WHAT TO DO
Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. It is located in the middle of the country, less than an hour by train from Amsterdam. Although there is some evidence of earlier inhabitation in the region of Utrecht, dating back to the Stone Age and settling in the Bronze Age, the founding date of the city is usually related to the construction of a Roman fortification, likely built in around 50 CE. In Roman times, the name of the Utrecht fortress was simply Traiectum, denoting its location at a possible Rhine River crossing. Traiectum became Dutch Trecht - with the U added from Old Dutch 'uut' (downriver). In the 16th century the land came under Spanish rule and the Dutch revolted. Their leader was Willem of Orange and in 1581 the Republic of the United Netherlands was formed. With the defeat of the French in the 19th century, the Dutch regained independence and full sovereignty, and in 1815 the Kingdom of the Netherlands was proclaimed. Today, Utrecht is a vibrant university town with a compact medieval core that is ringed by a loop of charming tree lined canals.
Begin your adventure in the heart of the city center or centrum, known as Binnenstad. It is here, in Cathedral Square (Domplein), where you will find the spectacular Saint Martin's Cathedral. Most often referred to by locals as the Dom Church (Domkerk), this fine building is considered to be one of the most important churches in the Netherlands. While the original structure was built in 1254 on the site of an earlier Romanesque church, today this impressive cathedral consists of the 14th century choir, the 15th century transepts and two chapels. Highlights include numerous old tombs and a crypt known to contain the internal organs of Emperors Conrad II and Henry V, both of whom died in Utrecht. Of particular note is the picturesque 14th century cloister linking the cathedral with Utrecht University Hall. Above its windows are scenes from the life of Saint Martin, the patron saint, while in the center of the beautiful cloister garden is a fountain with a bronze figure of a monk.
Nearby, looming high over the Domplein is the cathedral tower, Dom Tower (Domtoren). This massive structure was separated from Saint Martin's Cathedral after a devastating storm in 1674. Built between 1320 and 1382, it stands 370 feet high and houses an impressive carillon of 50 bells - many of them centuries old, including some that date back to the 1600s. Still the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, its viewing galleries offer commanding views of the Old Town and beyond. Just a short walk north of Saint Martin's Cathedral, in Pieterskerkhof, stands Saint Peter's Church, the first of the town's churches to be built. Consecrated in 1048 and notable for its two Romanesque towers, the church features a crypt with a sarcophagus of the founder - Bishop Bernold. Other notable features are the capitals of the columns in the nave, the wall paintings in the north aisle and the 12th century reliefs created in the Maasland style.
Housed in the former Gothic hospice of the Order of Saint John, Saint Catherine's Convent Museum (Museum Catharijneconvent) deals with the history of Christianity in the Netherlands. Opened in 1978, it possess the country's finest collection of medieval art treasures, with sections devoted to religious beliefs, church interiors and medieval monasteries. In addition to a large collection of 17th and 18th century material, other exhibits include valuable books and illuminated manuscripts, and a model of the original Saint Martin's Cathedral with explanations of its history. Also on site is a display of embroidered Flemish church vestments dating from the late Middle Ages. A highlight of a visit to Utrecht is exploring the beautiful Old canal (Oudegracht). This marvel of engineering runs directly through the city center and is the perfect place for a pleasant stroll or a sightseeing cruise. The canal starts in the southeast section of the city and traces what was once the original route of a segment of the Rhine. The northern part of the Oudegracht includes portions of a canal built around 1000 AD that connected the Rhine to the River Vecht. Once Utrecht's network of locks was completed in 1275, the shores of the canal began to be settled, with numerous quays, wharves and warehouses added. Today, many of these old buildings and their cellars have been turned into restaurants, cafes, galleries and boutique shops.
One of the town's most popular attractions is the Musical Clock Museum (Museum Speelklok). Set in an old church, this fun spot is dedicated to music boxes, barrel organs, and other devices and instruments capable of playing music without human involvement. The museum was established in 1956 and its displays - many of them hands on and interactive - include mechanical musical instruments from the 18th century to the present day, as well as domestic instruments, from tiny music boxes to massive fair organs, most of which can still be played. Other highlights include examples of musical clocks, player pianos and a turret clock with a carillon, along with the opportunity to peek behind the scenes at the restoration work performed in the workshops. Note: free guided tours (in English), including demonstrations are available. If you fancy trains, roll on over to the Railway Museum (Spoorwegmuseum). Located in a gloriously restored station from 1874, the country's national railway museum is a must visit for train buffs. Founded in 1927, highlights of this large, well stocked attraction include a cross section of the nation's transit history, particularly its railroads and tram systems, with plenty of models and old vehicles to enjoy along the way. Exhibits deal with the early years of railways, including its heyday of the 1900s and an operational workshop. Other highlights include the luxurious carriages of the Orient Express and the Netherlands' oldest steam locomotive.
Home to the top art in town - spread between the remnants of a former convent and the city's old artillery stables, Utrecht's excellent municipal collections are well worth a visit. Established in 1838 and housed in the city's Centraal Museum, the exhibits include the provincial archaeological collections and works by Utrecht based painters from the 15th century onwards, including the Romanists, a group influenced by the Italian Renaissance and led by Jan Van Scorel. Other schools included are the Mannerists, represented by Abraham Bloemaert, who had an enduring influence on the Utrecht Caravaggisti (stylistic followers of Caravaggio), and Surrealist delights by Johannes Moesman. The museum also has a collection of costumes from the 18th century to the present day, along with rooms furnished in period style, sculptures, furniture and a collection of material on the history of the city. A rare 17th century dollhouse with rooms decorated in chintz from the Dutch East Indies is also worth seeing, as is the famous Utrecht Ship, a 1000 year old vessel discovered in 1930.
Conclude your tour of Utrecht by taking in some far out architecture. Considered so significant that UNESCO has deemed it a World Heritage Site, the stunning Rietveld Schroder House (Rietveld Schroderhuis) is a must visit for design buffs. Designed and constructed in the early 1920s by leading Dutch architect (and Utrecht resident) Gerrit Rietveld for a widower friend and her family, this attractive small home was decades ahead of its time in so many ways. For example, the lower living area was created with retracting walls, a clever trick created by Rietveld - a leading member of the influential De Stijl design movement - that enabled family members to shut themselves off at night for privacy, yet served as a large communal space by day. The unique windows were also revolutionary; large and able to be fully opened, they helped blur the distinction between the interior and exterior worlds. The house is now a museum and admission is only available as part of a guided tour. Note: book as far ahead as possible, space constraints limit tours to a maximum of 12 visitors per hour. The ticket is also valid for the Centraal Museum, which displays many of Rietveld's trademark chairs.
WHERE TO EAT
Utrecht has a number of great places to eat, drink and see live music. Start your day at Blackbird Coffee, located at Oudegracht 222. The coffee is excellent, the almond cookies are delicious and the service is super friendly at this popular takeaway spot. Not far away at Oudegracht 158 is Winkel Van Sinkel. This sprawling Neoclassical cafe started out in the 18th century as Holland's first department store and is fronted with four large cast iron statues of women. Try to score a table on the terrace overlooking the canal. Loetje can be found at Oudkerkhof 29. This stylish cafe offers solid options such as meatballs on farmer's bread, seasonal white asparagus and kapucijners - a huge bowl of Dutch peas served with ground beef, onions, gherkin, piccalilli and fried bacon.
A good choice for lunch is Karaf, located at Korte Jansstraat 13. With a relaxed atmosphere, good grub and tasty beers, this 'food and drinks' place draws in the crowds. I enjoyed the beef croquettes with mustard and a fine glass of Grolsch beer. Another top notch spot is De Zakkendrager, found at Zakkendragerssteeg 26 in the city center. As you walk down the narrow alleyway to this gem, it is easy to be misled by its unassuming exterior, but the interior is cozy and the rear opens out into a breezy conservatory - with views of a beautiful garden dominated by a 200 year old beech tree. Fashionable locals come here for generous portions of grilled meats, fresh fish, excellent salads and a large vegetarian range. Pand 33 is set in an old canal house at Nieuwegracht 33. This recently opened stand out offers menus containing fish and meat along with an extensive wine list. Highlights include butter fish with shiso green oil, white beetroot with licorice and wild shrimp with paprika.
For dinner, head to Blauw at Springweg 64. This is the best joint in town for perfectly cooked Indonesian food. Superbly blended flavors, right down to the amuse bouche of home made sambal, leave diners swooning with delight. All main courses come with a veritable feast of extra small plates so there is no need to opt for a rijsttafel (rice table) to get a satisfyingly varied meal. The establishment's name is misleading - far from blue (blauw), the brooding, almost windowless interior is black and bright red. Note: the restaurant is open daily from 5p. One of my favorite places in town is Heron, located at Schalkwijkstraat 28 - tucked away on a quiet back lane leading to the lovable little Bruntenhof garden. This adorable 'petit restaurant' presents patrons with a list of cryptic clues to a meal that is brimming with imaginative flavors and is eminently seasonal. Expect 100% locally sourced fare including foraged plants collected by the owner. Six lucky guests get to sit right at the central cooking counter and watch every move of the expert chefs. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, and reservations are essential.
My most memorable dining experience was at Concours, found at Biltstraat 20. Lively and decoratively sparse, this stylish spot is a splendid choice for a gourmet meal. It is romantic without being stuffy and dishes are presented with great gusto. There are no food decisions to be made - simply put yourself in the hands of celebrated chef Alex Zeelenberg for the day's menu based on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and bookings are crucial. For post meal refreshments, make your way to DeRat at Lange Smeestraat 37. This welcoming corner pub has a lot of soul and a remarkable ability to source rare beers from little known brewers. This includes an entire menu of Lambics (sour, spontaneously fermented beers). Note: the bar is open daily until late. Nearby at Oudegracht 279 is the music friendly 't Oude Pothuys. On a summer night you can drink alongside the canal, facing the brick arched Smeebrug bridge. However, this snug pub's real draw is the free nightly live music in its whitewashed double barrel medieval cellar. Note: the bar is open daily and performances rarely start before 10p.
Just down the canal at Oudegracht 196 is the super cool Kafe Belgie. A full sized Madonna (not the material girl) statue seems to be almost fainting with passion in welcoming beer aficionados into paradise. This rough edged pub's 20 Benelux brews on tap supplement uncountable scores of other brews by the bottle. Note: the bar is open daily until 2a. Another solid Belgian beer pub is Olivier, found at Achter Clarenburg 6. Situated next to the Hoog Catharijne building, this blessed beer heaven - an astonishingly slick yet characterful reworking of a large former church - even has an organ. Duvel beer is available on draft and the excellent house Olivier Tripel is brewed locally by De Leckere. If you are in the mood for a dynamite drink, do try Behind Bars Cocktailbar, located at Hamburgerstraat 14. This hip joint does the best adult beverages in town. In addition to a fine selection of whiskies, they also have a solid list of house signature drinks - I destroyed several Antibiotics (mezcal, lemon, ginger and honey). Note: the bar is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Utrecht has one of the coolest music venues on the planet. Found next to Centraal train station at Vredenburgkade 11 is TivoliVredenburg. Formerly the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, this rad music complex consists of five halls designed acoustically for a specific music genre. Each has its own unique atmosphere - the two main halls are Grote Zaal and Ronda. Notable performers include David Bowie and The Rolling Stones.
WHERE TO STAY
Utrecht offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Grand Hotel Karel V, located at Geertebolwerk 1. Set in a former monastery with 14th century origins, this high end hotel in the city center is near the Museum Speelklok and Museum Catharijneconvent. The refined rooms feature free WiFi, writing desks and flat screen TVs, as well as minibars, Nespresso machines and sitting areas. Upgraded quarters add separate living areas and balconies. There is an elegant restaurant offering open air dining in a garden, plus a warm brasserie with an open kitchen. Other amenities include a spa with a sauna and a hot tub.
A second option is the Nox Hotel, located at Keistraat 8. Set in a 17th century building, this sophisticated boutique hotel in the city center is a short walk from the Domkerk and not far from the Centraal Museum. Stylish rooms provide complimentary WiFi, Bluetooth speakers and flat screen TVs with Chromecast, as well as espresso machines. Upgrades add sitting areas and free standing tubs. Other perks include a rooftop terrace with Domtoren views, an acclaimed restaurant and a bar.
Utrecht is full of amazing history, spectacular architecture, charming canals, wonderful museums and superb cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.