Photo: The Oudegracht

NEED A SHORT BREAK from Amsterdam’s dazzle and big-city sophistication?

Consider Utrecht, a medieval-yet-hip university city dating to Roman times (A.D. 47 ) . A little more than half an hour away from Amsterdam by express train (approximately 15 euros, one way), Utrecht has what no other city in the world has: waterside footpaths, aka, wharves.

Running along almost fi ve miles of the Oudegracht, or “old canal,” these tree-lined pink cobblestone pathways were constructed in the 13th century to provide access to the cellars of the houses lining the canals . This waterways system, originally part of an ancient tributary of the Rhine River, served as a medieval harbor complex.

Today, many of these same water-level cellars near the city’s center have been turned into trendy restaurants, outdoor cafés, bars, boutiques, and shops fi lled with crafts and antique books. On Saturdays, the Oudegracht is home to colorful fl ower markets, artists and street performers.

After savoring the sight of boats gently bobbing in the canals and gliding under the cobblestone bridges that cross the waterways, or perhaps taking a ride on a canal gondola, it won’t take long to fi nd the Dom (Achter de Dom 1, It’s one of the fi nest and tallest church towers in the Netherlands and stands nearly 370 feet high, with 465 (count ’em) steps for folks who have good knees and a desire to climb to the top. In what today is Dom Square, the Romans built a castellum (fortress) in A.D. 47 as part of the northern border of the Roman Empire. You’ll also see the outline of the central part of the Domkerk (originally called Cathedral Church of St. Maarten ), which was destroyed in a violent storm in 1674.

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Photo:  Gerrit Rietveld Schröder's house

Utrecht is home to world notables, including illustrator Dick Bruna, who created Miffy the bunny (the star of a picture-book series that has mesmerized children for more than 30 years), as well as famed architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld Schröder. His home here is a UNESCO World Heritage site; a celebration of his work is ongoing at the Centraal Museum (Nicolaaskerkhof 10, until January 2011.

And don’t forget Museum Speelklok (Steenweg 6,, an eclectic collection of antique and unusual musical instruments from days past to present. Train buffs will want to look for the Dutch Railway Museum (Maliebaanstation 16,, where there are more than 60 locomotives and railcars on display.