City breaks in the Netherlands – Why Utrecht is the secret Amsterdam

  • City Breaks
  • The Netherlands
  • 8 min read
City breaks in the Netherlands – Why Utrecht is the secret Amsterdam

Lucy Shrimpton finds an evocative and easy-to-reach city break in the Netherlands: Utrecht.

City breaks in the Netherlands can be quite the adventure when you consider driving there from the UK means crossing four countries in the space of four hours. And when you do that seamlessly via LeShuttle through the incredible feat of world engineering that is the Channel Tunnel, the adventure’s greater still. Perhaps the most obvious of city breaks in the Netherlands would be its capital, Amsterdam, but if your head could be turned by an equally atmospheric Dutch canal city it could well be time to think about Utrecht – truly one of the country’s best-kept secrets.

A cyclist skirts the canal in Utrecht where a windmill graces the winter city skylineIn Utrecht you can expect the typical Netherlands trio of canal, bike, windmill | Credit: ©Bas van Setten /

Did you know that driving from Calais to Utrecht takes more or less the same time it takes to drive from Calais to Paris? What you can expect on this city break in the Netherlands is somewhere that delivers all the punch of Amsterdam in terms of its canal-side café culture, city cycling, World War Two history, art, independent shopping districts etc – just in a slightly neater way (and without the crowds).

Driving to the Netherlands via Dunkirk, Ghent and Antwerp

Your route driving to Utrecht from Calais to Utrecht is 208 miles’ long and passes three landmark cities: Dunkirk in France (approximately 27 miles into your journey), and Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium (approximately 92 miles and 127 miles into your journey respectively). Each is worthy of a stop, whether you’re looking to break up your journey for just fuel and coffee, or you wish to linger longer for some sightseeing.

Parking in Utrecht – and getting around the city

Once you’ve arrived in Utrecht, you’ll discover that this city break in the Netherlands is very much the car-free carefree kind, one in which you can park up and not have to put the keys in the ignition again for the duration of your stay. This is because Utrecht city council was ahead of the environmental curve making the historic heart of the city car-free, with people getting around on foot, on a boat, or by bike instead. (There are many places to hire bikes in Utrecht or you can easily take your own bike on LeShuttle.)

So, when you’re planning your city break in the Netherlands, you can decide if you want to choose a hotel with parking (many hotels have car parking including Hotel Karel V, Ibis Utrecht and the Carlton President) or if you want to leave your car in a secure long-term park-and-ride facility, such as Westraven or Science Park, both with fast and frequent tram connections into the city. 

Utrecht’s Science Park district with its rainbow cycle path and tram connections to the city centreLeave the car in the Science Park uni district for frequent tram connections into Utrecht centre | Credit: ©Ruben Drenth /

What to visit in Utrecht

Let’s face it; you’d feel short-changed if you came home from a city break in the Netherlands without clapping eyes on a picturesque canal. Well, you can rest assured this won’t be the case when you visit Utrecht. Strolling around the city’s two main canals in the historic heart of town is not only the most picturesque way to discover Utrecht, but also the most practical, since it helps you to get your bearings straight away. Here you’ll notice above all else how vibrant and untouristy the canals, streets and squares are, the city owing its cool vibes in no small measure to the large university population.

Start with the canal called Oudegracht (which translates as ‘old canal’), bursting with the old-world charm of Dutch waterways, bridges, and period townhouses repurposed into on-trend independent boutiques and cafes.

Then there’s Nieuwegracht (‘new canal’), running more or less parallel. Less commercial and more residential, it provides a quieter place to stroll and swoon at picture-postcard Dutch canal scenes.

Dotted around the old canal district in the historic heart of town you’ll find an abundance of fabulous museums. OK, Amsterdam may be the home of the Rijks Museum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House, but Utrecht has a whole host of unique and intriguing cultural facets behind its museum doors, including Centraal Museum (history, design and art), DOMunder (2,000 years of history beneath a city square) and the Miffy Museum (yes, the famous rabbit comes from Utrecht!).

Visitors in Utrecht stroll past a statue of Miffy, the world-famous bunny from the children’s book seriesMiffy sightings are all over! The famous bunny books were written and illustrated in Utrecht | Credit: ©Lotte Stierhout /

Marking the hub of the city, and above all other attractions (in every sense!), there’s the Domtoren tower, just one little side-street from Oudegracht canal. It’s the Netherlands’ highest church tower and you can hear its stories and make the most of its amazing views by climbing the thigh-busting 465 steps to the top on a guided tour. (Don’t worry, there are fascinating stages on the way up so that you can catch your breath!)

Where to shop in Utrecht

One of the glorious things about driving to the Netherlands (other than it being much a much quicker way to travel than taking the ferry, and much kinder to the planet than flying!) is the fact that you’ll have plenty of space in the car to take purchases home. And if you like originality, you’ve come to the right place: the Dutch are old masters of design and quality, in every realm from contemporary fashion and lifestyle to vintage and niche. As to where to find the best independent stores and concept stores, start with those on Oudegracht canal, then spoke out to find gems in streets like Twijnstraat, Voorstraat and Springweg.

If you’re more of a market moocher – stopping for coffee and a Dutch stroopwafel of course – time your trip to take in Utrecht’s food market, flower market, winter market, or the Breedstraat fabric market – it’s been going since 1597!

A typical independent shop in Utrecht combining original fashion and lifestyle inspirationIndie stores ooze classic Dutch design in fashion and lifestyle, so leave some space in the boot! | Credit: ©Jurjen Drenth /

Things that would be easy to miss when you’re visiting Utrecht

1. The ‘Rietveld Schröderhuis’, a modernist, Unesco-listed house in a suburb of Utrecht that’s become a major Utrecht landmark. Though at face value its palette and modularity might appear to come straight from the 1980s, incredibly it’s a century old. Expect intriguing tales about the visionary designers and the family who lived here.

With its angular form and primary colours, Utrecht’s Rietveld Schröderhuis looks modern but is a century oldThough Utrecht’s Unesco-listed Rietveld Schröder House may look super modern it’s a century old | Credit: ©Jurjen Drenth /

2. Utrecht is the only place in the world to have dual-level canal streets, one at townhouse level and the other right down at the water’s edge. The lower level, known as the ‘werf’ (wharf) is a narrow street of cobbles and old cellars, some of which have been imaginatively and stylishly converted into workshops, hotel rooms, event spaces and bars. Dotted all along the canal are steps, so head on down to take a look.

People enjoy a drink at cafes right at the water’s edge in Utrecht because of its dual-level canal streetsUtrecht’s canal streets are dual level so you can have coffee and a wander right at the water’s edge | Credit: ©Utrecht Marketing  /

3. Also look out – or rather look down – for golden pavement plaques. They’re called ‘stumbling stones’ and soberingly, they indicate properties from which former residents were deported during the Holocaust in WW2. For another poignant WW2 landmark, the Anne Frank statue has stood in Janskerkhof since 1960; it was the first statue of Anne Frank in the world and local children collected scrap iron and paper to pay for it.

4. The public library. Once the city’s post office HQ, the city library on Neude square is an art deco gem with an interior as impressive as a cathedral. It’s also home to another of Utrecht’s best kept secrets: a very swish place to have coffee.

With soaring arches, the grand art-deco style public library in Utrecht feels like a cathedralIn the public library in Utrecht you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a cathedral  | Credit:©Jelle Verhoeks  /

Where to stay on a city break in the Netherlands’ Utrecht

Whether you’re after somewhere cool and arty for coffee or a unique and memorable place to rest your head, consider Bunk Hotels Utrecht, an old church repurposed into a modernist place to stay. Dutch design at its best, you can choose from private hotel rooms, or enclosed ‘pods’ in shared sleeping space – so it’s like a boutique hotel and hostel all rolled into one. Buzzy dining and a smattering of contemporary art pieces add heaps of character.

Once a church, this art-filled, open-plan dining area sets the tone at boutiquey Bunk HotelsBunk Hotels’ art, food and boutique vibes make this former church Utrecht’s coolest place to stay | Credit: ©Bunk Hotel Utrecht /

If you’d prefer a stay right at the water’s edge, try the Court Hotel; three of its bedrooms are on the canal wharf.

Places to stop between Calais and Utrecht

Looking to break up the journey from Calais to your city break in the Netherlands? Want to make your Utrecht adventure into more of a multi-city road trip? Or maybe you just have time to kill before you get back on board? These three cities en route are worth the detour.

Break up the journey in Dunkirk

Those who’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’ will already know of the town’s historic episode heroically evacuating allied soldiers in WW2 (see the fabulous Operation Dynamo Museum), but did you know that Dunkirk’s also famous for the colourful art deco villas on its sandy beach? The locals know how to party too – their carnival season lasts three months!

Turreted, balconied and colourful, Dunkirk is known for the art deco grandeur of its beachside villasDunkirk near Calais is known for its WW2 history and for the architecture of its beachside villas | Credit: © CRTC Hauts-de-France _ Frédéric Astier

Break up the journey in Ghent

A city of towers, gables and cobbled lanes, there’s much to pull you to the centre of Ghent (the oft-stolen altar piece ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’; St Jacob’s vintage market; Keizerpark for picnics), but it’s post-industrial districts like Dok Noord that give you a satisfying sense of on-trend cultural regeneration.

A medieval heart, fabulous cathedral, and cutting-edge art and fashion museums provide the backdrop for Belgium’s second city, a major seaport. And in the country synonymous with choc, it would be rude to leave Antwerp without a tasting; head to the Chocolate Nation museum for Willy Wonka vibes. 

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About the author: Lucy Shrimpton

Off-piste childhood holidays, studying languages, and a keen sense of place all shaped Lucy’s career move to travel writing, her destinations of choice primarily in the UK, France, and the Netherlands. She compensates for a “poor sense of navigation” by drawing a rudimentary map wherever she goes, ‘X’ marking the spot for the best coffee and culture stops.

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