Charming is perhaps the best word to describe Utrecht, a city in the central Netherlands, known to have been a religious centre for centuries. Utrecht is home to enchanting canals, medieval streets and fascinating monuments. We made it our quest to find the best things to do in Utrecht, and so, we embarked on a 3-day adventure to uncover the city's most idyllic attractions.
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Getting to Utrecht
Most travellers arrive in the Netherlands via Amsterdam. From Amsterdam to Utrecht the journey takes only 25 minutes by train. Although some decide to take just a day trip to Utrecht, we truly recommend that you spend a couple of nights in this city. We arrived in Utrecht by car. Driving in the Netherlands is a wonderful experience and so far, the best we had in the whole of Europe. The motorways were in fantastic condition and the drivers were very considerate. It reminded us a little of driving in the UK, just with more lanes and less congestion.
If you decide to take a road trip around Europe and want to visit the Netherlands by car, know that car parks are quite expensive unless you decide to leave your car in a park and ride facility. An alternative is to book your accommodation with parking included a little out of the city and rely on the sound public transport.
Where to stay in Utrecht
Utrecht has an array of wonderful hotels and boutique luxury accommodation, but, unfortunately, our visiting dates coincided with a major business conference. This meant pretty much everything within the city was fully booked. As such, we stayed just outside of the city in the Van der Valk Hotel De Bilt. This worked out really well because the hotel offers free on-site parking which made our lives much easier. There are buses pretty much every 10 minutes from the accommodation to the centre of Utrecht. On the way back, you can take a 10-minute walk from the bus stop to the hotel, but the walk itself is pretty wonderful, with plenty of green and nature around. Our visit to Utrecht marked our second visit to the Netherlands and, to our surprise, the second time we encountered perfect summer sunshine, a rare sight in the country, as we later learned from friends.
Things to do in Utrecht
Utrecht is a charming city, a fantastic place with an array of romantic things to do. It's more relaxed than Amsterdam but still packed with cool restaurants bars and cafes. It's easy to navigate around, you can freely ditch your map and just walk around the canals to explore Utrecht's more off the beaten paths. During Friday night, the bars along the canals come to life, especially during a sunny summer evening. In general, people are considerate, something which we really appreciate when visiting a new destination. Shops are plentiful, with international brands as well as local boutiques. Here are the best things to do in Utrecht.
Day 1 in Utrecht
We packed many long sleeved items as we expected overcast days with low temperatures, so finding so many shops was ideal, as we got to buy summer clothes for our stay.
Have you ever heard of Puha Shop? It's a small store which specialises in selling items from local independent designers. It's basically a great and innovative platform where unknown but talented artists get to sell their products. You can take the Puha Shop Route where you will find unusual and beautiful items. The route will take you to 55 spots and shops, all curated by Puha Shop. Here is a map to the route where you can filter based on your interests. We love supporting local designers and artists and that's why we recommend that you find cool souvenirs in one of these shops.
We arrived during the hydrangea season and that can only mean one thing: colourful flowering plants which produce big, clustered blooms of happiness. Hydrangeas are my favourite flowers and it was so amazing to see them pretty much everywhere in Utrecht. The local markets also sell another type of gorgeous flower: peonies. For those crazy about vibrant and feminine Instagram shots, head to the local markets in Utrecht and get a bouquet of cheerfulness and glee.
Tip: The Saturday markets are the best and also the most popular. Janskerkhof is the most beautiful spot and it opens from 8 AM till 5 PM. If you are looking for a bargain, come back just before closing time when some vendors have reduced prices for flowers.
Lunch at Sanju Ramen
You know we are crazy about Japanese food so our first stop was at Sanju Ramen. Their ramen is not vegan to begin with, but you can tailor it a little to make it perfect for your dietary requirements. The gyozas are epic and can be just veg only. Overall, a great foodie experience and we would recommend Sanju with love. Please note, the restaurant opens from 5 PM during weekdays and from 12 PM on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Voorstraat 29, 3512 AJ Utrecht, Netherlands
Canoeing through Utrecht
Since we arrived on a sunny Friday, we wanted to explore the city in a unique way: through its canals. It's a great way to see Utrecht and have a romantic soft adventure activity, whilst avoiding potential crowds. Allocate just over one hour to canoe and explore Utrecht's thriving centre and famed wharves.
Canoe rental Utrecht
Oudegracht 275, 3511 AL Utrecht, Netherlands
Dinner Le Jardin
As we travel vegan, we don't tend to get to visit that many fancy restaurants, even though we would love to. Unfortunately, most Michelin restaurants serve a set menu which more often than not includes meat. When we heard about Le Jardin, we immediately got excited. This is a restaurant located in the heat of Utrecht which focuses on creating aesthetical dishes made primarily from seasonal fresh vegetables. It doesn't have a Michelin star yet, but we can see why this restaurant is a good contender.
Le Jardin offers a set menu of dishes. You can pick 4+ dishes, just make sure to mention any dietary requirements. You can either pair your dishes with wine or simply order your drink of choice. The restaurant has an outdoor seating area which is a thriving leafy garden. The restaurant has an adjacent floristry where you can purchase wonderful plants.
The dinner at Le Jardin was exquisite. A reservation is a must. Please allow at least 3 hours to properly enjoy your dinner and drinks. If the weather permits it, we strongly recommend that you sit outside.
Trajectum Lumen was perhaps the most unexpected night journeys we've ever experienced. Trajectum Lumen is a free for all light art trail which helps you learn more about the rich history of Utrecht. Follow the artistically lit locations throughout the city. You can follow this map or get a tour guide to show you around. Our favourite artwork was the final of the Trajectum Lumen, located at Buurkerkhof. It's an illusion of stained glass on the pavement created by artist Gabriel Lester.
Day 2 in Utrecht
Breakfast at the Van der Valk Hotel De Bilt
Start the day with a nice breakfast at the Van der Valk Hotel De Bilt. Have your coffee or tea with an array of bread, delicious jams and cereals. There is fresh fruit available and if you are a vegetarian, you can have various eggs and locals cheeses.
Utrecht University Botanic Gardens
Don't go into the centre of Utrecht just yet. Located close to De Bilt, the Utrecht University Botanic Gardens provides a fantastic collection of plants from all around the world. We love soft adventure activities and we absolutely adore the outdoors, so what better way to start the day, than by meandering around a botanic garden? The gardens are absolutely beautiful, and they feature exhibitions of herbs and edible tropical plants, a Roman garden and beautiful greenhouses. These gardens are splendid year-round and a must if you love nature.
Budapestlaan 17, 3584 CD Utrecht, Netherlands
Ready to immerse yourself into Utrecht's history? Start at the Dom Square which is at the foot of the Dom Tower. Find the tourist information centre and book a guide or purchase a unique souvenir. Then, sit down with a cup of coffee at any of the nearby restaurants and order your lunch in preparation for the upcoming adventures.
Want to explore secret Utrecht? Head to Pandhof Domkerk, a secret garden of the Dom Church. Take the smaller streets back out and discover little gems of houses and adorable flowery front doors. The Pandhof garden of the Dom Church dates back to 1390 – 1440. This is a quaint monastery garden where you can find ornamental plants and herbs.
3511 KV Utrecht, Netherlands
Feeling active? Climb the 465 steps of the Dom tower with a guide and enjoy panoramic views of the city. The climb will take about one hour including the English and Dutch commentary as well as the descent. Find out more about how the Dom Tower was constructed and for what purpose is still used today. Go from room to room and learn about impressive architectural elements and history of the city.
You will need tickets for this activity. We recommend booking them in advance, online. The Dom Tower can only be climbed under the supervision of a guide. Keep in mind that children under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
After one hour of going up and down Utrecht's most impressive building, it's time for another foodie bite. This time, we recommend a burger place called Burger Bar. Make your own burger the way you want it and enjoy the delicious chips which come as a side. We ordered the vegan burgers with some added items. The service was speedy and the burger was delicious.
You've seen the city from above, it's time to see what happens under Utrecht. Learn about 2000 years of Dutch history in the middle of the Dom Square. This is a really fun, interactive activity. Get the special torch and discover all sort of archaeological finds. The visit takes around 75 minutes and because this is a popular attraction, we recommend booking your ticket in advance.
Spend the rest of your afternoon simply meandering around Utrecht's streets. There are so many interesting street food stalls, markets, boutiques and shops selling sweets, it's impossible to be bored. Utrecht is incredibly photogenic which makes it a must for any travel photographer. We found Utrecht to be ideal for a romantic weekend for couples. The city itself captivated our imagination and we can even recommend it as a romantic alternative to the busier things to do in Amsterdam.
Day 3 in Utrecht
De Haar Castle
Few castles are as charming as De Haar Castle, located just 20 minutes drive away from Utrecht. If you ever wanted to feel like you're walking around in a fairytale, then this is the place for you. The castle grounds can get very busy, so we recommend visiting first thing in the morning. We recommend spending most of the day around the castle grounds, you will find plenty of trails and interesting things to do. There are activities happening throughout the year, including the special guided tour of the hidden rooms which usually takes place from April to November. During summer months there are kids focused activities where families can have a fun, interactive visit around the castle and its beautiful grounds.
We spent four hours at the De Haar Castle and loved every single second of it. As a quick tip, we recommend dedicating the rest of the afternoon to exploring the former municipality of Vleuten-De Meern. Although mainly a residential area, we enjoy seeing locals live. Of course, be quiet and respectful when walking around. There is also a town centre with a shopping mall and various restaurants. Don't forget to check Máximapark, a hidden gem which many pass by en-route to the castle.
Are you ready to explore the many things to do in Utrecht? We loved Utrecht so much, we could easily see ourselves living there on a permanent basis.
Special thanks to Visit Utrecht for organising our trip. We are already getting ready for a new road trip around the Netherlands, and Utrecht will definitely be on the itinerary. We look forward to visiting it again, soon. As always, thoughts and opinions expressed here are entirely our own.