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Visit a Fairy-Tale Town: Zutphen, One of the Best Preserved Medieval Towns in Europe

Posted on May 6, 2022 by

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Dutch Provinces: Gelderland

”Discover the Netherlands, Province by Province” project – each month of 2022 is dedicated to one Dutch province.

Drums can roll and bells can sing: I finally visited Zutphen, which has been on my wish list for years!

The month of May is dedicated to the beautiful Gelderland province, and I had to start my discovery with a place I’ve been wanting to see for a long time: Zutphen, one of the best preserved medieval towns in northwestern Europe. It was high on my list since I first found out about the Hanseatic cities of the Netherlands, a few years ago, and I became a fan of these places even before I’ve set foot in one of them. It did not disappoint; if anything, it was more beautiful than I expected. My only regret is that I planned only half day for my trip, because I would have loved to spend more time in Zutphen.

Zutphen is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, home to almost 400 national monuments and over 500 local monuments. It is sometimes called “Torenstad” (city of towers), because of the number of buildings with a tower in the old city centre. Located on the rivers Berkel and IJssel, Zutphen has a strategic location and had a turbulent history. To mention only a few notable events: after being destroyed by vikings in 882, the city was rebuilt and a circular fortress was raised to protect it from the attacks. Later, the city withstood several sieges, especially during the Eighty Years’ War. It was bombarded in World War II, and parts of the city were destroyed, but most of the city centre survived.

Zutphen

Nowadays, Zutphen is a place straight out of a fairy-tale, with its towers, old buildings and the city walls, with narrow streets and hidden green courtyards. There are also modern shops and hip cafés, and my favourites were the ones in the main square, in the shade of the Wijnhuistoren (The Wine House Tower) — former inn, city weigh house, residence of the city guard and place of public announcements from the city council.

I went to Zutphen on a Sunday and arrived there around 10 am. The city was still sleeping, the streets were empty and only a few cafés were opening their doors for customers. By the time I left, in the afternoon, the city was more lively, a pleasant buzzing coming from the outdoor restaurants and a few more tourists going around. While I enjoyed having the city only for myself, I was disappointed that some places were closed, like the Walburgiskerk – the amazing church where the Librije (the chain library) is located.

Walking around the city centre, taking pictures and marvelling at the beauty of the place, I kept stumbling upon the same few German and Dutch tourists that were visiting. It’s a blessing for Zutphen that is not packed with tourists, and I’m glad there are still beautiful places where I can go and have a relaxed visit. The further away from Amsterdam I go, the more relaxed the tourist experience is (and that’s no surprise, I guess everyone would expect it).

What to see and do in Zutphen

The list with places to see and do in Zutphen might seem long, especially for such a small place, but keep in mind that these places are merely minutes walking from each other, if not one next to the other. You’ll only turn your head the other way and see the next point of interest.

  • Zutphen has a small city centre, perfect for walking. If you’d try to get lost on the narrow streets, you would discover that’s impossible, because they will eventually bring you to your starting point. There are many monuments to see, and if you want a detailed walking tour, please check out this website I also used as a guide for my visit: Visit the Dutch Countryside.
  • Whisper boat ride on the Berkel river. On a tour that lasts about one hour, you can discover the city from a different perspective while listening to interesting stories from your guide.
Berkelpoort
  • The Berkelpoort (Berkel Gate) is a water gate and part of the Zutphen city wall and located on the eastern edge of the city center, across the small river Berkel. It was built in the 14th century. It offers a superb view, and it’s the place from where you can take the whisper boat tour.
  • Visit one of the few chain libraries in the world: Librije. Located in the Walburgiskerk, this library is recognised as a unique cultural monument. There’s only one other similar place in Europe: Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, Italy. The library was built in 1564, for public use. Because the books were very expensive to be produced back then, and because sometimes they were taken home by the readers, the library came up with the solution of chaining the books to the reading desks.
  • Walburgiskerk (St. Walburgis Church). It belongs to the Top 100 of Dutch UNESCO monuments and is counted among the ten most beautiful churches in the Netherlands. After seeing it, I can understand why: it is, indeed, one of the most gorgeous churches I’ve seen in this country. The oldest parts of the church date from the eleventh century.
Walburgiskerk
  • Oude Stadhuis (old City hall) – a beautiful building next to the Walburgiskerk.
  • Walk on Martinetsingel, from the Drogenapstoren to the Vispoorthaven, to admire the postcard view of the city.
View from Martinetsingel
  • Musea Zutphen – comprising Stedelijk Museum Zutphen (Historical Museum of Zutphen) and Museum Henriette Polak (museum for modern-classical painting and sculpture in the Netherlands).
  • Oude Bornhof – discovering Zutphen’s hofjes (internal courtyards) is a must. Oude Bornhof is the largest and the oldest of them, dating back to 1320. Step through the ornate gate, walk past the corridor bordered with flowers, enter the green yard and enjoy the silence and the birds singing.
  • Drogenapstoren – The Drogenapstoren, originally called the Saltpoort (salt gate), was built in 1444-1446 as the city gate of Zutphen. It only served as a city gate for a short time because it was bricked up in 1465. After the town musician Tonis Drogenap moved into the building in the mid-16th century, the gatehouse was given the name Drogenapstoren (according to Wikipedia).
  • Nieuwstadskerk or St. Janskerk – the church that was serving what in the 14th century was considered the Niew City. The oldest visible parts of this church date from the 14th century, but it has been renovated in the ’80s.
  • Vispoorthaven and walk along the Ijssel – see Zutphen’s marina and have a walk along the river promenade. From there you can see the bridge over IJssel (if you came to Zutphen by train, you most likely admired the city from that bridge).
  • The Spanjaardspoort – a city gate built in 1537.

Events in Zutphen

Sprookjesstad Zutphen. In December, during the Sprookjesstad days, Zutphen will look even more like a fairy tale town. Scenes from fairy tales are re-created on the streets, people are dressing up and there is a parade. Maybe something to put in my agenda for this year!

How to get to Zutphen

One of the reasons I haven’t been to Zutphen yet is because the train trip involves at least one transfer. It’s not a big deal, but I’ve been spoiled by the short distances in the Netherlands and the direct train rides to many of the beautiful cities. If you go from Amsterdam, the train ride will take between 1.25 – 1.50 h. Plan your trip using the NS website.

And now let’s have a virtual tour:

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