Utrecht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, built along two tree-lined canals (the main one being Oudegracht). This compact little city is often described as Amsterdam’s little sister (read our guide to Amsterdam here), but don’t let the locals hear you say that, as Utrecht boasts a charming personality of its own.
The higgledy piggledy canal-side buildings that once served as warehouses now house cafes, bars, boutique shops and tiny restaurants, many set up by creative graduates from the university. Young entrepreneurs sit out on every terrace, patio or pavement in spring, and snuggle up inside cosy brunch spots and traditional beer cellars in the colder months.
Here are our top 10 favourite foodie spots in Utrecht:
When we asked locals about the best places to eat in Utrecht, the unanimous reply was BLAUW. To some, an Indonesian restaurant being the go-to in a Northern European country might seem odd; but Dutch colonial history means The Netherlands has a thriving Indonesian subculture and is, in fact, one of the best places to eat Indonesian food outside Indonesia itself.
BLAUW specialises in spectacular rijsttafel (rice tables). Choose from meat, fish or vegetarian options and the waiters will swiftly lay out 15-20 little ramekins of Indonesian dishes. It’s hard to choose the best dish, what with melt-in-the-mouth glazed goat skewers, chicken skewers with crunch peanut satay, subtle and fragrant coconut vegetables, sweet soy pork, sweet and sour cucumber and crisp banana fritters. The decor is simple (there’s red, lots of red), but it’s the food that’s worth making a pilgrimage for. Restaurantblauw.nl
Utrecht’s canals are lined with higgledy-piggledy warehouse buildings, each with wharf-side (water-level) storage spaces beneath them. One of the prettiest of these ancient buildings houses Talud9, a coffee bar that morphs into a wine bar in the evenings. Both these formats are done extremely well; the coffee bar has won accolades for its espressos (served in tiny glasses, in cast iron dishes) and for the tempting display of cakes in its window.
Come early evening, the music gets funky and the vibe is buzzy, even on a Sunday afternoon. There’s no wine menu, but informed staff quiz you on your preferences before scurrying away behind to find three bottles for you to try. They usually put a wild card in there to give you a taste of something a bit different so you have the chance to explore lesser-known regions.
We tried a fruity and refreshing Pinot Blanc from Alsace, a Riesling with a long finish, and an Albariño from Rias Baixas in the Basque Country that had an almost sparkling lift. Bag the tiny table for two at the back and wave to diners in restaurants on the other side of the canal. talud9.nl
With two locations in this small city, TKoffieboontje’s success speaks for itself. These calm coffee shops ooze zen, with squishy sofas, little filament lamp-lit tables for working at, and huge basket chairs to curl up into and swing yourself into a daze while watching the world go by.
We prefer the cosier spot on Oudegracht, but the Northern location, next to a photo-worthy windmill, is great for setting up for a day of working remotely. Coffee comes from Bocca, the Netherlands’ pioneering specialty coffee roaster (they also have a showroom in Amsterdam). Carrot cake is squishy and spicy in all the right ways, and a date and coconut wheel is a healthy pick-me-up after strolling along Utrecht’s canals. Tkoffieboontje.nl
On pretty little Springweg street, in the centre of the city, the Springhaver Theatre has been showing arthouse films since 1978. The adjoining café bar, Café Springhaver, opened long before the cinema, in 1885 and is a cosy drinking den – and a locals’ favourite.
Try a local pale ale and a portion of creamy bitterballen, The Netherlands’ deep-fried, veal-filled answer to the croquette, usually spiced with nutmeg and served with mustard. Cuddle up inside on one of the dark wood banquettes that hug the café’s poster-filled walls, or head out to the small street-facing terrace to watch the world amble by. Springhaver.nl
Dille & Kamille
Anyone who is a fan of olive’s Kitchen Craver feature will have a field day in this stylish shop, whose name translates as “dill and chamomile”. Set aside a good half hour to peruse shelves filled with pretty kitchen utensils, artisan linens and tiny wooden things you never knew you needed.
There’s a cabinet dedicated to loose-leaf teas at the back, and you can also pick up some lovely potted plants and seeds to create your own kitchen garden at home. Dille-kamille.nl
If you’ve overdosed on stroopwafels and beer, SLA is the spot to get your salad fix. This mini chain of salad bars specialises in DIY pick-and-mix-style salads, as well as salad bowls, juices and healthy soups. We recommend going for one of SLA’s bowls, namely the Japanese miso bowl – spinach, black rice, steamed broccoli, roast pumpkin and aubergine topped with enoki mushrooms, pickled radish and a miso, tamarind, ginger and sesame dressing.
The shop on Nachtegaalstraat has a conservatory out back, with hanging pots overflowing with greenery to complement a green-tiled floor, or you can grab a juice in a glass bottle to take away. The “energise” juice is a mixture of sweet potato, carrot, apple, fennel, pink grapefruit, mint, sage, ginger and cinnamon, so a great balance of fruit, veg and spices. Ilovesla.com
The Village Coffee and Music
Once an undesirable part of town, the long street of Voorstraat is now a trendy hub for young entrepreneurs. Village Coffee and Music provides a local hang-out that combines good coffee and good music, and manages to create a welcoming, unpretentious vibe despite its reputation as having the best coffee in Utrecht.
Order a breakfast tray of homemade granola and you can play with the teddy bear-shaped honey bottle it’s served with. If you’re into your local artisans, pop next door to peruse the collections at PUHA, a collective of local designers and artisans that sell one-off pieces and pretty ceramics. Thevillagecoffee.nl
Vis en Meer
Vis en Meer sits on Drieharingstraat, a lively restaurant alley whose pavements are lined with tables. The front of this popular seafood restaurant dedicates a whole wall to wine, from which informed waiters will help you choose a bottle to go with your meal.
Continue through to a huge atrium-style dining room, complete with open kitchen, large plants and a long bar (together they create a wonderfully chaotic ambience). Order a seafood platter (little plates of dressed clams, potted shrimp and pieces of fresh salmon along with huge shell-on prawns, plenty of mussels and a giant lobster). Visenmeer.nl
Belgian Beer Café Olivier
Utrecht has a thriving microbrewery culture, and you can get a great selection as soon as you leave the central station; you’ll find Belgian Beer Café Olivier right opposite. This temple to hops makes the most of the spectacular interiors of a former church to serve a great range of Belgian beers. Don’t miss the traditional Belgian frites, either. Café-olivier.be
Mary K Hotel
Sitting at the top of Oudegracht, this 18th century townhouse was a granary in a previous life. Now a boutique hotel, the focus is on design, with nine unique rooms. Pretend you’re an artist in The Studio, a light and bright room that comes with its own easel and felt-tip pens so you can contribute to the collection of canvases above the bed.
The hotel’s mini fridges are also well stocked with local beers from Utrecht’s microbreweries; sip on fruity and slightly bitter Pandora Dutch pale ale or darker, American-style Neobosski’s Sooty Otter out on the sunny patio before heading out for dinner. Marykhotel.com
If you want to hear more about Utrecht’s trendy food and drink scene, Alex is chatting about it on our podcast here, have a listen:
Return flights from various UK airports to Amsterdam cost from £50 (easyjet.com). Direct trains from Schipol airport to Utrecht take around 30 minutes (buy tickets from self-service machines at the station). Double rooms at Mary K Hotel cost from €125 per night, room-only (marykhotel.com). More info: visit-utrecht.com, or search olive’s social media feeds for #oliveeatsutrecht