Underrated Utrecht, a city to explore

Utrecht is a city of surprises. Its compact Medieval centre is beautiful and can be walked in a morning, its large student population gives it the energy of a city twice the size, and it has a bohemian cosmopolitanism that is rare in other cities. Despite this, but not surprisingly, there is a whiff of ‘chip on the shoulder’ when you mention Amsterdam to a Utrechter. Utrechts bigger and far better known cousin is only a short distance away, yet relatively few of the 7 million or so people who visit Amsterdam each year bother to make the journey to Utrecht.

Why more don’t visit is strange. The centre of the city is as picture-postcard-perfect as any in The Netherlands, people are friendly, it has unique canals, good restaurants and a thriving bar scene. People watching possibilities are endless. If nothing else the bar scene should appeal to some of my country folk who flock to Amsterdam for that reason. Perhaps the fact that Utrechters keep their red light district several kilometres outside the city centre is deterring people? It probably accounts for the lack of drunken stag parties, which can only be a good thing.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Mention of the disparity between the two cities brings one of two responses: ‘they don’t know what they’re missing’ or ‘we don’t want all those tourists anyway’. The first is true, the latter rings a little hollow. In a random sample of three barmen and one barwoman, I got a strong impression that Utrecht craves recognition but is too cool to say so. It deserves recognition, after all it was in Utrecht that the Dutch Republic was established in 1579 with the signing of the Union of Utrecht. Nowhere else can claim that honour.

Perhaps because of all the students who never managed to leave, the city has a distinctive artistic twist and plenty of alternative shopping, from high class boutiques to comic book shops. There’s at least one world class cheese shop. There’s also a thriving microbrewery scene, at least if my preliminary investigations are anything to go by.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The city has a number of good museums, including the Dick Bruna Huis. Author, artist, illustrator and graphic artist, Bruna is a legend in The Netherlands thanks to his children’s books, most famous of which is Miffy, a small female rabbit. Miffy and Bruna seem to have a special place in Dutch hearts, and 2015 is the 60th anniversary of Miffy’s first appearance. I popped into the Museum Catharijneconvent, retelling the history of Christianity in The Netherlands. Utrecht was home to the only Pope who has come from the country, but the museum covers pre- and post-Reformation history and has artworks by Dutch Masters.

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Wandering the maze of streets in the city centre is a real pleasure on a warm and sunny late winter’s day. It hasn’t been a particularly cold or hard winter, but emerging from months of dreary short dark days into the sunlight gives everyone a boost, at least that’s what it felt like in Utrecht. It boosted me to a canal-side cafe to watch the world go by with a delicious locally brewed beer. I reflected for a moment on what the scene would look like with tour groups and stag parties. An involuntary shiver went down my spine and I spiritually joined those Utrechers of the “we don’t want tourists” persuasion.

Beer in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Beer in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht by night, The Netherlands

Utrecht, one of Europe’s happiest cities*

I’ve visited Utrecht twice recently. The first time it had snowed, was freezing cold and there seemed to be a serious disconnect between the glowing endorsements I’d heard from my colleagues and what I was seeing. It didn’t seem like one of Europe’s happiest cities*, I took an instant and entirely unreasonable dislike to the city. Visit number two and the city was bathed in warm sunlight.

Wandering the streets aimlessly was much more satisfying and the atmosphere was fun-filled. It was so warm that people crowded outside bars and lounged in public spaces, an energetic and friendly vibe prevailed. I quickly concluded I was an idiot, revised my earlier impression and dived into Utrecht’s Medieval centre.

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canals with snow on the ground, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Still, it’s a shame that for anyone visiting Utrecht by train their first impression of the city is walking through a soulless and unnecessarily ugly shopping mall-type thing. Not that it isn’t popular with locals, the place was packed, but there isn’t any sense of how beautiful the city is beyond this modern monstrosity. Like airports, there is a relentless march towards train stations being converted to retail opportunities first and transport hubs second. Less ‘exit through the gift shop’ and more ‘fight your way through the retail therapy’.

Once you escape the mall’s clutches, the city transforms into a relaxed and attractive place with an historic centre second to none. The centre is physically dominated by the Domtoren, a 112.5 metre high tower that sits at the geographic centre of the city and can be seen from just about everywhere. Get close to it and you realise the Domtoren stands isolated from the town’s cathedral, like a giant exclamation mark. There was a time when it was attached to St. Martin’s Cathedral but the money to complete the work ran out.

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The partially constructed nave that once connected the cathedral to the tower collapsed in 1674 during a massive storm. The cathedral, still only partially constructed, fell into a state of disrepair until it was renovated in the early 20th Century. This seems a shame, after all this was one of only two pre-Reformation cathedrals in the country, and its roots date back to the 13th Century.

I planned to go up the Domtoren to get the views, but access was by tour only and took between 60 – 90 minutes according to the tourist information people. That seemed excessive for a tower, even a tower that took 60 years to build and was only completed in 1382. I decide my time could be better used elsewhere and headed to the nearest canal to see what was occurring. This is a big student town and the weather had brought people out to the street-side bars and cafes, and Utrecht is blessed with excellent bars and cafes. I pulled up a seat and did some people watching while basking in the unseasonably hot weather.

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Houses and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Statue outside Utrecht Cathedral, The Netherlands

Statue outside Utrecht Cathedral, The Netherlands

Back on the streets you can’t help but notice a distinctive feature of Utrecht not found elsewhere in The Netherlands: two-tier canals. They have a lower wharf backed by subterranean entrances into warehouses that were constructed in the 14th Century. The warehouses run underneath the road above and connect to three or four story buildings on the other side of the road. This split-level canal system is unique to Utrecht and allowed boats direct access to the wharf at water level. Today parts of the lower level have been converted into restaurants and bars; others are offices and apartments.

Narrowest house in Utrecht? The Netherlands

Narrowest house in Utrecht? The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Utrecht as we know it today was founded as a Roman fort around 46AD, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in The Netherlands. Some of that vast history seems to seep out of the walls as you walk around, and away from the two main canals you can easily find yourself alone in the narrow streets. As day turned into evening, I sat in an outdoor cafe enjoying a locally brewed beer feeling relieved that first impressions hadn’t lasted.

Canalside cafe, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Canalside cafe, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Domtoren and canals, Utrecht, The Netherlands

* So claims the BBC Travel website…apparently. I’ve read this claim in several places, and I have no doubt Utrecht is a very happy place, but upon further investigation this wasn’t what the BBC said.