Lifestyle & Culture

Utrecht: The authentically cool city Amsterdam wishes it could be

Amsterdam, like Venice, is being loved to death. The giant cruise ships pull up, the discount flights land and the crowds descend. It’s gotten so crazy that Amsterdam officials are attacking cheap tour operators while looking for ways to divert visitors to other Dutch cities. Like Utrecht.

Which is brilliant because Utrecht is one of the many Dutch cities overlooked and under appreciated.

The area along Oudegracht canal really comes alive in the summer.

So, I have a tip for all of you expats in Europe making summer travel plans: Consider Utrecht and Den Haag as alternative destinations to Amsterdam for 2017.

A few weeks ago, I offered up Den Haag. I actually wrote that post from Amsterdam, which at the time was under siege from Spring Break visitors from the United Kingdom.

It really was ugly … so bad we skipped making it a three-day weekend because the Sunday crowds were more than we could deal with.

We grabbed the train south to our home in Leenderstrijp. We should have stopped in Utrecht, which is only 45 minutes from where we live near Eindhoven.

Utrecht is nearly as large as Amsterdam, but it’s cooler in the sense that it doesn’t try as hard to be hip. It just is. Less self-conscious and affected.

In fact, I highly recommend it to expats living in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium as a great quick trip; a city where relaxing on a lazy Saturday or Sunday is an art. And as a city, rather than a travel destination, it gets my highest expat recommendation: I could live here.

Don’t let me mislead you. There are tourists here. I talked to the nice women who work at the big tourist desk in Utrecht Centraal Train Station, and they told me Utrecht is quite the popular spot in the summer. But the majority of tourists come from inside the Netherlands, or from the surrounding EU countries, especially Belgium.

Also, the popular areas of Utrecht such as Zoutmarkt, the restaurant district, already are really crowded with locals. I’m not sure it would be as likable with an influx of day trippers on tours.

There’s street level Utrecht, then there’s canal level Utrecht along the Oudegracht.

Let’s hope they never find out that in some ways, Utrecht is superior to Amsterdam:

• Most importantly Utrecht is a functioning city, not a tourist facade like too much of the center of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam – unless you detour down the residential canals – you pass too many sleazy Coffee Shops, the Sex Museum and all kinds of goofy tourist traps between the central train station and the Museum District.

Utrecht has none of that. The shops are stocked with stuff people living here need, from custom-made bicycles to very chic home furnishings.

• Utrecht doubles the fun along the Oudegracht canal. There aren’t the lavish Amsterdam-style Canal House mansions from the Dutch Golden Age lining Utrecht’s canals, or the fancy bridges. But in Utrecht, they use both the street level and water level passages along the canals. Lining the water along the Oudegracht are cellars dating back to the 13th Century.

They used to be warehouses and workshops/factories. Now, they’re house shops, cafés, and restaurants.

• While Utrecht is jam-packed with the same High Street apparel chains as every other European city, it has sooo many Indie boutiques and funky shops, especially in the ultra-groovy Oud Kerkshof area. Vintage clothing rules here at Vintage Island. And there’s outpost Episode, the Amsterdam-based chain that has vintage stores in Paris, Copenhagen, Antwerp, Brussels and across the Netherlands.

This is a university city. Utrecht University is one of the oldest and largest in the Netherlands, so Utrecht has a really young vibe. It also has all the amenities young Europeans seek, from shops with specialty outdoor gear to Third Wave coffee shops.

• As with Amsterdam, there are a lot of museums here. Unlike Amsterdam, they’re mostly odd, and downright funky including the Aboriginal Art Museum, a mechanical toy museum and a rail museum in a former train station. But the museum that tells you the most about this town is the Rietveld Schröderhuis.

The museum is a house designed by Gerrit Rietveld, who intended it as a leap into modern life. Rietveld was an adherent of the de Stijl school of architecture, which sought to bring together art and architecture. The Rietveld Schroderhuis is an experiment in “active living,” which is too complicated to go into in a travel post. Just spend some time in Utrecht and you’ll understand.

Benthem Crouwel Architects Amsterdam; OVT UC; Utrecht Centraal Station NS;

• The Utrecht Centraal train station is in itself a reason to check out the city. The gleaming, almost futuristic station is new and improved, and easily the nicest in the Netherlands, if not Europe. (Yes, even better than Stockholm’s central station.) The NS train system just finished a six-year, gazillion euro renovation and expansion last December. And it shows.

This is going to sound sort of trivial to travelers who don’t know how bad cramped/dated train stations can be. (Yeah, we’re talking to you, Amsterdam Centraal.) Utrecht station has 88 million passengers each year, a number projected to grow to 100 million by 2030. But the huge main area – the largest station in the Netherlands – never feels crowded, and there are all sorts of shops and restaurants. THEN, as you leave the station to go into the Old City, you wander down about a mile of food stands, cafes, groceries and shops. From the time you arrive, you’re sure to never go hungry or naked in Utrecht.

Utrecht is the largest city in the province of the same name, and there are castles and other attractions just a few minutes away. The Utrecht tourism website is superb, so go there first before you visit.

In the final analysis, this is the place where we take all our friends and investors. It’s that consistently great … and that weirdly undiscovered.

By the way, I’m not suggesting you avoid Amsterdam forever. Just the summer high season. (High as in vacation, not pot.) It is the most seductive city in Europe, which is why everyone goes.

I’m just saying, save Amsterdam for the winter, when it’s quiet.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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