Utrecht is a Dutch city known for its history, medieval city center and the largest university in the Netherlands. With its charming canals, historical buildings, compact city center and location practically in the center of the Netherlands it makes a perfect one day trip from Amsterdam or any other Dutch city. Utrecht was our home for three years when we lived in the Netherlands and we would like to share the best things to see and do in Utrecht in one day.
It’s always a good idea to spend a night in the city to see more of it, and Utrecht has lots to offer for a couple of days visit. In fact, after living in Utrecht for a few years it’s hard to narrow down things to do in Utrecht to one day only. But I understand that the majority of travellers don’t have the luxury of spending days in one city. So here is our pick of the best things to do in Utrecht in one day.
Start from Utrecht Central train station
Utrecht is very well connected with other European cities by a railway. Utrecht Central station is in fact the busiest train station in the Netherlands. Direct train from Amsterdam to Utrecht takes around 30 minutes. When we lived in Utrecht we often travelled by train within the Netherlands as well as to Germany, Belgium and even Paris, France.
So, if you’re coming to Utrecht by train you are going to start your day from the ‘Utrecht Central’ station and the Stationsplein. There are few cafes and takeaways at the station and around it – if you want to start your day with a coffee and/or a breakfast.
Tip: Plan your journey at official NS web-site – https://www.ns.nl/en/travel-information
Before heading off from the station, check out the world’s biggest bike parking – it’s located right next to the train station at the Stationsplein. Bicycle parking at Stationsplein is a mini underground city with 3-levels and 12500 parking spaces!
Hoog Catharijne shopping mall
It’s a short walk from the Utrecht Central train station to the old town. One way to get there is through Hoog Catharijne shopping mall.
Head out of the train station towards the Stationsplein, cross the square and get inside the shopping mall of Hoog Catharijne. Even if you don’t have time for shopping, there is a food court inside the center with cafes and fast food – another option for a breakfast. On the ground level through the glass floor you can see the water flowing via an underground canal.
Right outside the shopping mall, on the Vredenburgkade there is a nice small green area above the canal with cafes and TivoliVredenburg concert hall.
Walk the old streets of Utrecht downtown
Utrech has well preserved (and in places restored) old city center. You may have heard that Utrecht is the 4th largest city in the country (after Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague). But there were times when Utrecht was the most important city in the Netherlands.
In medieval times Utrecht was well known as a religious center of the Netherlands. You will find lots of historical buildings and structures in the city.
Start exploring Utrecht at the Vredenburgplein (Vredenburg square). Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday there is a market on the square – Vredenburg Market. You will find stalls with cheese, bakery, fish, waffles and other produce at the market.
There are few pedestrian streets starting from Vredenburgplein. Check out shops and boutiques on Lange Elisabethstraat, Steenweg and other surrounding narrow streets. Take a picture at Huis Zoudenbalch with its cute red window shutters. Look at the old building (former church) of Museum Speelklok. Have a beer at Olivier cafe at the end of Achter Clarenburg street – now a beer hall, but settled in a former church with preserved high ceilings and a big pipe organ.
Walk to Mariaplaats and the old water pump – Mariapomp. There are many cafes and takeaways in the area, and a nice view towards the Domtoren. A little further is a small garden Pandhof Sinte Marie belonged to the medieval St. Mary’s Church.
Stroll along the Oudegracht
Oudegracht is literally an ‘old canal’ that flows through the center of Utrecht. It’s a popular dining area with lots of cafes and restaurants by the water.
If you’ve been in Amsterdam and seen its canals you will notice that Oudegracht is different with its high banks and underground tunnels by the canal. To reduce the risk of flooding the canals were built with high banks, so that the road and houses standing high above the water. But what you won’t see if you don’t get down to the canal level are multiple wharfs and tunnels going from the wharfs to underground cellars of the old houses. These days many of those cellars in the central part of Oudegracht are converted into restaurants.
Oudegracht is the most centrally located canal in Utrecht, but of course it’s not the only one. There are many streets in Utrecht with canals, green banks and parks by the water.
So, enjoy a stroll along one of the canals, have a beer by the water, or maybe even rent a boat to see Utrecht from the water.
Have a lunch at Neude
Another nice place with lots of dining options is Neude. Neude is a busy square in the center surrounded by some nice and old buildings. In warmer months there are lots of people sitting in the cafes outside. In colder months there is sometimes a fire for roasting marshmallows for kids and a food truck with popular Dutch desserts such as oliebollen. (Read about oliebollen and other Dutch food at 20 Foods to try in the Netherlands.)
Climb the Domtoren
Domtoren (Cathedral Tower) is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands (2nd tallest is Nieuwe Kerk in Delft and 3rd – The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwetoren in Amersfoort). It’s seen from many places of the old city and it’s the iconic feature of the city of Utrecht.
Domtoren was built in the 14th century and initially was part of Domkerk (see below), served as a belfry and also as a watchtower. Now it’s a 112.5m high freestanding tower separated from the cathedral by the Domplein square.
To climb the Domtoren to enjoy the views over the city you need to buy a ticket for a guided tour. For tickets and other information visit Domtoren website.
Visit Domkerk (St Martin’s Cathedral) and Domplein
Domkerk (also known as St Martin’s Cathedral) is a Gothic cathedral that once was Netherland’s largest church. St Martin’s Cathedral is the country’s only pre-Reformation cathedral and its history goes back as far the 7th century. Of course, the church was destroyed and rebuilt many times since then. At some point it was connected by the nave with the Domtoren, but the nave was destroyed in a storm in the 17th century. In its place there is a square – Domplein – between Domkerk and Domtoren.
Entrance to Domkerk is free, and there is a small cafe and a souvenir shop inside the cathedral.
Another historical landmark on Domplein is the building of Utrecht University Hall (Academiegebouw Universiteit Utrecht). It was built in the 15th century and is famous for being a location where the Union of Utrecht was signed in 1579 that served as the foundation of the Dutch Republic. Across the Utrecht University Hall there is a statue of Jan Van Nassau, who was the main author of the Union of Utrecht.
At the foot of Domtoren there is a Flora’s Hof (Flora’s Garden) – a small hidden gem. You can enjoy peace and quiet right in the middle of the tourist center of Utrecht. One entrance to the garden is behind a book shop on Servestraat, and another entrance is from the Domplein.
Walk through Pandhof van de Dom garden
When visiting St Martin’s Cathedral don’t miss its beautiful courtyard. Pandhof garden is located between Domkerk and University Hall and dates back to the 14th century. It has a medieval style arcade around the garden and a fountain in the middle. Free access to the garden is via an old gate from Domplein.
When we lived in Utrecht and friends and family visited us, we often took them on a sightseeing walk at Utrecht’s city center. Domplein with its Domtoren, Domkerk, Pandhof and University Hall was always a hit among our guests – everybody loved it. I myself have been there so many times and never tired of the views and the experience.
Snack with Dutch Fries or Frikandelen
Once you’re ready for a snack after walking in the city, try one of the Dutch popular street foods such as friet (‘fries’), frikandel (‘sausage’) or kroket. Read more about Dutch food in my post about 20 Foods to try in the Netherlands.
You will find several stalls and kiosks with fries and other hot snacks around the city center. Manneken Pis at Bakkerstraat, Steenweg or Stationsplein, Frietwinkel at Vinkenburgstraat – just to name a few.
Tour a windmill in the city
Molen de Ster is a working windmill not far from the Utrecht Central station. It’s open to the public every Saturday afternoon. They have volunteers that will guide you through the windmill, tell its history and explain how it works.
Another windmill you can see in Utrecht city center is Molen Rijn en Zon. It’s not functioning any longer, but it’s still a nice sight to pass by and take a photo of!
Visit a museum
Depending on how much time you have in the city you may want to visit one of the museums in Utrecht. Utrecht has a nice selection of museums, and I want to list some of our favourite ones. You can choose which one(s) to visit depending on your interests and available time.
You can also read about some of the Utrecht museums in our post on Favourite places to visit in Utrecht with kids.
The Railway Museum (Het Spoorwegmuseum) is located at the former railway station – Maliebaan station in Utrecht. They have real coaches, locomotives and trains on the displays. A techlab for kids to learn and get hands-on experience with how trains work. Model trains, an outdoor playground with a mini railway and train ride, and much more.
If you are travelling with small children, consider visiting the Miffy Museum. The museum in the center of Utrecht is designed for small kids (I’d say under 5 y.o.) and dedicated to the popular Dutch book and cartoon character – a little rabbit Miffy (or Nijntje). The museum is more like a set of indoor playgrounds, where kids can play and have fun in fully hands-on experience.
Museum Speelklok in the Utrecht city center has a large collection of self-playing musical instruments. It has centuries old musical boxes and musical clocks, self-playing orchestras and street organs. You can take a guided tour or wander in the museum on your own.
The National Military Museum is located approximately 30 min drive from Utrecht. It has tanks, planes, armour and weaponry on display. Plus an interactive area where adults and children alike can go on a flight simulator, ride a horse (simulator) and try other interactive exhibits.
Tip: If you are planning to visit several museums and castles in the Netherlands, it might be worth buying Dutch Museum Card. It gives you a free entrance to hundreds of museums across the country and it is valid for a year. You can buy Museum Card online or simply at one of the museums.
Explore a castle
Castle De Haar is the largest castle in the Netherlands and a really cool place to visit. It’s located just outside Utrecht and is easily reachable by bus, car or a bike. Explore inside the castle – its many rooms, furniture and interior. Admire beautiful gardens of De Haar, rose garden, rows of flowers in front of the castle, romantic bridge, moats and lakes, and a huge park.
Another castle you can visit in Utrecht is Zuylen Castle. It’s located north of the city along the river Vecht. Explore the castle and its gardens at your own pace, or take advantage of a free audio tour (with paying entrance ticket) using your own phone and a headset.
Other things to see in Utrecht
There are so many more things to see and do in Utrecht. Walk streets of Lombok, visit Voorveldse Polder park in summer, Wilhelmina park in autumn, cycle along the Kanaalweg or check out one of the events on Jaarbeurs. I could list every park we’ve been to and liked, every street in the old town we walked and admired. And many more canals with nice green areas on the sides for a picnic, stroll or just some quiet time in the city. You simply won’t have enough time to see it all in a day. So I’ve tried (even though it was very hard! 🙂 ) to pick only the best things to do in Utrecht in one day.
We had a really great time living in Utrecht and were happy to call this Dutch city our home for three years. I hope you will enjoy visiting this Dutch city too!
If you are travelling with children make sure to check our post on Favourite places to visit in Utrecht with kids!