Lesser-known Dutch city is as lively and hip as Amsterdam
By DIANE DANIEL | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 23, 2015
This summer an international audience will discover what the locals already know: that Utrecht is a vibrant, architecturally distinctive place hidden in the shadow of Amsterdam, its famous neighbor to the north.
My most recent visit to the Dutch city of 330,000 was in February, when one of the few signs of its anointment as the host of the “Grand Depart” for this year’s Tour de France was a minimalist statue of a red bicycle in the town center. In July, the world-famous bike race will start here before moving on to France, a two-day event expected to draw a couple hundred bike racers and more than 750,000 spectators. A 100-day countdown of activities kicked off March 26.
Even without such fanfare, Utrecht is lively. With more than 70,000 students at the city’s two universities, there’s always something going on — and a lot of people going out.
Because many tourists arrive by train from Amsterdam, a 30-minute trip, their tour of Utrecht begins at the station, which means at the mall. Yep, the only route from the central station into a medieval town full of character is through a modern shopping center devoid of it, a sad fact that will happily change with a planned station overhaul. Many locals pride themselves in hating the Hoog Catharijne mall, but there are a couple things worth checking out there.
First, there’s the bunny. The mall presents your earliest opportunity to meet Miffy — in this incarnation a 6-foot-tall plastic statue that kids (and some adults) hug, kiss and climb on — but it will not be the last. If you don’t already know Miffy, you will by the time you leave Utrecht. The beloved bunny — star of children’s books that have sold more than 85 million copies in dozens of languages, plus two television series and a movie — was created by native son Dick Bruna. Although you wouldn’t know it by her baby-smooth skin, Miffy (who goes by Nijntje in Dutch) just turned 60. To celebrate, she gets two new museum exhibits and a turn as the Tour de France’s mascot, with her likeness topping the race’s pace cars.
One worthwhile stop before fleeing the mall is a little-known overlook from the top floor of the V&D department store. Take four escalators up to reach its restaurant and patio, from which the eastern expanse of the city unfolds, including the 368-foot Dom Tower. Later, if you’re able, you should climb the Dom’s 465 steps to the top for a stellar view.
Although Utrecht is walkable, from here you might want to rent a bike and join the multitude of two-wheelers. I cycled toward the Centraal Museum via the still-sleepy Oudegracht (Old Canal), a curving brick-lined street that by afternoon would become clogged with pedestrians. The Oudegracht, Utrecht’s version of a promenade, follows the city’s main waterway and is lined with shops and cafes.
Below street level, along the 11th-century canals, lies the city’s most distinctive architectural feature: its system of brick wharfs and cellars. The wharfs started as docking areas for delivery boats, while the cellars were used for storage. These days, many of the narrow, deep cellars serve as apartments and businesses. Stairways allow you to climb from canal level to street level, and many restaurants have water-facing patios both upstairs and downstairs. From spring through fall, a parade of boats and kayaks goes by, turning Oudegracht into an even merrier destination.
My visit to the Centraal Museum was quick, because most wings were closed for a renovation that has since been completed. The permanent collection contains both historical and contemporary works and includes a fantastic assortment of furniture by Dutch architects and designers Piet Klaarhamer and his famed student, Gerrit Rietveld. The museum also oversees the Rietveld Schröder House, 10 minutes away by bicycle. The house, reflecting the early 20th-century De Stijl movement, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In the bunny department, the exhibit “Miffy, From 1955 to Today” runs from summer to early fall and has areas for adults and children. On Sept. 5, the museum will inaugurate a permanent re-creation of Bruna’s studio, using furnishings and materials donated by the 87-year-old illustrator and writer. A short hop across the street and also part of the museum is the Dick Bruna House, a paean to all things Nijntje, and soon to be renamed the Miffy Museum.
Rounding out the rabbit hunt, I tracked down the cute Miffy traffic lights in front of the Bi-jenkorf department store and the Miffy sculpture on the Nijntje Pleintje (it means square, and the name rhymes in Dutch). The diminutive bronze statue was made by Bruna’s son, Marc.
The focus of Utrecht’s city center is the cathedral tower. Even if you don’t take the tour to the top, at least give the tower a look and consider that it sits atop the remains of the original Roman city, dating back 2,000 years. A new attraction that opened in the summer, Dom Under, takes visitors through both authentic and re-created ruins.
At the recommendation of a friend who knows I favor lunch spots that focus on fresh ingredients without making a big deal about it, I popped into Daen’s to refuel. I was impressed that Daen’s makes its own hummus, ketchup, granola and other items that are easy enough to buy - not the Dutch norm. The cozy and colorful cafe and wine bar is connected to a trendy clothing store of the same name. In warmer weather, I would have headed to Daen’s patio for some serious people-watching. Owner Willem Van Oostrum, who opened the shop a few years ago in the former fire station, told me he’s noticed a surge in visitors and a new wave of stores and restaurants in the last few years. “It’s nice to see people looking outside of Amsterdam for something to do,” he said. “Utrecht is compact, a little more authentic.” It’s also getting a little cooler, too, in part thanks to Puha, a clothing and lifestyle shop featuring young designers. The owners literally put the stylish side of Utrecht on the map with its Puha Shop Route, a fold-out map and app that notes the “in” spots for eating, drinking, shopping and sleeping. Several of those places are their neighbors on Voorstraat, a once-seedy address. “It used to be a not-so-nice back alley, and now it’s the center of things,” said co-owner Taam Karsdorp. She and her partner, Said Belhadj, opened the store five years ago in part to give creative friends a reason to stay in Utrecht. “I thought, I’m going to create a place for them to sell their work,” Karsdorp said. “When we started, there were just a few little shops. Now it’s a whole scene.”
Voorstraat standouts include Revenge, selling fashion-forward clothing and shoes for men and women, with a hair salon in the back; and Klijs & Boon, known for its exclusive Scandinavian labels, including Danish designers Henrik Vibskov and Han Kjøbenhavn.
If Utrecht has a hipster headquarters, it’s surely the Village Coffee, a tattoo-filled joint where you almost always have to speak loudly to be heard. It was started by two locals after both had spent time in the United States. Lennaert Meijboom became interested in coffee production while working for a surfing company in Hawaii, and Angelo van de Weerd studied up on coffee culture when he was a roadie with a Belgian rock band touring the East Coast. (The shop often hosts warm-up shows for touring bands playing larger venues.)
“I really got into the whole coffee-shop scene,” said van de Weerd. “At home, we only had chains and super-boring shops.”
On my last stop, at a tiny boutique called the Hunted, I met owners Joyce Snijders and Soleil Sturm, who have become local celebrities for selling a line of clothing stamped with “Utca,” an underground nickname for Utrecht.
It started when they took their original streetwear designs to a fashion trade show in Amsterdam and a prospective buyer asked them what part of the city they were from. “I said, ‘We’re not from Amsterdam, we’re from Utrecht,’ “ Snijders recalled. “He said, ‘Good luck with that.’ “
The women, in their 20s, turned the snub into inspiration and unveiled the clothing line they call Utca’s Finest.
“It’s just exploded,” Snijders says. “Until January, we only had an online store, but everyone begged us to open a shop. People tell us they can’t wait to wear our Utca shirts outside of Utrecht, especially in Amsterdam.”