Thanks to some bikes and a bunny, this summer an international audience will discover what the locals already know: Utrecht is a vibrant, architecturally distinctive and happening 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 early 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 stage its start here before moving on to France, a two-day event expected to draw a couple hundred bike racers and upwards of 750,000 spectators. A 100-day countdown of celebratory activities kicks off March 26.
Even without such fanfare, Utrecht, in the Netherlands, 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. I live an hour away, in the opposite direction from Amsterdam, so I drove in and brought my bike. Because many tourists arrive by train from Amsterdam, a 30-minute trip, I started my tour 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, years-long station overhaul. Many locals pride themselves in hating the Hoog Catharijne mall, but there are a couple things worth checking out before you head into town.
First, there’s the aforementioned bunny. The mall presents your earliest opportunity to meet Miffy — in this incarnation a 6-foot-tall plastic statue, which kids (and some adults) hug, kiss and climb over — 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, an Utrecht landmark. Later, if you’re able, you should climb the Dom’s 465 steps to the top for a stellar view of the region — all the way to Amsterdam, 25 miles away, on a clear day.
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 the 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 bustling 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 up- and downstairs. From spring through fall, a parade of tour boats, private motorboats, paddle boats and kayaks traverse the waterways, turning Oudegracht into an even merrier destination.
My visit to the Centraal Museum was quick, because most wings were closed for a renovation adding exhibit space and an airier design, which has since been completed. The permanent collection here 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, who created the iconic “Red and Blue Chair,” the furniture version of a Mondrian painting. The museum also oversees the Rietveld Schröder House, 10 minutes away by bicycle (and if you’re still on foot, you can borrow a bike from the museum). 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 her creator) and soon to be renamed the Miffy Museum. The building closes July 6 for a complete refurbishment, with an expected reopening in December. I hope they keep my favorite part — a small room whose walls are plastered with Miffy books in dozens of languages.
Rounding out the rabbit hunt, I tracked down the cute Miffy traffic lights in front of the Bijenkorf 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.
“That’s a lot smaller than I expected,” I said to a woman planting daffodil bulbs in a dirt bed there.
“Everyone says that, but I think it suits our little square,” she said. “It’s nice that so many people come by to see her.”
Conveniently, I’d ended up just around the corner from one of my favorite shops, Eindhoven. Heinz Schiller opened the shop in late 2013 to showcase emerging Dutch designers. Its name is a nod to the Design Academy Eindhoven, an hour south, whose many famous graduates include clever clockmaker Maarten Baas and the creative team at Job, Joris & Marieke, an animation studio whose short film “A Single Life” was nominated for an Oscar this year. (The studio also made an adorable film for Utrecht to promote the Tour de France.) Schiller looks for up-and-coming talent, especially during the annual Dutch Design Week.
“We like to help give them a place to start, because it’s not so easy to find that in the beginning,” he said.
To celebrate the Tour, Schiller was displaying three fantastical bikes by metal artist Victor Sonna that look like they’d ridden off a Dali painting, with crazy curves and vinelike handlebars. Other items in the store included a sophisticated slate-covered buffet from prolific designer Stephan Siepermann and colorful mod-looking vinyl-cushioned stools and benches by Visser & Meijwaard.
I headed for my other favorite design spot, Workshop of Wonders, a high-end shop that showcases international designers and studios that have already emerged. Every four months, owner Gerrit Vos turns his showroom into a themed exhibit. Up through May is “Northern Delights,” featuring new creations from northern Europe, include Denmark’s Noergaard-Kechayas and Stefan Diez of Germany. And, mais oui, Vos promises to highlight French studios come Tour time.
The focus of the city center is the cathedral tower (the unfinished cathedral collapsed centuries ago). 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.”
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Diane Daniel lives in Veldhoven, the Netherlands. She can be contacted at www.bydianedaniel.com.
Mary K Hotel
Artsy, unpretentious, historic hotel overlooking the canal, with cellar patio at water level. Rooms from $137.
Mother Goose Hotel
High-design rooms with historic touches in a former mattress factory in town center. Rooms from $114.
Brasserie-style French-influenced dishes served in a stylish, comfortable setting at this new foodie favorite. Entrees from $18.75.
Korte Minrebroederstraat 13-17
Breakfast and lunch only, with fresh ingredients and homemade sauces, indoor and patio dining in city center. Sandwiches from $8.15.
The Village Coffee & Music
Always-hopping hipster hangout makes the best coffee around, and you might even catch a show. Coffee and pastries around $3.50.
Art and craft from Roman to contemporary, as well as exhibits on Miffy and her creator, Dick Bruna. Admission includes Dick Bruna Museum (closed July 6 to December for renovation) and Rietveld Schröder House (by appointment only). Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. $12.50; ages 13 to 17 $5.70.
Utrecht Free Tours
Enthusiastic volunteer guides give free walking tours from noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday year-round, starting at the Dom Tower.