After two days in Utrecht, I decided to stay three more. I felt it was a city that needed time. Some places you can get to know immediately. Or you can at least gather an accurate idea of it in less than a day. Even though Utrecht is small, I couldn’t grasp it at first, although I got it in the end.
There aren’t that many landmarks or attractions. The city has some tourist museums and interesting churches. But history is soaked into its small streets, many bridges and old architecture – and these things you can only walk through and absorb. It’s not a place with many sites to tick off a list, but a place that slowly sinks into you. Perhaps that’s why so many people come to Utrecht and decide to stay or enroll as students.
Students and Bikes
Utrecht is a small, university city full of young people, laptops in cafes, busy bars, bookshops, internationals – and bicycles. One American student I met told me that, apparently, you haven’t lived in Utrecht until you’ve cycled on a bike, at night, drunk. I could see how this would be some kind of initiation for Utrecht life.
After more than a week in the Netherlands, I’d gotten used to cyclists. I’d been yelled at in Dutch by a passing bike-shaped blur a fair amount of times. And now never dared step off a footpath without a glance over my shoulder. But Utrecht was at another level, with bikes cluttering the bridges and dominating the city. And with a completely pedestrianized, no-car-zone center, I thought it was a wonderful thing – and a level of bike-appreciation that every city should aspire to.
During my time in Utrecht, I stayed at Hostel Strowis. It contains the best qualities of any hostel – friendly, social, affordable. And it’s run by locals who literally made the place with their own hands. One of the managers, Juan, showed me a photo album from the 90s, documenting their creation of the hostel. It started as a derelict building, which they squatted as a group of friends. Although it was a common trend to squat at the time, the trend also had a surrounding sense of purpose. They had the desire to create meaning from something that would otherwise crumble away.
So they started building and transforming the place into a stopover for travelers. They kept many of the original features, including the tall front windows, fireplaces, and basement. They also created a beautiful garden in the back, kept wild and free by the gardener that works there today. The hostel strives for sustainability by focusing on recycling, organic products and protecting the balanced ecology of its garden.
More than a hostel, Strowis is also a café, bar and concert venue. It hosts weekly Sunday afternoon concerts by local musicians in cozy, intimate space. Free admission, great music, chilled atmosphere, outdoor space, and a vegan dinner afterward – what more could you want?
Hostel Strowis is another member of Europe’s Famous Hostels. It is the only one in Utrecht, as the organization chooses one per city. But it encapsulates all the best elements of hostel life – a balance between independence and community, freedom and purpose, off-radar but an important part of the city. I definitely recommend Hostel Strowis as the only place to stay in Utrecht!
Utrecht by Day
The main attraction in Utrecht is the Domtoren, the cathedral tower that dominates the center. If anything, it’s a great navigation point. Whenever you’re lost in the small streets of the city, you can look up and find the tower for reorientation. But it also has a fascinating history as a medieval relic. In 1674, a hurricane hit the city and destroyed the nave connecting the tower with the rest of the church. It now stands alone, and you can climb its 465 steps for incredible views over Utrecht and even, on a clear day, see as far as to Amsterdam.
There are also museums, churches and a castle outside of the city to visit. There are food options everywhere – from the local fish market to Greek restaurants, a Poké Perfect and, of course, a wonderful Bagels and Beans. But I was running out of money, so spent a lot of time walking the canals and spending my pennies in hidden cafes. Easily done in Utrecht.
One of my favorite streets to walk was a long artery through the center called Twijnstraat. I liked it because it ran parallel to the main canal, perfect for a scenic route straight across Utrecht, filled with bikes, bridges and beautiful side streets. It’s scattered with antique shops, selling random bargains and exclusive items in small, basement buildings. You can easily wander between them for hours without spending a penny. I found a number of thrift stores along the road, selling second-hand clothes for reasonable prices. Twijnstraat also hosts various eco-shops, including the chain supermarket Ekoplaza, where you can buy natural groceries for cooking, and smaller independent cafes like De Keuken van KEEK, which uses all organic ingredients.
My favorite place along the street was in the center near to the cathedral. Every day in Utrecht, I went to Talud9, a coffee and wine bar concealed in a hectic side street. It sells great, strong coffee for only a few euros. Cosy, warm and small, it’s a friendly stop in a busy street.
Utrecht at Night
Utrecht brightens at night. Fairy lights decorate bars. Lights flood historic buildings. The canals reflect the rays of street lamps. And hundreds of people fill the streets. I was told there is a different night of the week for different groups – internationals, locals, students. But on the weekend, everybody was out.
One night, I went to Café Derat with a local friend. Small and increasingly busy throughout it the evening, it had a great atmosphere and even greater selection of beer. With a collection ranging mostly the Netherlands and UK, it was easy to stay for hours. I tried some local breweries and stayed away from the English ales, and definitely understood the addictive nightlife of Utrecht. Lebowski was another excellent and popular bar, with a randomly wild jungle theme in the back, including taxidermied birds, stags and even a giraffe.
At night is also the best time to witness the renowned Red and Blue Chair of Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, when its illuminated primary colors stand out in the dark streets. The designer who created the famous Utrecht armchair is celebrated in this sculpture. You can even visit his old house, which is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Film and Theatre
There’s plenty to do in a Utrecht evening without partying. Again, I cherished the English-speaking Dutch culture when I found the English Theatre, a place that puts on only English plays and performs them in English. I appreciated the chance to do something I love in a country where I didn’t know the native language. Unfortunately, their performance of Pride and Prejudice that week was entirely sold out. But it’s definitely worth checking out next time you’re in Utrecht.
Instead, I went to ‘t Hoogt, a cinema that focuses on international film. Not only for English speakers, they also had films in French, German, Spanish, and all with Dutch subtitles. It was a small and intimate venue with a busy bar and friendly staff.
I watched Jane, a National Geographic documentary about Jane Goodall, her time spent living with chimpanzees in Africa and the breakthrough research she discovered there. It was inspiring and wonderful. She was a 26-year-old secretary when she went on her adventure and had no scientific experience or academic learning, only “an open mind, a passion for knowledge, patience, and love for animals”. Films like this are fantastic examples of the gems being played at t’ Hoogt cinema almost every day.
For a long time, Utrecht was lost under the tourist radar of Amsterdam, only a 30-minute train ride away. But inevitably, a growing wave of travelers were always going to discover and love this beautiful city. It’s small but busy, sleepy yet lively, calm but never boring. My favorite city I visited in the country, make sure you visit this young and central heart of the Netherlands.