Utrecht is a city about 40 minutes south of Amsterdam in The Netherlands and is fast becoming one of the best places to visit and backpack around.
Utrecht is a fairly large city (population 250,000) with a university whose proximity to Amsterdam makes it a big residential and commercial area.
I first ended up in Utrecht because a friend lived here and was blown away by how cool and interesting the city was.
Utrecht is like a mini-Amsterdam. It’s similar in design and vibe but lacks the overbearing crowds of Amsterdam. The old city is centered around an old church. The main area of town is centered near the Oudegracht, or “old canal.” There are many fantastic places to eat, drink, and enjoy the city’s cafe culture.
I think Utrecht is a very underrated place to visit, especially since it’s so close to Amsterdam. I mean it makes an easy day trip!
This Utrecht travel guide can help you plan your trip to the city by showing you what to see, do, where to stay, and how to save money!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Utrecht
1. See the Dom
2. Visit the Domtoren
3. Hang out on the Old Canal
4. See the Centraal Museum
5. Explore Castle de Haar
Other Things to See and Do in the Netherlands
1. Find De Letters van Utrecht
De Letters van Utrecht is one of the most unique art projects in the world. It’s a “poem for the future” that grows every year along the stones of a canal path in the center of the city. It’s written one character at a time, one letter per week, and it’s meant to go on for centuries. The lines are being written by different poets from the Guild of Poets, and each Saturday a stonemason pulls out the next stone from the canal path for the poet to etch a letter. The poem is in Dutch, but you can find the English translation online!
2. Visit the Railway Museum
The railway museum is actually located inside one of the city’s old railway stations, and if you’re into rail technology at all it’s a really nice interactive space. You can ride a mine lift, see the very first Dutch steam locomotive, and watch actors play scenes about the Orient Express in a large auditorium. There’s even a roller coaster ride through a maze of trains and locomotives. Ok, so it’s a very family oriented sort of place, but still pretty cool! Tickets are 17.50 EUR ($20 USD).
3. Spend an afternoon at the Museum Speelklok
The clock museum is definitely one of Utrecht’s most unique attractions. You’ll get an in-depth look at the world of self-playing instruments while cheerful music follows you as you wander about. The history here dates back to the 17th century when Dutch people started creating musical clocks, boxes, self-playing orchestras, and street organs. Make sure you see Violina (a crazy self-playing violin orchestra). Admission is 13 EUR ($15 USD).
4. Peruse the street markets
Utrecht’s many great street markets are really fun to explore on foot, and they give visitors a chance to fully immerse in Dutch life. On Saturdays, there’s a colorful Flower Market at Janskerkhof selling everything from roses to sunflowers. On Breedmarkt there’s an affordable fabric market (the largest and oldest in the country). But if you’d rather sample lots of food or shop for fun souvenirs, check out the market on Vredenburg every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
5. Go underground at DOMunder
You can go underneath the Dom Tower at DOMunder to retrace the city’s history all the way back to 2,000 years ago when the Roman army first came to the area and built a garrison. The whole thing is an interactive exhibition which requires you to use a smart flashlight to navigate! Tickets are 11 EUR ($12.50 USD).
6. See what’s on at TivoliVredenburg
This huge contemporary music complex has six individual concert halls designed to feature genres from pop to jazz music and everything in between. You can find just about any type of show here, whether it’s a children’s concert, a heavy metal show, or a techno rave. The best way to find out what’s on is to visit the official website where you’ll get a complete listing. There’s something every night of the week!
7. Hang out in Park Lepelenburg
Park Lepelenburg is a fun park not far from Utrecht’s city center, where it forms a part of the Zocherpark (a larger park). Locals come here to lounge around in the summer or to have picnics and barbecues. There are lots of events here throughout the year too, including theater and live music.
8. See Rietveld-Schröderhuis
This UNESCO-recognized monument is a small house that was built in 1924 by the famous Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld. It’s hard to describe how futuristic this place is, but the walls literally move. Rietveld built the house based on the principles of De Stijl, which means breaking open closed walls and allowing for seamless transitions. There’s also a lot of reds, blues, and yellows throughout. You’ll have to book in advance if you want to visit, and the admission is 17 EUR ($19 USD).
9. Visit the Botanical Gardens
The Botanic Gardens are located in Fort Hoofddijk are home to a huge collection of plants from all over the world. There’s a tropical greenhouse, a birders den, beehives, a rock garden, and endless stretches of green space to explore covering nine hectares. Admission is 7.50 EUR ($8.50 USD).
For more information on specific cities in the Netherlands, check out these guides!
Utrecht Travel Costs
Hostel prices – There are only a few hostels in Utrecht and a hostel dorm bed will typically cost between 18-26 EUR ($20-30 USD) per night. Private rooms in hostels start from around 55 EUR ($63 USD) per night and $75 USD for a double.
Budget hotel prices – You can find a room at a budget hotel for around 53-75 EUR ($60-85 USD) a night that offers a private bathroom and free WiFi. Airbnb is also an option, with shared rooms averaging around 25 EUR ($28 USD) per night and entire homes (including studio apartments) averaging around 60 EUR ($70 USD) per night.
Average cost of food – Cheap meals at fast food joints or places like McDonald’s cost around 6 EUR ($7 USD). Restaurant meals average between 13-26 EUR ($15-30 USD) for a main dish with a drink. If you cook your meals, expect to pay 40-50 EUR ($46-57 USD) per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods. Fast food like Febo, cheap Dutch food, is around 5-10 EUR ($6-11 USD).
Backpacking Utrecht Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking in Utrecht, you can expect to spend between 58-67 EUR ($65-75 USD) per day. On this budget, you’ll be staying in hostel dorms, cooking your meals or eating fast food, using public transportation, and seeing the free sights.
On a mid-range budget of about 147 EUR ($165 USD) per day, you’ll get private hostel room or a budget hotel, enjoy sit-down meals, take a tour here and there, and visit more attractions.
If you want only private rooms in decent hotels, do a lot of sightseeing, take taxis everywhere, or eat out every meal, you can expect to pay up to 300+ EUR ($340+ USD) per day.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Prices are in USD.
Utrecht Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
While not the most expensive city in The Netherlands, Utrecht isn’t super cheap either. Thankfully, since it is a university town, there’s lot of cheap eats, free attractions, and places to drink in the city. Unviersity students aren’t some rich, ya know? Here are some other ways to save money in Utrecht:
- Get the Museumkaart (Museum Card) – Good for one month for non-residents, this card gets you into museums in Utrecht and beyond for only 60 EUR ($68 USD). With the Museum Card, you get access to more than 400 throughout the Netherlands, including several of the museums mentioned in this guide. It’s also good for repeat visits as well!
- Bike – Biking is the cheapest form of transportation. You can rent a bike for only a few dollars a day. However, Utrecht is also very small and easily walkable.
- Attend a free festival – During the summer, everyone goes outside. Check local city boards for a list of free concerts, festivals, shows, and markets. Once the weather gets warm, the social calendar fills up.
- Use Couchsurfing – It’s a service that lets travelers stay with locals for free. Since a lot of travelers use this service, make your requests for hosts early.
- Cook – Dutch food isn’t going to win any awards. Try a few places and local dishes but cook often (or at least make lots of sandwiches) as your daily costs can shoot through the roof if you eat out a lot. Head to the supermarket, get some food, and save money! You’re not missing out on anything. (Sorry, my Dutch friends!)
Where To Stay in Utrecht
There are not too many hostel options in Utrecht, but here are some of my favorite places to stay:
How to Get Around Utrecht
Like all Dutch cities, Utrecht is super easy to get around. You can actually explore most of the city on foot, but if you’re unable or if you’re looking to go a little farther afield, make use of bicycles or the public transportation.
Bicycle – If you’re not walking everywhere, a bicycle rental is the way to go. Utrecht’s aim is to be the most bike-friendly city in the world, and it seems to be working. There are many businesses renting bicycles – you can even rent one from the tourist office from 10 EUR ($11 USD) a day. This is one of the cheapest options – bicycle rentals through Black Bikes are 9 EUR ($10 USD) per 3 hours.
Public Transportation – Utrecht is well connected by train, tram, and bus. You can get an U-OV Travel ticket at any ticket vending machine, and depending on your travel distance the cost is 2.80-6.40 EUR ($3.20-7.30 USD) per ticket.
If you’ve already been traveling around the Netherlands and have an OV-chipkaart, however, you can use this on the Utrecht system as well. It’s used for all modes of transport, and you have to make sure you have enough credit on your card before using the transportation. You pay a starting rate of 0.90 EUR ($1 USD) and then 0.14 EUR ($0.16 USD) per kilometer.
The Utrecht Region pass is a similar card. it’s a pay as-you-go public transport pass linked to your credit card (so you don’t have to worry about topping up). You can use the card all over the Utrecht regione. The card itself is 6.50 EUR ($7.50 USD).
Taxis – Taking taxis is not advised. they’re very expensive AND the city is small enough you can walk everywhere.
Inter-city travel – Train travel from Utrecht is hassle free and affordable. You can get to Amsterdam and Schipol Airport in just 30 minutes for less than 10 EUR ($11 USD). The Hague is only 40 minutes away for 13 EUR ($15 USD). International trains are also available, including to Brussels in 2 hours for 45 EUR ($51 USD), and Paris in just 3.5 hours for 130 EUR ($148 USD). The ns.nl site makes it incredibly easy to plan your journey.
As always, bus travel is cheaper, and Flixbus is your most affordable option. But routes between Utrecht and other cities in the Netherlands is are limited – there’s actually no route from Utrecht directly to Amsterdam. You can get from Utrecht to The Hague for less than 5 EUR ($5.70), however, in under 2 hours. You can get from Utrecht to Brussels for less than 10 EUR ($11 USD) in 2.45 hours, and Utrecht to Paris for 22 EUR ($25 USD) – but it’s a 10-hour trip.
When to Go to the Utrecht
The Netherlands receives the most tourist traffic from mid-April to mid-October, but the real peak season is July and August. However, the weather is never very extreme, and visiting during the off season or shoulder season is also worth your time. Prices are also a lot more affordable during the off season or shoulder season.
The average daily summer temperature in Utrecht is around 67°F (72°C), but it can get a lot hotter than that during July and August. The average daily temperature in the winter is 35°F (2°C). Utrecht is still a lovely place to visit in the winter months, although you can expect some businesses to be closed.
It all comes down to what you’re looking for! If you’d rather spend your days perusing museums and and historical sites, come anytime. But if you want to hang out on the canal or enjoy the festive atmosphere in the city parks, spring and summer are best for you.
How to Stay Safe in Utrecht
Utrecht is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel – even if you’re traveling solo, and even as a solo female traveler. Violent attacks are rare. There are a few common scams around as well, such as people trying to sell you public transit tickets that actually have already been used. Be wary of purchasing a really cheap bike from someone off the street as well as it likely means it’s already been stolen.
You can read about more with my post on the 14 travel scams to avoid.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in Utrecht!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Utrecht Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Utrecht. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Rail Europe – If you are going to Europe and taking a lot of high speed or long distance trains, get a rail pass. I’ve used a rail pass three times and saved hundreds of dollars each time. The math just works.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Europe, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- The Man in Seat 61 – This website is the ultimate guide to train travel anywhere in the world. They have the most comprehensive information on routes, times, prices, and train conditions. If you are planning a long train journey or some epic train trip, consult this site.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- FlixBus – German based Flixbus has routes between 20 European countries with prices starting as low 5 EUR (6 USD)! Their buses include WiFi, electrical outlets, and up to three 3 free bags.
- Bla Bla Car – BlaBlaCar is a ridesharing website that lets you share rides with vetted local drivers by pitching in for gas. You simply request a seat, they approve, and off you go! It’s a cheaper and more interesting way travel than by bus or train!
- Utrecht Free Tours – Utrecht Free Tours offers free walking tours several few times a week. You’ll get a great overview of the city, starting with Dom Tower.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Utrecht Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Utrecht Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
The Dutch Wife, by Ellen Keith
In 1943, Marijke de Graaf is sent from Amsterdam to a concentration camp in Germany with her husband, where she faces a choice: death, or join the camp’s brothel. It is there she encounters SS officer Karl Müller. Keith’s ability to seamlessly combine different timelines and narratives as well as paint the emotions that come from tough choices is superb (and why this book topped the Canadian best-seller lists when it came out!).
Why the Dutch Are Different, by Ben Coates
Ben Coates got stranded at Schiphol Airport, where he called a Dutch girl he’d met a few months earlier and asked if he could stay over the night. He never left. Fascinated by his adopted home, this is a travel book wrapped in a history book wrapped in a memoir. It’s also a look at modern Dutch culture and society, as well as how it got that way and what the future holds for the country. It’s one of the better books on the Netherlands I’ve read!
Amsterdam, by Russell Shorto
Written by Russell Shorto, one of my favorite writers, this book covers one of my favorite cities in the world. Shorto moved to Amsterdam with his wife and children and — as he did in his book on Manhattan — has written a phenomenal tale of the city’s history, starting from its founding until modern times. I’ve read a lot of books about Amsterdam, and this book is by far one of the best, providing a wonderful overview of the city and its culture as told through the stories of its famous and not-so-famous residents.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
This is a definite must-read before you come to the Netherlands. Anne Frank’s diary was discovered in the attic where she spent the last years of her life. When the Nazis invaded the country in 1942, Anne was just 13 years old – and as a Jewish girl, her life was very much in danger. Her and her family fled their home and went into hiding in a secret annex in an old office building. They faced hunger, boredom, and the desperation of living in a confined space – until the horrible end. If you go to Amsterdam, you must visit the annex where she lived.
My ’Dam Life: Three Years in Holland, by Sean Condon
Australian comedian Sean Condon is married and living in Amsterdam…jobless, homeless, and completely careless. In true deprecatory humor, Condon dissects his expat experience of pure laziness and leisure. Condon takes us through a city of cannabis, high culture, canals, bicycles, and international cuisine. It’s a light-hearted read that most expats will relate to!
Utrecht Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling the Netherlands and continue planning your trip: