Five Ways Utrecht Combines 2000 Years of History with Modern Culture

By: Alison Netsel

When I moved to Utrecht almost five years ago, I had never actually set foot in the city. Yet I already had a feel for the city after scanning daily photos placed in an Utrecht Flickr group. What I saw in the many photos was a city that was a beautiful mix of history, culture, unique canals, and a vibrant energy. The photos only brushed the surface.

There were two things I did know about Utrecht before moving: it is the location of the famous Rietveld-Schröder House and it was the site of the Treaty of Utrecht. The Rietveld-Schröder House is perhaps the only building constructed in the true De Stijl sense and it broke new architectural ground. The Treaty of Utrecht was a historic agreement that helped bring about the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, preserving the overall European system.

These two factors perfectly represent Utrecht’s combination of history and modern culture. The two often intermingle, keeping the city fresh and fascinating, while not forgetting the nearly 2000 years of history that has made the city what it is. The following are my top five ways Utrecht combines history and culture on an almost daily basis.

  1. Summer Darkness

    The Gothic cloister garden creates the ideal backdrop for photo sessions during the Summer Darkness festival
    The Gothic cloister garden creates the ideal backdrop for photo sessions during the Summer Darkness festival

    Every summer Utrecht experiences Summer Darkness. This is when Goths, Lolitas, Steampunks, and more descend upon the city for a festival combining music, art, and fashion, celebrating the underground/alternative lifestyle. What better city, after all, than one boasting a Gothic cathedral and massive bell tower, along with dark, wharf-side cellars. The square in front of the cathedral becomes an open-air market and runway for music, clothing, and some of the most fascinating accessories, while the Gothic cloister becomes the perfect photo shoot setting.

  2. Cultural Sundays

    A boat concert parade in one of the canals running through the city
    A boat concert parade in one of the canals running through the city

    One Sunday a month, 10 months a year, Utrecht hosts a Cultural Sunday event. The themes change from month to month, although certain themes are repeated each year. At locations all around the city -- indoors and outdoors, historic and modern -- there are plays, concerts, performances, and more focused on the theme of the month. The themes range from the fall of the Berlin wall to a boat concert parade along the city’s famous canals with local and big-name Dutch performers stopping at various points to play a short concert.

  3. DJ/VJ on the Dom

    The Domtoren lit up with laser lights
    The Domtoren lit up with laser lights

    The symbol of Utrecht is the Domtoren, the tallest bell tower in the Netherlands, standing 112.5 meters (368 feet) tall. Construction began in 1321, and it stands on the spot where the city was started in 51 AD, when the Romans set up a fortress. It’s an awe-inspiring structure and it’s also the site of the annual DJ/VJ on the Dom. Each year, at the end of summer, crowds gather beneath the Domtoren in the square below, while DJs climb up into the tower to play music for the masses, often accompanied by the carillonneurs and bell ringers. VJs create amazing digital projections that are displayed all across the tower, so that you end up with a musical and visual spectacle for the dancing crowds. It’s like an outdoor rave right in the center of the city.

  4. Domtoren Concerts

    The bells of the Domtoren can be heard throughout the city
    The bells of the Domtoren can be heard throughout the city

    In a similar vein, each summer, once a month, there are special Domtoren concerts performed by our resident award-winning carillon player, as well as special guests. Most people may assume that the music performed is the type fitting for an ancient church bell tower, but the musical choices for the concerts, and throughout the year, are often surprising. Last summer there was a special performance of Tubular Bells, and to honor the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones, a midday concert took place with full renditions of five Rolling Stones classics. Similarly, to open last year’s Summer Darkness festival, songs by Qntal, Within Temptation, and Depeche Mode were performed.

  5. Trajectum Lumen

    One of the light displays marks the boundaries of the ancient Roman fortress
    One of the light displays marks the boundaries of the ancient Roman fortress

    In 2010, light art installations began popping up at historical points throughout the city. Every day of the year, from dusk until midnight, you can enjoy these colorful installations that range from simple lights to computer-generated graphics. The light project is called Trajectum Lumen, referencing the old Roman name for the city of Utrecht (Trajectum). They started off with 17 displays from Dutch and international light artists and should have 25 by 11 April this year, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht. The Domtoren will be the latest installation with an incredible series of light patterns that climb the tower. The light art installations will remain through 2018, and they add a beautiful glow to an already beautiful city.

These are just a few of the amazing ways Utrecht celebrates its history while building a strong future. Add in a creative student population and innovative residents and it’s no wonder Utrecht captures the imagination of so many who experience this beautiful city.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingAlison Netsel is an American expat living in Netherlands. Blog description: I'm an American, living with an Italian, in a 2000-year-old city in the Netherlands. I love exploring, with camera and dog in tow, as I learn and share the history, art and contemporary culture of Utrecht.
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Contest Comments » There are 25 comments

Jane Dutton wrote 11 years ago:

Great article, Alison. I have always thought that Utrecht had its very own lighthouse, the Domtoren. Whether it is lit or not, it is our center point, our point of pride.

Hazel Moon wrote 11 years ago:

Alison rocks my socks!

Rob T. wrote 11 years ago:

Great article. Certainly makes me want to visit!

Kevin wrote 11 years ago:

My only regret about going to the Netherlands was not having enough time to see the rest of the beautiful country besides Amsterdam! This certainly makes me want to go visit Utrecht in the near future. It sounds silly, but a few days in Amsterdam made me feel like I'd gladly pack it all up and move to the Netherlands if the opportunity ever arose. Wonderful people, wonderful culture.

Jennifer Perry wrote 11 years ago:

Love the article! Very descriptive, with wonderful pictures. Can't wait to come visit and see these in person!

Giovanni wrote 11 years ago:

Great article about a wonderful city, written by an amazing writer!

Aledys Ver wrote 11 years ago:

Utrecht always felt special to me, as one of the most interesting cities in the Netherlands and many of the things I've learned about it I have actually discovered by reading your blog. Utrecht to me feels a bit like my little old Zwolle, combining old and new but on a larger and grander scale, I suppose!

Nerissa wrote 11 years ago:

Alison, you're the best ambassador for Utrecht. I had no idea about so many of these events and it's only 40km away from me! I really enjoyed this, and always enjoy your photography.

Candi wrote 11 years ago:

Loved the article! Really makes me want to visit Utrecht. I'm an American living in Gronigen but will be checking out your fabulous city soon. Thank you for all the fabulous insight!

Kafka wrote 11 years ago:

What a lovely article. Now, more than ever, I want to visit Utrecht. And Depeche Mode at the Domtoren?? I bet that was fantastic. What seems so interesting about the place and what you've pinpointed so well is the interplay between history and modern culture. I love that!

Kiwidutch wrote 11 years ago:

I'm delighted to see that Utrecht has been so proactive in organising stunning events that the city has become well known for. Even more impressive is that these events are repeat affairs, so people could plan a visit especially to coincide with a particular favourite and this effectively turns Utrecht into a "destination city" rather than just another urban area that happens to have something on that week/month if you are lucky to be there at the right time. The fact the Utrecht chooses to use and promote it's historical heritage, even when blended into very modern technology like the light shows, shows an understanding that where we come from affects what we are now, and where we are headed in the future. But most of all, it's wonderful to see a city that showcases it's old historical buildings and doesn't just ignore them, they are beautiful and deserve the adoration and recognition. Well done Utrecht, more cities could do well to follow your example!

Nhung wrote 11 years ago:

Great article! Before I moved to The Netherlands from Vietnam, Alison's blog had always inspired me to visit this beautiful city. Now that I am here, being able to travel the city the physical way, enhanced by Alison's writings through this digital space makes me not only see but also trust in the the beauty. This article showcases the city at its essence, full of history yet so appropriately modern, at its own space, with its own style.

Michael Murray wrote 11 years ago:

This another Great blog - you always catch the unique in the ordinary, the special in the plain. A tour of Utrecht with you as guide would be superb!

Cathy Hinek wrote 11 years ago:

This is a beautiful love song to your new Home! You've made me have a crush, too. Can you get Utrecht to call me, so we can go out some time? Don't tell Florence - she gets so jealous.

Frances K wrote 11 years ago:

I live in Utrecht and totally agree that Utrecht is a very special city, a university town full of culture and young students. Great cafes and restaurants to relax in and watch the world go by. Your blog is wonderful at showing the events and giving details of what is/was happening every week, quirky photography adds another great dimension.

Margo wrote 11 years ago:

Wow you never seize to amaze I have learned so much about Utrecht from your beautiful photo's that I'm planning a visit very soon. cheers Margo

Margo wrote 11 years ago:

Wow you never seize to amaze I have learned so much about Utrecht from your beautiful photos, I can't wait to visit. cheers Margo from Vancouver Island

Kal wrote 11 years ago:

Its always to great to read Alison's take on the varied events that take place in this amazing city. Her photos and writings and her infectious enthusiasm for the historical details she finds always brings a smile and has actually made Utrecht one of my favourite cities.

Yexenia wrote 11 years ago:

Your stories and photos on Utrecht are always entertaining as well as informing. Hopefully, one day in the future I am able to visit. Keep up the great articles! Yexenia

Tricia Tomatohead wrote 11 years ago:

Alison's love of Utrecht's history, modern quirks, and beauty bring the city alive for me. I cannot wait to forgo Amsterdam next time I am in Northern Europe, don my black eyeliner and steampunk garb, and join the Summer Darkness. It sounds like Alison took a gamble to move to the city - sight unseen, but that gamble definitely paid off.

Barbara wrote 11 years ago:

Alison thank you for your photos and blog. Considering I am located in upstate New York (USA), your blog and photos are always fascinating. The photos are like taking an arm chair excursion of Utrecht and its surroundings. Thanks again, for sharing your love of the City and its Architecture. Art, and most of all its Residents. Always look forward to reading your blog. Have a good day!

Tom wrote 11 years ago:

Awesome blog. I lived in Utrecht for almost fourteen years before I moved to Amsterdam two years ago. I think I know the city well, but I have had many Aha-moments reading Alison's blog. I like the way how she finds details and expands about them, things I have passed on my bike manty times, but never noticed before I read it in Alison's blog.

Leigh Anne Crowell wrote 11 years ago:

Alison's gorgeous photos and commentary on her beloved Utrecht are unique amongst other blogs of this sort--her obvious love for her subject shines through in every word and picture! Can't wait to visit one day!

Annelies wrote 11 years ago:

Ik ben geboren en getogen in Utrecht maar verhuisde jaren geleden naar het oosten van het land. Ik ken de stad goed en Alisons verhalen over haar en mijn geliefde stad lees ik met heel veel plezier. Laat alle toeristen maar naar Amsterdam gaan, de echte liefhebbers hebben dan genoeg ruimte om deze prachtige stad te verkennen. En Alisons blog is een geweldige leidraad om al dat eeuwenoude en hedendaagse moois te ontdekken. "Goed gedaan jochie" zeggen ze in Utrecht (ook al ben je een meissie).

Pauline wrote 11 years ago:

I've been a resident of Utrecht for over 10 years now, and I'm still in love with "her". It's great to read a blog by someone who loves the city, and it's old and new quirks, as much as I do. It's a great way to stay updated as Alison never fails to keep up with current events in the city, and her beautiful photos are a real treat to go with it. I hope she keeps this wonderful blog up for many years to come!

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