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 easy to get to by train from Amsterdam Central Station–less than a 30-minute ride! Use this as an example to not dismiss the smaller cities because they can have a lot to offer from history, culture and even festivals!
Utrecht Central Train Station — The first stop during your day trip to Utrecht
The train station is kind of big with a shopping center attached just follow your way through to the old town center. Otherwise, you’ll head out towards a very modern part of the city and the conference center!
Sometimes it’s great to have a bunch of places to shop, at least for a local. When hurrying about you can pick up pretty much anything you need–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.
Thought I’d point out that you can definitely buy an umbrella in the station. ‘Cause. You know. The Netherlands.
Exploring the old town center of Utrecht
Part of the center, the old town, is old. Like, really old. We’re talking High Middle Ages. Traveling around Europe grants you access to some structures that are mind-boggling to look at because you just can’t believe they are still standing. Wander around the winding streets and you’ll definitely get that feeling here.
The Dom tower is a part of history you just can’t miss. No, literally. It’s seen from everywhere! This area was, and apparently still is, the religious center of the Netherlands. Exploring the Dom and the Dom Church will definitely give insight into the people and the culture. Fun fact: They are trying to talk through whether any building in Utrecht should be taller than the Dom…but buildings are already coming reaaaaaally close.
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.
How about a stunningly manicured garden to meander through? The Dom Church has just what you need, Pandhof garden. It’s free and it’s lovely on a sunny day.
For lunchtime, pop 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 vibe. They had a good menu and a large bar, but it was pretty empty being not-quite-lunchtime on a weekday when we went. But I know it gets hoppin’ later.
Along the canals and through the streets
My favorite part about Utrecht are the canals, but one stands out due to the two levels on the side. If you’re there on a nice warm day, there will be terraces open on the lower level so you are right next to the water. Oudegracht is the “road” you are looking for, though it’s actually a canal. Taking a stroll along the water and through the tiny streets that extend past it is a chill way to take in the city of Utrecht.
Cobblestone streets in this neighborhood are full of shopping gems, bars, and restaurants. Go slow to soak in the slow-paced community feeling but watch for bikes that may or may not be allowed there. Don’t worry too much about getting lost. Signage is pretty good around the city.
Once it’s time for a break, find a café! 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 happiest 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?