in a medieval basement.
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