A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Even coming from London, I’m still amazed at how well connected the Netherlands is in terms of public transport. Especially Leiden, which has direct train links to almost the entirety of the western half of the Netherlands. Yesterday I finally took advantage of this by travelling to a city I hadn’t been to before: Utrecht.
Utrecht lies to the east of Leiden, and it takes around 45 minutes to get there by direct train from Centraal. One disadvantage of taking this direct train (which also only goes twice an hour) is that you’re put on the single-decker trains, which are no where near as comfortable as the double-deckers which travel on the direct line from Amsterdam south to The Hague. However, a 45-minute train journey is hard to argue with, especially when it gets you to an entirely different Dutch province.
The first thing you notice when you step out off the platform at Utrecht Centraal is just how big the station is. In fact, it is the biggest station in the Netherlands – more than 176,000 passengers go through the station every day. Typical then, that Utrecht council would decide to link this massive station to an equally massive shopping centre, which you’re guided through in order to reach the city centre.
Like Leiden, Utrecht is a university town, though the city does not feel as student-y as Leiden does. In fact, walking through the centre of town, it felt much more like a metropolitan city, with large shops lining the central canal. What were interesting, though, were the basements built into the sides of the canal, which housed more restaurants and were accessible via staircases down to the canal sides. Follow the canal south and you’re suddenly confronted with the Domtoren, a 112-meter tower that dominates the Utrecht skyline. A visit inside the tower is only available through a guided tour, and costs €7.50 for students. If you don’t have the time/money for a tour though, it’s certainly worth just wandering around the Domplein and taking pictures from there. Just behind the Domtoren is St. Martin’s Cathedral, which can also be visited for free (although they do suggest you donate €2.50). To the right of the cathedral’s main entrance is a hidden doorway to the cathedral cloisters – definitely a good picture opportunity.
Being old, Utrecht’s city streets are a veritable maze, but venture off from the main shopping street and though the chances of losing your way are higher, you’re also more likely to find a less crowded café. After much deliberation we tried Café de Zaak, which is located in a square behind the Stadhuis. Coffee was a standard €2.50, though they had a range of other hot drinks too. Also appealing for a small café was the fact that you could bring your own food, meaning you could buy a cheaper salad or sandwich from a supermarket and enjoy it in the cozy atmosphere of a café. We could have spent all afternoon here (and almost did).
Utrecht also contains a whole host of interesting museums, though, typically, most of them were closed on a Monday. (Why must all your museums close on a Monday, Netherlands?!) Despite this, we still managed to spend an entire afternoon there, from 2pm until after 6:30. If you’re looking for somewhere less touristy than Amsterdam or The Hague to spend a day, then Utrecht is definitely the place.