Of course many of us visit major cities when traveling. But if you have the time, check out the cities and towns outside the city limits! When visiting Utrecht it might feel like a small town but is actually the fourth largest city in the Netherlands with 330,000 people. It’s only a 20 minute train ride from the station closest to our apartment in Amsterdam so it’s quick to get to while still feeling like it is much farther from the city. Don’t dismiss the smaller cities, they can have a lot to offer from history, culture and even festivals!
A Morning in a Train Station
Sean had a meeting at 9 a.m. at an office inside Utrecht’s Centraal Station, so we made sure to get there in plenty of time. It’s a big place! I know there are bigger stations, but I guess it caught me off-guard. Besides the train station, there’s a big shopping center attached — so you can buy a bike, get keys made, buy flowers, stop for a cappuccino, try some chocolate, and so much more. The biggest surprise was the WC (bathroom) on the lower level as you head to exit the building. It was kind of amusing and I won’t spoil the surprise for you.
Anyway, instead of going with Sean, I found a place for breakfast and got a warm ham and cheese croissant with chocolate milk. Too bad I didn’t learn about the combo breakfast for 1 Euro 20 less. But you live and learn (still waiting to try the 1 Euro breakfast at HEMA!). So, I’m having breakfast and this place only has two tiny tables and so little room on their benches, so a woman sat next to me to eat her (combo) breakfast.
Next thing I know, We are talking for 45 minutes on what it’s like to live in the Netherlands, and how everyone’s perceptions are so different. Her name was Sara, and she is a student. She goes to school for 1900 Euros a year and gets 400 Euros a month as a stipend to allow her to still live while attending university, but she couldn’t believe she had to pay that much. As an American, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But this is what travel is all about: Learning how the rest of the world works and thinks. Sara doesn’t like how there are so many rules in the Netherlands, while we seem to think they are more lax than expected. Perceptions. It’s crazy!
Exploring the city of Utrecht
After Sean’s meeting, we walked and walked and walked. It’s kind of what we do. There was a tempting food cart outside the station which we visited on our way back (appelbollen for the win!), of course a flower shop on a bridge corner, many shops, and a few cafes. It was just about lunch time, so we popped into a cafe that was voted Best Cafe in the Netherlands in 2013, Cafe Olivier. It was an old church with high ceilings and a very cool feel. They had a good sized menu and a large bar, but it was pretty empty being not-quite-lunchtime on a weekday. This was Sean’s opportunity for lunch since I had just eaten breakfast, and he sure seemed to enjoy his sandwich!
Exploring a bit more, we found the Dom Tower and Domkerk (Dom Church). They are towering (Pun intended)!! You feel so tiny next to these huge structures. I think it also has to do with the fact that they are in such a small area, so it makes them feel bigger. When you walk inside, it is just as grand as it is on the outside. And the lucky people of Utrecht are still able to have their Protestant services in this beautiful church.
We continued walking down old streets while window shopping at (what looked like) high-end stores. Utrecht is definitely a charming city with a much slower pace than we are used to, and way less people than we are used to seeing. It was actually kind of nice. At some point, I started to get hungry so we were scouting out a place to have my (kind of late) lunch. Hopefully you already know that our number one travel tip for finding good food is to look for the locals, so that’s what we did. We walked around until we found a square surrounded by cafes, and picked the one with the most happy looking people (and heaters under the umbrellas as it was raining and a bit chilly) at Café Le Journal.
Once we ordered and got our drinks, it started pouring and the wind was blowing pretty hard. We checked with the server and found a table inside by the window. As soon as we got to the door we heard a strange noise. We looked back and there were hail pellets on the ground. WOW! Weather is crazy over here! It was sunny, misted, rained, poured, hailed, and was sunny again all within an hour or so. And it wasn’t progressive, it was random.
All in all, Utrecht is a cool, quiet, relaxing place to soak in the Dutch culture with history, good cafes, town squares, and art in so many spots. It might not have as many canals as Amsterdam, but it has a ton of character and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area!
Have you been to Utrecht? How about other cities in the Netherlands you would recommend?