Europe's train systems make it possible to reclaim a sense of adventure--and still be back in time for dinner.
AMSTERDAM TO UTRECHT
Because you can never get enough beautiful old canals: Ignoring the tacky 70s mall that houses the Utrecht train station, press through the narrow medieval streets to the Oudegracht, the "old canal," dug around a thousand years ago. It's lined with bookshops and restaurants with terraces directly on the water. Take a right at the canal, past the four enormous green women on your left (the caryatids supporting the façade of the Winkel van Sinkel, a department store that's been converted into a grand café). Keep walking along the canal until you see the Gothic spire of Domtoren, the tallest cathedral tower in the Netherlands. If you're feeling perky, climb up to the top (reservations recommended), where, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Amsterdam. Then walk across the square (site of the Roman fort to which Utrecht traces its ancestry), through the beautiful medieval cloister, and out the other side. Located to your left on the Nieuwegracht--a canal dug in 1390, yet still "new"--is the house of the only Dutch pope, Adrian VI. Continue to the end of the canal, then turn right, where you'll see the Centraal Museum; then take the first right, down the Lange Nieuwestraat. At the Universiteitsmuseum, have lunch in the botanical garden in the shade of Europe's oldest ginkgo tree. Afterward, go back to the Centraal Museum and board the Rietveld Bus (reservations required) to the fascinatingly uncomfortable Rietveld Schröder House, a de Stijl landmark from 1924. After the bus returns you to the museum, walk back down the Oudegracht to the train station.
Warm homemade stroopwafels--pairs of waffly wafers filled with delicious caramel ($1)--from the cart located in the big, ugly mall (Hoog Catharijne) at the train station; the cart is just past the ATMs.
Winkel van Sinkel: Oudegracht 158, 011-31/302-30-30-30, dewinkelvansinkel.nl. Domtoren: Domplein 9-10, 011-31/302-36-00-10, domtoren.nl, reservations recommended, $10. Centraal Museum: Nicolaaskerkhof 10, 011-31/302-36-23-62, centraalmuseum.nl, $11. Rietveld Schröder House: Reserve through the Centraal Museum, 011-31/302-36-23-62, email@example.com, $21, includes entry to the Centraal Museum.
30 minutes each way. Round-trip ticket: $15. Trains between Amsterdam Centraal and Utrecht run every 10 to 20 minutes all day. The ride takes about 30 minutes, and tickets ($15 round trip) can be purchased at a machine or counter at the station. It's cheaper to buy a Dagretour (day return) than two 1-way tickets; the ticket is valid on any train that connects the two cities, but you must return the same day. Schedules at ns.nl.