Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, and this comes with a whole bunch of things to visit – even outside the beautiful city centre. Trot Op! was invited to discover Utrecht’s creative hotspots by bike and train, and had a lot of fun in the process.
Utrecht is – assuming I can still count – the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, and is sometimes talked about as a cosy and less crowded alternative to Amsterdam. This may well be the case, but until recently I could neither confirm nor deny this claim. I’d never been there, not even in the area, so my practical knowledge on the place was somewhat limited. Fortunately that changed last month, as I was kindly asked to come and discover Utrecht in the most sustainable way possible. Of course, every hovel with two new trees planted on the town square calls itself a sustainable destination nowadays, but Utrecht actually made a serious effort to create a green and bicycle-friendly environment in recent years. Promoting this is therefor understandable and justified. To stay in theme, I left my car at home and booked a Thalys ticket. Once arrived, there was mainly cycling, walking and eating vegetables on the menu. Everything I’d get on my plate on this trip would be completely vegan, and that’s a-okay to me. As far as I know, no one ever dropped dead from eating some tofu once in a while. Yes, Uncle Tom, but he’s always been a fussy eater.
A weekend in Utrecht: discover the city’s 9 top spots
Sustainability is all well and good, but if there’s nothing actually going on in a destination, what’s the point? So let’s get back to the initial statement above. Is Utrecht a valid alternative to Amsterdam or not? Well, in a number of ways it certainly is. In terms of atmosphere and photogenic spots, for example. Here too, a decent number of canals run through the city centre, and on average they’re just that little bit more picturesque than the ones in Amsterdam. Having a stroll along the water or a drink on a terrace in the summer sun is therefor no problemo here. You’re also not wading through whole hordes of the worst kind of tourists while you’re at it, unlike in some parts of the Dutch capital. Here you’ll find some peace and quiet just a little bit easier. Furthermore, Utrecht is bursting with history – there was already a Roman fort on the site of the Dom 2000 years ago – and it’s one of the most important university cities in the country as well. So as far as party and nightlife culture is concerned, things are pretty good indeed. Finally, Utrecht – perhaps even more than Amsterdam – is a real bicycle city, but the chance you’ll get hit by some overly assertive local cyclist is also much smaller here. Quite a bunch of reasons for a visit it seems, but there’s far more to discover. What about these nine spots for example? Booyakah.
1. Oudegracht: the beating heart of Utrecht
If there is one place unique to Utrecht, it’s the Oudegracht running through its centre from south to north. For a long time this was the main economic artery here. Unlike in Amsterdam, the Utrecht canals usually have two levels. If you descend from the sidewalk via the wooden stairs, you’ll end up on a lowered quay just next to the water. In the past, river barges docked here to deliver their merchandise to the more than 700 storage cellars connected to the stately homes and shops above. Today, not much is stored in these cellars anymore, but a large number of them are used as pubs or restaurants. As a result, as soon as the sun is out, the entire Oudegracht will be full of terraces and umbrellas on both sides and both levels. This is the place where the whole city comes out for summer, and probably the only real postcard view of Utrecht as well. The Nieuwegracht – which runs almost parallel to the other one – is also quite stunning, but slightly more residential in appearance. If you want to eat your sandwich somewhere quieter, you know where to go.
2. Catharijnesingel: a new green lung for the city
The Catharijnesingel, which almost completely surrounds the historic core of Utrecht, is a textbook example of how to make a city much more liveable with some effort and vision. Originally a defensive bastion, part of the canal was converted into a busy thoroughfare somewhere in the 20th century. This is of course not sustainable, nor pleasant for the people living next to it. This is why it was decided a few years ago to replant everything and even allow the water back in. The same local residents had to look out on a construction site for years, but now they have a kilometres-long green park with a canal running through it in front of their door, instead of a motorway. Joggers, cyclists, picnickers, kayakers and people with pleasure boats are now home here, and there are no more cars to be seen. Under the Hoog Catharijne Shopping Mall, where a tunnel used to run, you can now just sail through and end up on a beautiful square with stairs going all the way to the water. Quite the improvement indeed.
3. Utrecht’s Vegan Food Tour: explore the city with some snacks
One of the better ways to get to know a city is to book a food tour in it. Then you not only get to see the most beautiful spots, you also get to push some tasty bits down your pie hole in the process. I did two hilarious tours like this in Taipei and Hong Kong years ago (not for the faint of heart) but in Utrecht, the Vegan Food Tour is by far the best known. It’s led by Daisy – in the not so distant past also a travel journalist – and Patrick: a jolly couple leading you through the city with passion and enthusiasm. The tour starts on the Neude: a square with a truly terrifying rabbit statue on display for some reason. From there you’ll visit half a dozen vegan restaurants while breezing through the streets. Here’s a small selection to get your appetite going: Life’s a Peach (I got some tasty pasteis de nata here), Restaurant Gys (fantastic risotto), Kluts (vegan bakery/coffee bar), Last Vegas (vegan chip shop where the bitter balls are indistinguishable from the real deal) and Copperbranch (vegan fast food chain with burgers and wraps). We ended the tour with a dinner in Broei: also a vegan place offering fine-dining in a pleasant setting. The fried cauliflower wings you’ll get as appetizers will not make you lose any weight, but they sure are tasty. www.veganfoodtourutrecht.nl
4. Bunk: hotel, hostel and restaurant in an old church
Traveling to Utrecht and want to sleep and eat in the same place? Does it have to be on the cheaper site while still looking quite unique? Book a room and a table at Bunk then. This is an empty church in which a hotel, a hostel, a co-working space and a restaurant were installed in recent years. The interior design and atmosphere are based on the Burning Man Festival and therefore nice and hip(ster). The restaurant downstairs is a gem, the rooms hidden in some weird wooden construction above the kitchen are minimalistic but very functional, and upstairs you will find – apart from a number of lounge areas to relax in – a hostel with stacked pods to sleep in. These are wooden boxes offering internet and electricity and can be closed off with a curtain. You won’t have a room of your own but at least you have some privacy. Everything was – keeping the theme of the trip in mind – built sustainably. If the entire thing ever has to be shut down, everything can be demolished in six weeks, without permanent damage to the church. That’s nice. www.wearbunk.com
5. The Utrecht Dom: an icon under construction
Speaking of churches: the Utrecht Dom has the tallest bell tower in the Netherlands (which is of course still 9 meters short of the unsurpassed Cathedral in my own Antwerp) and a rather unique building. An apocalyptic storm in the 17th century caused the nave to collapse, and it was simply never rebuilt. Since then, the tower stood separated from the rest of the church, and a square was eventually put on the vacant empty space. The Dom tower will be under restoration until 2024, but in the meantime it can still be visited. This can be done by going up all of its stairs, but then you’ll have to enjoy the view from behind the scaffolding. It might be better to go underground and visit DOMunder instead. These are the archaeological ruins found under the square, dating back to Roman times and going all through the various churches built here during the middle ages. Small tip for the marketing people: UnderDOME might be – given the local music history – a slightly more catchy name. Finally, there is the exhibition Van Dom tot Steengoed to visit. Here they try to reuse as many unrestorable pieces of the Dom as possible in projects in and around Utrecht. For example, the red jersey of last year’s Vuelta was presented with a trophy made from a five-kilo piece of bluestone chopped off the church spire. Try and put that on your mantlepiece. www.domunder.nl
6. Miffy: Utrecht’s fuzzy celebrity
Miffy is one of those characters I still know from childhood, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever read or seen anything featuring it. In any case, the chance I did is real, because more than 100 million Miffy booklets were sold throughout the years. It certainly didn’t make its spiritual father Dick Bruma any poorer. More interesting for this article is that the man lived and worked in Utrecht, and they will really let you know here. First of all, there’s an official Miffy Museum. As an adult you can’t do much more than hang out in the cafeteria, but for toddlers it’s a wonderful journey of discovery that also sharpens their problem-solving. I visited the temporary museum, but on June 22 the real one reopens after a thorough make-over. If you want to see even more rabbits, take a selfie with the little statue on Miffy Square, or look for the Miffy pedestrian light they installed at some intersection in the centre. Try and take your pictures from the sidewalk though, there are still some cars driving around. www.nijntjemuseum.nl
7. Hof van Cartesius: innovation en recycling outside the city centre
One train stop from the impressive Utrecht Central Station is Utrecht Zuilen. It used to be full of steel factories here, but just like in the rest of Europe, they all went bankrupt in the eighties. After years of standing empty, the so-called Werkspoor quarter was converted into the city’s creative breeding ground. The Werkspoor Cathedral for example, is a huge industrial hall now used for all kinds of events, but Hof van Cartesius is the real engine of this area. This is a hotspot for innovative and sustainable entrepreneurs, who’ve set up offices and workshops here from almost exclusively recycled material. This creates a colourful and slightly chaotic whole where you’ll find everything from a vegan restaurant to a goldsmith, a plant shelter, a music studio, a game developer and a (yep) bamboo designer. They’re all in buildings that look both cosy and a touch post-apocalyptic. Perhaps the most useful of all is the large warehouse where you can leave your leftover materials from building projects or renovations for others to reuse at a fair price. An idea that should be implemented in other cities for sure. www.hofvancartesius.nl
8. Utrecht as a cycling city
Did you know there are no less than 25 million bicycles in the Netherlands? That’s about one and a half per Dutchman, assuming the percentage of tandems is reasonably low. Utrecht markets itself as the ultimate cycling city in the Netherlands, and this is not unjustified. They even started the whole thing. The oldest official cycling path in the country runs through Utrecht – used by people on those ridiculous bicycles with the huge front wheels back in the day. Utrecht’s cycling policy only became more progressive in recent years. For example, the world’s largest bicycle parking lot is located under the station square and has about 12,500 spaces available. That makes for a seemingly never ending three-story parking garage, with digital signs indicating the number of free spots in each row. It cost over €30 million to build and still the first 24 hours of parking are free. That’s what you call good policy. It’s a very easy city to cycle through as well. Every lane is wide and well-marked, and they even built an extensive bicycle bridge over the train station so the tracks wouldn’t divide the city into two separate parts anymore.
9. The Letters of Utrecht: the world’s longest poem
Ever wanted to read a poem that will most likely only get finished about 200 years after you started pushing the daisies? Go have a look at the Letters of Utrecht then. This is a poetry project on the street next to Oudegracht, for which one letter chiselled into a cobblestone is added every week. The initiative started in 2012 (the first 650 stones were laid retroactively all the way back to January 1, 2000) and the intention is to keep it going for centuries until the poem circles the entire city centre. You can actually sponsor some stones, which allows you to add a private message on the side that no one will ever see until they dig up the whole thing again. Unfortunately you can’t actually pick the letters, so smuggling in a gratuitous swear word for a couple of hundred bucks is not a possibility (I’ve checked). Only the members of the poets’ guild know the whole poem, and if it ever gets leaked they can start all over. The first sentences by the way are (translated from Dutch): “You will have to start somewhere to give the past a place. The present matters less and less. The further you are, the better. Go on now.” Man, I can’t wait for it to be finished – I’ll write it down in my agenda for sure.
Hotels in Utrecht
While in Utrecht, we stayed in Hotel Karel V. This is a beautiful five-star hotel in a 14th-century monastery knights and priests used to frequent. Monumental place for a good night’s rest, with very pretty and spacious rooms (mine had a four-poster bed). The breakfast and the beautiful garden are quite worth it as well. www.karelv.nl