When I was given the choice where to study in the Netherlands, I did not have to think for a long time. Sure: Amsterdam is fun, but there is nothing like Utrecht! Where Amsterdam is full of tourists and an easy place to get lost, Utrecht is like a smaller version and a pleasant place to stroll around without finding yourself in an unknown area of the city afterwards. It has the same charm: with its ‘kanalen’ (canals) that run through most of the city centre, and the ‘Domtoren’ (the Dome) that can be seen from kilometres away. With almost 400.000 inhabitants, Utrecht is the fourth largest city of the Netherlands, after Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague. A large part of the population of Utrecht consists of students, which travel from and to the ‘Uithof’, where the academic university buildings are, by bicycle or by bus. Even those who have been to the Netherlands before will be amazed by the amount of bikes that are shattered around the city of Utrecht. Since driving through the city centre can take annoyingly long, this is how most people find their way to their destinations. Fun fact: every Dutchman has approximately 1,3 bikes.
How to get there?
Utrecht is a province, as well as a city, which might raise some confusion. The city lies close to the centre of the Netherlands and is easy to reach. The main train station – Utrecht Centraal – offers connections to any part of the country. From Schiphol Airport, there is a direct train, which takes you about half an hour. The central station may seem overwhelming at first, but it is fairly simple: one exit leads you through a shopping centre or guides you to the buses, and if you take the other one you will find yourself in the middle of the city centre: just follow the signs! By car Utrecht is easy to reach from the highway, but beware: as I said before, driving (and parking!) may be difficult once you are near the heart of the city.
Where to stay?
The right place to stay depends entirely on your budget. Personally, I do not have much experience with the more fancy hotels within Utrecht. I know there are not many, though. The best chance of finding a hotel will be to search for hotels right outside of the city centre where, with some luck, you are able to stall your car. If you have a bit of a budget and want to stay in a luxury hotel with an awesome location, Grand Hotel Karel V might be something for you: it has won the 2016 travellers’ choice award. It is situated right outside of the city centre, but still enables you to see the Dome from your window and takes you there within a 10-minute leisure walk.
As for the people that travel on a tight budget and prefer to stay at a hostel, the one I can recommend is Strowis. It is a fun, musical, almost hippy-like hostel at Sint Janskerkhof, one of the places where some of Utrecht’s nightlife happens to be. Its location is perfect, especially if you do not feel like walking 10 kilometres after a long night out. Its prices are decent and in return they offer many facilities. In winter they have living room concerts on Sundays, and in summer everyone chills in the garden together, with or without musical instruments.
And most importantly: what to do in Utrecht?
As mentioned before: the Domtoren is the symbol of Utrecht. For under €10, it is possible to climb the 465 steps of this 112 meters high tower. They offer either guided or private tours, but it is not possible to go up there by yourself. However, the guides have interesting stories to tell about the history of the tower, its function and some impressive facts. Arriving on top of the tower is the best reward you can get: it provides you with an amazing view over the city and the suburbs around it.
A stroll around town can give you a great sense of its structure and its livelihood. Along Oudegracht, which literally means ‘old canal’, a lot of shops and restaurants are situated. Shopping in Utrecht is very pleasant, because everything is easily accessible and there always is an exciting, buzzing ambiance. In case of good weather, it is nice to sit on a terrace, order a drink and some ‘bitterballen’ (a typically Dutch snack, contains meat) and take a look at the boats cruising through the canal network. Perfect people-watching circumstances! The ‘Winkel van Sinkel’ immediately draws attention by its majestic statues and its impressive artwork. During the day, it functions as a restaurant. H0wever, during the night, tables are set aside and huge parties are thrown there. Going downstairs to the toilet already feels like a history-excursion. Another thing that might be nice during warmer periods, is taking a cruise through the canals. This way, you see the city from a different perspective while giving your tired legs a rest.
Is the weather disappointing? Let’s be honest: it is the Netherlands, so especially during the months that are not summer, bad weather can occur. Sitting inside a restaurant or a pub is always nice to do in such a case. Why not try a few of the many Dutch delicacies? The Netherlands is mostly known for its fried snacks and its sweets, so do not expect a healthy treat. Our country is full of take-out stores that sell fried food, called ‘snackbars’. Fun to note: keep an eye out for a snackbar called ‘Febo’. Here, you can take whatever snack you like out of the wall: you throw in a coin and get to take your preferred snack out of a glass box. As for sweet stuff: did you know that we Dutchies are known for eating chocolate and fruity sprinkles on our bread in the morning? If this is not your thing, then at least try a ‘stroopwafel’, which is a waffle with caramel-syrup on the inside. ‘Lekker!’ (yummy!) as we Dutch would say.
As for the party life, there are many options. Utrecht has a few clubs, like Basis and Poema, but do not expect to hear top 40 or guilty pleasure songs there: it is mostly deep house and electro. If you want to listen to some Dutch tunes, then visit ‘het Pakhuis’, which is a cosy pub at Sint Janskerkhof, close to the earlier mentioned hostel. For those who get late night munchies after a night of partying: try a ‘kapsalon’. To most people this is going to sound horrible, but it is a dish with fries, kebab, cheese and lettuce all on top of each other. Don’t judge!
As I have hopefully been able to show you, Utrecht is a fun city, and a must-see when visiting the Netherlands. There is a lot to do and a lot of typical Dutch things to try out. It is not difficult to reach and caters for everyone: whether you like hardcore sightseeing or prefer it the easy-going way. Do you have any burning questions or do you want to share your enthusiasm for this amazing city? Feel free to comment!