Alternative city guide: culture and cafes in Utrecht, the Netherlands

Utrecht was the most important city in the Netherlands until it was overtaken by Amsterdam in the 17th century during the Dutch golden age of trade and advances in science, art and military power. Over the years since, it has played second fiddle to its big brother in the north – but it has an obvious and growing belief in its own charms, news of which is starting to spread.

It’s three years since my previous visit, and this time I hear some Utrechters complaining that the centre – a picture-postcard Dutch feast of canals, curving cobbled streets and baroque and Gothic medieval architecture – has become a little over-full of tourists. Even in high season that is very much relative, however, especially when compared with Amsterdam. In fact, it’s outside the centre that parts of the city have become hotspots lately, as new businesses look for cheaper rents, and residents and in-the-know visitors look for new hangouts off the beaten track.

Rotsoord, a former industrial area south of the centre, has seen an influx of creatives, startups, independent stores, bars and restaurants in the past couple of years. Cartesius, to the west, has also been partially transformed by the arrival of various DIY venues, cafes and cultural organisations, among them cinema, cafe and club Filmcafe, art space and cafe De Nijverheid, brewery, bar and restaurant De Leckere and club venue WAS.

Lombok, one of the city’s most culturally diverse neighbourhoods, is home to the Utrecht Central Mosque (affectionately known as “the techno mosque” for its gigantic neon-lit minarets) and the increasingly popular thoroughfare Kanaalstraat, lined with Turkish and Moroccan grocery stores, bakeries, cafes and kebab shops.

I based myself in the old centre and explored by bike. Even in the context of the Netherlands, Utrecht is an exceptional cycling city, ranking third in the world on the 2019 Copenhagenize list, and as of August 2019 is home to the world’s largest multi-storey bike park. The network of buses and trams is comprehensive (a day ticket is €6.20) but the layout of Utrecht’s ancient central streets often creates congestion, so biking really is best for anyone who can.

Food and drink

Utrecht’s beer bars are the stuff of fantasy for beer lovers, with encyclopaedic menus, reasonable prices and only a light hipsterisation in even the newest and most cutting-edge places. The canalside Kafe Belgie opened in 1984 and is a beloved, no-nonsense institution offering around 200 brews, its looming slat-board menu watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary tightly clutching a rainbow Pride flag. The day I visited was the hottest in the city since records began, so refreshment was my primary consideration. I had an Alfa (€2.40) and a Martin’s IPA (€4.60), and dreamed of returning when conditions were less oven-like to delve deeper into the menu.

Café Olivier is another beloved central spot, with a wide beer selection and alarmingly moreish bitterballen (deep-fried beef or veal meatballs – the nation’s beer snack of choice, €6.50). De Kromme Haring, a brewpub at the end of a row of startups and restaurants in Rotsoord, is a fine example of the exciting things happening away from the centre. In the spirit of adventure I tried an Electric Clownfish, a weirdly delicious coffee milk stout made using beans from the roastery next door. Informal collaborations like this between young businesses in these areas are commonplace, and contribute to the positive, forward-looking atmosphere.

Rembrandt’s Holland: exploring Amsterdam and Leiden

Back in the old centre, the basements of buildings on the Oudegracht canal create a two-level street and, very often, two levels of bars to choose from. One evening a friend and I drank a bottle of prosecco (€27) in the sunshine at PK Kitchen before heading downstairs to the lively terrace of the Rum Club for a cocktail called I’m in Love with the Coco – a gently tart, smooth, almost chewy mix of rum, coconut cream, lime, pineapple, guava and banana (€9.50) – by the water as night fell.

The cost of eating out in Utrecht is similar to London, so some knowledge of economical lunch options is useful. I found a fresh, punchy and very filling salmon and avocado poké bowl (€11.50) at Poké Perfect and a herby, creamy lamb pita (€9.50) around the corner at the Streetfood Club. My attempt to sample a Utrecht lunch institution in the form of the cheese, salami and vegetable-filled Broodje Mario was thwarted by the outlet of the same name being unexpectedly shut, but a bulging Parma ham, Old Amsterdam cheese, rocket and pesto roll (€5.25) from the nearby Broodje Ben food truck proved a satisfying alternative at a similarlylow cost.

I had a memorable and far from bank-breaking dinner at the friendly SYR, where refugees and Dutch staff work together to create Syrian dishes such as mashawi (a lip-smacking mixed grill of chicken and beef skewers and lamb cutlets served with pita and a spicy muhammara dip, €18) and makdous salad (pickled baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts, red pepper and garlic, €5). An even warmer welcome awaited me at Sunshine, where I worked my way through a combination plate of Ethiopian dishes including kitfo (a dreamily succulent mix of raw beef and Ethiopian butter, €17) and gommen wot (kale with peppers, onions, garlic and chilli, €15). The charming and gregarious Andu, son of the owner, gave me a passionate mini seminar on the history and natural wonders of Ethiopia and even taught me a few words of his native language.

Art and culture

Top of anyone’s cultural to-do list in Utrecht should be the wondrous Rietveld Schröder House, a Unesco-protected semi-detached house designed by Gerrit Rietveld, architectural hero of the De Stijl art movement, founded in 1917. Tours of this design masterpiece run hourly (€17), with a guide to demonstrate various aspects of the house and an audio guide explaining the rest. It’s a splendid example of De Stijl, with every room and piece of furniture showcasing the movement’s core reliance on vertical and horizontal lines, primary colours and black and white. It’s also ingenious, with movable walls upstairs that create rooms or open space as required, corner windows that open perpendicular to each other to create the feeling of being outside, and three-dimensional design to maximise the use of space.

Another must – as long as climbing 465 narrow, winding steps doesn’t faze you – is the Dom Tower, which still dominates the skyline of the city 637 years on from its completion. The 112-metre climb-cum-tour (€10) is mercifully broken up by stops on each floor to admire the tower’s inner architecture as well as its 13 enormous bells (at 40 metres) and viewing galleries at 70 and 95 metres. The reward for making it to the top is an unmatched panorama of the city: on a clear day you can make out Rotterdam to the west and Amsterdam to the north. (The top is closed for restoration until 6 October 2019, but in the meantime you can still climb to 70 metres, and other rooms have been opened to visitors in compensation.)

Exploring the Centraal Museum (€14) could fill a whole day – I had limited time and decided on Duran Lantink’s Old Stock (running until 27 October), a thought-provoking protest against fast fashion, whose most striking aspect was a semi-destroyed recreation of a clothing store with the words “No spending that they did was done with measure” spraypainted on the wall.

Music, festivals and nightlife

Although Amsterdam remains the centre of the Dutch music scene, Utrecht punches well above its weight in that regard, with a healthy array of local talent (the dream-pop band Amber Arcades and internationally acclaimed DJ Carista are notable natives) and venues that attract a constant stream of high-calibre international names. The top music-related reason to visit is undoubtedly Le Guess Who?, an annual four-day event that puts most other festivals in Europe to shame for both diversity and organisation (full pass €148, day tickets €43/€48). On the second weekend of each November it takes over the city with gigs celebrating “global sounds and musical boundary-crossing” in an array of venues including the thousand-year-old Janskerk church.

The main hub of Le Guess Who? is TivoliVredenburg, a world-class, multi-space venue that hosts gigs of various sizes all year round. EKKO, De Helling and dB’s are among a strong clutch of smaller venues that host rising domestic and international artists, many of whom “graduate” to playing TivoliVredenburg further down the line.

Things are getting going again now in Utrecht, but it is a student city and the gig and club schedules are light during the summer: some places, including WAS, close until the start of September, while the city’s other high-quality club BASIS remains open but takes the action up a notch from September, with respected DJs and producers such as Shlomo and Mind Against appearing in 2019.

Gardens and parks

One of the purest pleasures in Utrecht is whiling away time in the city’s many gorgeous parks and gardens. I found a couple of hours wandering through the wonderfulBotanic Gardens (€8.50) deeply calming, while in the centre of town another horticultural gem is the Oude Hortus (€8), which has a cafe, century-old greenhouses and an orangery dating back to 1724.

With its lake, fountains and sculptures, Wilhelminapark, to the south-east of the centre, is an obvious delight. I found the slight strangeness of Griftpark, which has been landscaped over a former rubbish dump and which I stumbled upon by chance during an after-dinner cycle, even more alluring. When I arrived near sunset an impromptu but high-quality gig was in progress by the canal. I lingered for a while and then walked over a bridge to find an even lovelier summer scene: a large group of young people practising rock’n’roll dancing on the top of a symmetrical grassy knoll, their graceful moves silhouetted against the last embers of daylight in the sky.
The trip was provided by Utrecht Marketing. Doubles at NH Centre Utrecht start at around £115 B&B. Non-fly options include Eurostar to Amsterdam, then train to Utrecht. More details at The Man In Seat 61

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