In Amsterdam: Cycles, art, charm, canals — and crowds and new rules

Amsterdam really knows how to bring a party down. Thankfully. In the past couple of years, the Dutch capital has banned booze cruises on wheels (a.k.a. beer bikes), halted official tours of the red-light district, and initiated on-the-spot fines of up to about $155 for public urination, drunkenness and disturbance. It even removed the iconic photo-magnet “I amsterdam” sculpture from one of its squares.

But even without out-of-control merrymakers and selfie-takers, Amsterdam, with its charming canals, world-class art and appealing architecture, is still receiving more love than it can handle. In 2018, some 18.5 million tourists visited this city of 850,000 people, which is why even the city’s tourism officials are encouraging visitors to check out other destinations.

That said, a stop here is a total treat, no matter the crowds — just make it quick. Book your museum visits ahead of time, take a canal cruise and join a bicycle tour. Venture out from the city center to quieter neighborhoods, such as Westerpark and Amsterdam Noord.

Location: Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is in northwest Europe.

In Utrecht: Cycles, art, charm, space — and its own style of canals

The closest thing you’ll find to a beer-bike tour in Utrecht, a lively university town 30 minutes south of Amsterdam by train, is a tour of craft breweries by bicycle. Utrecht, the country’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing city, with 350,000 residents and 70,000 students, still manages to maintain a smallish-town feeling, especially in the medieval center.

The world’s largest bicycle parking garage, with space for 12,500 bikes, lies under the train station. Consider renting a bike there to check out the city’s enviable, constantly improving cycle infrastructure.

Head first to 2,000-year-old Dom Square, where the Romans built the castellum Traiectum, a fort that became the city’s foundation. Climb the 465 steps to the top of the country’s tallest bell tower (368 feet) for a stellar view of the region — all the way to Amsterdam, if the skies are clear.

Utrecht’s 12th-century canal system might lack grand Amsterdam-style canal houses, but it offers a distinctive below-street-level system of wharfs and cellars. Once used for docking and storage, they now host apartments, shops and cafes. In pleasant weather, small boats traverse the waterways — you can rent all types, including paddleboats.

Another waterfront option is the Rotsoord neighborhood south of the city center, a former industrial area drawing locals with new restaurants, bars and start-up businesses.

While Amsterdam has Dutch masters and Van Gogh, Utrecht has designer-architect Gerrit Rietveld and, tangentially, painter Piet Mondrian (who hails from nearby Amersfoort). Both were connected to the early-20th-century abstract art movement de Stijl, known for geometric shapes and primary colors. Utrecht’s Centraal Museum houses the world’s largest Rietveld collection, including the original “Red Blue Chair”; travelers can also tour a 1924 home designed by the artist. Younger art patrons in tow? Consider a stop at the Miffy Museum, honoring the character created by native son Dick Bruna. It’s a treat for all ages.

Location: Utrecht, the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands, is 25 miles south of Amsterdam.

Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.