I’m just going to come right out and say it; I like Utrecht more than Amsterdam. In fact, it’s probably my favourite city in the Netherlands and one of my top picks in Europe.

Nothing against Amsterdam, though. My opinion is certainly influenced by my partner living in Utrecht for a year while I was in Germany, which meant several back and forth trips to see him. We also established a solid group of friends in the city whom we manage to visit at least once a year since moving home.

And while Utrecht is a comfortable, livable, and nostalgic place for me, it’s also a below-the-radar destination that’s too often overlooked for Holland’s most popular city. But in case you’re thinking that I’m biased, I’ll add that Lonely Planet named Utrecht one of the world’s ten underrated travel destinations back in 2012.

Despite the fact that I’ve probably spent more time in Utrecht than many other cities I’ve traveled to, this is the first Utrecht travel piece we’ve published on Departful, although we did include it in a roundup of Holland’s best cities. It’s always difficult to find the words to express a place that evokes such intangible feelings, but I’ll try.

Utrecht Travel: 12 Reasons Why You Should Visit:

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1. Utrecht’s canals are unique

While Amsterdam is renowned for the canals that are intertwined throughout the city, Utrecht’s are more dramatic. The city has been built up two stories above the canals with shops, restaurants, and homes on the street level and wharfs at the canal level. When the weather is pleasant, patios pop up on the lower level alongside the canal offering a picturesque spot to have a drink and watch the boats go by. If you prefer to be on the water, there are canal tours as well as boat rentals where you can transect the waterways like a local.

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2. Utrecht has diverse architecture

Given its lengthy history as one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, there is a ton of quintessential Dutch buildings in Utrecht, many dating back over 400 years. The Dom tower dominates the skyline, the nave of a Protestant cathedral built in the Gothic style in the 13th century. Visitors can take a tour up the tower, which offers a lot of history on the building and the city, and culminates in breathtaking views at the top. The area around the Oudegracht, the old canal, features many houses and buildings in traditional Dutch style and the Museumkwartier (museum quarter) is an enclave of well preserved structures.

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Utrecht has done an excellent job at preserving the historic buildings while promoting modern architecture in the city, an area that the Dutch excel in. The university has several buildings that are unique and awe-inspiring like the sleek campus library and the Faculty of Science building featuring capsules for classrooms, or the ultra colourful Casa Confetti, a student housing complex. While perhaps less modern by today’s standards, the Rietveld Schröder house built by famed Utrecht architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1924 was beyond fathomable in that day and age and is still a marvel to visit today.

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3. Utrecht is up and coming

Despite recent notoriety, this unsung destination is not yet on the map of many international tourists. Though Amsterdam is a world class city in its own right, there is a large proportion of tourists that visit solely to partake in the activities that are off limits to them at home. You won’t find the same rowdy groups of gap year travelers and bachelor parties floating out of coffee shops or gawking at the Red Light District in Utrecht. There are still coffee shops in Utrecht, including a kick ass one on a boat, but it’s a more civilized affair overall.

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While there may not be a lot of tourists making their way to Utrecht when compared to cities like Amsterdam, there are a large number of expats given the international university and the city’s reputation as a business hub in the Netherlands. Expats are integrated within local communities and locals are exposed to different cultures. And virtually everyone in Utrecht speaks English, as the Dutch speak the language better than most European countries.

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4. Utrecht is a big city but has a small town vibe

Even though it’s the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, Utrecht manages to maintain its quaintness. From cozy brown cafes to hidden courtyards, it never feels overwhelmingly busy – unless you visit during one of its many festivals. The whole city just feels so gezellig – a Dutch word that doesn’t have a true English equivalent but roughy translates into cozy, atmospheric, and joyous.

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5. Sprawling sidewalk cafes are everywhere in Utrecht

If there’s one thing that Utrechters love, it’s enjoying a drink in the sun, so as soon as the winter turns the corner for good, restaurants and cafes start pouring into the streets. During peak times like after work and weekend afternoons, finding a seat is a sophisticated skill. Beer is a common choice for patio season with traditional Dutch beers served in small thin glasses known as a fluitje. Your best bets include Neude, the square by Domplein, around the Oudegracht, and Cafe Ledig Erf.

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6. The food scene in Utrecht is on point

While Dutch cuisine doesn’t often captivate foodies like other European countries – let’s say Italy or Spain – it’s core dishes are traditional, simple, and satisfying. The sizeable expat population and diverse communities ensure a good mix of international eateries and classic Dutch spots.

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One of the most idyllic restaurants in Utrecht is Café Olivier, a restaurant and bar housed in a former church where mussels and Belgian beers reign supreme. For a hearty burger and an epic canal view head to Meneer Smakers, where you can dress your burger any way you like (there are two other Utrecht locations in case you aren’t near the Oudegracht). For the best fries, topped with mayonnaise of course, drop by Frietwinkel to sample Holland’s favourite snack – a range of special sauces are also available if your not into mayo, but seriously you should be as it’s the best. If you’ve had your fill of Dutch food and are craving something a little less fried don’t miss Kimmade, the city’s best Vietnamese restaurant for some fresh rolls and pho.

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7. Utrecht has a beautiful downtown

Winding cobblestone streets, narrow Dutch houses, and flowing canals are what you’ll find in Utrecht’s well preserved old town. Centred around the Oudegracht (old canal) is the city’s main shopping area with flagship stores of big brands. The streets branching out from the central canal offer a ton of shops showcasing local and international designers alongside hip cafes and restaurants. Most of the old town is pedestrian and bike friendly.

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8. Everyone bikes in Utrecht

Perhaps it’s because the ratio of bikers to pedestrians is higher than I’ve seen in other cities or that there are more bikes in Utrecht than there are people, but nowhere that I’ve encountered in the Netherlands is biking more prolific than here. With bikes locked to every sign post, canal railing, outside most houses, and as far as the eye can see at the multiple story bike parking lot near the central station, it’s clear that biking is intertwined with the culture. In fact, Utrecht was the start point for the Tour de France in 2015, an homage to the city’s strong biking tradition.

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A bike is an excellent way to explore Utrecht and the surrounding area and can be rented at the main station and elsewhere around town. Even though the bike lanes are often segregated from cars, biking can feel intimidating in Utrecht. Even for experienced cyclists, biking during rush hour in Utrecht where there is very little space between yourself and other cyclists is a stressful activity. The Dutch though are quite skilled at maneuvering quickly and avoiding collisions so even if you’re not up to par, you likely won’t cause any serious damage.

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9. Utrecht hosts a ton of cool festivals

Throughout the year Utrecht puts on a bunch of festivals but things really start to get going when the weather gets warmer. Music festivals are especially popular in the summer months with Ultrasonic Festival in July and 80s/90s Festival Strand in August. The Festival Oude Muziek offers something more traditional as performances tributing early European music take place around the city over the ten day event.

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The Nederlands Film Festival transforms Utrecht into a movie town every fall putting on some of the top films coming out of the country. If you like your festivals with a little more booze, there’s the Bockbierfestival every October where Utrechters gather near Cafe Ledig Erf to indulge in bockbier, a strong beer that’s popular in the city or Fonteyn Festival, which is an event that’s dedicated to wine. If food is more your thing, the city’s Trek festival – an ode to food trucks – is a very fun and very popular event.

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10. Utrecht is a youthful city

Utrecht has one of the largest student populations in the Netherlands making it renowned as a student city. An estimated 60,000 students make up a sizeable portion of the city’s population, ensuring Utrecht is a youth infused place. The nightlife in Utrecht is well developed with an abundance of bars and clubs, particularly those emphasizing EDM, a genre that Holland has been leading the pack in.

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If you’re looking for an unpretentious spot with an indie vibe, check out the ACU, a fiercely indie bar with a staff of only volunteers. There’s a bar on the main floor and a basement that hosts concerts and events. For something with a little more intensity there’s Tivoli, a club that is heavy on the EDM and caters to a younger crowd. When in doubt, head to Neude, a square just a bit north of the centre, where there’s a bunch of bars that are popular with Utrecht’s student scene.

11. Utrecht is a beer lover’s haven

Beer is an important element of everyday life in the Netherlands, and the Dutch take it seriously. While the Netherlands is mostly renowned for lighter beers like the pilsner, Belgian beers are beloved in Utrecht and are often on offer at cafes and restaurants. Most pubs and cafes offer small snacks, mainly of the fried variety, which are the perfect beer accompaniment such as bitterballen and kroketten.

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Beer enthusiasts should not miss Kafe België, a beloved pub in Utrecht that serves an enormous selection of Belgian beers, including a ton of limited and rare options. De Drie Dorstige Herten focuses mainly on Dutch beers on tap but deviates from the standards like Heineken and Brand to offer some truly unique and interesting beers from around the country. To stock up on a few special bottles head to Bert’s Bierhuis, a specialty shop that sells a wide range of brews and has been the go to spot for hard to find bottles in Utrecht for nearly three decades.

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12. Getting to and from Utrecht is a breeze

Less than thirty minutes from Amsterdam by train, Utrecht is centrally located in the Netherlands with nowhere longer than three hours away on the Dutch rail. A ton of vibrant and quaint destinations nearby like Leiden, Delft, and The Hague make for a superb day trip from Utrecht. 

Utrecht travel is easy as the city is well connected to other European hubs so it’s a breeze to move on to the next destination. It’s a stop on Deutsche Bahn’s ICE route between Amsterdam and Frankfurt and only thirty minutes away from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.


Utrecht travel photos courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar AaldersAlex ProimosE. Dronkert, Kotomi_, JP Bervoets and Lauren Barth


 

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Lauren Barth

Lauren Barth

Lauren Barth co-founded Departful in 2012 is the Managing Director of Departful Media. Since then she has worked between North America and Europe and has published content in partnership with a variety of tourism boards and businesses based around the world. Lauren is currently based in Toronto, Canada.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.

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