Utrecht is the capital city of the province of Utrecht in the center of the Netherlands. Utrecht is a medieval city with numerous ancient monuments and beautiful canals, surrounded by vast green areas, rivers and castles.
Utrecht is lesser known by foreign visitors and is often overshadowed by Amsterdam, the Dutch capital. However, Utrecht is a true hidden gem as there is a lot to see and to do. Below are the most popular sights in Utrecht, along with our travel tips.
Sightseeing in Utrecht
A few years ago, I moved to Utrecht for work after having lived in Rotterdam and before moving to Venlo. What I liked most about Utrecht during my time there is the city’s historical vibe and the cityscape as a whole. That’s why I recommend everyone to explore Utrecht by foot.
The following list of things to see in Utrecht is perfect if you’re visiting for a weekend (1-3 days). If you’re staying in Utrecht for an extended period of time, you’ll find further things to see in the greater area at the end of this article.
1. Utrecht Dom Tower
The Dom Tower (Domtoren) is one of the city’s main landmarks. At 112 meters high, you can spot it from almost everywhere in the city. It’s quite useful for orientation when exploring Utrecht.
Utrecht Dom Tower was built in the 14th century and is the oldest church tower in the Netherlands.
While the building is a true eyecatcher on the outside, it’s also beautiful on the inside. You can climb the 465 steps of the Dom tower to the very top from where you’ll enjoy a magnificent view of Utrecht. Please note that visits to the top are only possible as part of a one-hour guided tour. The tour takes you through the rooms and galleries of the Cathedral Tower, all the way to the top. It’s a worthwhile experience, but you should have some time and an interest in history.
2. St. Martin’s Cathedral (Dom Church)
A few minutes from the Dom tower (Domtoren) is the Dom church (Domkerk), officially known as St. Martin’s Cathedral.
What’s good to know is that the Dom tower and the cathedral (Dom church) used to be one building in the past. In fact, they used to be the largest cathedral in the Netherlands back in the days. However, in 1647, a tornado caused major damage to various buildings in Utrecht, including the cathedral. Sadly, the center part of the cathedral was devastated and separated today’s cathedral from the tower.
The devastated center part of the cathedral was never rebuilt. Today, there is a large square, the Domplein (Dom square). The square separates the tower from the cathedral, making it two different sights to visit.
Besides the tower, a visit to the church is absolutely worthwhile. St. Martin’s Cathedral is a French style Gothic cathedral. It contains beautiful murals and very high windows, some of which have colorful window decorations. From the inside, it strongly reminds us of the famous cathedral of Cologne (Kölner Dom).
The church also has a medieval courtyard with a well-kept garden and a small fountain. There’s also a small shop and a café on site.
The church is open daily, 7 days a week. It’s a well frequented place and even has its own event calendar (prayers, Night of Light, concerts and much more).
Once you have explored the cathedral and its ancient tower, how about heading underground?
DOMunder is an excavation site located below the cathedral square (Domplein). Here you can look back at over 2,000 years of history of Utrecht. For example, you can learn more about constructions made by the Romans as early as 45 AD and time travel back to the devastating storm of 1674 that separated the cathedral tower from the cathedral.
The visit lasts about 75 minutes. It really rounds off your visit and gives you a deeper understanding of the history of Utrecht. If you find the story of the tornado and how the cathedral and the tower got split interesting, then you’ll surely love DOMunder.
Our tip: Do you already have a ticket for the cathedral? Then you’ll get a 20% discount on your ticket for DOMunder!
Many people think they have to go to Amsterdam to see the iconic Dutch canals. But that’s not true at all. In fact, you’ll find canals in many cities across the country, from Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem to Utrecht (just to name a few).
The best-known canal in Utrecht is the Oudegracht. Oudegracht (which translates to “old canal”) is about two kilometers long. It flows right through the historic city center of Utrecht, which means you cannot miss it when exploring the city.
The canals itself aren’t the only thing worth seeing in Utrecht. Another beautiful thing about the canals are the canal banks. They are a lovely place to spend some time, for locals and tourists alike! For us, it’s the canal banks that distinguish the canals of Utrecht from those of Amsterdam.
Walk down the canal stairs and you will find canal houses and wharf cellars, as well as many restaurants and cafés to enjoy a drink or meal in a unique atmosphere.
Traditional canal houses can be found in Utrecht along the Oudegracht and the Nieuwegracht, both located in the center of Utrecht. There are still over 700 wharf cellars in the basement of the canal houses. What once served as storage space, was repurposed over the years. Many of the wharf cellars in the old city are now used as cafés or restaurants. Some of them are residential and commercial premises (many shops have their kitchenettes in the basement). There are also a few hotels located in wharf cellars.
5. Canal Cruise
A stroll along the canals is a great way to explore the canals and to take some beautiful pictures. Another attraction not to miss out on is a canal cruise!
A canal cruise (grachtenvaart in Dutch) allows you to explore the canals from a different perspective. You’ll see bridges, canal banks and wharf cellars from nearby.
There are several providers for canal cruises. On weekends and during holidays, they are among the most popular things to do in Utrecht. If you travel during those times, we recommend that you book your canal cruise online in advance to ensure availability. The best time for a canal cruise is the early afternoon, when the sun is out.
6. Medieval Town Center
With a little over 361,924 inhabitants (as per 2022), Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, behind Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.
While the city is rapidly expanding on the outskirts, the medieval town center has maintained its unique historic vibe. When you visit the Dom (tower and/or church) and the canals, you’ll be in the heart of the medieval city center.
From there, you should definitely take a stroll and enjoy the special atmosphere of the city. You’ll find that Utrecht has the perfect mix of contemporary and historic.
On the one hand, there are plenty of shops across the vast city center. Utrecht is an amazing place for shopping. Most major fashion chains have a branch here. Besides, there are also countless small local boutiques.
On the other hand, you’re likely to encounter a few hidden gems as you explore the small alleys in the historic city center. Allow yourself some time to wander around the city center.
7. Centraal Museum Utrecht
Centraal Museum Utrecht (Central Museum Utrecht) is the main museum of Utrecht with over 100,000 visitors a year. It’s located in the heart of the city center of Utrecht, a few minutes walk from the cathedral (Dom).
This museum has a huge collection of artwork from local artists. What we loved most is that Centraal Museum exhibits artwork from past centuries but also modern art. All in all, there are over 50,000 objects on display!
Our personal highlight is the Utrechtse schip (ship of Utrecht), a large cargo ship found in Utrecht in 1930. It’s believed that the ship was built between 997 and 1017, more than 1,000 years ago.
In addition to their permanent art collection, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions, workshops and events.
The museum is located in the Agnietenklooster, an ancient monastery built in 1490. What’s interesting is that the building had different purposes over the centuries. It served as an art gallery from 1613. In 1674 it was repurposed and served as a children’s orphanage until the early 19th century. After some major renovations in 1921, it became part of the Centraal Museum of Utrecht.
That explains why the Centraal Museum is spread over multiple locations across the city. The monastery in the city center is today’s main location of the museum. Furthermore, the Nijntje Museum (located across the street) and the Rietveld Schröderhuis (a few kilometers away) also belong to the museum. Tickets for the two external sites need to be purchased separately. If you have just one or two days in Utrecht, we recommend that you only visit the main building of Centraal Museum and save the other two locations for your next visit.
8. Museum Speelklok
Even if you aren’t a big fan of museums, you’re going to enjoy Museum Speelklok! This museum is definitely one of the “unusual” things to see in Utrecht.
Speelklok Museum has a collection of over 130 musical instruments, dating back to the period between the 17th century and today. Some of the musical instruments are self-playing, while others are interactive. If you’ve always wanted to play an instrument, this is your chance to play drums or hit a keyboard. Many of the instruments are kid-friendly, which makes the museum a great place to visit with children, too.
Museum Speelklok is located in the center of Utrecht. You can perfectly visit it in combination with the Centraal Museum.
9. Botanical Garden
Botanical Gardens are a thing in the Netherlands. The botanical garden of Utrecht is definitely among the top 3 of the country, after Leiden and Nijmegen.
Utrecht botanical garden is part of Utrecht university. You’ll find it at the Utrecht Science Park, to the east of the city center, near Fort Rijnauwen.
The botanical garden has a huge collection of plants with over 10,000 different species. Some of the plants are local, while others are native to other parts of the world. Most of the plants grow in the gardens outdoors. Exotic species can be visited in the glasshouses, as they wouldn’t withstand Dutch winters.
If you’re interested in seeing beautiful plants or learning more about the role of (edible) plants in daily life, a visit to the botanical garden is definitely worthwhile. Most of the plants blossom during spring and summer, some until late autumn. That being said, April to September is the best time to visit the botanical garden.
Our tip: If you don’t have time to travel to the botanical garden, you’ll also find a small but beautiful garden in the courtyard of the Dom church.
After your visit to the botanical garden, you can make a quick detour to Fort Rhijnauwen. It’s the largest fort of the New Dutch Waterline, surrounded by vast green areas. Sadly, the fort isn’t open frequently for visitors (there are occasional guided tours to visit the inside). Nevertheless, it’s beautiful on the outside, and the nature around makes a great place to go for a walk.
10. Kasteel de Haar
Kasteel de Haar (De Haar castle) is the largest castle in the Netherlands.
It was built in the 13th century over an area of over 135 acres of land. The area consists of a massive castle and a large park. The castle is a true catcher on the outside as well as on the inside. The park around the castle is especially beautiful during spring and summer time.
On the inside of the castle, you’ll be able to explore the luxurious lifestyle of Dutch barons of past centuries. The castle has four floors, each of which serves a different purpose. The kitchen can be found in the basement, the first floor served as the main living area, bedrooms were on the second floor and the third floor consisted of rooms for staff.
What’s interesting about the castle is that it was carefully restored in 1890, maintaining its original layout. What we loved about the castle is the attention to detail. The decoration and furniture reflect the style and luxury of the barons who inhabited the castle. By the way, the Van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar family who owns the castle is keeping up the tradition to live in the castle for one month a year, usually in September.
De Haar castle can be visited year-round. Note that it may be closed (or closing earlier) on some days of the year (usually when a major event is held).
The park opens in the morning, before the castle opens. If you’re visiting in the morning, you can take a tour around the park before you explore the inside. By the way, the park is also used for exhibitions and weddings (in case you’re looking for a beautiful wedding location near Utrecht, this is the place to be).
Kasteel de Haar is located on the outskirts of Utrecht (in the village of Haarzuilens). It can be easily reached by car and public transport. If you’re planning to visit the castle, plan at least half a day to do so. That being said, castle De Haar is a great place to visit if you’re in Utrecht for at least two full days.
In the Area
Did you know that Utrecht is both the name of the province of Utrecht, as well as the city of Utrecht? Yes, Utrecht is more than just a city, it is the capital of a beautiful province with whom it shares a name.
The city of Utrecht is surrounded by impressive nature, forests, castles and waterways. The beautiful green landscapes and villages east of Utrecht are also worth a visit! Cycle around the beautiful nature, or walk through the green forests and sand dunes of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug National Park. If you travel with your dog, he will surely like the vast sand dunes of Soesterduinen.
There are the best things to do in the immediate vicinity of Utrecht city:
- Fort Rijnauwen
- Huis Doorn
- Austerlitz Pyramide
- Kasteel de Haar
- Slot Zuylen
- National Military Museum Soest