Utrecht isn’t the first Dutch destination you think of, but with stunning design masterpieces, atmospheric canals, buzzing nightlife, and a truly unique restaurant scene, it probably should be.
Inside Truus Schröder-Schräder’s family home, Through The Keyhole springs to mind.
“Who would live in a house like this?”
There are two answers. The most obvious is ‘nobody’, the second ‘lunatics’- there’s a reason it’s dubbed The Crazy House.
This 1924 masterpiece of the De Stijl art movement is one of Utrecht’s top sights, therefore uninhabited and open for you to see what Dutch suburbia looks like through eyes obsessed with simple visual compositions. Using only primary colours, horizontal and vertical screens can be moved to section the open plan off, stairs pull up, and minimalism drives concept, with no curtains or creature comforts.
The problem is, it’s not very liveable. Even Gerrit Rietveld, the guy responsible for conception, would take issue with his work after moving in with Mrs. Schröder. Longing for privacy, not just sliding panels, it proves sometimes outside the box isn’t practical.
In many ways this is at odds with Dutch stereotypes. Practicality and innovation are national traits, positioning the country amongst the world’s most progressive; from housing to transport, food to the arts. Compared with larger neighbours, Utrecht often misses that international limelight. But as one of the Continent’s great World War II survivors, pretty canal side streets, pristine squares, and preserved architecture are abundant, yet the city also updates that privileged past for a compelling present.
Take the Dom, for example. Construction finished in 1382 after 60 years of labour, and it remains the tallest church in the Netherlands. Although never officially completed, this Gothic totem towers over the city magnificently, but its most recent addition resonates most. A modern viewing platform rewards you for scaling 465 spiral steps to the top, providing panoramic views stretching to Amsterdam and Rotterdam on clear days.
Back on street level, once darkness falls the buzz is tangible. Head to the Oudegracht (Old Canal), where I’m told on good authority “the beer boat is back”. Hence revelers cruising the water, vessels acting as pre-party for the night ahead. For some that means Basis, a techno and house music institution, with the likes of Vatican Shadow, Kobosil, Marcel Fengler, and Manchester heavyweights AnD all playing between March and May. Situated in one of countless old arched warehouses once used for barge deliveries, a thriving bar scene can also be found here, and passageways lined with coloured lights.
Some may prefer the idea of drinking in a former castle, Stadskasteel Oudaen. Today this spectacular address, opened in 1296, boasts its own theatre, and is defined by beers brewed in the cellars below (tours available). It’s unclear how many of the 70,000 litres produced each year are consumed here, but I give it my best. Upstairs, a low lit eatery- heavy on wood- invokes heartiness, the menu focussed on equally rich meats.
Re-appropriation continues elsewhere, too. WT Utrecht Urban Cafe & Kitchen is the only place I know where modern dishes are served atop an old water tower. Not quite the Dom, the vista is still incredible, and food and wine every bit the match.
Meanwhile, those looking for more tradition should check the prestigious Hotel Karel V, close to Centraal Station. Although steeped in its own heritage, this incredible five star property is another reinvention- first built for 14th Century Knights of the Teutonic Order. The chandelier-daubed, fine art-clad restaurant is incredible, and it’s also a good shout for accommodation, with immaculate period bedrooms awaiting guests. Sadly, though, it’s here my journey must end, but yours might begin, with far more than all that to discover in this frequently overlooked destination.
easyJet flies daily from Manchester Airport to Schipol
Direct rail connections from Schipol to Utrecht Centraal take approximately 30minutes