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Utrecht Travel Guide

Aerial view of Utrecht (© Merijn van der Vliet | iStockphoto.com)

Introduction

Mansions along a canal in Utrecht (© Merijn van der Vliet | iStockphoto.com)

Utrecht (pop. 288,000, with suburbs 420,000, metropolitan area 820,000) has many ways to distinguish itself from other Dutch cities. It is one of the handful cities in the country founded by the Romans, but it is also the seat of the Archbishopric of Utrecht (founded over 1300 years ago), the highest Catholic authority in the Netherlands. The city was accordingly endowed with the tallest cathedral in the country.

The University of Utrecht is one of the largest, oldest and most reputed universities in Europe. Utrecht has the second highest number of cultural events in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam.

Nowadays, 32% of the city's population is composed of foreigners. The headquarters of Rabobank and the Dutch Railways, and the seat of the Royal Dutch Mint, are all in Utrecht. Like the cities of nearby Holland, Utrecht is famous for its canals and high-quality museums.

Utrecht is the richest Dutch city in terms of GDP per capita, and the 10th richest city in Europe according to Eurostats.

History

The first permanent settlement attested in Utrecht dates from 47 CE, when a Roman fortification (castellum) was constructed. It was designed to house a cohort of about 500 legionaries. Emperor Claudius had decided to stop the northward expansion of the empire at the Rhine. Several garrisons were placed along the Limes Germanicus ("Germanic frontier"), including Lugdunum Batavorum (near Leiden), Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum (Nijmegen), Trajectum ad Mosam (Maastricht) and Trajectum ad Rhenum (Utrecht).

The name Latin name Trajectum ad Rhenum means "Ford on the Rhine". The prefix Ultra (on the far side) was added later to distinguish it from other homonymous places. Ultra Trajectum derived through the ages into germanised form Utrecht.

Medieval monastery corridor, Utrecht (© Merijn van der Vliet | iStockphoto.com)

The wooden city walls were replaced by stone walls in the 2nd century. In the middle of the 3rd century, Germanic tribes regularly invaded the Roman territories. Around 275 the Romans could no longer maintain the northern border and Utrecht was abandoned.

Utrecht's revival came with the Merovingian king Dagobert I (603-639), who founded a church devoted to Saint Martin within the walls of the old Roman fortress. It was destroyed by the Frisians shortly afterwards. Willibrord (658-739), a Northumbrian missionary, converted the Frisians, and was named archbishop of the Frisians, establishing the Diocese of Utrecht in 695.

In 723, the Frankish king bestowed the fortress in Utrecht and the surrounding lands as the base of bishops. From then on Utrecht became one of the most influential seats of power for the Roman catholic church in the Netherlands. The importance of Utrecht as a centre of christianity is illustrated by the appointment of the local born Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens (1459-1523) as Pope Adrian VI in 1522 (the last non Italian pope before John Paul II).

In 1024, the Bishops of Utrecht were made Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, thus creating the Prince-Bishopric of Utrecht. The next few centuries were marked by conflicts with the County of Holland and the Duchy of Guelders.

The construction of the present cathedral started in 1253, after the earlier romanesque cathedral had been badly damaged by fire. It was not completed before 1420, with the central nave.

In 1528, the worldly powers of the bishop over both Neder- and Oversticht; including the city of Utrecht, were transferred to Charles V of Habsburg, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and ruler of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands (i.e. roughly the modern Benelux and the French Nord-Pas-de-Calais region).

The rule of Charles' son, King Philip II, witnessed the rise of Protestantism and the intensification of the Spanish Inquisiation in the Low Countries. This led to the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648) and the signing of the Union of Utrecht in 1579, regarded as the foundation of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. Utrecht had been elevated to the rank of archbishopric in 1559, but the new Protestant Dutch Republic abolished it, along with all other bishoprics, in 1580. The archbishopric was not reinstated until 1853.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 was one of the three treaties settling the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The treaty placed Louis XIV's grandson on the throne of Spain, while conferring the Spanish Netherlands to Austria. Its most lasting effect was the cession by Spain of Gibraltar to Great Britain.

In 1843, a railway connecting Utrecht to Amsterdam was opened. After that, Utrecht gradually became the main hub of the Dutch railway network.


Attractions

Cathedral of Utrecht at night (© Catharina van den Dikkenberg | iStockphoto.com)

The well-preserved old town is best explored by strolling around or take boat tours on the delightful canals. The main sight is the 14th-century Cathedral of Saint Martin, with its 112m-tall tower. Other religious institutions include Saint Paul's Abbey, the 15th-century Beguine monastery of Saint Nicholas, a 14th-century chapter house of the Teutonic Knights, as well as a few churches dating back to the 11th century.

The city's most important museum is the Central Museum (Centraal Museum). Founded in 1838 as a municipal museum housed in the town hall, it merged in 1921 with the various private collections from the Nicolaaskerkhof monastrery. It comprises collections of pre-1850 art, modern art, applied art, fashion, as well as exhibits on the history of Utrecht. Opposite the museum is the Dick Bruna House, home of the creator of the Miffy picture books.

The Rietveld Schröder House, built in 1924 by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld, one of the best known examples of De Stijl-architecture and arguably the only true De Stijl building. It is one of the rare modern buildings on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Utrecht's diocese, university and mint each have a museum dedicated to them. The Catherine Convent Museum (Museum Catharijneconvent) has displays of Christian art from the medieval to contemporary period. Highlights include illuminated manuscripts, jewelled book bindings, altar pieces, ecclesiastical garments, paintings, goldware and silverware.

The University Museum has an array of 170.000 restored objects, mostly related to sciences, including some of Europe's most important collections related to dentistry, microscopes, and physiology. The museum also organises permanent and temporary exhibitions.

The Money Museum is housed in the handsome edifice of the Royal Dutch Mint. It has the usual collections of historical coins, including some from the Roman period.

Other museums include the Railway Museum, the National Museum : from musical clocks to street organs, and the Aboriginal Art Museum.


How to get there

Utrecht is a major transportation hub, both by road and rail. It is at the intersection of several major motorways : the E25 (from Rotterdam, Den Bosch and Maastricht), the E30 (from The Hague or Apeldoorn), the E311 (from Breda), and the E35 (from Amsterdam, Arnhem and Essen).

There are train connections to most cities in the Netherlands, including Gouda (20min), Amsterdam (30min), Den Bosch (30min), The Hague (40min), Rotterdam (40min), Leiden (40min), Arnhem (40min), Deventer (1h) and Groningen (2h).

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