Why there’s never been a better time to explore these Utrecht hidden gems
The lovely @EmilyMatheison recently flagged up the Dutch city of Utrecht as one of The Guardian’s must-see cities to visit in 2015 so I thought I’d share my experience of some Utrecht hidden gems. Utrecht (the 2015 home to the Grand Depart of the Tour de France is about a 25-minute train ride from Amsterdam.
Having spent a lot of time in the Dutch capital, I decided to take the opportunity to take a day trip to this neighbouring city to discover some Utrecht hidden gems. Utrecht is a bit like a mini version of Amsterdam. If you’re looking to escape the more touristy side of Amsterdam (ie the Red Light District with all the stag and hen dos), Utrecht is the ideal place. It still has all the charm of Amsterdam with its cobbled streets and canals just on a smaller scale. Even for me it was pretty easy to navigate your way around its compact city centre.
We decided to visit Utrecht on a Saturday. Mainly because I’d read that a Utrecht hidden gem, a free city walking tour, only runs on Saturdays and I was keen to learn more about Utrecht’s history. The Utrecht Free Tours start at 12pm, leaving from the Dom Tower, and take three hours – there is a break for lunch. Our guide, Ellen, was pretty easy going and very knowledgeable, giving us the lowdown on some of Utrecht’s past without it being too dull. I was also impressed by the number of people she had to shepherd around Utrecht as there were about 30 people in our group.
The tour begins right in the historic centre of Utrecht, in Dom Square. Ellen explained why the Dom Tower and Cathedral are separate (which is quite unusual). Initially the middle part of the structure had been built of wood. It burnt down in the 17th century and was never replaced. It later became an area associated with scandal as it was the site of large-scale persecutions of gay men in 1730.
Next, Ellen pointed out some of the houses of Utrecht’s most famous former residents. The only Dutch Pope came from Utrecht, although he never actually got the chance to live in the house he built for himself. And Wilhlem Conrad Rontgen, the inventor of the X-ray and winner of the first Nobel Prize in physics was in fact expelled from Utrecht University.
Utrecht is also home to a Miffy Museum (the Dick Bruna Haus) – I learned from Ellen that Miffy is in fact a girl. And on our tour we also walked along the riverside and took in the picturesque park of Brutenhof, which was once where Utrecht’s city walls used to be. Another of the Utrecht hidden gems I discovered was the pretty cool Letters of Utrecht – an ongoing poem started in 2012 which has a new letter carved into the cobblestones of Utrecht every Saturday.
There are of course lots of canals in Utrecht. What struck me is how much lower down the water levels are to the ones in Amsterdam (the canals in Utrecht are much older). Sitting in one of the many canal-side bars you’re almost in the water and it makes them the perfect place to stop off on a sunny day – though it might be advisable not to sample too many Dutch beers so you can stay steady on your feet. A day trip gave me time to discover some Utrecht hidden gems but no doubt there are plenty of others I’ll have to come back for before the year is out…