Utrecht, the Netherlands’ most central large city, is incomparable with any other place. Where else do you walk straight from the train to the shops, where else can you have a beer or a delicious meal right beside the canal, what other city has such a striking and easily recognisable landmark as the Dom Tower, which is more than 600 years old? A city with a friendly shopping heart, friendly street cafés, as well as a bubbling night life. With busy pubs and cafés, simple eateries, but also stylish restaurants and contemporary congress and meeting centres.
Utrecht has a bright past. It all began with a Roman castle established in 47 AD as part of reinforcements along the Rhine. The city’s name came possibly from a contraction of the words Uut (downstream) and Trecht (ford). At the end of the 7th century the English missionary Willibrord settled in Utrecht. Utrecht subsequently acquired great ecclesiastical power and developed into a trade centre. The canals and wharves date from this golden period.
A world attraction
Utrecht’s canals and wharves form a true world attraction. No other city on the planet has as many pedestrian quayside paths. They were put there centuries ago to provide access to the cellars under buildings beside the canals. There are now restaurants and boutiques occupying many of these cellars. The wharves themselves are always busy and along the water are many good places to eat.
The Cathedral’s high point
The Dom Tower is by right the pride, centre and roof of the city of Utrecht. The tower is more than 600 years old, is the highest in the Netherlands, and has a rich history. It rises 112 metres above the Cathedral, far above the city. Climb the 465 steps with a guide and you will be rewarded with a fantastic view over Utrecht’s characteristic canals, wharves and mediaeval churches. The eye is also drawn to the Netherlands’ largest covered shopping centre Hoog Catharijne, and the Central Train station where a jumble of tracks meet.
Utrecht’s many waterways
It is also nice to see Utrecht from a completely different perspective. What about a short round trip in an excursion barge or canoe. Or even try a water bicycle! It provides a unique view of the city, its wharves, cellars and beautiful canalside buildings.
For those who want a short break from walking through the buzzing city centre, they will find perfect peace in hidden courtyards, pretty parks and cloisters. The visitor comes upon them suddenly in unexpected corners in the middle of the city.
The Netherlands’ Cultural Centre
With regard to museums, this city has more than its fair share. Utrecht is especially proud of its unique Museum Quarter. In the Museum Quarter there are 7 large museums, each one’s collections closely linked with the city’s past and present. In the modern music centre Vredenburg a variety of concerts take place. Utrecht hosts a large number of cultural events every year. An example is the internationally known Holland Festival of Old Music, the Wharf Area Theatre Festival (with acts playing both on and off the wharves), the Festival of Modern Dance, the Springdance movement and Dutch Film Days.
A variety of shopping in Utrecht
Located relatively close together, Utrecht has an enormous diversity of shops. As well as the La Vie and Hoog Catharijne indoor shopping centres, the city is also rich in beautiful little streets, ideal for browsing. On these numerous fashion boutiques, clothes and shoes outlets with ranges to suit all tastes are to be found. But fans of lifestyle articles, antiques and other bric-á-brac are also catered for.
Utrecht’s Museum Quarter
A beauty unparalleled
The Museum Quarter, situated in the heart of the city, forms a chain of courtyards, canals, mediaeval houses, churches, galleries, museums, restaurants, and much, much more. In this municipal treasure trove the beauty, history, art and culture of Utrecht can be explored. The Dom Tower, more than six centuries old, at 112 metres literally forms the area’s high point. The tower can be climbed between 10.00 and 17.00 daily.
As the name suggests, Utrecht’s largest and greatest museums are to be found in the Museum Quarter. There are seven in total, situated close together: Nationaal Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement (National museum of Chimes to Barrel Organs), Catharijneconvent Museum, Nederlands Spoorwegmuseum (Dutch Railway Museum), University Museum/Botanical Gardens, Central Museum, Sterrenwacht Sonnenborgh (Sonnenborgh Observatory) and from March 2001 the Aboriginal Art Museum. For more detailed information see under ‘Museums’ in Tourist ABC of this guide.
Much more than just museums…
The Museum Quarter has more than just museums, however. The wandering visitor constantly comes across new places: hidden courtyards, unusual shops, an interesting exhibition or a pleasant street café. In order to ensure you find the nicest and most unusual places, there are wonderful ready-made individual walking tours for sale at the RonDom visitors’ centre and Utrecht Tourist Information (VVV). Walking tours last on average one hour, pass all museums and have different themes: there is a general route, a visual arts route and two children’s treasure hunts.
For those who prefer listening to reading there are guided walking tours. There are tours, which take in, for example, cultural history and architecture, as well as tours especially for the city centre only. One tour that does not need to be booked in advance takes place every Sunday afternoon at 14.15 and is organised by the City Walking Tours Organisation (’t Gilde Stadswandelingen). Tours depart from RonDom visitors’ centre and last about ninety minutes.
Barge excursions on the canals are the most comfortable and unusual way of seeing the Museum Quarter. Utrecht’s canals and wharf cellars are unique and seeing the city from the water is an experience not to be missed. City excursions take approximately one hour. They take place all year round between 11.00 and 18.00.
Full of children’s entertainment
Children are not forgotten: there is also much for them to enjoy in the Museum Quarter. Places that appeal to children the most are the Dutch Railway Museum and the National Museum of Chimes to Barrel Organs. These can be taken in as part of a boat excursion.
The Observatory is fun and educational for old and young alike. An infinite number of celestial objects can be seen through telescopes and a special sun telescope.
And then… peace
Tired and hungry from new impressions and walking, the visitor can relax in one of the many excellent cafés, which proliferate in this part of the city. The collection of pubs, restaurants and street cafés on ’t Wed and the Cathedral Square (Domplein) is a must. There you can sample refreshments priced from reasonable to more expensive, while enjoying a stunning view of the city.