A university town with surviving medieval inflections, Utrecht in the Netherlands has that rare mix: a rich seam of carefully-maintained history and a thriving contemporary cultural scene. It’s the most populous city in the country and boasts its largest university. As such, the array of things to see and do while you’re there can seem almost overwhelming: you could be taking in the neo-Gothic majesty of De Haar Castle, sipping a coffee on the Oudegracht canal, sampling amazing Surinamese food in Restaurant Sweetie or watching the latest drama and dance at the Stadsschouwburg theatre at any one time. To make things easier for the culture vultures, we’ve narrowed down the five must-see cultural attractions in the city.

The Oudegracht canal © David Karlin
The Oudegracht canal
© David Karlin

 

5. Centraal Museum

If you’re passionate about art and culture but pushed for time, then the Centraal Museum, founded in 1838, is a safe bet, given the amount of bases it covers. Art historians will be drawn to the large collection of works by the Utrecht Caravaggisti, a group of local painters who studied with or were highly influenced by Caravaggio, and those with children may wish to see the many designs by Dick Bruna, creator of the Miffy picture book character. 3000 works by Rietveld also populate the museum, as does the “Utrecht Ship”, an archaic boat discovered in 1930 that is thought to date back to AD 790. But as well as looking to the past, there’s also a strong focus on contemporary art, design and fashion. Even the building itself lives up to the singular nature of its contents, being comprised of elements ranging from the medieval period to the early 20th century.

Hendrick ter Brugghen's <i>The Repentant Peter</i>, housed in the Centraal Museum © David Karlin
Hendrick ter Brugghen's The Repentant Peter, housed in the Centraal Museum
© David Karlin

 

4. Domkerk and Dom Tower

The Dom Tower © David Karlin
The Dom Tower
© David Karlin

Utrecht has been the religious capital of the Netherlands since the early medieval period, and the town is still full of ecclesiastical landmarks and architecture. None more impressive, however, than the Domkerk and formidable Dom Tower in the city’s historic centre. The two structures were once connected: when the tower was built in the late 14th century, it was connected to the cathedral by means of a central nave. However, this collapsed in 1674, and the two buildings have stood independently ever since. The cathedral is the only one in the Netherlands that dates from before the Reformation, and you can frequently experience live music in its hallowed environs in events such as the Zaterdagmiddagmuziek concerts, which run every Saturday afternoon. If you’re OK with heights, you can take a guided tour of the tower and see Amsterdam and other Dutch cities from the top. If you love heights, then you can even get married there.

 

3. Museum Speelklok

Ranging from one scale of eccentricity to another, the Museum Speelklok in the centre of Utrecht is dedicated to music technology. You won’t see any samplers or demonstrations of Logic Pro, however: this idiosyncratic museum is full of mechanical musical instruments from days gone by. With musical automata dating from the 16th century onwards, you can see all manner of self-playing contraptions, from early bell clarions to music boxes, musical clocks and even orchestrions – self-playing instruments designed to produce an orchestra-like range of sounds. It’s located in the Buurkerk (“citizen’s church”), and in addition to hearing the madcap machines in action, you can book yourself a visit to the restoration room, where the instruments are maintained and brought back to life.

Carl Frei organ at the Speelklok Museum © David Karlin
Carl Frei organ at the Speelklok Museum
© David Karlin

 

2. Rietveld-Schröder House

At the end of an ordinary terrace on Prins Hendriklaan sits an eye-catching structure comprised of assorted rectangles, arranged asymmetrically and painted in bold white, black and grey. But it’s not an avant garde sculpture – it’s actually a house. Built in 1924 and designed by the architect Gerrit Rietveld, this Unesco World Heritage Site blurs the boundaries between life and art. Rietveld designed the home for the Truus Schröder-Schräder – an outré socialite who mixed with members of the De Stijl art movement – and her family. True to the precepts of the movement, both the interior and exterior are characterised by clean, straight lines and the use of black, white and primary colours. The varying structure of the walls is intended to give the feeling of an unclear divide between inside and outside, and the primary living space is on the first floor (Schröder-Schräder wanted to be “free” from the ground”). There, the walls can be rolled out or put away, creating either a spacious living room or several bedrooms, according to the will of the inhabitants. Now, you can view it yourself as a museum.

The Rietveld Schröder House © Husky | Wikimedia Commons
The Rietveld Schröder House
© Husky | Wikimedia Commons

 

1. TivoliVredenburg

The TivoliVredenburg © David Karlin
The TivoliVredenburg
© David Karlin

If you’re visiting Utrecht with live music in mind, then the TivoliVredenburg should be your first port of call. The complex was born in 2014 when two smaller venues, the Tivoli Oudegracht rock club and the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, were brought together as part of an urban development programme. It has since become the connoisseur’s venue of choice, with a number of rooms dedicated to different music formats: the Grote Zaal, for example, is a large concert hall geared toward symphonic music, while the more intimate Hertz often houses chamber music and jazz. It’s likely this flexibility that means the TivoliVredenburg has featured strongly in a number of acclaimed festivals, from the world-renowned Utrecht Early Music Festival, to Janine Jansen’s International Chamber Music Festival, to the annual Le Guess Who festival, which is dedicated to the experimental ends of popular music.