Wandeling oude binnenstad Utrecht

Mini tour – tour of the old city centre

This week we are sharing a tour of the city center of Utrecht. Discover this part of Utrecht full of history. This tour is a classic, it shows you the highlights of the city center.

The creation

For the creation of the city of Utrecht, we need to go back roughly to the year 40. That’s when the Romans decided to give their kingdom a northern boundary. Therefore, they built the Rijn castella (forts) along the south side of the river, one at every 8 to 10 kilometers, with watchtowers between them. The Domplein now stands in the location of one of these forts, along with the Dom tower, the Dom church, and the neighboring buildings. If you want to know what happened in the meantime, you can ask one of the colleagues at Domunder (domunder.nl).

Priests, monks, and nuns

In the middle ages, Utrecht was the central point of the Roman Catholic religion in the Netherlands. The city was therefore full of priests, monks, and nuns. One of the places where monks lived for centuries is where the Utrecht archives and the restaurant De Rechtbank are now located. In 1053, a monastery was founded. Due to the reformation, starting in 1580 things went downhill for the abbey. In 1837-1838, the last abbey buildings were rebuilt into a court. For more information, see the mini-tour about the Romanesque building style.

Inner port

The Oudegracht is the longest connected inner harbor in the city, dug between the 10th and 12th centuries. During the past centuries, more and more homes have been built along it, rather than farms and trading houses. Some had city castles built there, for example, Oudaen, Drakenburg, and Clarenburg.

Trade settlement

The Steenweg and Lange Elisabethstraat form the heart of the trade settlement that the city center used to be. The houses were mainly made of wood and if there was a fire, entire neighborhoods often went up in flames. Nowadays these are shopping streets with stone houses.

Peace under threat

Until 1529, a cloister with a hospice dedicated to St. Catherina stood on Vredenburg. In 1529, the room needed to be made for Vredenburg: a coercion castle commissioned by king Karel V to keep the Utrecht inhabitants under control. The castle was supposed to protect the peace in the city, but the canons were aimed at the city. In 1577, the citizens occupied the castle and destroyed it (see the mini-tour on Katrijn van Leemput). A square emerged where trade took place.

Knights and patriots

The Neude hasn’t always been a square. It used to be a swamp, wet and impassable. After the city government gave the assignment of filling it up with sand and debris, it became an important trading square, along the trading route from Gelre to Holland. But that wasn’t all: in 1471, a knight tournament was held, and in 1786 the first patriotic troops were sworn in here (see the mini-tour on Quint Ondaatje). After the grain exchange was moved to Vredenburg, trade was mostly over, replaced by cafés and bars and, in 1924, the head post office.

St Jan

We are now on the other side of the Dom church from the Paulus abbey. The Janskerk, dedicated to St. Jan, is now a protestant church. But between 1050 and 1580, it was the center of St Jan’s catholic immunity. An immunity is an area, often closed off from the outside world by a wall or a moat, where the worldly law is not valid. The ‘kerkhof’ (church square) as we now know it was therefore not accessible to the normal public until 1680, and was thus also much quieter.

Now we’re almost all the way around. The next time you visit the city center, you’ll know which highlights are definitely worth seeing.


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About Tom Lensink

Tom is een historicus, docent, groeps- en publieksbegeleider met een grote passie voor de Utrechtse geschiedenis. Naast het doen van historisch onderzoek en het begeleiden van publiek tijdens ontdekkingstochten bij Domunder is hij blogger bij Explore Utrecht, actief bij Scouting als begeleider en is hij een fervent hardloper. In zijn vrije tijd houdt hij ervan om een drankje te doen in één van de vele cafés op en rond de Neude en zoekt hij graag de rust op in de vele hofjes en parken in en om de stad.

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