Often hailed as a crowdless mini-Amsterdam, the Dutch city of Utrecht certainly has a lot going for it.
It’s scenic (thanks to its idyllic waterways and slim canal houses), it’s lively (thanks to its young student population) and it has just enough unique sights and museums to keep a visitor busy… all with a fraction of Amsterdam’s tourist masses.
Since meeting some travel friends from there a few years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Utrecht on multiple occasions, and I’m here today to sing its praises with my signature fangirl enthusiasm.
Read on for a list of my favourite things to do in Utrecht, from quirky museums to wildly magical views.
1. Enjoy Utrecht’s wharf cellars
One of the more unique things to do in Utrecht (that not even Amsterdam can offer) is spending time in the city’s charming canalside wharf cellars, a legacy left behind from the Middle Ages, when they acted as an ingenious storage solution for local inhabitants.
Luckily for us, the mere storage days of these cellars are behind us, and they’ve been given a new lease on life as restaurants, bars, and other fun public spaces.
So, the best way to enjoy Utrecht? Grab a treat along the canal and watch the world go by. There’s no shortage of options, but I’d recommend a wander along the Oudegracht (Old Canal) to see what calls out to you.
2. Hop on a canal cruise
Amsterdam may be the city best known for its canal cruises, but don’t worry – Utrecht has them too!
My Go-To Travel Favourites:
🧳 Eagle Creek: My favourite packing cubes
💳 Wise: For FREE travel friendly credit cards
🍯 Honey: For finding coupons automatically
🏨 Booking.com: For searching hotels
📷 Sony A7IV: My (amazing) camera
✈️ Google Flights: For finding flight deals
🌎 WorldNomads: For travel insurance
🎉 GetYourGuide: For booking activities
One of the best ways to get a look at the unique double-layered canal-side buildings in Utrecht is from the water. If you book a ride on the canal cruise you’ll get to see all the most enchanting parts of Utrecht while your guide tells you all about the city’s fascinating history.
This cruise wanders through the oldest part of the city, which dates back to Roman times, passes the highest church tower in the Netherlands and also goes past the city’s oldest outer moat. Plus, if you see any canal-side restaurants and bars that look especially cool, you can come back to see them afterwards!
3. Or glide on the canals on a canoe or paddleboard
If you’re more of an energetic type, then you’ll be thrilled to discover that you can even explore Utrecht’s canals under your own steam – via canoe or paddle-board!
Utrecht’s canals are far quieter than those in Amsterdam, so you won’t need to worry about being run over by other boats if you choose to go for a paddle.
You can rent stand-up paddleboards or canoes and choose from a number of different routes to explore Utrecht. You can even go a bit further out of the city and paddle through canals in the surrounding farmland.
4. Climb the highest church tower in the Netherlands
Another activity completely unique to Utrecht? A leg-numbing climb up the highest church tower that the country has to offer.
Dom Tower was originally meant to be part of St Martin’s Cathedral, a church that was never completed. Construction of the St Martin’s took place between 1321 and 1382 when it stopped due to a lack of funds. At that point the tower and nave had been completed, but the nave collapsed in 1674 leaving the tower standing all alone as it does to this day.
In 1382 the tower stood 109 metres tall, but its height was increased to 112.5 metres during restoration works in 1910. You can join a guided tour of the church remains and climb the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower, if you have the nerve as the tower steps are very steep!
Luckily, the climb is worth every bead of sweat, with sweeping views over the city that will make you (momentarily) forget those leg cramps.
5. Enjoy a moment of peace in the Pandhof
And if you need a quiet place to nurse your legs after the Dom Tower climb, be sure to peek into the hidden courtyard of Pandhof van de Dom close by.
While the nave of St Martin’s Cathedral collapsed, leaving the tower standing alone, the other section of the cathedral remains directly across Domplein square.
Once upon a time, the Pandhof Garden was part of the cloisters of the original St Martin’s Cathedral and is still planted with many of the herbs and decorative plants that were originally found in the bishop’s gardens.
This serene and beautiful garden is completely walled, so you can only visit it between the hours of 10am and 4pm. It’s also closed on certain days, so if you really want to relax inside this spot, make sure you check the website ahead of your visit to ensure it will be accessible!
6. Visit the unique Museum Speelklok
For one of the most fun things to do in Utrecht, I can highly recommend a visit to Museum Speelklok, a quirky museum dedicated to self-playing instruments, with a dynamic collection housed in a former church of all places.
From whimsical street organs to ornate music boxes, you’ll find a beautiful collection of musical eye candy to browse here… but the best part is many of the instruments are functional, and you have free reign at making them play!
If you’re looking for an interactive and fun activity in Utrecht, make sure to add this one to your list.
7. Visit the National Railway Museum
The Spoorwegmuseum (which simply translates to Railway Museum) is a must-visit for anyone who gets excited about adorable old steam trains! In fact, anyone who’s a bit of a history nerd will probably enjoy this interactive and immersive museum, which is housed in a restored train station dating from 1874.
Inside this fascinating museum is an extensive collection of locomotives, carriages, scale models, steam engines, paintings, and other items relating to the history of train travel.
The best part is that there are a number of old coaches and rooms that you can actually go inside to explore, as well as interactive rides and games for children.
8. Head to Centraal Museum
Centraal Museum Utrecht is the oldest municipal museum in the Netherlands, founded in 1838. This is a great choice if you want to see plenty of local Dutch artists’ work on display, including the largest collection of paintings by Joachim Wtewael anywhere in the world.
Another famous Utrecht artist celebrated here is Dick Bruna, the creator of the children’s book character Nijntje (which means little bunny), who English speakers will recognise as Miffy! Yep, Miffy comes from Utrecht and at the Centraal Museum, you can explore a recreation of the studio where Bruna worked.
In the basement of the museum, there’s also a peculiar-smelling 1,000-year-old ship which was discovered during excavation work in the city in 1930. The ship was preserved with creosote (a tar product) and linseed oil, which provides the distinctive smell you’ll notice as soon as you enter the room!
9. Pay tribute to the world’s first Anne Frank statue
While Amsterdam is home to the Anne Frank House, where Anne and her family hid during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, it was actually Utrecht which gained the first Anne Frank statue in the world.
In 1959, the youth of Utrecht presented the city council with the statue as a thank-you for the municipalities support to various youth groups.
These children collected scrap iron and paper to pay for the statue, which was made by Pieter d’Hont. Ever since 1960, it has stood outside the Janskerk and is often adorned by flowers placed there by other visitors.
10. Stop by a museum dedicated to all things Miffy
Since Dick Bruna was from Utrecht it makes sense that there’s a whole museum dedicated to his famous bunny creation here as well!
The Nijntje Museum is mostly a children’s museum, so it’s a great thing to do in Utrecht with kids, but if you grew up with the cute white rabbit then you’ll probably also want to visit, if only for nostalgia’s sake.
The Nijntje Museum is part of the Centraal Museum, so it’s located directly across the road.
Inside you will find a variety of miniature rooms designed for children, where each room is dedicated to an everyday theme like cooking in the kitchen, an animal zoo, a visit to the doctor, etc. and all decorated with illustrations from Miffy/Nijntje books. It’s very cute and especially fun for children between 2 and 6 years old.
11. Enjoy the Trajectum Lumen light installations
One of the most unusual things to do in Utrecht is a night-time walking route past a number of really cool light installations.
The full list of locations can be found online here, or you can join a guided tour if you want to also know a bit about the history of the different buildings as you go along.
My personal favourite is the Ganzenmarkt Tunnel, a tunnel that used to be used for horse-drawn carts to get to the wharves and is now covered with graffiti. At night it’s lit up with rainbow lights that slowly pulse into varying hues and is very cool to watch!
12. Enjoy Utrecht’s foodie culture
With Utrecht being home to the Netherlands’ largest university, it’s no surprise that there’s a booming foodie scene, with cuisine options from all over the world. After all, where there’s young people, there’s places to hang out and grab a bite… often without breaking the bank.
There are way too many great restaurants in Utrecht to list, but here are a few noteworthy ones:
- Water Tower (WT) Urban Kitchen – Fine dining spot, renowned for its amazing view
- Don Konosuke – Cozy Japanese restaurant specializing in rice bowls
- Theehuis Rhijnauwen – Idyllic spot by the water famous for its pancakes
And if you’re a fan of funky, vibrant decor, I can definitely recommend The Streetfood Club, which is right by the Anne Frank statue (two birds, one stone!):
13. Grab a quick snack from a hot vending machine
If you’ve read this fun facts about Amsterdam post, you’ll know I have a soft spot for the Dutch marvel that is hot vending machines.
These convenient spots can be found in most Dutch cities, with FEBO being the most popular chain… and Utrecht is no exception!
So, if you’re feeling snacky and looking for something fun to do in Utrecht, why not head over and give this unique cultural experience a try?
They’re truly perfect for securing deep fried mystery snacks in all shapes, whenever the hunger pangs hit.
14. Do some shopping
Whether you’re looking for a modern mega-mall or quaint boutiques, Utrecht has a lot to offer shoppers.
Conveniently located next to Utrecht’s Central Station, Hoog Catharijne The Mall has all your bases covered with 90+ shops from big international names to small local brands.
But if you ask me, the real star of Utrecht’s shopping scene is its variety of eclectic boutiques, scattered all around the city centre.
If you’re not sure where to start your hunt, Twijnstraat, Zadelstraat and Voorstraat are all known for their shopping opportunities.
15. Take a day trip out to De Haar Castle
About a twenty-minute drive outside of Utrecht is Castle De Haar, which is easily the most beautiful castle in the Netherlands!
Seriously, this place is the epitome of majestic charm. As you approach the castle, prepare to have your jaw drop because it’s simply stunning.
With its soaring towers, picturesque moat, and lush gardens, you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled into a storybook. And guess what? The interior is just as awesome.
From opulent ballrooms to cosy chambers, you can practically imagine the royal banquets and epic adventures that took place within those walls.
The castle grounds are also a total delight. You can take a leisurely stroll through the perfectly manicured gardens, surrounded by vibrant flowers and serene ponds. There are plenty of pretty swans and even a deer park, with friendly deer who might let you pat them.
Don’t forget to snap some envy-inducing Instagram shots! And if you’re lucky, you might even catch one of the many events they hold, like medieval/fantasy fairs or outdoor concerts.