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World > Netherlands > Utrecht
City Guide Utrecht
General Information
A charming and cosmopolitan city, Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands and the capital of the province of Utrecht. It is a very old city, officially founded around 50 AD when a Roman fortification was built there, and inhabited as far back as the Bronze Age. The centre of Utrecht is full of old buildings, and has noteworthy architecture from the medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and later periods. Like Amsterdam, the city has many cobblestone streets and old canals running through it, giving it a quaint and unique character. Utrecht’s canals are distinctive from others in Holland, however, as many are located well below street level, and on the main Oude Gracht there are many stairs going down to waterside terraces. Utrecht is also a university town and has long been one of the main cultural, economic and political centres of the Netherlands. It is also a popular tourist destination, as not only the historic city centre, the picturesque canals, and the many events draw visitors, but also the beautiful and peaceful surrounding countryside.
Holland has a mild and wet climate. Summer temperatures rarely get really hot, and on average stay between 17 - 26ªC (63 - 79ªF). Temperatures also rarely drop below freezing in the winter, and generally stay between 2 - 13ªC (35.5 - 55ª F). It still manages to feel quite cold, however, partly due to it being frequently damp and windy. Rain is common and should be expected at any time of year. The best stretches of weather often occur in the fall, when there tends to be more sun, and the days are often warm with a crisp breeze.
The language spoken in Utrecht is Dutch. The vast majority of people in Holland can speak English, however, and in the major cities and touristy places they are generally quite fluent.
The Netherlands is known as a country where religion is not very popular, and it has the highest percentage of athiests of any country. Only about 39% of the population defines themselves as religious. Catholics make up the largest religious group, followed by Protestants, and there is now also a sizeable Muslim population. There are also small numbers of Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists, making up collectively less than 3% of the population.
The currency which is used in the Netherlands is the Euro. Notes come in denominations of €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5 and the coins in use are €2, €1, € 0.50, € 0.20, € 0.10, € 0.05.
Service charges are almost always included in restaurant bills and taxi fares, but additional tipping is customary. For small bills in restaurants, it is normal to just round up the bill, or add a euro or two if the service was excellent. For larger bills, you can tip between 5-10%, but should not feel obligated to tip if the service was not satisfactory. In general, the Dutch are stingy about tipping, and just give whatever they feel like, not worrying about the percentage. When taking taxis, however, a tip of around 10% is customary. Hotel room service will also expect a small tip, as well as porters and restroom attendants.
Sales tax in The Netherlands is 19%, and is included in the shop prices. This tax can be refunded to tourists from outside of the EU whenever €50 or more is spent in the same shop on the same day. This only works in shops participating in Global Refund Tax Free Shopping, most of which display a sign in the window. Along with your receipt, the shop will present you with a form to fill out, to give to officials at the airport. All you have to do to get your refund is go to the Global Cash Refund Office before check in (in departure hall 3). Note that whatever you buy has to leave The Netherlands within three months for you to get a refund.
There are public telephones all over Utrecht, which can be found on the street, in train stations, post offices, and some other establishments. Some of them take cash, but most take only phone cards or credit cards. You can buy phone cards in values of € 5, 10, or 20 at tobacco shops, telecom shops, newsstands, and post offices. The country code of The Netherlands is +31 and the area code for Utrecht is 030. To dial a number in Utrecht from abroad, dial 00 31 30 followed by the local number.
There are many internet cafés throughout Utrecht, easy recognizable on the commercial streets in the centre of the city. Most of them also feature long distance phone calls, photocopying, fax, printing, and other services. Many regular cafés also offer free wifi.
Emergency Numbers
All-purpose emergency number (ambulance, fire and police): 112
Opening Times
In general, shops are open Mon - Fri 10 am - 6 pm and Sat 10 am - 4 pm. Some shops open at 9 am, and supermarkets and other big stores often stay open until 8 or 9 pm. It is also common for stores to open later on Monday, either at 11 am or 1 pm. On Thursday night many shops stay open late, until 8 or 9 pm. Most stores are closed on Sunday, but night shops or “avondwinkels” stay open. These shops are also open nightly until about 1 or 2 am. Banks are open Mon - Fri from 9 am - 4 or 5 pm. Post offices also open at 9 am and close at 5 or 6 pm.
Public Holidays
On the following days, most shops, banks and museums will be closed, and public transport is likely to be more limited. 1 January, New Year’s Day Good Friday Easter Sunday and Monday 30 April, Queen’s Day 5 May, Liberation Day Ascension Day Whit Sunday and Monday 25 and 26 December, Christmas
Utrecht is generally a very safe place to visit, and violent crime rates are quite low. You don’t need to worry about being mugged or attacked if you follow basic common-sense safety precautions. As in most cities, pickpocketing is the most common crime against tourists in Utrecht, but you can reduce the risk of it happening to you by carrying your valuables in a secure place and not leaving any bags or coats unattended.
Utrecht is a beautiful city that is full of sights to see and things to do, yet it has a more relaxed atmosphere than the other major Dutch cities. Known for its serene, ancient canals, its remarkable architecture, its university, its musuems, and its churches, the city offers a wide range of attractions to explore, most of which are conveniently clustered in the relatively small city centre. The centre is also full of shops of every description and a wide variety of cozy restaurants and cafés. Many of the cobblestone streets and squares in the centre are for pedestrians only, making sightseeing and shopping by foot more easy and enjoyable. Utrecht also has some beautiful parks and gardens, and a number of old castles, both on the outskirts of the city and a bit further afield.
The Central Museum
It is the oldest municipal museum in Holland. The museum is the proud owner of the largest Rietveld collection in the world and of a very special 16th and 17th century collection of Utrecht masters (the Caravaggists) from the Golden Century.
Museum of 18th century music i
It is housed in the beautifully restored medieval Buurkerk church, right in the center of the old city of Utrecht. The music box, pianola, street- and dance hall organs, belly organs, and organ clocks, are all part of the world of mechanical music instruments. Many examples of these instruments can be found in the museum''''s collection, but naturally in this museum, the typical Dutch automata play the leading role.
The Railway Museum
With over sixty historic locomotives, railway carriages and wagons, the museum offers visitors a view of many centuries past in the perfect setting of a 19th century rail terminus.
Catharijne Convent
A museum filled with religious art that documents the history of Christianity in the Netherlands. This remarkable museum is housed in a medieval monastery.
Rietveld-Schröder House
Designed in 1924 by the architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, the Rietveld-Schröder House reaches the peak of "De Stijl" architecture, popular in the early 20th century. This unique house appears on the world list of protected buildings and monuments
Dom Tower
The majestic Gothic Cathedral stands next to the Dom Tower, which dominates the skyline of the city and offers an excellent view over the city and its historic sites.
Utrecht’s famous cathedral, known as the Dom, has a 110 metre tall tower that is one of the city’s most easily-recognizable landmarks. The tower was built between 1321 and 1383, and has remained standing ever since, even though the nave of the cathedral collapsed during a huge storm in 1674. The view from the top of the tower is extraordinary and is the best way to get a panoramic view of Utrecht. The climb to the top of the tower is up 465 steps, and takes you past the St. Michael’s chapel about halfway up, as well as the church’s enormous bells. These bells were restored in 1999 and now make up the largest carillon in Europe. Entrance prices: € 7.50 for adults, € 6.50 for students, € 4.50 for children 5 - 12
Rietveld-Schröder House
This house is a famous monument and example of the Dutch “De Stijl” architecture, which was popular in the early 1900s. The house was built in 1924 by the architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld as a small family house. The building is remarkable for both its interior and exterior architecture, in its spatial arrangement and use of form and line, and is considered one of the best examples of early modern architecture in Holland.
Kasteel de Haar
Located just outside of Utrecht in the nearby village of Haarzuilens, Kasteel de Haar is probably the most impressive castle in this region. It was built in the late 14th century in a grand Gothic style, with romantic turrets, a moat, and amazing decorative stonework. Additionally, an entire village was moved in order to make room for the elegant formal gardens surrounding the castle. Its interior is still richly furnished in the style of the 14th and 15th centuries, and the walls are hung with original paintings from this period and precious Gobelin tapestries. The castle was extensively restored at the end of the 19th century, and still retains much of its glory and grandeur. Entrance prices: € 8 for adults, € 5 for children 5 - 12
Slot Zeist
Located just outside of Utrecht, Slot Zeist is a castle that was built between 1677 and 1687 for Willem Adriaan van Nassau. It was designed by the renowned French architect Daniël Marot, and though it has a rather plain brick exterior, the inside is resplendent and lavish in typical baroque style. One of the highlights are Marot’s murals and ceiling paintings, many of which survive in good condition, as well as the ornate gilded wood paneling and antique furniture. The castle is surrounded by extensive formal gardens which were re-landscaped in the 19th century and made into more of a park. Entrance prices: € 4 for adults, € 2.50 for children
Slot Zuylen
Yet another castle in the environs of Utrecht, Slot Zuylen is located just 5 km north of the city. It is one of the best examples of a medieval castle to survive in Holland, and was built in the late 13th century. It was used as a residence until the early 20th century and became a musuem in 1952. Visitors can tour the rooms which are furnished in period styles, from the 17th - 19th centuries, as well as visit the unique landscaped gardens. Entrance prices: € 6 for adults, € 5 for seniors, € 4 for children 4 - 16
Domkerk/Cathedral of St. Marti
This grand cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in Utrecht, located right in the middle of town. The cathedral took almost three hundred years to build, and was constructed between 1254 and 1517. A large section of the nave collapsed during a terrible storm in 1674 and was never rebuilt. What survives intact today is the choir, the trancepts, two side chapels and the cathedral tower. The interior contains a number of tombs and some historic altar pieces and statues, many of which were defaced by iconoclasts in the 1500s. Visitors can climb up the cathedral tower, which is the highest in the Netherlands, and be rewarded by a beautiful view over the city.
St. Janskerk
This ancient and attractive redbrick church is located on a pleasant square filled with trees in the centre of town. The structure of the church was first built around 1050 as a Romanesque basilica, and the the choir was added much later in 1539. A new façade was built in 1682, and later restored in 1986. The interior is simply decorated in typical Dutch style, and one of the highlights is the painting on the wooden barrel-vaulting which was done in the 13th century.
Nicolaï Church
This church was built in the early 12th century and is distinctive because of its two towers. It was originally built in the shape of a Roman cross basilica, but in the 15th century was altered into a Gothic-style hall church. It was also originally a Catholic church, but has been Protestant since 1579. It is known for its three large organs, the oldest of which was installed in 1888. Opening times: Tues- Sat 12 pm- 5 pm
Sint Pieterskerk
Located in a quiet, tree-lined area of the city not far from the central station, the St. Pieterskerk is the oldest church in the old town. It was consecrated in 1048, and a good portion of the stonework from this period survives. The high choir and transcepts were added later in the Gothic period. Highlights inside the church include its wall paintings, some 12th-century reliefs, and the unique columns in the nave.
Botanical Gardens
These beautiful botanic gardens are maintained by Utrecht University and located on the campus in the Uithof. They feature both outdoor landscaped gardens and a rock garden, as well as a number of greenhouses containing rare and exotic tropical and subtropical plants. There is also an arboretum that is affiliated with the gardens, but this is located in the nearby village of Doorn. Opening times: Mar - Nov: Daily 10 am - 4 pm
This elegant historic park has been around since 1898 and is a popular place to come for picnics, bike rides, walks and more. It is laid out in the style of an English landscaped park and features lots of grassy areas, old tall trees, and various walking and biking paths. In the spring and summer there are also some beautiful flowers and flowering trees.
Hoogelandse Park
This is a small, charming park perfect for a short stroll, a picnic, or a pleasant read on a park bench. It has nice trees, plenty of flowers in the spring, and some small ponds and is located just a little ways north of the Wilhelmina park.