If you’re visiting the Netherlands, the number one city on your list is probably Amsterdam. It’s the most popular tourist destination in the country — and for good reason. With charming canals, roads ruled by bicycles, liberal drug policies, museums galore, the intriguing Red Light District, and delicious food, the city has something for everyone. So if you only have a couple days in the country, it might make sense not to leave Amsterdam. But if you’re not pressed for time, Utrecht should definitely come next on your list.
About 30 minutes from Amsterdam by train, Utrecht is often considered a mini-Amsterdam, and the locals will defend their city to the death as being better than its big sister. I went to the Netherlands because I had always wanted to see Amsterdam, but I had met a friend while traveling in Asia who couldn’t stop raving about her city of Utrecht. She talked it up so much, I felt like I had to give it a chance. By the end of my trip, I have to say, I came to agree with her — Utrecht might just be better than Amsterdam. Here are the main reasons why I think you should explore this alternative to Amsterdam and visit Utrecht.
An Authentically Dutch Experience
With the hoards of tourists crowding Amsterdam, it’s not the best place to get a taste for true Dutch culture and way of life. When you visit Utrecht, on the other hand, you’ll find that it is made up mostly of people who grew up in or near the city, as well as other young Europeans who moved there for the city’s popular university. This means you actually get to see what local life is like.
Just a few minutes from the city center, it starts to feel more like a town than a city. You’ll find classic Dutch windmills placed among green grass next to where some of the residents live in houseboats on the water. It’s absolutely one of the most charming places I have ever seen, and unlike many European cities that are fun to visit, I could actually picture myself living there.
Canals, Canals, Canals
Unlike in Amsterdam, where most canals are narrow and you stay on street level high above them, Utrecht’s canals are wide enough for many activities. Go down one of the many staircases lining the canals, and you’ll find yourself amongst tons of restaurants with outdoor seating right on the water at canal-level. This means you’re out of the way of the actual street so that pedestrians, bikers, and tables don’t all need to squeeze into the same area. Not only do you actually have room to bike or walk through the streets without feeling like you’re playing Frogger, but there will always be enough seating wherever you want to eat.
The wider canals in the city center also allow for a relaxing kayak trip through the city or a party boat that stops off at some local bars — whichever is more your style.
Exciting Dutch Nightlife
While the bars of Amsterdam are full of young tourists, backpackers, and study abroad students paying for overpriced drinks at overrated bars in the famed Red Light District, Utrecht’s nightlife is much more suitable for anyone who doesn’t fit those categories.
If you’re past your wild college or teenage years, or just like a more low-key bar and club scene with good alcohol, Utrecht has plenty to offer.
Start your night with some drinks and dinner on the canals. When it gets dark (around 11 pm, which is surreal) your night can really get started. To blend in with the locals, head to Stan & Co, where you can sit at tables or mingle around the bar. The music is good, the drinks tasty, and it feels like everyone there are old friends catching up with each other.
The Great Outdoors
As I’ve already mentioned, there is simply more space to be outside in Utrecht than there is in Amsterdam, even in the center. But head out of the city center, and you’re one step closer to the Dutch countryside.
Take a walk along the quiet canals that widen into rivers or bike down the nearly empty streets. Take a picnic or some drinks and sit on any of the many public docks along the water. Head out a bit further past the Lombok neighborhood into the Oog in Al area to where the rivers on the edge of the city meet, and you’ll find yourself at a small beach with a restaurant & bar called Soia. There, you can find something for everyone. There’s a fenced-in playground for kids, tables to have a drink or food, and plenty of sand and grass to relax or kick a ball around on. Set up shop for the evening and listen to live music while watching the sunset over the water with no buildings to block your view.
Award Winning Fries
Aside from the experience of being able to eat at restaurants on the canals, or taking a picnic to the water outside the center, the food itself in Utrecht is delicious. From café sandwiches to brunch to ethnic cuisine, Utrecht has it all. And of course, you can’t go to the Netherlands without tasting their famous fries, or “frites,” and Utrecht has the best of the best.
The winner of the award for best fries in the country has gone to local Utrecht eateries for the past couple years. In the city center, you can stop by Frietwinkel or Manneken Pis for a taste of crispy potato heaven. Personally, I prefer the later. At Manneken Pis, you can choose between frites with skin off or on and top off your order with plenty of seasonings and sauce. Choose the Dutch classic oorlog — mayonnaise and peanut sate sauce with chopped onions — or any other combination of their 20 sauces.
Although Amsterdam and Utrecht are very similar in a lot of ways, Utrecht is the clear winner if you want everything that Amsterdam has to offer but without the crowds and with a more authentic Dutch vibe.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Osprey Ultra-Light Stuff Pack: Even if you plan on using a small suitcase or large backpack as your carry-on, sometimes airlines will make you check your baggage if the flight is full. Any small backpack is good to have with you in cases like this so you can throw your valuables and anything you need for the flight into a bag that you can take on the plane. This bag is best because it folds into itself so it doesn’t take up room in your larger bag. This is also useful for the rest of your trip — you can use it as a daypack but easily pack it into your larger bag when traveling.
Eagle Creek Travel Safe TSA Combination Lock: Whether you’re in a hostel and need to put valuables in a locker, or just want to lock up your zipper on a bag during transit to prevent theft while you sleep, a small lock is useful for any type of travel. I find a combination lock to be safer than one with a key. Locks with keys will usually come with an extra key or two, but if you lose them all you’re out of luck. Plus, the chances someone will guess your combination are much slimmer.
Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight / Watertight .3 First-Aid Kit: This first-aid kit has everything you need for possible injuries while doing outdoor activities, or just traveling in general. It has supplies to clean and bandage wounds, painkillers, tweezers for blisters, and allergy medication. There’s also a bit of room left to add your own additions to the kit. Plus, it comes in a resealable waterproof case so the supplies don’t get ruined during your travels.