Upon telling a Brit that I’m from the Netherlands, the initial response usually is: “I love Amsterdam!”. Consequently, I have to start this article by informing the reader (big sigh) that the Netherlands consists of more than Amsterdam. One could easily name several dozens of Dutch towns and cities of equal beauty with ancient streets of zigzagging red bricks, aquarelle painted gables and treetops reflected in their canals (yes, all Dutch cities have canals), undisturbed by the presence of obnoxious tourists. In these places one can find the “real” Netherlands, one that’s lost in Amsterdam.
Utrecht is one of these places. The fourth most populous city of the country with the largest university, it is called a “village” by its inhabitants nonetheless. If you’re planning to visit Utrecht, don’t expect weed and prostitutes.
History and Culture
Utrecht, founded by the Romans, was the biggest city of the Northern Netherlands throughout the Middle ages and consequently a lot of Utrecht’s medieval character has survived to this day in its small streets; the cellars along the canals and its stadskastelen (city castles) – austere, massive brick buildings commissioned by medieval patrician families – which contrast with the more frivolous architecture of later periods.
De Domtoren, is the highest church tower of the Netherlands and towers over the city. One can climb the tower with a guide, an exertion that rewards you with an amazing view over the city. In the interior of the church, the effects of de Beeldenstorm, a period of the Dutch reformation when Calvinists violently rid the churches of their “papal” imagery, are clearly visible, as the faces of reliefs and statues of saints are cut away.
Two large canals cross the moated city centre, de Oudegracht and de Nieuwegracht (“the Old City Canal” and the “New City Canal”). That are unique to Utrecht as they have wharfs along the water that lie below street level, flanked by vaulted cellars. As city law prevents the commercial exploitation of any building along de Nieuwegracht, its calm contrasts with its older sibling, which is lined with shops and cafés. In the summer one can rent canoes on de Oudegracht to paddle along the canals and moats. Along the biggest part of the city’s moat, de Singel, there are parks, great for a summer picnic, barbeque, walk, or run.
Despite its rich history, the museums of Utrecht are not worth visiting, especially with Amsterdam’s museums just a twenty minute train ride away, unless you are a great fan of Miffy the bunny, to whom het Nijntje Museum is dedicated. If you’re interested in modern architecture, het Rietveld Schröderhuis might be worth a visit, the building (and all the furniture) was designed by Gerrit Rietveld.
Adjacent to the square het Vredenburg is the entrance to Hoog Catharijne, a brand-new shopping mall – built as part of CU2030, a large building project replacing ugly 70’s architecture in the area around the central train station. Besides the mall, the project also includes a new train station, city hall, a mosque and the restoration of a part of the city moat that made way for a highway in the 1970’s.
There are also many interesting clothing and homeware stores located along de Oudegracht including 24 Colours, Things I Like Things I Love and Dille & Kamille.
Food and Drink
When the sun is shining, the Dutch describe it as terrasjesweer (outdoor seating area weather – yes, that’s one word) and the squares are filled with people enjoying a drink in the sun. Het Neude and de Ganzenmarkt, two squares in Utrecht’s city centre, are bustling on a sunny day. For a local brew, scan the beer menus of pubs for De Leckere, Maximus, Oproer and vandeStreek. Two of these local small-scale breweries have their own pub in an industrial setting in the neighbourhood Zuilen, namely Werkspoorcafé De Leckere and Brouwerij Oproer. The latter is also a vegan restaurant. Several times a year, a local beer festival is organised called Streekbierfestival. Check out the eponymous Facebook page for free pub crawl routes.
Many decent, well-priced restaurants are located along de Oudegracht, some of which are in vaulted cellars with lovely outdoor seating on the canal wharfs in the summer, or in the canal’s adjacent streets and alleys. In one these alleys, restaurant De Markt and its little sibling Naast de Markt serve great antipasti platters and pizzas in a stylish ambiance.
The Dutch love their fries. A big name in Utrecht is Manneken Pis, a fries vendor with four locations, selling thick “Flemish” fries. Ignore the 22 sauces they sell and go for one of the traditional Dutch sauce combinations, either patatje speciaal (special fries) consisting of a splash of mayo next to a splash of curried ketchup all topped with chopped onions, or patatje oorlog (war fries) consisting of onions, a splash of mayo next to satay sauce, an Indonesian export which tastes like hot, sweet and spicy peanut butter.
The more adventurous tourist should also try traditional fried meat snacks, of which the most horrendous tasting (and therefore the most popular) is the frikandel, a fried sausage made of offal which according to Dutch legend is mainly horse’s eyes and brains, although the precise contents of the frikandel are a mystery to even their vendors. It’s typically eaten with the aforementioned speciaal sauce combination.
For a healthier lunch, one should try one of the fancy sandwiches from Broodje Ben, a stand located on a bridge over de Oudegracht, easily recognized by the long queue at lunchtime.
The stingy tourist wishing to taste Dutch cheeses (which are essentially all the same) should visit the market on het Vredenburg on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This big square was created when after the liberation of Utrecht during the Dutch Revolt, in the 16th century the women of the city (as legend goes) tore down the castle from which the Spanish used to control the city. Many of the cheese stands offer loads of free tasters! You can also get other traditional Dutch treats, like kibbeling, chunks of fried fish eaten with a mayonnaise-based sauce, sold at any fish stand. Also, make sure you try a fresh and still warm stroopwafel, a thin waffle with a syrup centre.
A good time to go to a Dutch pub is somewhere between nine and ten. In the early evening, check out Het Ledig Erf, a small square at the southern tip of the city centre. Café Ledig Erf, de Poort and het Luis Hartlooper Complex, the latter of which is located in a characteristic building of the early 20th century Amsterdam School of architecture, all have nice outdoor seating. An impressive variety of beers is available at Kafé België, located on de Oude Gracht and sits opposite Oude Pothuys, a great place to go as a group, located in ancient vaulted cellars that echo with live music.
Café ‘t Pandje, a family-owned and -operated pub, is an Utrecht classic. As it is located on de Nobelstraat, at the heart of Utrecht’s student nightlife, it is a perfect last stop before going clubbing. In Dutch pubs you you generally get served at your table and a waiter will come to take a next order as soon as you have finished your glass. If you are not ready to order your next drink, make sure you leave a bit in your glass!
Between 1-2 AM is a good time to enter your first nightclub – a true Dutch night out is never limited to just one nightclub. Plus, most clubs have free entry! Go to Chupitos, a.k.a. “Cuppies”, to try one of their 150 shots served with a unique performance by a show-off bartender. Both the vibe and music in this dark den are usually horrendous so I recommend leaving as soon as you have downed your shots.
To get a proper taste of Dutch student nightlife, you should visit the small-scale feestcafés (party pubs) in de Nobelstraat, with their sweaty atmosphere and floorboards sticky with spilt beer and where intoxicated giants around you will yell the lyrics of every Dutch song with camaraderie especially when the anthem of the city is played, “Als ik boven op de Dom sta!” (When I am standing on top of the Dom tower!). I recommend Café Jaloezie, a.k.a. “de Jalo”, Café Otje, where you can try your luck and spin a wheel to win a bucket of liquor or get your shoe filled with beer, and Feesfcafé de Kneus, which tends to stay open until 6 AM.
Bigger clubs with similar vibes are located on het Janskerkhof, including de Jansbar, Feestcafé t’Pakhuis, and Wooloomooloo, the oldest nightclub in Utrecht and owned by the oldest and pretentious posh student fraternity. Wednesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to go to de Nobelstraat and het Janskerkhof, although the less crowded Mondays and Tuesdays have their own charm.
If Dutch music is not your thing, try the European Student Night at Club Poema on Tuesdays located in a large cellar. More international music can be found at TivoliVredenburg, a Postmodern music building at the edge of the city centre, which besides having a cool bar, Het Gegeven Paard, hosts a club night every Thursday. Themed nights out can also be found at De Winkel van Sinkel, De Basis and De EKKO.
Dutch clubs tend to have a much more gregarious atmosphere than those in Oxford so don’t be surprised if some total stranger starts talking to you, puts his arm around you, or invites you to take an “adje” (student slang for downing a beer, pretentiously derived from Latin ad fundum). Moreover, if someone buys you a beer, it is expected that you buy him or her a beer in return.
Most nightclubs, especially those on de Nobelstraat, don’t have fixed closing times but close whenever the crowd is gone, usually not before 4:30 AM. At this point, the crowd moves to one of the many greasy cafeterias (open all night) to eat kapsalon (hairdresser), a dish which consists of fries topped with kebab, salad and cheese, before cycling home (yes, the Dutch can ride bikes while intoxicated).