Utrecht is almost 2,000 years old, but despite its presence in history, it’s frequently overlooked for the tourist-filled Amsterdam. Located just 30 minutes by train from its more famous Dutch neighbor, Utrecht is a bustling university town filled with students who people-watch in the city’s squares, bike through cobblestone streets, and stroll along the many canals.
Utrecht has a lot to offer tourists, too, from museums and music to the triumvirate of the necessities: good food, coffee, and beer.
The best way to see Utrecht is on bike—and when it comes to cyclists in the city, you can’t beat them, so you may as well join them. Rent a bike from one of the city’s ubiquitous spots and join the stream going in every direction.
Melissa is a freelance writer and permanent oliebollen fan.
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1. Hike Up History
The Dom Tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and as the name unintentionally implies, it dominates the city skyline, serving as an incredibly useful marker for lost bicyclists. The Tower also stands as a testament to mankind's ability to shrug and carry on in the face of natural disasters—a tornado struck the city's cathedral in 1674, separating the church from the tower and in the ensuing 200-plus years, they never bothered to rebuild it. Instead, they learned to love them both as two separate buildings. The church is worth a visit to ogle the wall paintings that date back to the 15th century and the medieval courtyard, but the tower is the real star. The hike to the top is steep and requires hoofing it up 465 stairs, but it's well worth it for the view, which on a clear day can extend all the way to Amsterdam (or at least to other people in other church steeples in Rhenen, Montfoort, and Oudewater). Plus, how can you not love a tower that took the time to play a bell tribute to David Bowie on the day of his death?
Photo by Willem Mes/Toerisme Utrecht
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2. Try Oliebollen in Neude Square
Head to Neude Square for people watching and a sampling of oliebollen, a ball-shaped doughnut, from the always crowded stand in the square. Then head down Voorstraat for shopping and coffee.
Photo by Jurjen Drenth/Toerisme Utrecht
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3. Tune into The Speelklok Museum
The Speelklok Museum houses a massive collection of instruments, but you don't need to be a musician to enjoy it, because these music-making automatons, music boxes, pianolas, carillons, and player pianos play with themselves (ahem). The Speelklok (which translates to "musical clock") is filled with an incredible array of self-playing music machines showing the ingenuity of craftsmen and technically minded creators dating back to the 18th century. The entire museum feels like something out of the pages of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
Photo by Museum Speelklok/Toerisme Utrecht
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4. Grab a Coffee
Utrecht is a college town and like every other college town from Evanston to Edinburgh, the city is home to a serious coffee culture. Head to The Village (pictured) for fresh roasted beans transformed into perfect lattes served alongside a Speculaas cookie. They won't even laugh at you if you order an "Americano."
Photo by Alper Çugun CC BY
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5. Or Go to a Coffeeshop
For an even more Dutch experience, head to one of their infamous "coffeeshops," or what they call in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, a weed dispensary. Hop on your bike and head to the Culture Boat (pictured)—a "coffeeshop" built into a boat docked on one of the city's canals. Enjoy some pot or hash (on the premises only, please) and then slowly—and safely—make your way back to the city center.
Photo by ekenitr CC BY-NC
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6. Find Your Inner Child
The beloved cartoon rabbit, Miffy (known as Nijntje in Dutch), was created by Utrecht author and illustrator Dick Bruna and the tiny bunny pops up all over the city—even in the crossing signs. Get your R.D.A.A. (Recommended Daily Allowance of Adorableness) at the Miffy Museum dedicated to the bunny that turned 60 last year. If you don't think an anthropomorphic bunny museum is for you, head to a "coffeeshop" first—or just keep in mind that the gift shop is the perfect place to pick up presents for all the children in your life.
Photo by Jurjen Drenth/Toerisme Utrecht
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7. Follow the Lights
While Poltergeist warned us all not to go into the light, the opposite is true in Utrecht where the bright lights of the Trajectum Lumen portal guide visitors down some of the city's most interesting pathways. The citywide art installation illuminates the bridges, tunnels, and buildings that make up the canal town and lights up the night in a colored glow. To explore the nighttime walking tour, download a free route map (or pick one up from the tourist information office) or just look for the lights that lead the way from Vredenburg to the Mariaplaats. To see the entire path, block out about an hour—or just wander the streets until you stumble into the lights.
Photo by Anne Hamers/Toerisme Utrecht
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8. Pair Beer and History
Utrecht has a lot to offer college students, including a thriving beer culture. One of the best places to dive into a pint or two is at the 13th-century Stadskasteel Oudaen, because history lessons go down easily with a beer chaser. The castle makes their own beer in a brewery tucked into the vaults, which date back to 1280 AD. If the weather is good, head outside to drink alongside the canal or stay inside and stare up at the arched ceilings. When you get the drunken munchies, either order from the castle's menu or head to Frietwinkel for the ultimate drunk snack—fresh cut french fries.
Photo by ekenitr CC BY-NC
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9. Walk Along A Canal
Utrecht is one of the few cities in the world to have inner city wharves built along the canals that divide the city. Grab your phone (or a map) and start walking down the Oudegracht (old canal) and the smaller towpaths to see life on the water, including the restaurants that have popped up in the medieval wharf cellars. Follow the canal for a peek into history and a good excuse to stop into the flower markets, bakeries and shops that line the street. If you're tired of dodging bicycles, opt for a tour of the canals by boat, which gives an unadulterated view of the historic façades of the charming wharf-side homes and businesses.
Photo courtesy of Toerisme Utrecht
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10. The Centraal Museum
To peer into Utrecht's cultural past and present, head to the Centraal Museum, which features classical Dutch painters like Jan van Scorel, who brought the Italian Renaissance to the Netherlands, alongside modern designers like Viktor & Rolf, and a large collection of the works of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, one of the founders of the De Stijl movement. If the museum visit leaves you feeling too classy, head over to the Hoog Catharijne indoor mall, which has 150 shops and one of the best panoramic views of Utrecht.
Photo by Bert Muller/Toerisme Utrecht
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11. Listen to the Music
Utrecht has a vibrant music scene and there is no better place to experience it than at the new TivoliVredenburg, a massive music hall with enough staircases and back entrances to keep M.C. Escher entertained. The city's biggest festival is Le Guess Who?, which is usually held in November and takes over TivoliVredenburg but also has acts spread across the city, providing the perfect opportunity to combine sightseeing with an incredible soundtrack. For fans with a more classic bent, the OudeMuziek celebrates music from the Middle Ages to the baroque period in late August.
Photo by Ramon Mosterd/Toerisme Utrecht