10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Utrecht
Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands and the capital of the province of the same name, lies on the geographical divide between the country's fenlands and sandy heathlands. This position favored the development of the town over the centuries as the heathlands, lying higher, were out of reach of the North Sea's storm tides. From very early times, Utrecht was one of the principal political, economic, and cultural centers of the Netherlands, the seat of the provincial administration, and home to a famous university founded in 1636. Tourism also makes a significant contribution to the economy, and the picturesque Old Town with its numerous historical buildings surrounded and intersected by canals attracts large numbers of visitors.
See also: Where to Stay in Utrecht
1 St. Martin's Cathedral
In the heart of Utrecht lies Cathedral Square, the Domplein, where you'll find St. Martin's Cathedral (Domkerk), one of the most important churches in the Netherlands. Begun in 1254 on the site of an earlier Romanesque church, the cathedral today consists of the 14th-century choir, the 15th-century transepts, and two chapels. The original much larger structure incorporated the massive nearby Domtoren, the tower that became separated after the destruction of the nave during a thunderstorm in 1674. The ruins were only cleared away in 1826 when the Domplein was laid out, with restoration finally completed in 1988. Highlights include old tombs and a crypt known to contain the internal organs of Emperors Conrad II and Henry IV, who died in Utrecht. Of particular note is the picturesque 14th-century cloister linking the cathedral with the university: above its windows are scenes from the life of St. Martin, the patron saint, while in the center of the beautiful Cloister Garden is a fountain with a bronze figure of a monk.
Address: Achter de Dom 1, 3512 JN Utrecht
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Utrecht
2 Editor's Pick The Domtoren: The Cathedral Tower
Looming high over the old city of Utrecht is the Domtoren, the massive tower that was separated from the Cathedral of St. Martin after the devastating storm of 1674. Built between 1320 and 1382, it stands 112 meters high and houses an impressive carillon of 50 bells, many of them centuries old. Still the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, its viewing galleries offer magnificent panoramic vistas of the old city and the Domplein (the 465-step climb is worth it as you'll also get to see the bells up close). Two chapels can be visited within the tower: St. Michael's, the Bishop's domestic chapel, and the Egmond Chapel, home to an exhibition on the history of this spectacular structure.
Address: Domplein 21, 3512 JE Utrecht
3 Museum Catharijneconvent
In the former hospice of the Order of St. John, Museum Catharijneconvent deals with the history of Christianity in the Netherlands. Opened in 1978, it's the country's largest collection of medieval art treasures, with sections devoted to church interiors, religious beliefs, and medieval monasteries. In addition to a large collection of 17th- and 18th-century material, other exhibits include valuable books and manuscripts, and a model of the original St. Martin's Cathedral with explanations of its history. Also on site is a display of embroidered Flemish church vestments of the late Middle Ages. (English language guided tours are available.)
Address: Lange Nieuwstraat 38, 3512 PH Utrecht
4 Castle de Haar
Built by Dutch architect PJH Cuypers, Kasteel De Haar is not only the largest castle in the Netherlands, it's widely considered to be the most attractive thanks to its fairytale good looks. It is so large that when it was built in 1822, the whole village of Haarzuilens had to be moved. Highlights of a visit - the castle is just 16 kilometers west of Utrecht - are its large collection of antiquities, furniture, paintings, and tapestries, along with its rich décor including ornate wood carvings and tableware and a rare Japanese coach especially designed for women. The grounds, too, are wonderful to explore, and comprise some 250 treed-acres, along with fountains and a lovely formal garden.
Address: Kasteellaan 1, 3455 RR Haarzuilens
5 Museum Speelklok
One of the more unusual of Utrecht's tourist attractions is Museum Speelklok, a museum dedicated to music boxes and barrel organs. Displays include mechanical musical instruments from the 18th century to the present day, as well as domestic instruments such as tiny music boxes to massive fair organs, most of which can still be played. Other highlights include examples of musical clocks, pianolas, and a turret clock with a carillon, along with the opportunity to peek behind the scenes at the restoration work performed in the workshops. English language guided tours, including demonstrations, are available.
Address: Steenweg 6, Utrecht
6 Centraal Museum
Spread between the remnants of a former convent and the city's old Artillery Stables, Utrecht's excellent municipal collections are well worth a visit. Housed in the Centraal Museum, the exhibits include the provincial archaeological collections and works by Utrecht-based painters from the 15th century onwards, including the Romanists, a group influenced by the Italian Renaissance and led by Jan van Scorel. Other schools represented are the Mannerists, represented by Abraham Bloemaert, who had an enduring influence on the Utrecht Caravaggisti (stylistic followers of Caravaggio). The museum also has a collection of costumes from the 18th century to the present day, along with rooms furnished in period style, sculptures, silver, and a collection of material on the history of the city. A rare 17th-century dollhouse with rooms decorated in chintz from the Dutch East Indies is also worth seeing.
Address: Nicolaaskerkhof 10, 3512 XC Utrecht
7 The Railway Museum
In the old Maliebaanstation, Utrecht's Railway Museum (Spoorwegmuseum) is a must-see for train buffs. Highlights of this large, well-stocked attraction include a cross section of the country's transit history, particularly railroads and tram systems, with plenty of models and old vehicles. Exhibits deal with the early years of railways, the heyday of the 1900s, and an operational workshop. In addition to the museum's impressive collection of locomotives and rolling stock, kids will love the model railway and playground.
Address: Maliebaanstation, 3581 XW Utrecht
8 The Kaiser's House in Doorn
In the picturesque little town of Doorn is the last home of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, Huis Doorn. Forced into exile after defeat in WWI, the Kaiser purchased Huis Doorn in 1920 and lived there until his death in 1941 (he's buried in a mausoleum on the grounds). Originally a medieval castle, the house was rebuilt in classical style in the 18th century, with only minor alterations since. Set in a large and beautiful park, the house is open to the public as a museum and has been preserved exactly as it was in the Kaiser's day, right down to the original furniture and furnishings, the Kaiser's personal possessions (including a collection of snuff-boxes belonging to Frederick the Great), uniforms, photos, and paintings.
Address: Langbroekerweg 10, 3941 MT Doorn
9 The Oudegracht
A highlight of a visit to Utrecht is strolling along the beautiful Oudegracht, the old canal running through the city center. Starting in the southeast section of the city, the Oudegracht traces, in part, what was once the original route of a section of the Rhine, while the northern section includes segments of a canal built around 1000 AD that connected the Rhine to the River Vecht. Once Utrecht's network of locks was completed in 1275 the shores of the canal began to be settled, with numerous quays, wharves, and warehouses added. Today, many of these old buildings have been turned into restaurants, cafés, galleries, and boutique shops.
10 St. Pieterskerk
Just a short walk north of St. Martin's Cathedral, in Pieterskerkhof, stands St. Pieterskerk, the first of the town's churches to be built. Consecrated in 1048 and notable for its two Romanesque towers, the church features a crypt with a sarcophagus of the founder, Bishop Bernold. Other notable features are the capitals of the columns in the nave, the wall paintings in the north aisle, and the 12th-century reliefs created in the Maasland style.
Address: Neude Janskerkhof en Domplein, Utrecht
Where to Stay in Utrecht for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient hotels in Utrecht with easy access to city center attractions:
- Grand Hotel Karel V Utrecht: sophisticated luxury, excellent restaurant, spa with sauna and hot tub, lovely indoor pool, fitness center.
- Mary K Hotel: mid-range boutique hotel, canal views, eco-friendly, courteous staff, homemade muesli.
- NH Utrecht: affordable rates, near the central train station, serene decor, spacious rooms.
- Holiday Inn Express Utrecht - Papendorp: budget-friendly hotel, light-filled contemporary design, friendly staff, free continental breakfast.