Utrecht: Arteries of City Life

Lesley Williamson discovers contemporary buzz and medieval history along Utrecht’s picturesque canals in the Netherlands.

The city is full of color.
Travel in Utrecht offers a birds-eye view from the top of the Dom Tower. Photo by Lesley Williamson

The Netherlands have a relationship with water unlike that of any other country in the world. Since medieval times, the Dutch have been building canals for travel, trade and irrigation. Of course, internationally acclaimed Amsterdam is on every traveler’s check list, but if encountering its splendid architecture, pretty bridges and historic canals never fails to impress, it fails to represent the coziness or – in Dutch – the “gezelligheid “ of the Netherlands.

For a more intimate experience and authentic Dutch culture, I travel to Utrecht, a charming city relatively unknown to the mainstream tourist located only 30 minutes from Amsterdam by train. If you dream of sauntering across picturesque canals, exploring 2000 years of history through quaint medieval streets and indulging in cozy cafés you’re in luck. Utrecht has it all.

Biking is popular in Utrecht,
Utrecht, Netherlands is a cycling city. Photo by Lesley Williamson

Utrecht: Quintessential “Dutchness”

Back in the Middle Ages, Utrecht was a busy market town and an important commercial waterway along the Rhine. Masterpieces of Dutch ingenuity and engineering excellence, these are the only inner-city canals in the world to have a unique two-level street system allowing boats to dock and directly unload their cargo onto the wharf cellars lining the canal . Many of Utrecht ‘s 732  wharf cellars along three and a half miles of canals  fell into disrepair in the 19th century when commercial transportation increasingly took place across land.

In 1948, thriving in the aesthetic beauty of these 13th century wharves running along the Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht, the city of Utrecht initiated a large scale restoration program. Today the cellars boast bustling restaurants, cafés, craft shops and trendy boutiques.

If the heart of the historic city is centered around the picturesque old canal, the skyline is dominated by the reigning symbol of Utrecht, the Dom tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. Built as part of a Gothic cathedral on the site of an older Romanesque church over 600 years ago, this tower and the grand Domkerk across the Dom square are all that remain of the majestic cathedral.

The central section of the building was wiped out by a tornado in 1674 and never rebuilt. Standing at 112 meters high, the soaring Dom tower affords spectacular views of the city and far beyond – a breathtaking 360° bird-eye sight well worth the steep 465 steps up.

The city is a mix of old and new.
Dom Tower stands out in the city, and the view is incredible. Photo by Lesley Williamson

The capital of the Bishopric of Utrecht was part of the Holy Roman Empire and the religious center of the country since the 18th century. It is no surprise that gems of Christian devotion are peppered across the city. The Paushuize, the second oldest historic building of the city was built in 1517 by Adrianus VI, the only Dutch Pope in history. The majestic house was completed before he became a Pope, when he was attached to the court of Charles in Spain. Elected Pope in 1522, he died one year later in Rome and sadly never got the chance to live in his papal residence in Utrecht.

Spiritual serenity can be found in the enclosed Pandhof – the idyllic monastery garden of the Cathedral is tucked away from the bustling busy streets. An oasis of peace surrounded by a Gothic cloister and chaired by the central bronze statue of a 14th century priest. To delve even deeper into Utrecht’s historic timeline, the DOMunder tours are a unique way to explore the cathedral’s underground foundations,  from the Romans’s castellum Trajectum to the founding of the city by Willibrord in the 8th century to present day archeology taking place under the Dom square.

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