Andy Mossack offers up his guide to Utrecht and travels back over 2,000 years to the city’s Roman past.
“And this is our Rembrandt” exclaimed Giovanna, my guide, as she proudly showed me a huge slab of excavated layers of sediment dating back 2,000 years from the Middle Ages down to original Roman brickwork. We were twenty metres underneath the iconic Dom Tower in a new attraction that brings Utrecht’s excavated origins to life in a truly dramatic way using CGI and a cast of archaeological treasures lain dormant beneath Utrecht’s streets for thousands of years.
Pretty impressive way to start a guide to Utrecht don’t you think?
Utrecht is The Netherlands’ fourth largest city after Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague, but undeservedly overlooked by many potential suitors seeking a long weekend getaway. Utrecht’s compact medieval heart has a charm about it that will win you over the minute you arrive. Its cobbled streets, 200-year-old canals, wharf-side houses and quiet neighbourhoods are light years away from Amsterdam’s hustle and bustle.
So, this year (2022), with the city celebrating the 900th anniversary of its city charter signed in 1122, let’s explore my guide to Utrecht and see what makes Utrecht such a serious contender for anyone already familiar with Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague, but still yearning to view another Dutch masterpiece.
My first suggestion in this guide to Utrecht is to make for the Domplein, the ancient square at the heart of the old town now under UNESCO protection after being covered in rubble for hundreds of years and where three extraordinary experiences await.
The Dom Tower
Visible from practically anywhere in the city, the 112-metre high iconic 700-year-old Dom Tower fully deserves its symbolic city status. After all, it somehow managed to stay upright despite many close calls during its long and colourful lifetime. The biggest escape was in 1674 when a fierce storm caused a tornado to destroy the centre nave of St. Martin’s Cathedral, which the tower was part of, and has remained freestanding ever since.
But it’s getting a facelift. From 2017 until 2024 its exterior is undergoing a lengthy refurbishment. Damaged or dangerously worn stones are being painstakingly replaced piece by piece. A huge project involving some fifty-five kilometres of hand-built scaffolding, taking ten months to construct, is well underway and on budget. Despite this external makeover, the Dom is still open for visitors to take a guided walk up its 460 ancient steps to the summit and take in a glorious panorama of the city.
Along the way, you’ll stop to visit a few rooms, the most notable of which is the bell tower and its fourteen giant bells weighing over thirty-two tonnes, hand-built by Geert van Wou in 1505. Walking amongst these giants it’s an extraordinary achievement to realise these babies are pitch perfect. How do I know this? Because my guide Jitte took a hammer and played out ‘Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si’ on them. Or in musical parlance, C, D, E, F, G, A and B!
The good news for anyone with mobility issues is that throughout the refurbishment project, they are now able to access the summit via an exterior elevator, which was previously impossible.
I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of an archaeologist. Influenced no doubt by those Indiana Jones movies, but on discovering how painstaking the work really was, I found a less backbreaking career path. Nevertheless, DomUnder, Utrecht’s latest attraction, properly channelled my inner archaeologist and I loved every second of it. From the entrance at the centre of the Domplein, a set of stairs takes you back in time to the dawn of Utrecht.
A movie first, with extraordinary CGI to chronicle what life was like on the very streets under your feet and the horrific story of how the Cathedral was hit by the storm. Then, with the aid of a state-of-the-art light gun equipped with an audio earpiece and laser scanner, you can explore the dark subterranean depths at your leisure. Walk along wooden platforms to seek out the formerly buried treasures, scan them and then listen to their history unfold. A real highlight to any guide to Utrecht. Unmissable.
Another just-opened attraction, the Imperial Lofen Palace was one of the homes of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, which used to sit in the far corner of the square in full view of the nearby St. Martins Cathedral. Henry granted Utrecht its city status there in 1122. Sadly, it burnt down in 1253, but much of the ruins have recently become accessible in the cellars beneath the street. A guided tour brings it to life for you, and there’s a cool café for a coffee break built around actual pieces of the ancient site.
Visit the Cathedral
While you’re here, take the opportunity to visit St. Martin’s Cathedral, the only pre-reformation cathedral in the Netherlands but it has been Protestant since 1580. it’s an impressive gothic structure with 32-metre-high vaults and stained-glass windows.
The Rietveld Schröder House
Another UNESCO masterpiece is this extraordinary family home built in 1924 in the De Stijl cubist style radically different from the traditional architecture of the time. In many ways, it could hold its own as a modern home today. Even if you have no formal knowledge of architecture like me, it’s well worth a visit. Gerrit Rietveld went on to design many futuristic buildings, but this was his first, built for Truus Schröder-Schräder a wealthy Dutch socialite who wanted a family home ‘without walls.’
This is a house where everyone can simply admire the genius at play here; the solutions used to ensure that space was available everywhere. Take the audio tour and enjoy the experience.
Utrecht’s beautiful canals are the highlight of any visit here. You won’t be surprised to find canals in a Dutch city, but trust me, these are very different from the rest and a must see on this guide to Utrecht. Utrecht’s canals have wharfs and cellars as the city is above sea level, something of a rarity in the Netherlands. These wide wharfs and deep warehouse cellars, once used for unloading cargo and storage, are now perfect venues for fabulous canal-side bars and restaurants. No surprise then to find the city was named the most beautiful canal city in Europe.
There are two main waterways in the city, the Oudegracht, (old canal) now joined up to complete a 2-kilometre circle of the city which you can cruise on a tour boat or perhaps rent a kayak or stand-up paddle board and have plenty of fun messing about on the water. All the restaurants and bars are along the Oudegracht wharfs.
Then there’s the Nieuwegracht (new canal still sprightly at 200 years old) which runs through the more well-to-do neighbourhoods, lined with delightfully grand houses with their own wharfs. No canal traffic here as these wharfs serve private houses, but they can be used by the public as all of Utrecht’s canals are a right of way for the public. The Nieuwegracht area is blissfully peaceful considering it’s just a block or so from Oudegracht’s restaurants and it’s perfect for walking if you prefer a quieter stroll along the water.
Take a bike out for the day
In a country famous for cycling, it takes something special to single out a city for its biking prowess. However, in 2022 Utrecht was declared the ‘world’s best bike-friendly city’ by the Global Biking Index. A huge honour indeed. But then when you consider Utrecht’s cycling infrastructure, you soon realise it fully deserved its world-class accolade. It has, for example, the World’s biggest bike park next to Centraal railway station.
Four floors storing 12.500 bikes, bike lift ramps (a grooved conveyor system that grabs the wheels to assist you while you walk up or down floors) digitally and securely scanned and what’s more, it’s completely free. There are more cyclists than cars here and most of them own more than one bike.
So how can you come to a city like this and not use a bit of pedal power? It’s flat of course, there are specific cycle lanes, of course, cyclists always get the right of way of course, and it’s cheap to hire a bike and join in the fun. The bright yellow station-owned bikes are just €2 a day, or there are rental shops all over Utrecht. It’s an effortless way to explore the medieval heart if you don’t fancy walking and there are plenty of places to park your bike. Once you’re out of the historic centre the roads are pretty empty, and you can enjoy a peaceful two-wheeled urban experience. A perfect way to finish this guide to Utrecht.
Utrecht may well be in her 900th year, but she is doing pretty well for her age. No cracks or faded paintwork in this Dutch masterpiece.
Images (C) Andy Mossack apart from featured page and Reitveld Schroeder House (C) Utrecht Tourism.
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Where to Stay
The Hunfeld is a cool and trendy new hotel perfectly positioned on Mariaplaats Square just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Domplein. Formerly Utrecht’s first men’s fashion store in 1895 the old building still retains plenty of accents of its past with cloth pattern art everywhere and vintage bathroom fittings. Breakfast is served on the first floor on individual wooden trays laid on the table filled with freshly baked bread and pastries, yoghurt, eggs, cheese and deli meats. Rates from €135 per night.
Where to eat
Vis & Meer, Excellent seafood restaurant squeezed down a narrow alley right by the canal.
The GreenHouse For lovers of farm fresh produce and sustainable eating, this is an ideal resto. They have their own urban farm for seasonal vegetables and herbs while the meats are sourced from green-centric suppliers. No ingredient will have travelled further than 50 km by road. There’s a story behind everything they do in order to stay environmentally friendly. The food is very tasty too.
Bunk is a hotel and restaurant set inside a former church. Very close to Centraal Station it’s a very lively place with long communal tables and excellent food ideas taken from around the world but sourced locally. Open all day from 7am to midnight.
Adults over 17 €19 Children 13-17 €10.50 7-12 €3