Utrecht is becoming more popular, but the city is still underrated as 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.
There are so many things to do in Utrecht. It’s worth taking a short train ride to visit this city. Let’s explore in this article the highlights this city has to offer.
Table of Contents
An Introduction to Utrecht
For the Dutch, Utrecht is known for its central location. It’s where all the freeways and train lines come together. 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.
It’s a city of hidden restaurants on the canals, unique small stores in picturesque little streets, and the famous eye-catching Dom tower.
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)
Wine bars, unique lunch cafes on every street corner, music venues, hip stores, and beautiful parks make this city a treat. 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.
The Cellar Wharves at the Oudegracht
One of the first things to do in Utrecht is to go to the “Oudegracht,” the old canal. It’s 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 (former storage units) that are now converted into restaurants.
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. You’ll find many shops at street level.
TIP: no time for a sit-down meal on the canal? Then grab an Italian sandwich at the famous deli “Broodje Mario.” It’s been a staple since 1977, and their sandwiches, as are the pizza slices and Calzones, are yummy. 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.
It has been a private residence for centuries, 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 want to dine or drink at a reasonable price inside a castle, 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 housemade beers. They also offer tours and tasting sessions!
The Iconic Dom Tower
I have good news and bad news. First, let’s start with the bad news: Domtoren is currently under restoration. 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 up close, and you can climb higher than usual for extraordinary views over this magical city and its surroundings.
You can use an outside elevator or take the stairs on a tour. But do remember it’s 465 steps up and the same 465 steps back down. More information can be found on the Domtoren 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.
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 to 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. This a unique opportunity to take a look inside.
The Sonnenborgh Observatory
And speaking of the Sonnenborgh observatory, it’s worth stopping 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 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 I can highly recommend.
The Dutch Railway Museum
The Dutch Railway Museum (Spoorwegmuseum) is genuinely my favorite museum. I must admit here I’m a train geek (just a little).
The museum is housed inside a former train station. It includes the royal waiting rooms (one is now a cafe). And, of course, you can see (and enter) Dutch trains spanning many decades. They even have a former Royal Train on display and you can enter it.
The museum also has a few “amusement park type” attractions, a playground, and restaurants. Making it a fun place for all ages.
And did you know there is a special train service that connects Utrecht central station and the museum (you need a regular ticket to use this service)? What an entrance!
These 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 excited grandparents with their grandkids. And me.
Get your Museum tickets here. For the train service to the Maliebaan station, you can use a regular train ticket, or use your credit card to tap in and out.
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. Visiting this house is a unique opportunity to see it from the inside.
Note that the tour capacity is limited to only 12 persons, and it’s popular. Book early to avoid disappointment. And also know the house is closed on Mondays.
The Miffy Museum (Nijntje Museum)
Okay, for this reason alone, I 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?
Every Dutch person, and many abroad, grew up with this iconic cute little rabbit. Did you too?
The museum opened in 2016 and is designed for toddlers and children (why wasn’t it there 35 years ago?).
If you’re traveling with kids, make sure you take them here. It will be a blast! Plus truly Dutch.
Utrecht Central Museum
The Central Museum is housed in a former convent. The outside garden is lovely and great for a cup of coffee from the cafe. 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, including 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 detail 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. It’s a super fun museum on a rainy day. You can buy your skip-the-line ticket here.
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.
1. Local Art Work from Ellen de Bruijn
Ellen de Bruijn creates gorgeous postcards and posters about Utrecht. They’re colorful and fun. There are also books with a collection of her artwork. All are super fun, unique and local gifts to bring home. You can find her work at many local book shops, the Dom Tower museum store and the gift store Groeten Uit Utrecht.
2. De Bierverteller (The beer story teller)
If you love beer, “De Bierverteller” is another excellent place to go for an original present. 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!
Frequently Asked Questions
How far is Utrecht from Amsterdam?
Utrecht is approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Amsterdam. The journey takes around 30 minutes by train or twice that by car, depending on traffic. It’s most convenient to travel by train. There are at least four direct trains an hour connecting the two cities.
What are the must-see attractions in Utrecht?
The most popular attractions in Utrecht include the Dom Tower, the Cathedral of St. Martin (Domkerk), the Oudegracht canal, the Centraal Museum, the Rietveld Schröder House, the Museum Speelklok, and the Railway museum.
Is Utrecht easy to navigate on foot?
Utrecht is compact and has a walkable city center. It’s easy to explore the main attractions on foot. When you get tired of walking it’s a great option to take a boat tour or rent water peddle bikes.
The streets can be narrow and winding. So it’s best to use a map when navigating the city. Google maps or a similar service is great for this.
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 are plenty reasons 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 I can highly recommend:
Budget hotel in Utrecht:
Hotel BUNK: What can I 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 its location either, just a short distance from both the central train station and the largest shopping center in 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 build 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 daily. 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.
A 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 the 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 25 minutes. Both stations are 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.
Which Utrecht Attraction Excites 🌟 You The Most?
I’d love to hear your thoughts: Which of the highlighted things to do in Utrecht are you most excited to visit and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation 💬.
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