Charming would be the one word I would use to describe this quintessential Dutch town just outside of Amsterdam. The town’s historic center is small and compact, making it very possible to experience all of its attractions easily within one day. It’s definitely one of the most enchanting and photogenic places I have ever visited. I immediately fell in love with this lovely town, let me tell (and show) you why.
I arrived by train, a short 25 minutes from Amsterdam. The train station is connected to a large shopping mall, 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! So, of course, I had to check it out. It featured all your typical vendors selling cheese, produce, bread, fabrics and flowers; and also, deliciously sweet-smelling food trucks offering traditional Dutch pastries, like Hagelslag, Olieballen, Pofferties and Stroopwafels. A couple of Olieballen (deep fried fritters) later, I was on my way to find the historic town center.
This town has a rich and interesting history dating back to the Middle Ages, and even before that. Historians believe 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 had a large population size of 300,000 people within the province of Utrecht and it was home to main offices of both the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Not until the 17th century, during the Dutch Golden Age, it was replaced by Amsterdam.
The town’s (and the Netherlands) most notable landmark is the Dom Tower, built between 1321 and 1382, sits in the middle of the historic town center. It’s the highest and oldest church tower in the Netherlands, soaring at 112 meters (or 367 feet). The tower was originally part of a 14th 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. There is currently major restoration work being done (fall 2019), both at the bottom and top of the tower, and sadly we did not visit. Even the ringing of the 13 bells, that weigh between 880 and 18,000 pounds, have been temporarily stopped.
Right next to the Dom square is the peaceful medieval monastery garden called Pandhof. 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.
East of the Dom Quarter is a peaceful side of the city with little alleyways, pretty houses, and tiny little shops. It is mostly residential, but I loved wandering about. You will also discover Utrecht’s first church, St. Peter’s Church, built in 1048.
Definitely what sets this city apart is the beautiful Oudegracht (or old canal) that flows right through the city’s center. 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. I spent hours just strolling along the picturesque double level canal and to me, this is what made Utrecht so special.
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. Unfortunately, we didn’t visit either, as I couldn’t tear myself away from just strolling this beautiful town.
So hopefully I have convinced you…Utrecht makes for a perfect day trip to a quintessential Dutch town. With its rich and interesting history, its beautiful old canal, its plethora of amazing restaurants and cafes; how can you not help but fall in love with this pretty little town?