Utrecht: Arteries of City Life

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

Travel to Utrecht

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.

The canal is an example of old mixing with new.
The buzzing canal sides of Oudegracht. Photo by Lesley Williamson

Urban regeneration in Utrecht

Out with the old, in with the new. Utrecht is a perfect example of a European city that has accomplished repurposing, preserving and maintaining the past and where the concept of recycling buildings is mastered with expertise.

The glorious Winkel van Sinkel, the Netherland’s first department store is now a sumptuous grand cafe, the former police station an arthouse cinema, the Courts of Justice a boutique hotel, the water tower the Dutch Waterways museum.

In Achter Clarenburg, Café Olivier is housed in a converted 16th century clandestine church from the time when Utrecht was strictly protestant.

This secret church looks like an ordinary building from the outside as showing your catholic faith and praying was risky during reformation.

Blessed with high vaulted ceilings, religious carvings and an imposing organ, the sacred atmosphere of heaven for beer lovers is lively and vibrant.

Utrecht has a long tradition of café culture. The French may have invented the concept of grand cafés, but the Dutch implement it with true panache.

Nothing beats a few hours spent lounging in a grand café, Winkel van Sinkel to start with, Lebowski facing the Dom Tower, or the Stadskasteel Oudaen housed in a medieval defensive tower house which serves homemade beers only, exclusively tapped at Oudaen.

The range of social outlets in Utrecht is impressive, the city has arguably one of the largest outdoor terraces in Europe.

Cafés are popular in the city.
The cosy inside of Lebowsky grand Café. Photo by Lesley Williamson

In a recent attempt to tenaciously fight frivolous and impulsive buying of clothes and shoes, I was determined to resist the urge on this trip, only to realize that when it comes to shopping, the compact pedestrian inner city center has it all, once again.

Fashion wise, you are spoiled for choice with the abundance of big brands, little independent boutiques, craft and jewelry shops, not to mention the indoor department stores.

De Bijenkorf on St Jacobsstraat or V&D stock some of the best fashion brands while Hoog Catharijne is believed to be the biggest shopping center in the Netherlands. Utrecht is also a city where you can visit a market every day of the week.

The largest and oldest fabric market in the Netherlands is the Lapjesmarkt (fabric market) held every Saturday, the Bloemenmarkt (flower market) at Janskerkhof or OudeGracht and Bakkerbrug.

The large general market at Vredenburg is the perfect place to sample a traditional bread roll with fresh herring.

The perfect example of old world charm.
Medieval serenity can be found at the Pandhof. Photo by Lesley Williamson

Yes. In the sheer loveliness of this exquisite canal city, temptation is endless.

How to get to Utrecht:

Direct train from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport takes 30 minutes to the city center of Utrecht

Where to eat in Utrecht:

Traditional at Deans Café, fusion flavors at Umami, organic at Gys, authentic food coupled with homemade beer at Stadskasteel Oudaen or Talud9.

What to see in Utrecht:

DOMunder, the underground experience www.domunder.nl; climbing the Dom Tower www.domtoren.nl; the Grocers Museum www.kruideniersmuseum.nl; the light art route Trajectum Lumen.

Where to stay in Utrecht:

New boutique hotel just outside of the city,  Star Lodge Hotel www.starlodge.nl or Mary-K Bed & Breakfast by the old canal www.marykhotel.com

Official tourism boardwww.visit-utrecht.com

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