The university city of Utrecht makes for a fabulous day-trip from Amsterdam
Following a nail-biting penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica, Holland have joined their last remaining European counterparts, Germany, to take on the might of Brazil and Argentina respectively in this week’s World Cup semi-finals. One thing’s for certain, the Netherlands’ Queen Máxima is going to have divided loyalties, originating as she does from Buenos Aires! And with all eyes on the Dutch performance against the Argentinians on Wednesday, I take a look at one of Holland’s lesser-known but equally vibrant cities, Utrecht, starting point for the Grand Départ of the 2015 Tour de France.
The Netherlands’ most important city until the Dutch Golden Age, Utrecht is today Holland’s fourth largest city and home to the country’s largest university, thus making it a vibrant and cosmopolitan town all the while steeped in history. Indeed in 2013, the city celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Peace Treaty of Utrecht, a historic pact signed by, amongst others, Louis XIV of France, Philip V of Spain, Queen Anne, the Duke of Savoy, the King of Portugal and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, ending over 200 years of war in Europe.
Whilst catering for a large student community (there’s no shortage of nightlife with bars, cafes and nightlife populating Utrecht’s urban landscape!), the city also enjoys a reputation as a cultural hub in the Netherlands, for it plays host to a plethora of art galleries, music institutions and even the Netherlands Film Festival, held annually each September/October (the 2014 event runs from September 24th to October 3rd). There’s no shortage of festival activity either, with annual music festivals devoted to all manner of musical genres, from the Festival of Old Music to Summer Darkness, celebrating goth music and culture, and Le Guess Who? focusing on indie, art and experimental rock.
From a sightseeing perspective, most of Utrecht’s historical sights are concentrated in the city centre and thus easily accessible on foot. Dominating Domplein is Domkerk, a lavishly decorated example of Dutch Gothic architecture. Badly damaged by a hurricane in the 17th century, the Domtoren is now separate to the main structure and at 112 metres tall, is the Netherlands’ highest church tower. If you’re feeling sprightly, a climb to the top of the 456 steps is thoroughly recommended, for on a clear day, you can see as far as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, whilst situated in the cellars beneath Domplein is the Schatkamer (Treasury), detailing 2,000 years of city history. Be sure, too, not to miss the tranquil and charming monastic garden set behind the church.
Whilst you’re on the Domplein, you won’t fail to miss the stunning Academiegebouw building, headquarters of Utrecht University. The Lange Nieuwstraat meanwhile plays host not only to the Universiteitsmuseum with its interactive science exhibits, collection of historic dentistry tools and a recreation of a late 19th-century classroom, but also the Catharijne Convent, situated in a stunning old building and whose museum is devoted to the history of Christianity in the Netherlands. You might even see the odd work by Rembrandt.
Home to more than 15 museums, mostly situated in the Museum Quarter, Utrecht’s cultural institutions cover a wide array of subject matter, from the Aboriginal Art Museum, currently Europe’s sole venue of original Aboriginal art, to the Museum Speelklok, devoted to mechanical music with all manner of carillon clocks, music boxes and mechanic clocks on display. Worthy of a specific mention is the Centraal Museum, the Netherlands’ oldest municipal museum housed in a former medieval monastery where you’ll find the world’s most extensive collection of designs by Gerrit Rietveld, one of the principal protagonists of the De Stijl art movement. Your entrance ticket will also give you access to the Dick Bruna Haus situated just across from the Centraal Museum, where you can pay homage to the creator of the iconic Dutch cartoon rabbit, Miffy.
A mere 29-minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, Utrecht makes for the perfect day trip destination from the Dutch capital.