Small but perfectly formed, Utrecht is one of the Netherlands’ oldest cities. The historic cobbled streets are bursting with churches, courtyards, canals and cycle routes
To discover the charming, historic centre of this bustling university city. Founded in 48AD, when the Romans built a fort on what is today Dom Square, Utrecht boasts 17 medieval churches and over six miles of canals. Aside from its thriving waterside terraces, take time to explore the cobbled streets and tranquil hofjes (courtyards).
What to do
To come face to face with the city’s past, head to the area around the Domkerk, situated between Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht. These tree-lined sunken canals date back to the 14th century and meander past Utrecht’s main historical sights. Dominating the skyline at over 112 metres high, the Domtoren is the highest church tower in the country. Scale its dizzying heights with a local guide (tours depart every hour, on the hour from inside the cathedral and cost £4). The neighbouring cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam can be spied on a clear day.
Wander through the kloostergang (cloisters) and pretty gardens before following Nieuwegracht towards the Museum Quarter and Centraal Museum (00 31 30 236 2362; www.centraalmuseum.nl). The city’s celebrated gallery is home to 16th- and 17th-century paintings by an array of Dutch artists, including Jan van Scorel who is famed for introducing Renaissance influences to the country’s art scene.
For something more modern, check out the vast collection of Utrecht-born Gerrit Rietveld’s furniture designs before indulging in some retail therapy – tucked away in the surrounding streets are antique dealers, boutiques and delicatessens. With pedestrianised canal paths and well-marked cycle routes it is easy to explore the city on foot or by bike.
For an afternoon excursion, hire a bike from the train station and explore the local countryside, or take bus number 127 from the train station and head to the fairytale Haar Castle (www.kasteeldehaar.nl), dating back to 1391. Marvel at its collection of art treasures and ornate gardens (known as ‘little Versailles’) before tucking into tea and poffertjes (mini pancakes) in the nearby picturesque village of Haarzuilens. However, if you feel like taking it easy, canal trips depart every hour between 11am and 6pm from the quay at Viebrug bridge on Oudegracht.
Where to stay
Malie Hotel is a converted merchant’s house with a large garden in which to sit and recover from the day’s cycling efforts. For medieval grandeur try Grand Hotel Karel V, situated in the beautifully restored former headquarters of the Teutonic Order. Alternatively, just outside the centre, in the residential area of Bosch en Duin (literally ‘forests and dunes’) is De Hoefslag. This country manor house has 30 spacious rooms and suites that combine an English country style with Mediterranean influences.
Where to eat and drink
Possibly the best restaurant in town, Wilhelminapark (00 31 30 251 0693; www.wilhelminapark.nl) serves up fantastic Modern European fare. Dine on classic French and Italian dishes within the chic surroundings of a former ballroom at Polman’s (00 31 30 231 3368; www.polmanshuis.nl). Oozing elegance, the ceiling frescoes are the remnants of its days as an elite gentlemen’s club.
For an ultra-Dutch experience, gorge yourself on pancakes. De Oude Muntkelder on Oudegracht has over 80 varieties to choose from - enjoy yours on one of the many canal-side terraces for which the city is famous (00 31 30 231 6773; www.deoudemuntkelder.nl). If you are tempted by tapas try El Mundo (00 31 30 236 4543; www.tapasbar-elmundo.nl) and to kick start your evening sip a cocktail at the hip Café Lust (00 31 30 238 2421; www.cafelust.nl).
Time running out?
For a slightly eccentric yet tuneful experience, visit the quirkily-named National Museum from Musical Clock to Street Organ (www.museumspeelklok.nl). Pianolas and dance hall organs all contribute to this celebration of mechanical musical instruments.
Who needs Venice? For a romantic evening, drift along the city’s canals in a gondola (www.degondeliervanutrecht.nl). Or grab a map from the tourist office at Domplein 9 (00 31 30 236 0004) and pedal back in time along the nearby River Vecht – the route is punctuated by windmills, castles and dozens of mansions built by merchants during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Currency is the euro. Utrecht is one hour ahead of GMT. Amsterdam is a one-hour 15-minute flight from London and a 40-minute train journey from Utrecht. Trains depart every 15 minutes.
KLM (0871 222 74 74; www.klm.com) has regular daily flights from Heathrow to Amsterdam. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies to Amsterdam from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted.
NS (www.ns.nl/en/): vsit the website to plan your train journey, with up-to-date timetables and destination information.
Utrecht Tourism: 00 31 30 286 0000; www.utrecht-tourism.com.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.