Birthplace of the only Dutch pope, Adrian VI, Utrecht has been a powerful bishopric since the 7th century and is still a major religious center. First settled by Romans, Utrecht's original glory dates to the 16th century, when the religious power of the town was expressed in the construction of four churches at the points of an enormous imaginary cross, with the Dom (cathedral) in its center. It was also 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 it for being one of the busiest and most modern in Holland. Utrecht boasts a third of a million inhabitants, but it feels somewhat smaller. The very center is relatively compact and easy to cover on foot, and although the narrow, winding streets can cause you to lose your bearings (even with a good map), walking is still the way to go. Indeed, many streets are reserved for pedestrians only, and the heart of Utrecht remains redolent with history, particularly along the Oudegracht (Old Canal), which winds through the central shopping district. This particularly picturesque canal is unusual in the Netherlands in that the towpath is on two levels; in summer, the tables of many cafés and restaurants spill out across the street on both upper and lower levels (the latter pedestrians-only) and on both sides—stake out a table, as it all fills up rather quickly.