Utrecht is becoming more popular, but the city is still underrated a tourist destination in Holland. And that might be a good thing. Because while Amsterdam is dealing with over-tourism, Utrecht is still very authentic.
Herman and I love to spend time here. It's so close to Amsterdam (30 minutes), and from where we live (in Amersfoort) Utrecht is even closer.
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But it's not just its central location that makes it unique. Utrecht is also beautiful. It has everything you expect from an old Dutch city. Canals, beautiful architecture, and a pleasant atmosphere. Plus more. It's a city of hidden restaurants on the canals, unique small stores in picturesque little streets, and of course, the famous eye-catching Dom tower.
If tourists come to visit, they tend to go for a short visit only. They take a look at the "Oudegracht canal, the Dom tower, and then leave. This is doing the city a complete injustice. There is so much to see and do here, let us tell you more...
Utrecht is a lively university city full of sun-filled outside terraces (you’ve hit the jackpot if you can visit this gorgeous city on a sunny spring or summer day). Lively wine bars, unique lunch cafes on every street corner, music venues, hip stores, and beautiful parks all make this city such a treat to visit. And did you know Utrecht has the most festivals in the country?
How to pronounce Utrecht?
When you’re wondering how to pronounce Utrecht correctly, you can click this link to listen to the correct pronunciation.
Our top recommendations for things to do in Utrecht
Table of content:
The Cellar Wharves at the Oudegracht
The "Oudegracht," which means the old Canal is the beating heart of the city. You might think, well Holland is full of canals, why come to Utrecht? Because the Oudegracht is something extra special. The water is below street level, and it has wharves with cellars (storage units) that are restaurants today.
In the Middle Ages, these wharves were the epicenter of trade in the city. Ships full of goods docked here. It's fun to experience a meal inside one of these cellars. It's even more fun to enjoy a drink or a meal on the outside terraces. You'll have a unique angle from here on city life—both on the water and above on the streets.
At the street level, you'll find many shops and the Utrecht main library. The Oudegracht is also the departure point for a canal tour, or if you want to be more active, hire a pedal boat. We would choose the latter. But only if Hermans comes with me so he can paddle. No, I am just kidding. It's a fun activity, trust us!
TIP: no time for a sit-down meal on the canal? Then grab an Italian sandwich at the famous deli “Broodje Mario.” It's a staple since 1977, and their sandwiches are yummy, as are the pizza slices and Calzones. However, the Mario sandwich is the signature dish.
An authentic city castle: Oudaen
Along the Oudegracht is another unique structure: the Oudaen city castle. It's an authentic castle built on the most important canal in the city. It was constructed in 1276 and was one of the first stone buildings in the city. It's still standing tall and beautiful almost 750 years later.
For centuries it has been a private residence, but now it's open for us all to enjoy. And it's not a museum either. The main hall with an 8 meter (26 feet) tall ceiling now houses a grand cafe. If you ever wanted to dine or have a drink inside a castle at a reasonable price, this is your chance!
The cellar of the castle is home to a beer brewery. It's a perfect place to enjoy a drink and sample the housemade beers. They also offer tours and tasting sessions! The castle also serves as an event location for weddings and business events. But the grand cafe and the brewery are always open to the public.
Oudegracht 99, Utrecht - website.
The iconic Dom tower
We have good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad news first: the Domtoren is under restoration at the moment. The project is taking five years to complete - from 2019 to 2024. Until then, the tower is wrapped up on the outside.
The good news is that the tower remains open for visitors during these five years. All work is external only. It's a unique opportunity to visit the tower at this time. You'll see the project from up close, and you can even climb higher than usual for extraordinary views over this magical city and its surroundings. But we have to warn you. There is no elevator. It's 465 steps up. And 465 steps down.
Domplein 21, Utrecht - Website.
Paushuize - The popes house
Another unique and beautiful building is the Paushuize. The Pope's house. Quite literally. The house was built for the only ever Dutch Pope Adrian VI. He had the house build before he became the Pope while living abroad.
But before the house was finished, he became Pope and died in Rome. He never got a chance to live in this house. The renaissance building has gothic influences and is already beautiful on the outside.
The building is usually closed for the public as it serves as an event location for the city, but every last Sunday of the month, there is a free tour at 10:45 am. A unique opportunity to take a look inside if you are in town.
Kromme Nieuwegracht 49, Utrecht - Website.
The beloved Lepelenburg Park
You'll find this enchanting park on the edge of the city center, near the spectacular Railway Museum (see below). When the sun is out, the park flocks full of people. It's lovely to take a stroll along the winding paths and the canal. Or just sit down and watch the city pass by with the old town and the Sonnenborgh observatory as your backdrop.
The Sonnenborgh Observatory
And speaking of the Sonnenborgh observatory, it's worth to make stop here. It's a museum during the day and an observatory at night. During the day (closed on Mondays), the museum tells the story about our solar system. If you visit on a Sunday, you can even take a peek at the sun through a special solar telescope.
Every Friday night (for adults) and Saturday night (for kids), you can visit and view the stars through the telescopes. Quite an experience. One we highly recommend.
Zonnenburg 2, Utrecht - website.
The Dutch Railway Museum
The Dutch Railway Museum (Spoorwegmuseum) is genuinely the favorite museum of both Herman and me. We might have to admit here we're train geeks (just a little). However, this museum is not only loved by us. It's one of the most popular museums in the country.
The museum is inside a former train station. It includes the royal waiting rooms (one is now a cafe). You can see (and enter) Dutch trains for many decades. They even have a former Royal train.
The museum also has a few amusement park type of attractions, a playground, and restaurants. It's fun for all ages.
And did you know there is a special train that runs between Utrecht central station and the museum (you need a regular ticket or use an OV chipcard.) Trains run hourly during museum opening hours. And it drops you off inside the museum. It's not time efficient but a great way to enter! Expect train geeks, and just overly excited grandfathers with grandkids onboard. Or us.
Maliebaanstation 16, Utrecht - website.
The Rietveld Schröder house (Unesco World Heritage site)
The Rietveld Schröder house on the Prins Hendriklaan is an architectural highlight of the art movement called "De Stijl." It's the most famous house in Utrecht for sure.
In its day (1924), it lay on the outskirts of the city overlooking farmland. It's now well within the city limits. Because of its unique design, the house is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
And you can visit it. But you do need reservations for a tour. A visit to this house is a unique opportunity to see it from the inside. There are five tours per day, six days a week (Mondays closed). Tour capacity is only 12 persons, and it's popular. You do need to book early to avoid disappointment.
Prins Hendriklaan 50, Utrecht - website.
The Miffy Museum (Nijntje museum)
Ok for this reason alone, I (Gerjo) want to have a kid. I'm a TRUE fan of Dick Bruna's character: Miffy (Nijntje). Did you know the first book is from 1955? We all know and grew up with this iconic rabbit, didn't we?
The museum opened in 2016 is designed for toddlers and children (why wasn't it there 35 years ago :-)? But if you have kids, make sure you take them there. It will be a blast! Plus truly Dutch.
Agnietenstraat 2, Utrecht - website.
The Central Museum
The Central Museum has another unique location. We use that word quite a lot in this text, don't we? But that is because this city is a special place. It has so many unique places to visit. This museum is no exception, housed in a former convent. The outside garden is lovely and great for a cup of tea from the cafe. And while you’re here, try to find the Miffy statue.
Inside the museum is a permanent exhibition from the architect Rietveld. It’s the most extensive collection in the world, and it includes the famous red-blue chair. You'll also find Dick Bruna's studio here. They moved it in its entirety from its original location to the Central Museum.
Inside the studio, you can experience in exact details how the master worked and created Miffy. There are also other temporary exhibitions and models of the dom tower, the Rietveld Schröder house, and a large dollhouse.
Agnietenstraat 1, Utrecht - website.
Buy a great gift from Utrecht
Of course, Utrecht also has its fair share of made in China "local" souvenirs. But why not get yourself something unique from this city, and enjoy it with your friends when you get back home. If that sounds good, we highly recommend the following two places:
1. The Peek & Van Beurden specialty deli store
This store is a feast for the eye and the soul. The owner has beautiful stories about every product he sells. The assortment is carefully curated, and you can find all kinds of tasteful gifts, from tea to Balsamico (loved by star chefs) but also chocolates and more. It's a beautiful place to get yourself, or a loved one, a wonderful gift.
Nachtegaalstraat 56, Utrecht
2. De Bierverteller (The beer story teller)
If you love beer, “De Bierverteller” is another excellent place to visit. You can find a wide assortment of beers here, including a whole section of locally brewed beer. The staff is exceptionally knowledgable. And they love to guide you in your decision making. "The Bierverteller" has over 600 different beers in stock in their beautiful store. A great place to get a special gift for the people at home.
Twijnstraat 47, Utrecht
PS just down the street at number 62 you'll find Meneer Smakers, a great burger bar!
Hotels in Utrecht - Where to stay:
You can easily visit Utrecht on a day trip from Amsterdam since it's only 30 minutes away by a direct train. However, there is plenty of reason to stay overnight.
For one, the city has way more to offer then you can do in a single day. And that's just in the city. The surroundings of the Utrecht area is also full of activities. Whether you want to visit the natural beauty of "'t Groene Hart" (The green heart), enjoy the Vecht river and its beautiful villages, the Amelisweerd estate, the cheese city of Woerden or visit a fort.
Another great reason to stay in Utrecht is its central location. Utrecht is geographically more central than Amsterdam for many destinations in the country. From Utrecht, there are many great destinations in Holland you can reach within 30 minutes on a direct train connection: Amersfoort, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Den Bosch, Leiden, Rotterdam, Schiphol Airport, and The Hague.
Here are three select hotels that we can highly recommend. One in every price range:
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Budget hotel in Utrecht:
Hotel BUNK: What can we say, this hotel is pretty remarkable. It's inside a converted church. You can still admire the pipes of the organ. Combined with its warm contemporary design, this hotel makes for a comfortable place to stay.
And you can't beat it's location either, just a short distance from both the central train station and the largest shopping center of the country: Hoog Catherijne. The bunk hotel offers private rooms or pods. Whichever you choose, they're beautifully designed and come at a reasonable price. Check prices and availability here.
Midrange hotel in Utrecht:
Inntel Hotels Utrecht Center: One thing we like about Inntel hotels is that they're a local Dutch hotel brand. And we love to support local. Also, Inntel hotels offer a unique concept, always in select locations. Their slogan is: You'll be surprised.
The rooms are modern, very comfortable, and light. Their best know location is the Zaandam hotel, just north of Amsterdam with its iconic over the top green Dutch houses style.
In Utrecht, the Inntel hotel is a modern new-build hotel on top of Central Station. You can't be more central than that. The 11-story tall building also offers excellent views. We would recommend asking for a room on a high floor overlooking the train tracks.
Oh, and one more benefit, you’ll start your day with a live cooking breakfast buffet every day. The hotel also has a pool, fitness, and wellness facilities. The latter two offer fantastic views over the city and the station—what a great way to start or end your day. See prices and availability here.
High-end hotel in Utrecht:
There is only one hotel we can recommend in this price range, and it's the Grand hotel Karel V. It's a 14th-century convent around a beautiful and peaceful inner garden. It almost feels like a village within the city.
The city center is a 5-minute walk away, and central station a mere 10 minutes. This iconic estate has 650 years of history as it was once home to medieval knights, priests, and emperors. Now, this iconic hotel is there for you to explore.
Stay in one of their luxurious and comfortable rooms. And start your day with a lavish breakfast buffet. The hotel has a pool and wellness facility on site. Click here for prices and availability.
How to get from Amsterdam to Utrecht by train:
The quickest and easiest way to travel from Amsterdam to Utrecht is by train. Every 10 minutes, a direct intercity train departs Amsterdam Central Station for Utrecht Central Station, from early morning to late at night, seven days a week. Travel time is just 30 minutes. Both stations are right in the middle of the city centers.
How to get from Utrecht to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol?
There is a direct intercity train between Utrecht to Amsterdam airport. It’s the most convenient way to travel between Utrecht and the airport. Trains stop right under the terminal building at the airport. Travel time is 30 minutes, and they depart every 15 minutes, from early morning to late at night, seven days a week.
Download the NS app on your phone. It's available in English, you can use it for planning your journey and for buying your tickets (it accepts credit cards (the machines do not) and you avoid the €1 surcharge for paper tickets.
Did this post about things to do in Utrecht help you?
If you enjoyed our travel tips in this post about Utrecht then please join the conversation and let us know in the comments at the bottom of this page. We'd love to hear what you think. Have you been to any of these suggestions? Are you planning them for your next trip? We want to know.
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