My day job is being a Law student. Having not embarked upon the rite-of-passage that is inter-railing, I thought it was time to go abroad ‘for real’, do some travelling and experience life on the other side of the water. My friends’ reactions involved some envy about my spending the year in a coffeeshop in Amsterdam; my family’s reaction was more a warning against doing so. However, once you get to Utrecht, you’ll soon feel so at home that the tourist-trap that is Amsterdam will be banished to the back of your mind...for a while at least!
Utrecht is a beautiful, quaint and an entirely under-rated city which encompasses all that is great about the Netherlands. Almost everyone I’ve met speaks really good English and thus far there’s been no mega awkward communication problems - well, apart from the time I took my parents to the local fish restaurant, De Kust, and the waitress ended up spending a good 20 minutes drawing pictures of the fish they served since they didn’t have English menus! However, this just goes to show how friendly the people are: they will help you out wherever possible.
I want to say that the easiest option for sorting out accommodation is to turn to SSH Short Stay. They provide accommodation for international students, lots of whom live in De Uithof, a Utrecht University campus about a ten or fifteen minute bus or bike-ride to the city centre. There’s always parties going on here and it has a very cheap student bar. The rent per month is pretty expensive, but covers water, heating and lighting. The rooms (at least where I’m living) are furnished with all the basics (bed, wardrobe, desk, chairs, a sink) and the kitchen has all you need (table and chairs, cooker, microwave, pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups, glasses, cutlery). If you’re not sure what your flat will contain, contact SSH for an inventory. For some reason, SSH seem to have acquired a negative reputation and their contract is virtually impossible to get out of, unless you’re dropping out of uni or something exceptional like that. However, I’ve had no problems with them and would advise getting accommodation through them, if only for the fact that you’ll be in among lots of other students, both Dutch and international. My one piece of advice: don’t wait until you get here to sort out accommodation. I have lots of friends who spent their first month in Utrecht at a youth hostel, paying as much to share a room with 14 other people as it would have cost to sort out a private room in advance. If your family are using your year abroad as an excuse for a weekend away to the Netherlands, and they’re not keen on kipping on your floor, book them into the Hotel Apollo (really central, right beside the train station), but have a look at www.booking.com, which may work out cheaper than doing so directly. If they’re looking somewhere a bit more plush and upmarket (and hence a bit more expensive), head for Hotel de Admirral. This place is slightly out of the centre but it is absolutely beautiful and the owners typify Dutch friendliness.
Getting Around Utrecht
If you want to fit in with the Dutch and get yourself some exercise into the bargain, buy yourself a bike. Utrecht is perfect for cycling: there are special cycle lanes and generally speaking, cyclists have the right of way, so you’ll have very few worries other than keeping balanced! Be careful when you’re buying a bike that you don’t get ripped off; it’s definitely worth trying a few shops before you part with your money. I’d definitely recommend Willemstraat Bike. The guy who runs this place is so helpful, gives you a 2-month guarantee and does any repairs really cheaply. Also, make sure you get a receipt for your bike and make a photocopy of it: the police can stop you at any point and ask you to provide proof of purchase. And invest in a sturdy lock. You’ll inevitably be using the bus, even if it is only when the snow is thick on the ground, so get yourself an OV-Chipkaart (available from the ticket office at Centraal train station, €7.50). You stick some money on this card, swipe when you get on and off the bus, the latter being particularly important to avoid an extra €4 being taken off your credit. Handily enough, these cards work on the public transport in all the major cities in the Netherlands, so bring it with you on any day trips. For about €55, you can purchase a Voordeelurenkaart. This is an off-peak discount card, giving you 40% discount on trains in the Netherlands. The discount can also be used by up to three other people travelling with you. It’s valid for one year and can also be used on public transport, as an OV-Chipkaart. There is only one small issue: you will need a Dutch bank account in order to purchase one. Buses within Utrecht normally run until about 1AM. If, after this time, you want to take a taxi, make sure you get yourself a UTC (Utrechtse Taxi Centrale) Bonuskaart. Just ask any UTC taxi driver for one. This only works on UTC taxis, but provided you show this to your driver at the start of your journey, you’re guaranteed that the maximum fare to anywhere within the city will be €12.50. This will save you quite a bit, and you’ll notice that the route home will usually be a fair bit shorter! If you’re unsure how to get to anywhere in Utrecht, don’t leave your flat until you’ve checked out the journeyplanner. This website will tell you exactly what bus to take, where to get off and will even calculate how long your journey will take.
Sightseeing and Museums
Don’t pay to get into museums: get yourself a Museumkaart. This card costs about €25 and will be the best bargain of your year abroad. It is valid for one year and will gain you access not only to most of the museums in Utrecht, but also to most of the museums throughout the Netherlands. Utrecht is the home of Miffy; well, Miffy’s creator, Dick Bruna. Of course, there’s a Miffy museum to celebrate this, but I have heard that the highlight is the elevator. I would recommend going to the Music Museum (Museum Speelklok). It’s quite small but there’s a one-hour guided tour (in English, if you request) which is very worthwhile. Otherwise, be sure to take a trip to the Domkerk and Domtoren. The Domtoren is a beautiful church tower and the centre of the town. It’s the tallest church tower in The Netherlands, so if you’re unsure of your whereabouts during your first few weeks (or months!) here, this is a great help. In the Domkerk (the Church), there’s usually a free classical music concert on Saturdays from 15.30 until 16.30.
You’ll soon notice that Albert Heijn seems to have the monopoly over here when it comes to supermarkets. It does offer some pretty good deals but to actually benefit from those advertised in store, you’ll have to get an AH Bonuskaart and present it to the cashier. These don’t cost a penny and are usually available in-store, from the desk where cigarettes are sold. To be honest, Albert Heijn’s alright for most stuff, but if you’re looking good quality fruit and veg that isn’t that expensive, I’d recommend another supermarket, Super de Boer. Also, be sure to check out the markets, which sell really good quality food at a pretty cheap price. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there’s one at Vredenburg Square, just outside the Hoog Catherijne shopping centre, which sells fish, bread, cheeses, stroopwafels and lots more. And if you haven’t yet heard of stroopwafels, make sure you hunt some down. They’re basically two pieces of wafer stuck together with caramel and they are so tasty! Make yourself a cuppa, leave the stroopwafel on the top for a bit, allowing the caramel to melt, et voilà, delicious.
If you fancy a little tipple, you have two options: either you can hit the local supermarket, Albert Heijn, where beers and wines are sold; or, if you’re in the mood for something a little stronger (spirits, etc), you’ll need to go to Gall en Gall. This seems to be the only off-licence around. However, be aware that it does close at 8pm at the very latest, leaving no room for spontaneity. Check out opening hours.
Utrecht’s nightlife is pretty decent. My first experience was hitting Hoffmans, a pub/club at Janskerkhof, during my first week here, and being greeted by the ‘interesting’ dance moves pulled by the Dutch men. I can’t even begin to describe this to you: you have to see it to truly get the full effect. Girls, Utrecht does not do dress-up: generally, the Dutch girls go very understated on a night out, usually just wearing jeans and a top. However, if you’re going to some of the nights aimed at international students, feel free to go all out. Tuesdays is Poema. This place has a reputation as playing good music but as being really sweaty...and isn’t that what it’s all about?! If you’re into your alternative tunes, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Tivoli on a Thursday night. And Wooloomooloo...possibly the best name for a club ever! This place is renowned for being filled with frat boys, but is worth a visit to see what all the fuss is about. If you’re just looking a quiet drink down the pub, then try Mick O’Connells. It’s not the cheapest, but if you join ESN, you’ll be able to get discount. And it usually has the football on. If you’re looking for live music but don’t want to travel into Amsterdam, make sure you check the Tivoli website. There’s been some pretty big names playing here, like Biffy Clyro, and lots of Dutch bands for you to become well-acquainted with.
Don’t set aside Sunday for a bit of retail therapy: you’ll be sorely disappointed. Generally, shops don’t open on this day of rest, and you’re far more likely to be successful in taking a trip to a museum instead. Unless, of course, it’s the first Sunday of the month, in which case feel free to fight your way past the mass of shoppers that seem to rain down upon the city. Hit Utrecht for shopping and you will not be disappointed. Conveniently attached to the train station is one of Europe’s largest indoor shopping centres, Hoog Catherijne. Exit this a few euros lighter and in under five minutes you’ll be at De Bijenkorf, an upmarket three-storey department store. Otherwise, float about the town and you’ll find lots more places to spend your student loan! If you’re a fan of vintage clobber, head to Voorstraat, the street just opposite de Neude. Along here you’ll find two great shops: Giensch, and a little further down, Sussies. These hidden gems are well worth a visit! You’ll quickly notice the absurd amount of shoe shops in Utrecht. And if you want to pick yourself up something that will help you get that Dutch look down to a tee, get yourself a pair of brown boots. Yes, really, this is a fashion staple. Unfortunately for those, like myself, who are a bit vertically challenged, you may encounter some difficulty: Dutch girls are so enviably tall that ‘knee’ boots may reach well above where they’re supposed to go!
Bureaucracy, and all that jazz...
If you’re going to be staying in Utrecht for more than four months, by law you must register with the city. This is a really easy process, involving proof of health insurance, a copy of your passport and a bit of form-filling. You’re then issued with a Burger Service Number (BSN): make sure not to lose this, or else you’ll have to pay €10 for a new copy! You’ll need this number to open a Dutch bank account, though you can inform the bank of it at a later stage, when you actually receive it (about 2 or 3 weeks after registration). You’ll also need this if you want to apply for a job. As an Erasmus student, it’s pretty worthwhile joining ESN (Erasmus Student Network). It’s about €10 to join for the year, and your card will get you in free/at a discount to some clubs. ESN organise quite a few events throughout the year as well as trips, both in The Netherlands and to the surrounding countries, and there’s a ski trip in or around March each year. If you fancy learning Dutch, they’ll pair you up with a Dutch person who wants to learn your language and even organise for you to go and stay with a Dutch family for the weekend.
Get yourself to T-Mobile for an International SIM card. These will give you a really cheap way of phoning anywhere in the world. And the best bit? Whatever you top up gets doubled, so stick on €20 and you’ll actually get €40 of credit. Bargain or what?!
My top tip: once you get your bearings, go and explore; you’ll surely come across some hidden gems!