City in the Spotlight: Utrecht

In every Newsletter, to show that the Netherlands has more to offer than just Amsterdam, we will feature a city that is not Amsterdam. This time we will feature Utrecht.

In every Newsletter, to show that the Netherlands has more to offer than just Amsterdam, we will feature a city that is not Amsterdam.

Utrecht, even though with a population of over 357,000 it is the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands, and very close to Amsterdam, is a much lesser-known city. It is only located 25 miles south-east of Amsterdam.

Utrecht’s ancient city center features many buildings and structures dating as far back as the High Middle Ages. It has been the religious center of the Netherlands since the 8th century. Utrecht was the most important city in the Netherlands until the Dutch Golden Age, when it was surpassed by Amsterdam as the country’s cultural center and most populous city.

In 2012, Lonely Planet included Utrecht in the top 10 of the world’s unsung places.

Below, the main attractions in Utrecht:

In the heart of Utrecht lies Cathedral Square, the Domplein, where you’ll find St. Martin’s Cathedral. Most often referred to by locals as the Dom Church (Domkerk), this fine building is considered to be one of the most important churches in The Netherlands. While the original structure was built in 1254 on the site of an earlier Romanesque church, today this impressive cathedral consists of the 14th-century choir, the 15th-century transepts, and two chapels. The original much larger structure incorporated the massive nearby Domtoren, the tower that became separated after the destruction of the nave during a tornado in 1674. The ruins were only cleared away in 1826, when the Domplein was laid out, with restoration finally completed in 1988.

In the former hospice of the Order of St. John, St. Catherine’s Convent Museum (Museum Catharijneconvent) deals with the history of Christianity in the Netherlands. Opened in 1978, it’s the country’s largest collection of medieval art treasures, with sections devoted to church interiors, religious beliefs, and medieval monasteries.

One of the more unusual of Utrecht’s most popular tourist attractions is Museum Speelklok — or Musical Clock Museum in English — dedicated to music boxes, barrel organs, and other devices and instruments capable of playing music without human involvement (other than switching them on or cranking their handles). The museum was established in 1956, and its displays — many of them hands-on and interactive — include mechanical musical instruments from the 18th century to the present day, as well as domestic instruments, from tiny music boxes to massive fair organs, most of which can still be played.

A highlight of a visit to Utrecht is strolling along the beautiful Oudegracht, the old canal running through the city center. Starting in the southeast section of the city, the Oudegracht traces, in part, what was once the original route of a section of the Rhine, while the northern section includes segments of a canal built around AD 1000 that connected the Rhine to the River Vecht.

Located in the old Maliebaan train station, Utrecht’s Railway Museum (Spoorwegmuseum) is the country’s national railway museum and is a must-see for train buffs. Founded in 1927, highlights of this large, well-stocked tourist attraction include a cross section of the country’s transit history, particularly its railroads and tram systems, with plenty of models and old vehicles to enjoy along the way. Exhibits deal with the early years of railways, including its heyday of the 1900s, and an operational workshop. In addition to the museum’s impressive collection of locomotives (including nine well-preserved steam engines) and rolling stock, kids will love the model railway and playground.

A fun diversion for those with green thumbs — or those who simply enjoy lovely green spaces and gardens — involves paying a visit to the Utrecht University Botanic Gardens. Centered around the old, abandoned Fort Hoofddijk, this delightful 22-acre site, while a relatively new creation (it was laid out in the late 20th century), can trace its roots back to the early days of the university in the 17th century. All told there are six unique gardens to explore. Favorites include the Birders Den (no surprise, it’s popular with birdwatchers), and the Bee Hotel with its diverse array of pollinating insects. The tropical greenhouses are also worth exploring.