How to spend a weekend in Utrecht, the Netherlands' lesser-known city of canals

This year, as the bike-friendly Dutch city celebrates its 900th anniversary in style, explore its canal-side bars, farm-to-table restaurants and historical sites, some dating back to the Roman Empire.

Repurposed wharfs lining Oudegracht canal.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Angela Locatelli
Published 7 Nov 2022, 06:03 GMT

Despite celebrating its 900th anniversary as a city this year, the fourth-biggest Dutch centre hasn’t turned its back on its small-town ways, rooted in its past as a Roman outpost. Daily activities still revolve around the medieval centre, where bikes rattle on cobblestones and the gentle flow of ancient canals sets the rhythm for an unhurried pace of life.

The city has been hard at work in the lead up to its birthday, and there’s much to celebrate. In 2020, it completed the high-profile restoration of a major canal — a project almost two decades in the making. Last year, two sites in the wider Utrecht province were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. And in June, the city-centre ruins of the imperial palace, which burnt down in the 13th century, were made accessible to the public for the first time in decades.

But it’s not all about the past. One of the country’s major university cities, Utrecht buzzes with a youthful spirit thanks to its healthy student population. And while a visit here is likely to start at a cultural landmark, it could end with an art-themed treasure hunt or jazz show in a futuristic concert hall.

A greenhouse at Stadsjochies, an urban farm with a restaurant.

Photograph by Floor van Rooijen

Day one: markets and medieval gems

Be up before the city wakes to have the Oudegracht to yourself. The oldest of Utrecht’s two inner-city canals is its main social artery, but in the morning you can cycle along the waterside streets uninterrupted, admiring the gabled houses and pausing to fuel up at retro coffee shop Cafca. Afterwards, peruse some of the Saturday markets. The country’s largest and oldest gathering of fabric vendors, Lapjesmarkt has been a weekly fixture for over 400 years. Only a few streets away, you’ll find more colour at the Flower Market on Janskerkhof Square. Stop for lunch at nearby Ruby Rose, a restaurant set in a former flower shop, or try Streetfood Club, next door, which serves bites from around the world.  

Walk off lunch on your way to Domplein, a city square at the heart of the city’s medieval centre. To find it, look up and head for the Domtoren: at 368ft, the country’s highest church tower has served as an urban compass for almost 700 years. Make your way up its 495 steps for sprawling views all the way to Amsterdam, if the sky is clear. Then, descend underground for DOMunder, an immersive archaeological site that takes you through Domplein’s tumultuous 2,000-year history. The other must-see in this square is gothic St Martin’s Cathedral, which used to be joined to the Domtoren until a storm destroyed its nave in 1674 — don’t leave without taking a stroll around its 15th-century courtyard. 

While it’s only a 15-minute bike ride from the centre, getting to Stadsjochies feels like an escape to the countryside. When this urban farm opened a restaurant in 2021, it designed a menu where the cress, edible flowers and herbs grown on site take centre stage. Arrive for 6pm for the full evening experience: a tour of the grounds, from the permafrost plot to the vertical garden, followed by a multi-course dinner in the greenhouse. If you’re not ready to call it a night, head back to the city centre to catch a performance at TivoliVredenburg. Built around the 1970s Symphony Hall, this huge arts venue has five halls, each designed for a different music genre, and looks striking when lit up after dark.

The Oudegracht, or 'old canal', runs through the center of Utrecht, the Netherlands.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day two: art and canals

A highlight of Utrecht’s art scene is the work of local designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld, a luminary of 20th-century art movement De Stijl (neoplasticism). The world’s largest collection of his work is on display at the Centraal Museum in the old town, but a 15-minute bike ride east will take art-lovers to Rietveld Schröder House. The first private home he designed, it remains his magnum opus — an elemental vision of straight lines, geometric shapes and primary colours, where space is optimised by visual illusions and sliding walls. After the tour, cycle on to Griftpark, a green oasis just outside the city centre, and refuel with a Mediterranean-inspired brunch at nearby Karibu cafe.  

For all the charm of Utrecht’s canal-side promenades, it’s below street level that you’ll find its defining feature: a system of cellars carved into water-level quays. These spaces now serve as workshops, businesses and restaurants — and are best discovered from the water. From spring to autumn, the canals host a parade of standup paddleboards and kayaks, but to learn more about these storied waterways, opt for a private boat tour with Sloepdelen. After being concreted over in the 70s, the Catherinesingle section of the Stadsbuitengracht canal — which wraps around the city centre — was re-filled with water in 2020. Today, it’s possible to cruise along the entire four-mile loop for the first time in four decades. 

Enjoy small bites at Bunk Hotel Utrecht, a hotel housed inside a deconsecrated church in the medieval centre. The restaurant is modern and its vibe convivial, but reminding guests of the building’s previous life is a 19th-century organ, which still entertains diners during special evening concerts. After dinner, search the streets for Utrecht Lumen, a series of light installations in and around the centre. Set up as part of the city’s bid to become the 2018 European Capital of Culture, it lived on as a lure for day-trippers. From a glowing halo above the modest St Willibrord’s Church to pulsating lights inside Paushuize palace, it’s further proof of the city’s knack for reinvention. 

De Haar Castle and rose garden, an hour’s cycle from Utrecht.

Photograph by Getty Images

Three cycling tours to try in Utrecht

In 2019, Utrecht opened the world’s largest bicycle park, a three-level garage with over 12,500 slots. It’s part of one of Europe’s best cycling infrastructures — testament to the city’s love for two-wheeled adventures.

1. History on a grand scale 
It takes around an hour to cycle from Utrecht to De Haar Castle, the largest in the Netherlands and arguably the most extravagant. It was built in the 19th century with all the medieval flair of the mansion it replaced, which burned down in 1482. Today, De Haar is an arresting sight: a blaze of spires, turrets and drawbridges, all reflected in a large moat and surrounded by a 55-acre park. Book a guided tour to be let in on the secrets of its most notable guests; it was once the holiday retreat of the aristocratic Van Zuylen family, and it has also hosted a glamorous roll call of A-listers over the years, from fashion designer Coco Chanel to opera singer Maria Callas and actors Gregory Peck and Roger Moore. 

2. Follow the De Stijl trail 
Venture beyond the city for more attractions centred on the De Stijl art movement. From Utrecht, follow the 12-mile Mondrian Meets Rietveld cycling trail to Amersfoort, the picturesque heart of the Utrecht province and where painter Piet Mondrian was born in 1872. Created to mark the centennial of De Stijl in 2017, the route is part open-air gallery, part treasure hunt, and is signposted with 10 sculptures by artist Boris Tellegen — all riffing on Mondrian’s trademark abstract forms and monochromatic blocks. This year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth — a fitting time to visit The Mondriaan House; set in his childhood home, the museum has a full-scale replica of his Parisian studio plus exhibits delving into his life. 

3. Head north  
The local tourist office organises private cycling tours of the city, which take in its history, architecture and lesser-known attractions. These itineraries can be tailored to specific interests, but if you don’t have special requests, let your guide take you to the northern parts of the city centre. Residential and peaceful, these areas are often overlooked in favour of the livelier south, but can provide a welcome respite from the weekend buzz. Cycle along the Nieuwegracht canal, admire the beautiful houses — among the most expensive in the city — and explore the winding alleys, keeping an eye out for their inner courtyards. One of Utrecht’s quaintest sights, these green corners open their gates to the public in the daytime.  

Top three historical attractions

1. Lofen Palace 
The imperial palace, where Utrecht was formally granted city status, burnt down in 1253. To mark the 900th anniversary of the city’s founding, a new archaeological site lets visitors explore its ruins for the first time in decades. After the tour — right behind the Domplein — spend time ducking in and out of the nearby cafes and shops: some of the palace’s ancient pillars and walls are shared by these buildings. 
2. Castellum Hoge Woerd

A new UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lower German Limes were a system of fortresses and roads that ran through Utrecht for almost four centuries, marking the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. Castellum Hoge Woerd is a reconstruction of one such fort and serves as a cultural centre with an archaeological museum, theatre and city farm. 
3. Museum Catharijneconvent

The history of Utrecht is intertwined with that of Christianity. Housed in a former convent, Museum Catharijneconvent traces this story through one of the country’s finest permanent collections of religious art and artefacts, as well as temporary exhibits exploring the role of religion in Dutch society. 

Top five canal-side spots

1. Waterside terrace 
Canal-side Roost aan de Singel restaurant and bar has one of the largest terraces in the city, as well as a heated patio for colder weather. Feeling peckish? Order a portion of bitterballen — small meatballs best enjoyed dipped in mustard. 

2. Green spaces 
Once the site of medieval city walls, the Stadsbuitengracht canal is now hugged by a series of gardens. Zocherpark, a green corridor that borders the waterway for three miles, is a highlight. Meanwhile, Park Lepelenburg, in the shadow of the city’s Sonnenborgh Observatory, is a great spot to relax. 

3. Vintage fashion 
Utrecht is a retro shopping hotspot, and the area around the canals is a particularly good place for scouring secondhand gems. Episode is well stocked with ’90s pieces, with an upper- and lower-ground level on the Oudegracht, while Secondsas is housed in a wharf cellar.

4. Unusual sights 
On a walk around the Stadsbuitengracht, look out for a UFO balancing on the Dutch Railways headquarters, or a giant teapot on the Hoog Catharijne shopping centre. Pieces left behind from past open-air exhibitions, they’re proof the city doesn’t take itself too seriously.  

5. Night tipples 
Catering to students, nightlife in Utrecht tends to be an informal affair. ’t Oude Pothuys is the place to go for live music, having given a stage to local artists for five decades. Elsewhere, Rum Club serves tropical-themed cocktails in a colourful bar space.

Published in the November 2022 issue of  National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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