"Alternative? Alternative to what?" you ask.
The answer is Amsterdam, a city that for all its glitz and sparkle has elements of it that won't appeal to everyone, like the massvie crowds, the city's many marijuana houses, its infamous red-light district, and acceptance of homosexuality and other 'alternative lifestyles'. While the Netherlands as a whole is tolerant of such personal choices, people who wish to see the country's beautiful and varied architecture, its canals, and its peacefully multicultural heritage may wonder where they can go yet avoid the counterculture. The closest answer to Amsterdam could well be Utrecht, just a short drive southeast of Amsterdam. Utrecht has just about everything -- the shopping, the restaurants, the canals, and the atmosphere -- without the massive crowds and the baggage.
Utrecht is much smaller and more compact, but walking its streets is sheer delight. The main pedestrian area is about a square kilometer big, a maze of twisty-turny gray brick roads that encircle the Oudegracht ("Old Canal"). The canal is lined with shops at street level, such as Steenweg in the first photo, and restaurants at canal level several meters below.
Based on the way the canals were designed, very deep and narrow, that for periods of time Utrecht must have had some terrible flooding. But with the locks that now surround the town, the waters inside the canal can be carefully controlled, such that tour boats run frequently through them.
At street level, I found Utrecht to be a wonderland of old architecture. The second photo was taken on the Oudegracht near the Bakkersbrug, the bridge in the middle of the city. The mixing of the old, raggedy red-brick fixtures such as the tower at right, with the fancy spired storefronts is very common. By the way, the white staircase leads down to the canal (the tan sign at the top indicating the restaurant that awaits).
Shoppers can have it both ways -- old-fashioned street markets or fully modernized and massive malls. The largest street markets are near the railway station on Vredenburg square, with everything from antiques to seafood. Smaller street markets can be found throughout the city, too. The Bakkersbrug bridge held a flower market the day I was there. For modern malls, the largest is the Hoog Catharijne, which is combined with the train station.
Sightseers probably already spotted the huge tower in the first photo and wondered what that was. It is the Dom Tower, sitting in the south-center of the downtown. The Tower is just that, a tower. It looked like it was part of a larger structure, but that's not the case. Visitors can climb up to two different observation levels, but unfortunately only guided tours were permitted, and I missed the last one so I didn't get to climb it.
The Dom Tower is one of several popular attractions at the Dom Plein, the main social spot with a number of outdoor cafés. These include the Dom Kerk, a large and magnificent Protestant Cathedral, and the Episcopal Palace, shown in the third photo. The Palace is now one of the local University Buildings.
The Dom Tower marks the northern boundary of the Museum Quarter, which might as well be called "Museum Half" because it makes up half the city and has a ton of museums. The Museum Quarter is where I found most of the older, more stately structures. The well-restored University Museum, fourth photo, sits on a bend in the canal (hidden among the shadows in this pic). The Catherijne Kloster was a Catholic convent that is still active and has a magnificent church, along with its own museum. The Centraal Museum was also a very impressive building. I passed the Water Tower Museum, built inside a real-live water tower in the northeastern part. There was the Railroad Museum across the main canal to the east.
Utrecht is also loaded with parks and pleasant walkways along its various canals, particularly to the east. I found some of the older dykes and bastion walls still standing, but not much of it was left. You can catch a glimpse of the old-fashioned earthen levees at the right edge of the fifth photo, showing some of the row houses in the Museum Quarter.
I went off the beaten track a bit and wandered some of the outer districts, finding a few interesting points along the way. The one I recommend the most is the Lombok district, just a couple blocks northwest of the train station. Lombok is where much of Utrecht's ethnical diversity can be found in the form of stores and restaurants featuring cuisines and goods from Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, and Suriname, and Africa. Some of the top theaters were in the Jaarbeurs district west of the train station.
Yes, Utrecht was indeed a good place to go. Lots to see and do, and none of the unwanted baggage from its better-known neighbor to the northwest.
Trip taken 19 October 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin