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I look after a Dutch lady’s cat and she just so happens to be one of the friendliest people I have ever met, in fact when I think of it the majority of Dutch people I have met have been sunshine in human form and wandering beside the canals during a weekend in Utrecht it is easy to understand why.
My first observation when arriving in the 4th largest city in the Netherlands, is the social aspect, while in the UK after work many of us retreat back to our homes to watch Netflix, the Dutch seem to thrive on social interactions. Jazz music flows loudly from the open windows of Winkel Van Sinkel while people pair up to dance. Full advantage is taken of outdoor dining spots which line the streets and canals of the city centre during the spring and summer months, but unlike Amsterdam or Rotterdam, the tables are filled with locals, not tourists. Friends and family smiling as they share stories over Asian, American and from what I notice a large amount of Greek cuisine.
Read before you fly: 51 interesting and fun facts about The Netherlands
Much like Amsterdam, Utrecht is centred around the canals that flow through the centre, where the light always seems to fall very conveniently ‘just right’ at Golden hour, making a bad photo hard to take. Utrecht is nothing short of a photographer’s or indeed an Instagrammer’s dream. The locals also make use of the canals, another way to socialise with friends, from fancy boats that would not look out-of-place on the French Riviera to an inflatable rubber dingy filled with beer and two friends who are making memories that they will look back on fondly in years to come.
I harp on about my love for The Netherlands a lot, but believe me when I say Utrecht has something special.
How to get to Utrecht
Unlike my home country, train travel in mainland Europe is simple and reliable. They also all seem to have double-decker trains which is something I long to come to England.
Just 27-minute direct train journey from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (37 minutes from Rotterdam), Utrecht is easily accessible. A single train journey costs $8.60 and tickets are easily obtained from all machines. Trains run frequently (44 a day on average) and stops are highlighted to ensure you alight at Utrecht Centraal.
Where to stay in Utrecht
If you are looking for a boutique hotel then look no further than Mother Goose, a centrally located hotel painted in grayscale, the steep winding staircase are hard on the legs after a long day of walking but don’t worry there is also a lift.
The Scandi design which runs through the hotel further instills the feeling of comfort and home which is set by the warm and approachable staff who greet you at the reception, and while I did not have to ask too much from them, I get the feeling that if I needed they would be more than happy to help, something which is later confirmed when I leave my book after checking out, within a few hours I receive an email from the receptionist Rose to inform me, who then very kindly offers to post it to me to ensure I get to finish the story of The Immortalists.
Things do in Utrecht
“Just another 302 steps until the top, you are already a third of the way there” the tour guide announces encouragingly. The only people who aren’t already struggling for breath at this point are the kids who sprint off ahead.
Utrecht is the religious centre of Holland, and at the centre of it at 112 metres (465 steps, there is no lift) high is the Gothic Dom Tower. The tower was part of the St. Martin’s Cathedral, also known as Dom Church, and was built between 1321 and 1382. The cathedral was never fully completed due to lack of money. Since the unfinished nave collapsed in 1674 the Dom tower became a free-standing tower.
As part of your guided tour, you visit the fourteen swinging bells which are still rung each week by hand to this day. After climbing to 80 metres you can find the Carillon, a majestic instrument created from more bells, which is played each week by the local Malgosia Fiebig, the majority of times more traditional music is played, however on occasion the music of David Bowie has flowed from the windows and down to the people below.
Once you finally reach the top and recatch your breath you are rewarded with a magnificent view that reaches both Amsterdam and Rotterdam on a clear day.
Do as the Dutch do and ride bikes, like the rest of the country, cycling is the most common form of transportation in Utrecht. Cycling is one of the most popular things to do in Utrecht. Bikes can be rented (€10 per day) from the VVV centre (tourist information located behind the Dom Tower) and cycle lanes are placed throughout the city to ensure safety. As I hop on the rental bike and start cycling towards the city outskirts, I am silently pleased to quickly realise that cycling through Utrecht is a lot less chaotic than what I have experienced in some other cities.
The first stop on my cycling tour takes me 4.6km towards Rotsoord, an old industrial area of the city which is now known as a creative hub. In Rotsoord you will find WT Urban kitchen, a former water tower turned stylish restaurant. Due to total lack of direction and ability to get lost at every opportunity, in Rotsoord I also stumble upon my first traditional Dutch windmill oddly but quaintly placed between the local houses.
Soia is my next destination, a social hotspot during the summer months in Utrecht, a makeshift beach set alongside the river. Soia makes the perfect location to head to for a bite to eat over a table tennis game or for dancing the evening away, a glass of wine in hand, at the silent disco. However, if mindfulness is also your thing, on a Saturday morning you can practice Yoga by the water’s edge.
Visit the many independent businesses
Like I noticed in The Hague, Utrecht is filled with independent shops, small shops filled with quirky gifts, shops that looked like botanical gardens, and many stores filled to the brim with all kinds of board games, one of which even had an escape room nestled towards the back, ensuring Utrecht is on the map for the latest trend of Escape Room tourism. Independent stores are something I have noticed a lot throughout The Netherlands, and while looking into it has been reported to be on the rise, while chain stores such as Hema and Pull & Bear are very much thriving in Utrecht I can’t help but wonder if this is another reason there is such a strong sense of community in the city.
Walking around with a large flashlight, with looked suspiciously like a Proton Pack, I found it hard not to feel like a Ghostbuster and considering where I was, Ghouls were very likely. Dom Underground takes you through the large pillar foundations of the Gothic Dom Cathedral to discover the 2000 years of history under the Dom Square. Torches are used to activate stories and animated films, while you inspect all the archaeological finds, Dom Underground is very much an attraction for the history buffs and younger members of the group.
Canoe down the canals
An alternative way to see the city is via canoe, you can rent a canoe from €5 pp per hour and for a maximum of €12 pp for a full day (prices are inclusive of a waterways map and a waterproof bag). Canoes are rented from the centrally located wharf on Oudegracht 4, then you are left to your own devices, seeing Utrecht by water really gives a different perspective to the city, follow your map towards the Amelisweerd district for more natural landscapes.
Where to eat in Utrecht
The Street Food Club
Walking into the Street Food Club is liking walking into my happy place, a beautiful, colourful location serving delicious street food. The interior design is my idea of perfection, bright pinks and greens run throughout, while florals and lush succulents pull it all together. Arriving during brunch, the restaurant was already starting to get busy and I was warned the popularity increases as the day goes on, I ordered my go-to brunch of smashed avocado and poached eggs however I do wish I visited after lunchtime as this is when the street food menu is served, offering a food trip through Mexico to the streets of Bangkok.
PK Bar and Kitchen
Despite eating solo in numerous restaurants and cafes I still get a touch of nerves every time I ask for a table for one but in PK Bar and Kitchen those nerves immediately disappeared when I was met by the welcoming face of my waiter, who sat me on an outside table right next to the canal. Offering a gourmet pub-style menu, fit for both carnivores and vegetarians, PK’s seems to be another hot spot with the locals in Utrecht, after instantly feeling at ease about dining solo, I tucked into an extremely large vegetarian burger with thick cut chips, for dessert the aptly named ‘PK Lady Killer’ which was so fantastic I could almost ignore the smell of the mussels from the table next to me.
Forever on the hunt for Asian food which reminds me of being back in Vietnam, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the Anan Kitchen. The small coloured plastic chairs placed at the tables took me straight back to the streets of Hanoi and venturing inside I was instantly reminded of my favourite restaurant in London, East Street. Anan Kitchen offers an amazing array of choices for vegetarians, even down to the choice of mock meat or tofu, and the authentic taste of their Pho along a chilled Saigon Red will take you straight back to Asia. The food here is brilliant, however on the particular night I visited the service was not fantastic and made me feel slightly uncomfortable as a solo diner, but I do feel the quality of the food made up for this.
Bagels and Beans
Bagels and Beans is actually a chain cafe throughout the Netherlands, but in Utrecht is perfectly placed in the quiet back streets, making it a lovely place to start your day with a light breakfast. I spent an early morning here with a cream cheese bagel, a fresh mint tea and my book, many of the people around me seemed to be doing the same, the relaxed, peaceful atmosphere set me up wholly for the day ahead.
A weekend in Utrecht is a perfect amount of time to get a feel for the city at a relaxed pace and the city yet another dynamic to the country which I have fallen for over the past two years. There are so many things to do in Utrecht, whether you are there to learn about the religious history of Utrecht, to shop or to simply discover a new city, a weekend visit to Utrecht, I am pretty sure, will leave you feeling warm inside.
‘Gezelligheid’ is a Dutch word, that roughly means, time spent with loved ones, catching up with an old friend or just the general togetherness that gives people a warm feeling. For me, Gezelligheid runs, much like the canals, through the heart of Utrecht.
Looking to spend more time in Holland?
I visited Utrecht as part of a press trip with Visit Holland, but as always all opinions are my own.
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