Utrecht is becoming more well-known to travellers, and for a good reason. After Nijmegen and Maastricht, it’s the oldest city in the Netherlands, with the mediaeval buildings and history it holds going way back to even Roman times. Being only 25 minutes away from Amsterdam by train, Utrecht is unlike any other and has its own unique Dutch charm.
The two-level canals that flow through the city, the ancient trees accompanying them, the boats coming through and the lights at night will make you feel as if you are walking through a fairytale. Not too crowded, but there is always something happening amongst these cobblestone streets. Since Utrecht is a city with two big universities, there are a lot of students, which makes the city even more loveable for all ages.
So if you want to escape the touristy city centre of Amsterdam or just want to go on a city trip to something different during your time in the Netherlands, add in a weekend or 48 hours in Utrecht to your itinerary. Here are the places you can’t miss in this gezellige (Dutch for “cosy”) city, including some of my personal favourites!
But before you go, here's top picks for what to do in Utrecht:
After settling down in your accommodation, make your way to the Oudegracht (‘the Old Canal’). Utrecht was an important city for trading (because of its location as the heart of the Netherlands - no literally, even to this day Utrecht Central Station is the busiest because it connects the rest of the country to this centre), so back in the 12th century, they dug this grand winding canal through the city’s storied streets.
Something that will probably catch your eye immediately, especially if you’ve been to Amsterdam before, is that this canal has a wharf on the water level, where you can walk on. Though nowadays, the wharf serves as a great location for restaurants, terraces and more, they were built for another reason: ships used to use these wharfs to unload their goods so that they could store them in the cellars that were on the same level. Today, different companies are located in these wharfs. Walk alongside the canal and see the kaleidoscope of architecture that towers on both sides of the water.
Even though the Dutch don’t really have an impressive national cuisine… We sure know how to make delicious local snacks! If you’re are a bit hungry, make your way to Croquetten Boutique, which is located in one of the side streets of the Oudegracht. If you have been to Amsterdam already, you have probably walked past FEBO (if you haven’t, there is one in Utrecht as well, definitely worth a try!), a snackbar with a vending machine wall where they sell many Dutch delicacies, among which the kroket. These Dutch delicacies are considered fast food, but Croquetten Boutique knew how to give the old classic kroket a new, fancy twist. The original kroket is a deep-fried snack, filled with ragout. But at Croquetten Boutique they sell all different types of kroketten, from old cheese, Spanish ham, green curry to vegan truffle. Once you got your warm snack, hop back on over to the Oudegracht. Walk a little bit further, over to the Stadhuisbrug and take one of the stairs that go down to the canal, where you can sit down and try your kroket while watching the boats go by. During the warmer months, this is a popular picnic spot that the locals go to for their nibbles.
When you’re ready, make your way to the Dom Tower. Just before the tower, on the right there is a hidden gem called Flora’s Garden. It’s like a small jewel box in the middle of the city, and for a couple of minutes you’ll feel like you’ve escaped into an enchanting storybook courtyard. It’s easy to imagine this could’ve been a place where knights and royalty had rendezvous. When you’re done here, make your way to the Dom Tower.
You have probably seen this iconic building and heard its bells already from afar. Completed in 1382, it is 112 metres high. It’s crowned the highest tower in the Netherlands, and the pride and symbol of the city. The tower has fourteen swinging bells, and it takes twenty-six people to ring all of them at the same time. You can even climb it and watch the city from above!
After viewing the tower, explore Domplein (‘Dom Square’). As you might have seen already, there are some terraces here where Utrechters love to go on the weekends. But apart from this, the square holds a lot of history. It has the St. Martin’s Cathedral, which used to be connected to the Dom Tower. A tornado collapsed the part that connected the two buildings to one another and it was never rebuilt. If the church is open, definitely make sure to have a look inside as it has an impressive, gothic interior. At the same square, you will find Pandhof van de Dom, another hidden jewel box, but a little bigger than Flora’s Garden. This is more of a mysterious (monastery) garden that dates back to the 14th century.
Next to the church, you will see the esteemed University Hall, built in Neo-Renaissance style and mostly used for academic ceremonies. A statue of Jan van Nassau (defender of the Calvinist religion and one of the promoters of the Union of Utrecht) stands in front of it, as a memory of the important event that took place in the building: the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, which marks the origin of the Dutch nation. Yep, I told you this city is quite literally the heart of the Netherlands!
If you haven’t had enough of the history of Domplein yet, pay DOMunder a visit. It is located between the church and the tower, and contains 2000 years old hidden heritage of the square. With a tour you will learn about the fascinating history of Utrecht, underground, at the historic heart of the city.
Make your way to Mariaplaats. Mariaplaats is a small square, surrounded by romantic historical buildings, full of trees and some nice shops (and a Miffy statue!). If you’re wondering why you might have seen the little white rabbit in different places of the city, it is because Miffy is actually from Utrecht! There is even a square, a traffic light and a museum dedicated to her.
After walking around Mariaplaats, make your way to the Catharijnesingel. Before you enter the park, have a quick look at the giant teapot that is located on top of the garage. After this, enter the park, which is situated along the canal, and great for a picturesque stroll. Whenever I walk here, I can’t help but stare at the beautiful houses that are located all around - basically a hobby of most Utrechters is fantasising about living in one of these. On the right side, you will see a UFO on top of one of the buildings, called the Inktpot (‘inkwell’).
When it is time for lunch, head to Visjes on the Twijnstraat. Order some kibbeling, fried fish served with a delicious creamy sauce. After trying this Dutch specialty, go to the Seven Alleys, an old working-class neighbourhood, built between 1843 and 1860. These small houses were built for the people that worked in the factories and were inhabited by big families. The houses didn’t have their own toilets and kitchens, the residents used shared facilities instead. Nowadays people still live here, but the houses have been adjusted for better living conditions. If you are interested in these specific neighbourhoods and how it was to live here back in the day, Utrecht has a museum dedicated to them, called the Dutch Museum of Working-Class Districts.
By the time you have seen this area of the city, it is time for dinner. And what better way to have your first dinner here than with one of the Dutchies most loved food - cheese? The Kaasbar (‘Cheese Bar’) has got you covered with a conveyor belt containing different types of cheese going around the bar. Chefs pair the cheeses with things like chocolate, almonds, figs, veggies, and sauces. Not only do they serve delicious cheese, they also have a wide assortment of wines and cocktails, and the staff here is happy to advise you on what wine to combine with the type of cheese you are eating. Or, just go all out with the “all you can cheese”, basically all you can eat.
End your day with some cocktails at Rum Club, a bar located in an old wharf cellar at the Oudegracht. Sitting outside is nice because you are right at the canal, but what I love most about this place is its fancy jungle-themed interior tucked within the cavernous canal itself. With palm trees, different colours, patterns and neon lights it is a perfect place to take pictures and truly escape.
Start your day at Hoog Catharijne Mall, which is right outside of the futuristic Utrecht Central station. This mall dates back to 1973 and used to be connected to the train station, but both the mall and the train station have been beautifully reconstructed between 2012 and 2019. Hoog Catharijne Mall has more than 110 stores, including clothing stores, electronic stores, a food court, supermarkets (there is even an Asian supermarket called Amazing Oriental) and much more.
When you exit the mall, you will end up at a square, called Vredenburgplein. On certain days, there’ll be a bustling farmer’s market. Go through the Drieharingstraat, a very cute, narrow street that is full of terraces and restaurants. This street leads back to the Oudegracht, where you can find Broodje Ben (‘Sandwich Ben’), a shop and a street food stall that has been selling a specific, popular amongst Utrechters sandwich for decades. There are over a dozen of choices, and you'll easily spot a long line of Utrechters queueing for a bite. The combinations that Broodje Ben create out of their toppings is delicious, and you should definitely give it a try!
After eating your sandwich, go to Broesse Booksellers. I love this place, not just because it has a great assortment of books and a chic interior, but also because of the café that is located on the first floor. Sit down in one of the comfy chairs at the window and watch the Oudegracht from above while enjoying a cappuccino.
When you have finished your coffee and you’re done book shopping, walk towards Neude. This is the most well-known square of Utrecht and dates back to the 15th century. Today there are many restaurants and cafes located on the square, and in summer it is full of terraces. Especially on the weekends, you will find it very busy here, as many students go out.
Make your way to Janskerkhof, another beautiful square, covered in trees. If you are here on a Saturday, there will be the legendary flower market, and just behind it, the fabric market, but even if the markets aren’t there, walking around the square is really nice. Janskerkhof has different monuments and statues, among which a statue dedicated to Anne Frank. The square even has a 1000-year old church, named the Janskerk, which was the northern point of a church cross, a formation of churches that formed a cross on the map. Today you can visit the church.
From Janskerkhof, follow the Nobelstraat. If it is summer or spring, get some delicious ice cream at LUCA IJssalon, if it is winter or autumn, get a white berry latte (espresso, white chocolate milk, blueberries and lavender) at Cupp. Ask for takeaway, because there is another stunning park right around the corner! Follow this park that is located alongside the canal and you will end up at Park Lepelenburg. This is one of the best sprawling green spaces in Utrecht - a great combination of walking paths winding between the trees and waterways. Now, isn’t this the perfect place to enjoy your latte or ice cream?
From Park Lepelenburg, walk to the Maliebaan. This is one of the most beautiful roads in Utrecht, with a lot of history. A fun fact about this road is that this is where the first bike path in the Netherlands was built.
The street thanks its name to the Golden Age, where guests of the university, such as René Descrates, were complaining about the boredom of the city (though I think that if they would visit nowadays they wouldn’t complain). The university and the students thought the same and decided to start playing malie, a game in which a wooden ball is hit with a wooden stick on a long track. A malie track was created and that’s where the street got its name from (baan meaning track or lane). Centuries later, during World War II, the road was where the Nationalist Social Movement had their headquarters.
While walking this street there is lots to see. From the beautiful trees that make a gateway for the cars, bikes and pedestrians, to the beautiful mansions on both sides and the statues that are situated here.
After strolling the Maliebaan, head to the Spoorwegmusem (the Railway Museum). This is a great place for kids, as well as for adults. The museum has a great collection of old trains, simulators, exhibitions and playgrounds. During Christmas the museum offers Dutch winter delicacies, has Christmas decorations and an antique carousel that turn the museum into a romantic winter paradise.
If you are in the mood for another museum, head to Centraal Museum Utrecht. This museum is perfect if you like art, but not a specific type of art. It is a museum with very diverse permanent collections, as well as temporary exhibitions. From local paintings to Dick Bruna’s studio (the creator of Miffy), this museum has a lot to offer!
Close to the museum you can find the Nicolaïkerk, a church that was built in the 12th century, which was possibly the first church in the Netherlands with an organ. What makes this church unique are the two towers on the front, which are usually only built on cathedrals, monastic and collegiate churches.
At the end of the day, get ready for dinner and drinks at Ping Pong Club. I personally love this place, especially in summer. They have good food and a nice space inside as well as outside. If you are into games and ping pong, you can rent ping pong tables and even play some board games. Or, check out another local's favourite the JEU de boules bar, for a fun game. Either one, a perfect way to end your two days in Utrecht.