The world’s most beautiful canal city is not Venice, Hamburg, or even Saint Petersburg. It is located 35km (21.7 miles) away from Amsterdam. This city is home to philosophers, free thinkers, conservatives, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. It embraces independent thinking, progressive politics, history, and creativity.
Discover what true happiness looks like in Utrecht, voted the 4th happiest place in the world by BBC travel.
Bask in Gothic architecture at the Dom Church
Officially known as St. Martin’s Cathedral, the Dom Church or Domkerk in Dutch had its first stone laid in 1254. It is located next to the Cathedral Tower, which was once connected to the church, but a tornado in 1674 collapsed the nave of the Cathedral, separating it from the tower.
Built in the style of classic Gothic architecture, the building is outstanding both inside and out. The magnificent 32-meter (105 feet) high vault is inconceivable while the meticulously arranged pews, tombs, and stained-glass windows welcome the spirit of a good sermon. There are beheaded and damaged sculptures that have been purposely left that way in reference to the Iconoclastic Outbreak of 1566. Calvinists were enraged by the lavish wealth of the Catholic Church and they took it out on the sculptures.
Challenge the supremacy of the Dom Tower
Although it was separated from St. Martin’s Cathedral by the 1674 tornado, The Dom Tower was reconstructed next to the church with a large square separating the two buildings. The Dom square is currently the busiest and most famous square in the city center.
The Dom Tower reigns as the highest church tower in The Netherlands. With a height of 112.5 meters (368 feet), this iconic building has earned the title of the most famous landmark of the city. If you are in good shape, you can challenge yourself to face off the 465 stairs to the top of the tower. There you will be up close and personal with an impressive carillon of 50 ancient bells that date back to the 1600s.
Explore the tunnels of DOMUnder
One of the city’s newest attractions, DOMUnder is a 75-minute, self-guided tour underneath Dom Square. This unique exhibit takes you on an exciting flashlight journey, revealing the remains of the city’s rich 2,000-plus-year history.
Explore the old cellars, literally dozens of feet underground, and wander past routes showcasing the remains of the original Roman fortress as well as displays relating to the devastating 17th-century tornado. Explore the various periods that determined the history of the old cathedral with an archaeological tour.
Live like a royal at Castle De Haar
Honored as the largest and most attractive castle in the Netherlands, Castle De Haar is an impressive fairytale building surrounded by half a moat and acres of Versailles inspired, manicured formal gardens. This hidden gem is just 16 km (10miles) west of Utrecht and boasts a private lake with scattered fountains around the grounds.
Built in 1822, the castle was so large that the whole village of Haarzuilens had to be moved. Inside the castle are large collections of ornate wood carvings, antiquities, paintings, and tapestries. Events and festivals like the annual County & Christmas fair take place here, and there is an on-site store for souvenir collectors.
Reveal your quirky side at Museum Speelklok
One of the more unusual but rather popular tourist attractions is Museum Speelklok or the Musical Clock Museum. This magical place is dedicated to clockwork and wind up objects and the whole museum echoes sound and moving parts.
Established in 1956, the museum exhibits mechanical musical instruments from the 18th century to the present day. Other highlights include domestic instruments, tiny music boxes, musical clocks, and barrel organs. Go behind the scenes and discover the patience and craftsmanship that goes into each of these brilliant instruments.
Chug through the history of Holland’s railway network at the Railway Museum
Located in the old Maliebaan train station is a must-see for all train buffs. Founded in 1927, Utrecht’s Railway Museum or Spoorwegmuseum is the country’s national railway museum. The exhibits showcase the early years of railways and the country’s transit history, featuring railroads and tram systems.
The museum has an impressive collection of nine well-preserved steam engines, an interactive Techlab explaining how trains work, a model railway, and a children’s playground. Go back in time with handcars and draisines from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century.
Indulge in nature at the Utrecht Botanical Gardens
For green thumbs who enjoy peaceful green spaces, a visit to the Utrecht University Botanical Gardens is a must. This delightful 22-acre site is centered around the old abandoned Fort Hoofddijk. Although it was laid out in the late 20th century, the garden can trace its roots back to the 17th century when the university was opened.
There are a total of six stunning gardens to explore. Bird watchers love the Birders Den while the Bee Hotel hosts a diverse array of pollinating insects. You can find medicinal plants and old ginkgo trees at the nearby Oude Hortus or old botanical gardens.
Stroll along the enchanting Oudegracht
A perfect way to end the day is with a leisurely walk along the old canal or Oudegracht that runs through the city center. It starts from the southeast section of the city and traces what was once the original route of a section of the Rhine. The northern section has segments of the canal that were built around 1000 AD to connect the Rhine to the River Vecht.
The network of locks was completed in 1275, and numerous quays, warehouses and wharves were added to the shores of the canal. Conclude your evening with a sundowner and tasty meal from one of the restaurants and cafés that line the shores of the canal.
Shop till you drop at the Hoog Catharijne
Hoog Catharijne is the ideal place to shop, dine, and relax. Open till 8 p.m. the shopping mall is well stacked with 29 eateries, 60 fashion retailers, 16 health and beauty stores, 6 electronic stores, 11 house, and garden furnishing showrooms, 6 supermarkets, 11 lifestyle and entertainment vendors and so much more.
Hoog Catharijne has constant deals for shoppers all year round and there are a variety of events that take place at the mall. Currently, they are giving away free parking for 2 hours if you spend a minimum of 20 euros ($23.55 USD) between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Experience the Dutch water defense story at the New Dutch Waterline
This 85 km (52.8 mile) long ribbon is hidden in nature and suddenly pops up, proudly displaying forts, locks, bunkers, dikes, and canals that tell the story of how the Dutch use water as an ally to defend the country. There are several walking, cycling and sailing routes that connect approximately 45 forts, 6 fortresses, and 2 castles.
Walk along the 350 km (217.5 mile) special path that takes you through a UNESCO World Heritage Site steeped in history and nature. You could also ride the 242 km (150.4 mile) Waterline Cycle Route through the extensively green, yet characteristic military landscape.