This City Has All the Charms of Amsterdam, Without the Crowds

What to eat, see, and do in Utrecht, the Netherlands’ artsy second city.

A canal in Utrecht lined with people and buildings

The best time to visit Utrecht is May through September.

Photo by Jussi Puikkonen

Lively university vibes, frisky nightlife, iconic canals . . . Utrecht offers much of what nearby Amsterdam does, without the crowds and fuss. (It also has delights all its own. Devotees of Miffy, the cartoon rabbit immortalized by Dutch artist Dick Bruna, are cheering the recent renovation and expansion of the city’s beloved Miffy Museum.) In addition to the classic sites—the Rietveld Schröder House, the Centraal Museum, the Van Schijndel House—the following belong on the traveler’s itinerary.

What to do in Utrecht

Left: two people picnicking in a park in Utrecht. Right: A photograph of a cathedral in Utrecht.

Máximapark has ample outdoor seating, plus a butterfly garden.

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen


Utrecht’s most visible landmark, this 14th-century Gothic bell tower rises 369 elevator-free feet above the city, an athletic attraction as well as a historic one. The heart and bowels of two Holy Roman emperors are allegedly interred here. This is old Utrecht distilled.

De Stijl Bike Tour

In honor of De Stijl’s 100th anniversary in 2017, the Utrecht tourism board, in collaboration with the Centraal Museum, designed a bicycle route to traverse the movement’s pivotal sites in the province: the old mansion where Gerrit Rietveld first designed furniture, Robert van’t Hoff’s modernist Villa Henny, a full-scale replica of Piet Mondrian’s studio, and more. Running 26 miles between Utrecht and Amersfoort, the gentle ride doubles as an idyllic tour of the surrounding region.


As Utrecht’s western edge grew, this urban park came along. Opened in 2013, Máximapark covers 741 gorgeous acres that are crisscrossed with bike paths, canals, gardens, marshes, art installations, and farms, making it a lovely place for a picnic and an all-day visit.

Art Walk

The painting didn’t stop after De Stijl. Contemporary Utrecht is jammed with inventive street art. Take a 1.5- to 2.5-hour walking tour with local operator Greetings from Utrecht to see the literary, the romantic, the notable, and the 3D, or download a map from the company for a self-guided jaunt around town.

Where to stay in Utrecht

The Nox Hotel Utrecht

A short stroll from Domtoren but tucked away on a quiet side street, this 23-room hotel blends modern with grand: Think hip globe lights in a 17th-century building. Great food awaits in every direction, including at French restaurant Hemel & Aarde downstairs.

Moxy Utrecht

Just outside the historic center, the 172-room property features a canalside terrace and, yes, an Instagram-ready model of Gerrit Rietveld’s famous chair. For a bigger helping of De Stijl, the Centraal Museum is a short bicycle ride away.

Where to eat in Utrecht

Left: A cup of coffee resting on a cafe table. Right: People dining in an outdoor café.

Ruby Rose is known for its decor, coffee, and wine.

Photos by Jussi Puikkonen


On the top two floors of a 1907 brick water tower, fine vistas collide with fine dining. Watertoren’s offers dishes such as haddock with sea buckthorn berry, and beetroot with furikake and elderflower, which diners can enjoy while gazing at panoramic views from the 10th-floor terrace or while watching the busy chefs from the tables on the ninth floor that encircle the open kitchen, effectively creating a high-end cooking show.

Ruby Rose

  • Location: Korte Jansstraat 23, 3512 GM Find on Google Maps

Originally a flower shop in a grand 1904 art nouveau building, Ruby Rose is a delightfully garish shrine to all things floral. The decor is a vibrant setting for the next-level charcuterie and salads (don’t miss the burrata). The café is on the Korte Jansstraat, near the sea of tulips and roses that is the Saturday Bloemenmarkt.

Chris Colin is a contributing writer for AFAR, the author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93 and Blindsight, and bassist for Baby and the Luvies. He was once in a film shot by chimps and teaches writing at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
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