Birthplace of the 16th-century Pope Adrian VI (the only Dutch one), Utrecht has been a powerful bishopric since the 7th century and is still a major religious center.
First settled by Romans, Utrecht achieved its first glory in the 16th century, when the religious power of the town was made manifest in the building of four churches at points of an enormous imaginary cross, with the Dom (cathedral) in the center. It was in Utrecht that the Dutch Republic was established in 1579 with the signing of the Union of Utrecht. In addition to being home to Holland's largest university, the city has so many curiosities—high-gabled houses, fascinating water gates, hip shops, artsy cafés, and winding canals—that a traveler can almost forgive the city for being one of the busiest and most modern in Holland. Happily, the central core remains redolent with history, particularly along the Oudegracht (Old Canal), which winds through the central shopping district (to the east of the train station shopping complex). This particularly picturesque canal is unusual in the Netherlands in that the towpath is on two levels. In summer in the central area, the tables of many cafés and restaurants spill out across the street on both upper and lower levels (the latter being pedestrian only) and on both sides. Stake out a table as it all fills up quickly.
While this is a city with a third of a million inhabitants, it feels somewhat smaller. The center is relatively compact and easy to navigate on foot (notwithstanding the fact that the twisting streets can cause you to lose your bearings even if you have a good map). In fact, with narrow streets, many of them reserved for pedestrians, walking is the way to go.