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Utrecht Travel Guide
The first thing you will notice on arriving at Utrecht’s somewhat unappealing Centraal Station is the Domtoren (or Dom) a 105meter tower situated in the very centre of the City and the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. It was originally connected to the Domekerk (Cathedral) by a nave. Unfortunately so much money had been spent on the construction of the Cathedral and Tower that there was precious little left to build the connecting building. Subsequently the workmanship and materials used were of inferior quality and when in 1674 Utrecht was hit by a hurricane the nave and surrounding buildings were destroyed. For centuries after the Dom was used as a working and hiding place for the Bishops. They lived in a place next to the tower where Café Orloff now stands. If you visit the Dom you can see Michael’s chapel on the first floor where they worked and their hiding place in Egmond’s chapel on the second floor. Climb to 40m and you’ll have reached the belfry, 70m and you’re next to the largest carillon in Europe, climb all 465 steps to the 100m platform and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the city and surrounding countryside. On a very clear day you may even be able to see Amsterdam.
Utrecht also boasts the largest bridge square in the country. Staidhuisbrug (town hall bridge) was formed in the 14th century by widening 2 bridges over the Oudegracht. The Staidhouse itself is comprised of several medieval buildings with a 19th century neo-classical façade. Beneath the spectacular town hall is Axl an enormous nightclub that stays open until dawn (only in Holland). In fact Utrecht really does like to put its cellars to good use. Take for instance the merchant houses along the banks of the Oudegracht, which open onto a wharf several feet below street level. In times gone by these cellars were used to store ships loads, but when the port trade moved elsewhere they fell into disrepair. Eventually the municipality stepped in, bought them, renovated them and rented or sold them to local businesses. Nowadays the wharfs are one of the major tourist attractions, lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and shops. It’s a great place to relax, socialise and watch Utrecht wander by.
There seems to be quite a trend for the City to utilise classic buildings for entertainment or social purposes. For instance the Oudaen is a medieval castle, which has been converted into an enormous bar. It even has it’s own underground brewery and doubles as one of the best restaurants in town. The majestic Winkel van Singel, with its 4 imposing Caryatids guarding the door, was formerly a market and a bank. Today it is one of the most popular bars in town and, like many of the bars in Utrecht; it becomes a nightclub at the stroke of midnight. Utrecht basically has three kinds of bars: those that close at 2.00am, those that close at 4.00am and those that stay open later than 4.00am. One of the most popular areas for nigh-time revelry is Het Wed. This is a favourite spot with the huge student population along with Hambergerstraat, Dudegracht and Neudegracht. Of course Utrecht also has its fair share of coffeeshops selling prime quality and very intoxicating herbs. Several are located aboard moored barges, one of which is actually positioned directly opposite the prison. If you get hungry, (and mark my words you will) check out the Huisten Bosch restaurant arcade next to the Dom. Here you’ll can enjoy food from around the world – French, Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, Greek, Surinamese, even Dutch.
Like most Dutch cities, Utrecht has a distinct cosmopolitan side. This is reflected not only in the vast array of cuisine available throughout the City but also in the markets. Of particular note is the market held at Vredenbrug every Wednesday and Saturday, where, besides traditional Dutch goods you can by produce from Italy, Turkey, Spain and Surinam. Be sire to buy some of those delicious Mediterranean olives, Greek feta, chorizo or fresh squid. Of course a trip to anywhere in Holland wouldn’t be the same without visiting a flower market and the one held at Janskerkhof every Saturday is an absolute joy. A riot of colours and delicate fragrances it is an ideal place to spend a romantic hour or two.
Shopping is definitely a favourite pastime in Utrecht, a fact confirmed by the presence of Hooj Catherijne, the largest shopping mall in the Netherlands. It covers 5km2 and has over 180 stores. The Oudegracht is also very popular with shoppers although if you cross over the quieter, less developed side there are some real treats in store (no pun intended). Here you’ll find a bizarre assortment of outlets including one that sells only teeth cleaning paraphernalia, another that specialises in beads and buttons and another that sells classic memorabilia, clothing and furniture of the 50s and 60s.
Above all Utrecht is a nice place to wander around. The people are pleasant, it’s clean and the City is generally very easy on the eye. It has a slightly upmarket feel, which enhances the atmosphere and creates an almost continental air. You can hire a water bike and take in the city from the canals, get stoned amongst members of the local student population in a friendly coffeeshop, drink refreshing tasty brews and fine wines in the myriad bars, dance yourself stupid till dawn, tear up you diet sheet and take your digestive system around the world, or enjoy the rich history of this fascinating City. Whatever you’re looking for in Utrecht, rest assured that when you find it, it will be very pleasant indeed.
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