A thriving, architecturally open-minded university city with a quaint medieval centre, it's fair to say that Utrecht sometimes seems confused about exactly what century it wants to live in. Economically and educationally modern, it is now the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, but its close-knit nature and strong cultural scene means that, to be there, it seems a long way from just another big city. In fact, with its cafe-lined canal system, its rush hour entertainingly dominated by zig-zagging bikes and its friendly, welcoming nature, a visit here does, in many ways, feel like a quintessentially Dutch experience.
As beautiful as Utrecht is in the winter, it is in the summer that the city really comes into its own, and there's one simple reason for this: its unique canal system. The city's waterways are unusual in the fact they they contain wharves, where the merchants who once used the canals as a means of transport would have unloaded their goods. The enterprising business owners above soon realised the potential of this waterborne market, and so built a series of cellars below their shops, allowing them to trade directly with the people using the river. Today, these wharves and cellars are home to shops, cafes and restaurants, and on a warm day there's no better place to be than sitting out on one with a hot coffee or a locally brewed beer, watching the world float past.
As the country's ancient religious centre, Utrecht is home to a huge range of historically important sites, including an old town dotted with churches, monuments and beautiful old buildings, and a castle surrounded by beautiful gardens. Of particular note is the 14th-century Dom Tower, which stands in the very spot where the first foundations of the city were laid and is visible from almost any point in the city; at 112 metres tall, the view from the top is excellent, but be warned that the stairs are notoriously narrow and steep.
There are also a number of well-presented museums, including one dedicated to self-playing musical instruments, which somewhat immodestly claims to be the "most fun museum in the Netherlands".
For all of its ancient architecture, Utrecht is also a city that has a long history of being at the forefront of pushing design boundaries. Leading the way in this was the Rietveld Schröder House - a privately commissioned residence composed of sliding walls, straight lines and powerful colours - which was completed in 1924 but looks and feels as radical today as it did back then. Listed as a site of Outstanding Universal Value by UNESCO for its "seminal position in the development of architecture in the modern age", it can only be visited with a pre-booked tour guide. Since its construction, the city has continued this trend by commissioning an ever-increasing number of futuristic buildings designed by well-known architects, including Rem Koolhaas' 'Educatorium', which can be found on the Utrecht University Science Park.