Like a college student living in historic housing,  Utrecht is a city steeped in Dutch history that lives in a very modern world, moving with the times rather than having been left behind in a glorious yesteryear.

Utrecht’s modern side manifests itself for most travelers arriving by rail at the glass and steel wrapped Utrecht Centraal Station, the largest and busiest railway station in the Netherlands with some 175,000 passengers passing through its sixteen platforms daily.  Adjacent to the station is the Hoog Catharijne, an upscale, two-floor shopping center with 150 shops, boutiques and restaurants that sprawls over a 6-block area of the city center.

Station Utrecht Centraal by Raymond Snijders CC BY SA 2.0

A short walk away however is the ancient side of Utrecht, a fortress town founded by the Romans in A.D. 47 which became an outpost of Christianity with the seat of a bishop in the 8th century. This religious importance was enhanced and expanded in the Middle Ages through the founding of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century and as a city of churches Utrecht is home to more restored medieval religious structures than any other city in Europe.

The symbol of the city and the tallest church tower in the Netherlands is the Gothic Dom Toren or Dom Tower which at 112 meters high makes for a useful landmark in the historic city center.

photo by author

Completed in 1382 the tower was part of the St. Martin’s Cathedral until the nave collapsed in a 1674 storm and as it was never rebuilt the tower has been free-standing every since.

Regular guided tours of the tower can be reserved in advance online or in person at the Utrecht Tourism office on the square at the base of Dom Tower. The 465 steps to the outdoor observation level are mercifully taken in stages to allow visitors to catch their breath in memorable medieval surrounding as in this chapel.

photo by author

About halfway up the tower tour participants walk through a gallery of hanging bells, some of which were cast in 1505 and weigh 32,000 kilograms. These bells can still be heard on Sundays, religious holidays and special occasions.

photo by author

At 80 metres up is the Dom Tower’s carillon dating from 1664 and made up of 50 bells which can be played manually or by a mechanical means. These majestic bells play a melody every fifteen minutes that can be heard all through the city center and our tour group was at the right place at the right time to enjoy a front-row performance.

video by author

The Dom Tower bells have been known to honour popular modern musicians upon their passing which in recent years included Prince, David Bowie, electronic artist and DJ Avicii and Aretha Franklin.

Emerging onto the viewing gallery at 95 meters visitors are given an excellent vantage point over historic Utrecht although the view is in places partially obscured by scaffolding that’s been erected as part of a four-year restoration and maintenance project to the tower’s exterior. On a clear day the edge of Amsterdam 42 KM to the northeast is visible on the horizon.

photo by author

Utrecht’s historic heart is home to a number of canals, the most famous of which is the   Oudegracht (Old Canal) which winds its way from south to north in a 2 KM course.

Tower of the Cathedral ( Domtoren ) seen from the Oudegracht by Michielverbeek  CC BY SA 4.0

Utrecht University is the Netherlands largest university and lends this city a youthful outlook with a huge variety of cultural events, second only behind Amsterdam in the most events in the Netherlands.

I thoroughly enjoyed my short visit to Utrecht as it’s a compact, walkable city   cloaked in history but with a very modern heartbeat that combine to give the city its unique appeal.