Have you ever visited a place with which you just fell in love immediately?
Utrecht is located in the central part of the Netherlands. It’s a major university center, most of the international students head right there. First mentions of the municipality belong to the first century. At that time a large fortress was built by the Romans on the place of the modern city. For many years Utrecht has been an important point of defense. In the end of the 7th century it became a large diocese. This is the reason why numerous temples, churches and other religious buildings have survived here till our days. In the middle of the 16th century the city became the center of the Utrecht Dutch Republic.
The central part of the city is surely the most notable for tourists. You’ll find there many cultural hotspots, luxurious parks, fancy restaurants and popular museums, but that’s not everything you can find there. All in all, the most popular buildings and views attract everyone, therefore they’re very crowdy, and because I like silence, I decided to go on a little tour with my aunt (she’s a local)…and this is what we came up with with a tiny bit of help from a Dutch app called izi.travel/nl. We’ve come into various interesting spots (some of them even randomly) and I was literally dying to throw them on the blog since the second I stepped into the train back home!
Starting at the Centraal station, the first building you’ll see on your right is
- De Inkpot
Being the former headquarters of the Dutch Railways, it’s also commonly called De Inktpot (The Inkwell), and you can clearly see why: the square shape containing a smaller square reminds well of an old-fashioned inkwell with a cap.
It took less than three years to build De Inkpot, from 1918 to 1921. At that time, the office was also the largest brick building in the Netherlands. Its interior is also very impressive, consisting of monumental staircases, spacious meeting rooms and art deco clocks – all made of oak. To ensure that there was a sufficient supply of wood, the Dutch Railways even bought its own forest in Limburg. This complete oak forest is now incorporated into the Inkpot’s chambers.
Nowadays it’s a place for contemporary art and culture. You’ve probably already noticed a separate, round object sitting at the left top corner. This flying saucer has been there since the turn of the century. The UFO was part of the art manifestation “Panaroma 2000”. This consisted of various artefacts scattered throughout the city that could only be seen from a distance. This flying saucer is the only one of these works of art remaining.
- De Catharijnesingel
Until 1970, the motorway didn’t exist, just water. The Catharijnesingel, the busy road you’ll reach within an eye’s blink , was a large town canal once, being a part of the ancient defence of Utrecht. Around 1960, the car was introduced in the cityscape, and the city decided to close the canal to make way for a ring road. Therefore, the city became more accessible to traffic. The municipality also decided to build a large shopping centre, the current Hoogh Catharijne. On the right, across the road, you’ll notice the end of the current canal and the terraces, green areas and stairs descending into the water.
Standing on the Mariaplaats you’re literally surrounded by history Every direction you look you will see signs of the past mixed with modern elements. On the square you will see two buildings: one is the concert hall and the other the Conservatorium. The central building which is the Conservatorium used to be the St. Joannes de Deo hospital and was a project of the Catholic nurses order. The concert hall, the yellowish building, is the eldest concert hall of the Netherlands. The building was built on the remains of the Maria church hence the name Mariaplaats.
Behind the Conservatorium there is the Pandhof Sint Marie, a garden full of special plants, where you can walk through the remains of the old St. Maria monastery.
- Kloostertuin Mariakerk
This garden is a literal oasis of calm in the busy city, surrounded by art and culture on each side.
Formerly, this place was not filled with culture, but with religion. Where the Arts and Sciences building now stands, the choir of St. Mary’s Church existed until early 1800, and the place where you’re standing now used to be a monastery garden. If you look around, you can still see the remnants of the old choir corridor, which is about a thousand years old.
- Grand Hotel Karel V
The stately building you’ll come up to soon is the Grand Hotel Karel V. It got its name due to the visit of Emperor Charles V who stayed here during his visit to Utrecht in 1546.
Around 1350, the crusaders of the Teutonic Knights had their headquarters here. This was their operating base, monastery and the location where they cared for wounded, sick and elderly people. The Teutonic Knights resided here for almost five centuries, until the year 1800. After that, this German house was a military hospital. Since 1998, it has a gastronomic purpose, as Hotel Karel V features an excellent restaurant.
- Zeven Steegjes
These small streets form part of the seven alleys – the last area of Utrecht within the canals that has been filled up with buildings. Until 1760, the Koch Brewery was located here. After Koch’s death, the beer brewer donated the land on which his brewery stood to the poor relief.
In order to provide as much shelter to the poor as possible, the poor relief built many houses on the ground of the brewery. You can see the result; the cottages are quite small and the streets are also narrower than usual. Even at the back of the houses, very little money was spent. The houses do not have gardens, as they lean against each other, back to back.
It’s already cramped here, but once this was much worse. Can you imagine that one house would accommodate a family with usually around ten children? It must have been veeery crowded. And dirty as well, because the houses had no sewage, so people would relieve themselves further down the canal. The same canal from where they often would get their drinking water. At the front of the houses, many residents had pig and chicken coops built. And if that were not enough, the streets were not paved until 1895, so there was often a huge quagmire here.
- Nijntje Pleintje en Museum
Children around the world grew up listening to her stories: Nijntje, who is called Miffy in English. Miffy has made her creator and artist Dick Bruna one of the most famous people from Utrecht. So it makes sense for Utrecht to have named a square after the little white rabbit: the Nijntje Pleintje or Miffy Square.
The interior of the museum, toys and play materials at the museum are specially designed for families with young children. At the museum, young children discover their world while they play. The Miffy Museum is a series of miniature worlds inspired by Dick Bruna’s picture books.
The rooms are each dedicated to a different subject. The miniature worlds created in these rooms include Miffy’s house and familiar everyday experiences such as going to the doctor and going to the zoo.
In the zoo at the Miffy Museum the children can play with all of the animals no matter whether they’re wild or tame; teach the parrots to talk and see if they can find the mice hiding in the wild animal enclosures.
When you go to the doctor, the doctor examines the eyes and ears. Or, since Boris Bear isn’t feeling very well, you can be the doctor and make Boris Bear feel better again. At Miffy’s house the children can bake a cake in the kitchen, mow the lawn in the back garden and put Miffy to bed. Definitely a must-have when you’re on a trip with your little loved ones!
- Sonnenborgh Sterrenwach
It seems as if you were walking through a normal park, surrounded by trees and a pond when you go further down the street. But appearances are deceptive. Because underground, scientific history can be found, as this former bastion reveals the location of the Utrecht Observatory.
Founded in the 16th century in what was a former bastion, the museum now holds the remains of meteorite and is the oldest copula observatory in the Netherlands.
on the way from Nijntje to the park – only like 3 minutes of walk
Please stand over here for a moment and take a good look around you. You might not realise it, but this big patch of green in front of you plays an important role in the cultural history of Utrecht. This is the former stronghold of Lepelenburg. There, namely, used to be the cultural centre of Utrecht; the Tivoli Gardens. There used to be a concert hall with a coffeehouse where folk concerts were held. When the park disappeared, in around 1929, the congregation built a new wooden concert hall here on the lawn. Now it’s a place to relax, hold picnics, sport etc.
A long time ago, Utrecht was built here, because the rivers the Kromme Rijn and the Vecht merged here. The Kromme Rijn used to be 100 meters wide and was the mainstream of the Lower Rhine until the Middle Ages. The river split at Wijk bij Duurstede at the Lek and merged in Utrecht with another river, the Vecht.
The river flowed from left to right toward the Kromme Nieuwegracht. Until the end of 1900, this part of the Nieuwegracht was still called the Runnemede alley, or the path of the Rhine.
As the name implies, the Nieuwegracht (new canal) was built later than the Oudegracht (old canal). But otherwise the canals resemble each other, as they are both flanked by stately mansions and have yards with wharfs. At least, in the biggest part of the Nieuwegracht. Because at the end, on your left, the canal has no stone shore or basement.
This monumental building with a gable, which you will see on your right on the corner of the Nieuwegracht’s, is the Paushuize. This building combines history with the latest technology. It is one of the oldest houses in the city, but also the most energy-efficient building in the Netherlands
The house was built by the only Dutch pope ever, Pope Adrian. However, he has never lived here; Adrian died unexpectedly in 1523, only a year after he was appointed Pope.
Nowadays, the Paushuize is owned by the Province of Utrecht and is also a popular wedding venue. The house was recently renovated and is equipped with much sustainable technology, including water-saving toilets, energy-efficient elevators and a ventilation system that operates automatically, increasing or decreasing as the amount of carbon dioxide in the air changes.
Do you see the red gate in the wall on your left? This gate provides access to a hidden corner of Utrecht. Behind this, you’ll see the quadrangle, a green oasis in this part of the city centre. The courtyard also hosts a beautiful old monastery. This is a covered cloister around a square courtyard. The quadrangle was formerly part of the cathedral and now belongs to the Academy Building. This is also evident from the university crest above the gate.
entrance on the left
In front of you, on the left corner of the square, you will see the Academy Building. All of the ceremonial activities of the University of Utrecht take place here, such as promotions and appointments.
Would you not agree that the Academy Building is a little out of place among the rest of the buildings? Many citizens of Utrecht would agree with you. From the moment the building design was made public over a hundred years ago, it has always been controversial. That’s because many believe that the neo-renaissance does not fit the Gothic style of the cathedral. To compromise, the Academy Building was built further away from the church; hence the strange inclination on the front wall.
The academy building was a gift from the people at the University of Utrecht for its 250-year existence. You can see the university motto, “Sol iustitiae Illustra Nos”, on the front wall. This means: Sun of Righteousness, illuminate us. The Sun in front of the building refers to this phrase.
The interior of the building exudes university history. There is a senate hall with walls filled with portraits of professors and an older part that dates back to the Middle Ages. This includes the Union of Utrecht Hall, where the Union of Utrecht was signed in 1579. On the menu, you will find some pictures of the interior of the Academy Building.
Last but not least,
If you think of Utrecht, then you will probably have the Dom Tower in mind. This is also the most famous building in the city. But what many people do not know is that the cathedral used to be much larger than it is now. It covered the whole Cathedral Square, from the tower to the cathedral across the square.
The construction of the cathedral was a huge project. It took almost three centuries before this Gothic church was finished. Or at least, almost completed. In 1517, they namely ran out of money. The only things missing from the building were the supporting flying buttresses and the buttresses of the ship.
The cathedral only existed for a century and a half at its full size. On August 1, 1674, a tornado swept through the city, and the nave of the church collapsed. Unfortunately, we will never know whether a structure with the skids would have resisted this tornado. After the tornado, the Cathedral Square was devastated. And it remained this way for a very long time. In fact, the ruins of the cathedral weren’t cleared until a hundred and fifty years later.
In the nineteenth century, there was renewed appreciation for history and national monuments. From 1875, the Dom area was restored. The famous architect Pierre Cuypers played an important role in this. In 1910, he noted that the roof of the tower was too low and had, probably unjustly, a new roof built. The tower was now 112.32 meters tall. Beside the tower rose a reception building with a grand staircase leading up to the tower. The building was ready for modern tourism.
Nowadays, the Cathedral Square is fully incorporated in the city’s image. It accommodates cafes, terraces, celebrations and commemorations. One of the most outstanding activities that took place here was the VJ at the Cathedral in 2011, a dance and light show which attracted six thousand people.
You can also climb to the top to see the city and its surroundings from a bird’s eye. And trust me, the view is gonna be enormous in such flat country!
If you went to Utrecht, would you choose the “basic” tour around or something more…hmm…more tranquil and unique? Let me know!
typical Utrecht… a.k.a. the most Dutch photo you will ever see!
and also the Dutch must-have: kibbelingen!
Have a great day!
sources: izi.travel/nl – thanks!