Charming would be the one word I would use to describe Utrecht, a quintessential Dutch town close to Amsterdam. The historic city center of Utrecht is small and compact, making it very possible to see all of its top attractions easily within one day. It’s one of the most enchanting and photogenic places I have ever visited. I immediately fell in love with this lovely town and I know you will too. Here are the top things to do in Utrecht. (Updated April 2022)
The Origins of Utrecht
Utrecht has a rich and interesting history dating far before the Middle Ages. It’s believed that the first inhabitants date all the way back to the Stone Age, earlier than 2000 BC. For many, many centuries, Utrecht was considered the heart of the Netherlands and considered the top city. It once had a large population size of 300,000 people within the province of Utrecht and it was home to the main offices of both the Catholic and Protestant faiths. It wasn’t until the 17th century, during the Dutch Golden Age, that it was replaced by Amsterdam. Despite being the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, Utrecht’s old city centre is incredibly charming.
Day Trip from Amsterdam to Utrecht
Travel by train from the central station in Amsterdam to Utrecht in 25-minutes. You will arrive in the city centre where the train station is connected to a modern shopping mall. Fun fact, this is actually the largest indoor shopping mall in the Netherlands. Likely by design, everyone who arrives by train needs to walk through this light modern space featuring over 160 stores until you emerge outside to the old urban center.
After a mere couple of steps, I fell upon a local market. I adore European market days! Utrecht’s Biologic Farmers’ Market takes place every Friday on Vredenburgplein in Utrecht’s city centre. This features all your typical vendors selling cheese, produce, bread, fabrics, and flowers. Your nose will lead you to some deliciously sweet-smelling food trucks offering traditional Dutch pastries, like Hagelslag, Olieballen, Pofferties, and Stroopwafels. After sampling a couple of Olieballen (deep-fried fritters), I was on my way to find the historic town center.
Top Things to Do in Utrecht
In the heart of Utrecht is the beautiful Cathedral Square or Domplein, often referred to as Dom Square. The most impressive historic building that frames it is St. Martin’s cathedral, but locals call it Dom Church, or Domkerk. Of all the things to see in Utrecht, this needs to be top of the list. The Dom Church is considered one of the most important churches in the Netherlands. What’s so impressive you ask? It dates back to the 13th century and has two chapels and a 14th-century choir.
The Dom Tower, built between 1321 to 1382, is the city and the Netherlands’ most notable landmark in the historic town center. It’s the highest and oldest church tower in the Netherlands, soaring at 112 meters. The tower was originally part of a 14 to 15th-century cathedral complex, but due to a freak hurricane in 1674, it was blown down and never rebuilt. Climb the 465 steps to the top for some unbeatable views, which on a clear day stretch as far as Amsterdam. The ringing of the 13 bells, which weigh between 880 and 18,000 pounds, can be heard throughout the city.
PANDHOF SINTE MARIE
Right next to the Dom church is the peaceful medieval monastery garden called Pandhof Sinte Marie. It connects the cathedral to Utrecht University. In the center of this beautiful garden is a fountain with a bronze statue, of priest Hugo Wstinc, sitting and writing. It is one of the most idyllic spots to sit and relax.
One of the best Utrecht hidden gems is the Dom Quarter. It’s a peaceful side of the city with little alleyways, pretty houses, and tiny little shops. This residential neigbourhood is worthy of a stroll and it’s here you will discover Utrecht’s first church, St. Peter’s Church, built in 1048.
Definitely what sets this city apart is the beautiful Old Canal, or Oudegracht that flows right through the city’s center. Of all the places to visit in Utrecht, this is a must. The southern part traces, in part, what was once the original route of a section of the Rhine, while the northern section includes a part of a canal built around AD 1000 that connected the Rhine to the River Vecht. Once locks were created in 1275, warehouses were built on either side of the canal. Today, they are now boutique shops, galleries, restaurants, and cafes. Don’t rush your time strolling along the picturesque double-level canal. To me, this is what makes Utrecht so special and one of the best day trips from Amsterdam.
BEST MUSEUMS IN UTRECHT
Utrecht’s most notable museums are the Miffy Museum and Centraal Museum. The first would be a child’s favourite, featuring the origins of Miffy the rabbit, whose creator was from Utrecht. The second is an art museum showcasing local artists, past and present.
One of the most unusual things to do in Utrecht is to visit the Musical Clock Museum or Speelklok. This museum is dedicated to music boxes, organs, and crank music players.
For lovers of architecture, a museum not to be missed is the Rietveld Schröder House. This is considered one of the icons of the Modern Movement in architecture and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lastly, one of the most fascinating just might be the railway museum. This museum is housed in one of Utrecht’s old railway stations and is located in the eastern part of the town.
Popular Utrecht Attractions Outside the City
Although it lies on the outskirts of the city, the wonderful Botanic Gardens are certainly worth visiting. Especially if you want to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy some splendid scenery. Part of Utrecht University, the peaceful gardens were founded all the way back in 1639 and have been open for the public to enjoy ever since. Although this is not a free thing to do in Utrecht, it is worthwhile and a considered a popular attraction in Utrecht.
If you love visiting castles, de Haar Castle is one to seek out. It is the largest castle in the Netherlands and is considered the most attractive. This fairy-tale castle from 1822 is known for its impressive setting too. The grounds feature 135 treed acres, fountains, and a formal garden.
Best Restaurants in Utrecht
Getting to know a town or city through its cafés and restaurants is always a good idea. Here are some of the best ones to try:
- Oliver – a café serving up Belgian pub-style food and drink in the former Maria Minor church
- Le Jardin – a vegetarian French restaurant and flower shop in one. With one bite, you will be transported to France.
- Yogurt Barn – a cute café style eatery for that perfect coffee fix or breakfast/brunch
- Gys – light, airy bistro specializing in vegetarian dishes is a local’s favourite for brunch and lunch
- Syr – a casual bistro-style restaurant serving Middle Eastern and European fusion cuisine that is cooked and served by refugees who have escaped Syria’s civil war
As a holidaymaker…
How can you not help but fall in love with this pretty little Dutch city? A city full of history and charm with its beautiful old canal, architecture, and top sites makes Utrecht a perfect day trip from Amsterdam.