A site-seeing weekend in Utrecht
Utrecht is the Netherlands' fourth-largest city and is widely considered one of its most liveable. A substantial student population ensures there is always something to do - you’ll never struggle to find a lively jazz bar, a trendy café, or a niche art gallery as you wander around the almost car-free city centre.
Top Utrecht sites
It’s easy to have a great time here without following a guide book. If you only have one weekend in the city and want to experience something really special, here’s a look at some of the most unique site-seeing highlights Utrecht has to offer.
The Dom Tower
At 112 metres high and dating from the 14th century, the Dom Tower is the oldest and tallest church building in all of the Netherlands, and the soul of Utrecht.
Though the body of the cathedral was partially destroyed by a tornado in 1674, the tower is still largely intact and seems to watch over the city like a proud old guardian.
Far from being a relic, however, the Dom is still an active part of daily life in Utrecht for many residents, regardless of whether or not they are religious. It regularly plays host to conventions, concerts and private events.
The Dom is beloved not only for its gothic majesty, but also for the beautiful tones which ring out every Sunday and holiday from its fourteen enormous bells, all of which are original from the early 16th century.
Its 50 bell-strong carillon, dating back to 1479, is also played manually on Saturday and Friday mornings - often to the melody of modern pop songs.
Be sure to at least take a stroll through the Pandhof, the Dom’s serene and ornate monastery gardens. You can also follow a guided tour and climb the Dom, during which you will see its unique bells and enjoy an unforgettable view of the city. Comfortable shoes are essential, as you will be climbing roughly 95 metres (465 steps).
Alternatively, an exhibition titled DOM under provides tours of the medieval archaeological remains underneath the cathedral. Reservations must be made in advance for this popular attraction.
The wharf cellars
Touring Utrecht’s canals, whether by boat or foot, is glorious when the weather permits. From the shop-lined streets of the Oudegracht, follow the stairs down to the water, where numerous restaurants, artist studios, and cafés have created a lively terrace.
These "wharf cellars", dug right into the canal walls, are a special feature of this city, having originally been built as storage facilities in the 13th century.
There’s nothing as idyllic as enjoying a meal on the sunny terrace, with water lapping near your feet and friendly boatloads of tourists gliding by.
Kasteel de Haar
This 19th century castle, built over the ruins of a much older structure, is unlike any other in the Netherlands - and not only because it is the largest.
Despite its relatively short history, the castle is bursting with character. You’ll find Kasteel de Haar to the west of the main city, in the small town of Haarzuilens.
Constructed for the ambitious Baron van Zuylen and his wife, Helene de Rothschild, the castle was designed to be on the cutting-edge of European luxury. Its décor might strike you as either sumptuous or downright gaudy, depending on your personal taste, but it is fascinating to see how far some aristocrats were willing to go to impress their guests.
Follow one of the group tours through the castle (English audio guides are available) and learn about the eccentric personal lives of its residents, traces of which are left behind in their eclectic belongings.
The castle still functions today, hosting celebrities and important visitors to the region.
Aside from the castle itself, Haarzuilens is picturesque with its old brick farmhouses, greenery and fresh country air.
Dick Bruna House
There are many worthwhile museums in Utrecht, but the Dick Bruna House is one of the most unique.
Utrecht is the proud birthplace of Bruna, the children’s author and illustrator whose storybook character Nijntje, or Miffy in English - a small, white bunny drawn in minimalist style with bright primary colours - is now world famous.
References to Bruna and Miffy can be seen scattered all over the downtown area, in street names, wall art, and café menus.
Although the Dick Bruna House is closed for renovations from July to December 2015, it's worth taking the kids to see the exhibition "Celebrating 60 Years of Miffy" (until September 20, 2015) at Utrecht's Centraal Museum.
Designed as a life-size world of Miffy, the expansive exhibition allows children to discover the history behind a design icon. (Don't have kids? Adults love Nijntje too!)
Find the right balance in Utrecht
With Amsterdam always on centre stage, it can be easy to overlook some of the Netherlands’ smaller treasures. Utrecht is certainly large enough to host some incredible sites, while still providing a warm, relaxing and beautiful city environment you can enjoy between museum visits.