Utrecht is a bustling city in the Netherlands known for its ancient origins and glorious past as an important trading post. The birth of the city seems to date back to A.D. 45 when Emperor Claudius ordered the construction of a belt of camps and trading posts along the Rhine River, which at the time marked the northernmost border (limes) of the Roman Empire. A Roman fort (or castrum) was built in this area, which was first called Traiectum (meaning ‘crossroads’) and then Ultraiectum from which the place name Utrecht was later derived.
In the following centuries, the camp expanded and thus a settlement was born, which in time became the city of Utrecht. Remains from the Roman period have been found in the centre of Utrecht, which retains a neat and orderly historic core with many vestiges of its past. In particular, numerous elegant and finely decorated buildings built between the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Netherlands was a major colonial power, stand out.
Now Utrecht is one of the most populated cities in the Netherlands and is known for its University (Universiteit Utrecht) which was founded in 1636 and is considered not only one of the oldest in the country but also one of the largest in Europe. The presence of the University has strongly marked and continues to mark the life of Utrecht, which boasts a mainly young population and the presence of many foreign students and researchers.
In terms of cultural activities, the city boasts a dynamic and very active centre, especially due to the presence of various museums, theatres and art galleries. Utrecht, however, is also known for its modern soul that can be breathed in the Science Park, a centre that is home to more than 130 multinationals, two universities, several research institutes and the Princess Màxima medical centre, considered to be one of the most advanced in Europe in paediatric oncology.
The city’s historic centre contains its oldest soul, as the cathedral with its famous tower, historic buildings, old churches and several waterways can be found here. Walking around the city, one can discover its canals, specifically the Oudegracht (Old Canal) and the Nieuwegracht (New Canal), along which one can find numerous popular outdoor bars and restaurants, especially on warm sunny days.
Remains from the Roman past, on the other hand, have been found underneath the cathedral and can now be visited thanks to a route known as DOMunder, which allows visitors to discover Utrecht’s early history.
Utrecht Cathedral, named after St Martin of Tours, is the city’s main religious building and a magnificent example of Dutch Gothic architecture. Records of a church in this area date back to the 7th century AD during the rule of the Franks who were great followers of St. Martin of Tours, a Roman bishop and soldier. In the 11th century, a first large Romanesque church was built here, which after about two centuries was destroyed to erect a Gothic cathedral that became the site of important events such as the signing of the Treaty of Union of Utrecht in 1579.
Unfortunately, in 1674 a big storm hit the city destroying most of the nave of the church while the choir and the bell tower (Domtoren) remained standing. The interior is very simple and in contrast to the elegant ornaments on the outside because during the years of the Lutheran Reformation, the religious building was stripped of most of its works. The cathedral still contains several ancient tombs and a crypt housing the tombs of Emperors Conrad II and Henry IV.
The 112-metre-high Utrecht Cathedral Bell Tower is not only the symbol of the city but also the highest in the Netherlands. Built in the 14th century, the tower was rebuilt several times until the terrible storm of 1674 destroyed the nave of the cathedral and separated the tower from the church.
At that time, the Cathedral Tower had become a secret meeting place for sodomites and the space left empty by the collapsed nave was renamed Cathedral Square. In the 20th century, the Tower was restored and it is now possible to visit its interior and reach the top by climbing 465 steps. From up there, there is a wonderful view of the entire city and on a clear day, you can even see the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
At the foot of the Bell Tower begins the route called DOMunder, an interactive path in the basement of Domplein Square that allows visitors to discover the history of the city from its Roman origins up to the 19th century. In particular, the castrum built here by the Romans around 47 A.D. was later transformed into an imperial palace called Lofen, where on 2 June 1122 Emperor Henry V granted city rights to Utrecht. Unfortunately, a fire in 1253 destroyed the palace and now parts of the Lofen and ancient artefacts from Roman times are preserved in the basement of the Vismarkt and Domplein buildings.
The city of Utrecht is criss-crossed by a series of canals, the most famous of which is the Oudegracht (Old Canal), which runs for almost two kilometres through the entire city centre from south to north. The area along the Old Canal is one of the most atmospheric in the city as there used to be many cellars here that were used as warehouses and storerooms by merchants but then, over the years, these buildings were converted into bars, restaurants and shops.
Walking along the banks of the Oudegracht means visiting one of the liveliest areas of Utrecht and the advice is to stop for a meal or a simple coffee in one of the atmospheric cafés here. In the evening, this is also one of the liveliest areas of the city as a large number of clubs can be found here.
Most of Utrecht’s museums are located in the ‘Museum Quarter’, which is less than a 10-minute walk from the central station. Of all the museum sites, the main one is the Central Museum, which was opened in 1838 and is the oldest municipal museum in the Netherlands. It currently houses works by local painters from the 15th century onwards with a large area dedicated to the works of Jan van Scorel (1495 – 1562), a Dutch painter who introduced Italian Renaissance art to the Netherlands. The museum also has a trail on the evolution of costumes and clothing from the 17th century onwards as well as material on the history of the city.
The Rietveld Schröder House is a residence built in 1924 that is considered a true architectural masterpiece of the 20th century, so much so that the building has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The house was commissioned by Mrs Schröder from architect Gerrit Rietveld as a place to live with her daughters after the death of her husband. The house has a modern and contemporary look, but the most innovative part is undoubtedly the upper floor where Rietveld adopted truly new and special solutions to arrange the interior spaces.
Recently ranked as the best university in the Netherlands, the University of Utrecht has a history dating back almost 400 years. A visit to the Utrecht University campus is definitely not to be missed: it is called De Uithof and is a strange mix of grey concrete buildings and structures designed by famous modern architects. Don’t miss the Educatorium, designed by Rem Koolhaas, the University Library and the Minnaert building; there is also a beautiful botanical garden that covers 32,000 square metres and is home to 6,000 different types of plants.
The National Railway Museum (in Dutch ‘Het Spoorwegmuseum’) is located in an old railway depot dating back to 1874, which has been completely renovated to house a large collection of objects related to the history of the Dutch railways, including locomotives, carriages, signals, uniforms and everyday objects used by railwaymen.
The museum also offers many interactive activities, including simulations of driving a locomotive and a train, and a virtual reality experience that takes visitors on a railway journey through time. This is a must-see museum for children and train enthusiasts.
De Haar Castle is a fortress located about 15 km from the centre of Utrecht and was originally built between the 13th and 14th century when it was owned by the Van de Haar family. In 1890, the manor in an obvious state of disrepair was inherited by Étienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt and Hélène Carline Betsy de Rothschild who decided to renovate the complex.
The castle that can be admired and visited now, therefore, is the result of renovations that took place in the 19th century. Inside you can still admire elegant furnishings, paintings, tapestries and a rare carriage of Japanese origin, while the exterior includes 135 acres of wooded parkland.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
A canal cruise in Utrecht is a unique experience that allows you to see the city in a completely different way; you can relax and enjoy the panoramic view of the city while a guide tells you about the history and culture of Utrecht. This is an ideal experience for couples and families alike. If you are planning to visit Utrecht, and perhaps have limited time available, a canal cruise will give you the opportunity to see the city from a different point of view.
Utrecht is a city that boasts a not too large and human-friendly historic centre, which is why the best area to stay is undoubtedly around the Cathedral Square (Domplein). Here you will find a large number of establishments such as large hotel chains, small inns and a few flats.
Another area where it is very atmospheric to find accommodation is along the Oudegracht (Old Canal), where there are solutions offering a wonderful view of the canal.
The most efficient way to get to Utrecht is by train, as the city’s train station is the hub of the Dutch rail network. In addition to direct connections to Amsterdam and Schiphol Airport, high-speed trains connect it with Frankfurt, Berlin, Copenhagen, Prague and many other European capitals.
If, on the other hand, you decide to travel to Utrecht by car, it is definitely worth parking it in one of the car parks around the old city centre and then walking around the city. Remember to pay the parking ticket as the fines are high and the police are very intransigent. Arriving in Utrecht by car from Amsterdam is quick and easy: just take the A2 motorway heading south and in less than an hour you will reach your destination.
To visit the city centre, it is advisable to get around on foot or by bicycle, as this is fairly compact and the tourist attractions are very close together.
What's the weather at Utrecht? Below are the temperatures and the weather forecast at Utrecht for the next few days.
Utrecht is a small city in the heart of the Netherlands, approximately 63 km from Rotterdam and 45 km from Amsterdam.