When I first was planning my explorations in Utrecht, I wanted to see absolutely everything the city had to offer. I eventually realized that that was an unrealistic expectation, and decided to focus on what I really wanted to see. Here are some of the sights and activities that make Utrecht unique, should you ever get the chance to visit.
Museums: While Utrecht does not boast the large and famous museums that Amsterdam and other cities have, it does have several smaller, more unusual museums. They make excellent morning entertainment in between homework and classes. My favorites are:
- The Aboriginal Art Museum: This museum is dedicated to displaying contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, an area I was not familiar with. Through an introductory video and explanations by the displays, I came away with a better understanding of an artistic tradition far removed from the European one I am used to, which sometimes makes use of aerial perspective and tells stories with sometimes hidden symbols.
- Museum Speelklok: A museum devoted to music boxes may not sound very exciting, but it turned out to be full of ingenious combinations of science and art. Clearly, the desire for portable music did not start with the iPod. In the 19th and 20th centuries especially, artisans used innovations in technology to turn household objects like clocks and boxes into music players. They also transformed common musical instruments, such as organs, into self-playing instruments. There is a short tour which allows you to learn about some of the instruments’ history and mechanisms and hear them play before exploring the rest of the collection for yourself.
- Museum Catherijneconvent: This museum, housed in a centuries-old cloister, displays religious art and tells the story of Christianity in the Netherlands. The art is quite gorgeous, particularly in the schatkamer, or treasure chamber. Religion has played a pretty important role in Dutch history, so it was nice to get an overview. The museum is well laid out, and you get a free audio guide. Actually, most of the museums here I’ve been to have had these for free, which makes for excellent Dutch practice.
Bookstores: Because I love books and bookstores no matter where I go.
- Broese Boekverkopers: This bookstore is in the center of town, right beside the Oudegracht, or Old Canal, and near the Domkerk. While more expensive than I usually like, (I like my bookstores dirt cheap), it has a quite large selection and a second-hand section downstairs.
- Books 4 Life: This is pretty much what I look for in a used book store. The books are marked with colored stickers and cost 1, 3, or 5 euros. They even have a section of three books for 1 euro. Plus, 90% of the proceeds go to charities, such as Amnesty International. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Sightseeing: Since most people travel for the sights, not for the bookstores.
- Domkerk and Domtoren: These are the two most famous landmarks in Utrecht, and date back centuries. (Seeing a theme here?) I did not climb the Dom Tower, but that is an option for people with a better head for heights than I have. I did visit the church, which encapsulates much of the history of Utrecht, ever since there was a Roman fort on that spot.
- Sint-Willibrordkerk: On the outside, this church looks quite somber, but the interior is remarkably colorful. Practically every surface is lavishly painted or otherwise decorated. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling! It is quite a contrast with the Domkerk; you can definitely tell which went through the Iconoclasm and which was came later.
- Botanical Gardens: This was one of the first places I went, as it’s quite near my apartment. These gardens are a really lovely place for a walk. Several parts are arranged topically, on subjects such as medical plants and plants used for paintings. The gardens are located on and around Fort Hoofddijk.
- Canals: One of my favorite experiences, the opportunity to go kayaking through Utrecht’s canals, was provided by the school. It was a nice evening, and the view from the water was really lovely. It probably helped my experience that my suite-mate kayaks competitively. I had a lot of fun, and it was really neat to be kayaking with people from all over the world, from South Africa to Indonesia to Belgium.
Tip: the museums and Botanical Gardens are all free with the Museumkaart, but if you want to buy this at the Botanical Gardens bring cash, as they do not accept foreign debit or credit cards, including VISA.
So, if you’re ever in the Netherlands, consider stopping by Utrecht! For a good-sized city it is not overwhelming and has lots to offer. I have definitely enjoyed my time here.