Utrecht: The Netherland's well-kept secret

Utrecht: The Netherland's well-kept secret

by Anna Bagiackas
Stripes Europe

Can you keep a secret? Have you heard of Utrecht, in the Netherlands? Although this city is often overlooked—or even unheard of—compared to Amsterdam, Utrecht continues to be a very well-kept secret because the people who live there love it. With a charming, car-free city center, canals to rival any Dutch locale and rich cultural offerings, there is lots to enjoy here. Some even argue that Utrecht is a truly Dutch city, compared to Amsterdam, which has become more international.

A Little History

Let’s start with some background. Utrecht is located in the middle of the country, about 45 kilometers from Amsterdam. Currently, it is the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands and because of its location, is a central hub for railway and transport, giving Utrecht the busiest rail station in the country. It is home to the largest university in the Netherlands, providing it a university-town atmosphere, and it is also known as a great cycling city.

Utrecht was the most important city in the Netherlands up until the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, when it was overtaken by Amsterdam. Since the 8th century, Utrecht was the country’s religious center and that role persists today, represented by the Dom Tower that still presides over the skyline. Some of the buildings in the ancient city center go as far back as the High Middle Ages.

It’s also important to mention the history of the waterways, which have shaped the growth and landscape of the city for centuries and have made it such a unique place to visit! Utrecht was fortified by the Romans around 50 A.D.; the moats still exist today around the old town. In the 1100s, the flow of the Rhine was directed into canals and the wharf system was created, establishing the two-level street along the canals you see today.

What to Do & See

As with many cities, to get a flavor of Utrecht, you should visit the old town. You can walk around the Oudegracht, the curved canal that runs through the ancient city. A 465-step climb up to the Dom Tower, the tallest belfry in the Netherlands, is a quintessential experience in Utrecht. You can also visit the Kasteel de Haar, a moated castle from early 1500s. Spending time wandering along the wharfs and sitting on outdoor terraces is also time well spent if you’re wanting to live like the locals.

Utrecht has become well-known for the cultural life in and around the city. Art, theater, film and music have flourished there, being home to an Early Music Festival and the Netherlands Film Festival, among other cultural events. You will also find music venues, such as the TivoliVredenburg music complex and rock and jazz music halls. Branching out of the fine arts and into architecture, it is also worth a visit to the Rietveld Schröder Huis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you enjoy shopping and being immersed in the buzz of activity, check out Hoog Catharijne, a large shopping mall next to the train station, Utrecht Centraal. (Hint: you can actually get a great view of the city and Dom Tower at one of the cafes in the mall!) Or maybe you are simply interested in railways and trains, and if that’s the case, be sure to visit the national railroad museum, Spoorweg. If it is peace and quiet in nature you’re looking for, head to Oude Hortus, Wilhelminapark, Griftpark or the Botanic Gardens.

And what does Utrecht offer in terms of eats? While you will find lots of Dutch fare, this city is filled with menus from all over the world. Indonesian cuisine in particular shines as a result of the Netherlands’ history of colonization in Indonesia. For the beer lovers out there, Belgian Beer Café Olivier and Kafe Belgie are two great options for large selections of brews to taste.

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