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.
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.
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.
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.