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Hidden Travel Gems: Unsung Utrecht
Amsterdam might not want you, but Utrecht is more open-minded
You want to visit Amsterdam. But Amsterdam might not want you. The locals, frankly, are tired of the tourists. They adopted a policy of discouraging tourists once they hit more than 18 million overnight visitors a year. In particular, Amsterdam increasingly cracking down on what it regards as “nuisance tourists” attracted to its hedonistic image.
If you are wondering who the “nuisance tourists” are, the city undertook a targeted campaign for British tourists who are greeted with “stay away” ads if they search for terms like “stag party Amsterdam.” Ouch!
Admittedly, it is unusual for for a city to spend its tourism marketing budget discouraging visitors, but the idea is to shift the average visitor to one who will go to the Van Gogh museum rather than vomit on your houseboat.
Purely from a visitor experience, Amsterdam is simply very crowded if you go anytime close to the prime tourist season. So I want to remind you all of my favorite travel hack: Stay in the less famous and much less busy place nearby.
Short train ride from the airport, and half an hour from Amsterdam itself. You can think of Utrecht as an Amsterdam base, very accessible thanks to a great public transport system. Because of its centrality, its also a good jumping off point to visit other Dutch cities by train.
But Utrecht, a bustling university town, is more than just an Amsterdam satellite. It has a long history, at one point rivaling Amsterdam in size and importance. Thanks to enlightened civic planning, it is incredibly pedestrian and bike friendly. Once you get there, your main job is to amble about and enjoy the history, beer, and vibes.
Utrecht has lots of canals, on a more manageable scale than Amsterdam.
I’m not really sure what it is about canals that give cities a sense of the fairytale, but it is something about the human relationship with water, and the comfort from integrating it into our spaces. One of the pleasant things about teaching at Georgetown is occasionally wandering down to the canal, part of the C&O Canal which extends for 184 miles.
In Utrecht you can dine right on the canals.
One great way to see the city by renting a kayak or small pedal boat.
The city is really built as a great place to wander around from place to place with friends with no particular agenda in mind. But if you want something to do, here are the highlights.
The Utrecht skyline is dominated by the Domtoren church steeple (currently under renovation), a nod to the religious history of the city, which dates back to the 8th century. Once you glimpse the city from the top of the Church tower (having ascended 465 steps), you can also enjoy its underground by exploring the underground museum Dom Under which provides insights into the Roman origins of the city. About a half hour drive or hour by public transport is the Netherlands largest castle, De Haar Castle boasting both a beautiful interior and gardens.
Amsterdam has an extraordinary range of museums, especially if you like Van Gogh or Dutch art. But Utrecht has a pretty amazing train museum.
The nearby neighborhood is worth wondering around.
Hack! Find your local Brown cafe
Utrecht has an overwhelming array of bars. You can drink by the canals, or in large squares.
Here is a genuinely useful hack for drinking beer (or Dutch gin) in the Netherlands. Google “Brown cafe” and your area. These are older neighborhood bars, more likely to feature locals having a chat. Not fancy, but have a deeply lived-in feel to them. One great option in Utrecht I have gone to every time I have visited is Cafe de Postillon which offers views of the canal.
If you are in the mood for a more extensive beer menu and cats, there is Cafe DeRat, where I spent a very pleasant afternoon reading.
The other ways to spend a day of genteel bar hopping is to chat to the locals or staff and see where they favor. Its like google, but with humans instead of algorithms. I wasn’t planning to have a beer on my last day in Utrecht when someone I chatted to in a coffee shop sent me to Cafe DeRat. The barman there sent me to De Drie Dorstige Herten, a pocket sized bar with another very impressive array of beers, including the strawberry Berliner Berliner Weisse seen below.
Where to stay: I enjoy the stylish Eye Hotel.
Utrecht is barely off the beaten path for tourists, so its probably an exaggeration to call it overlooked. But if its not on your agenda the next time you head to the Netherlands, it should be.
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