Rotterdam is the second-biggest city in the Netherlands but gets a fraction of the visitors that go to Amsterdam. Those people are missing out, as there are lots of things to do in Rotterdam, making it well worth at least a day trip – and ideally a longer stay.
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Rotterdam is in the south of the Netherlands, 50 miles south of Amsterdam and close to The Hague, Dordrecht, Delft and Gouda, but even the briefest visit will show you that Rotterdam looks and feels very different to any of those places.
During the early part of World War 2, the Netherlands intended to stay neutral, but Germany invaded anyway. The Luftwaffe began bombing Rotterdam heavily on 10 May 1940, and on 14 May, the entire historic city centre was destroyed. The Germans had given the Dutch an ultimatum to surrender before bombing Rotterdam; when a similar ultimatum was received threatening to destroy Utrecht, another Dutch city, the Netherlands surrendered.
Instead of rebuilding the city that had been lost (as they did in Warsaw), the citizens of Rotterdam chose to build a new, modern city on a new plan with wide boulevards and high rise buildings. Work began within a few days of the attack, and by 1950 much of the plan was complete. A few buildings from before the bombing were repaired; today, walking around Rotterdam it’s surprising and unexpected when you come across an old building like the Laurenskerk or the old city hall.
Is it worth visiting Rotterdam?
Rotterdam’s history means that visiting the city is very different to visiting Amsterdam, so if you have the time for a day trip to Rotterdam, it’s absolutely worth the effort to see the city. If you have a few days to explore, Rotterdam makes a great base for exploring the south of the Netherlands.
One day in Rotterdam
If you only have one day in Rotterdam or you’re taking a day trip to Rotterdam from Amsterdam, then you’re in luck, as most of the major things to do in Rotterdam are within walking distance of each other.
Itinerary for one day in Rotterdam
In this day trip to Rotterdam itinerary I’ve described some of the top sights in Rotterdam, with a suggested route between them. This works as either a walking or cycling route, with some stops for food along the way. Rotterdam has great public transport, so if you want to visit them in a different order and use the metro and tram to get around, that works too.
Starting point for your day in Rotterdam: Blaak station
Rotterdam Blaak station, which is on the railway line from Amsterdam and tram and metro lines from elsewhere in Rotterdam, is a good place to start your day in Rotterdam. Coming out of the station you’ll see both the Markthal and the Cube Houses, and you’re just around the corner from the Old Harbour.
Markthal (Market Hall)
For me, Rotterdam’s standout attraction was the Markthal, Rotterdam’s astonishing, modern market hall. Opened in 2014, the Markthal is shaped like an enormous upside-down horseshoe, with the market stalls in the vast, cathedral-like space inside.
The horseshoe part is made up of apartments, even the curvy bits around the top, and the apartment windows open out onto the walls and ceiling of the market hall. When you’re inside, if you look carefully you can see into people’s kitchens and living rooms.
The whole of Markthal’s roof is covered with a beautiful, 36,000 square foot mural called Cornucopia. The mural, which was created by artists Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam, depicts fruit, vegetables, flowers, bees and butterflies and is absolutely stunning.
The best time to visit Markthal is during the day and early evening, when all the market stalls are open (it closes at 8pm Monday to Thursday, 9pm on Friday, 8pm on Saturday and 6pm on Sunday). You’ll find amazing cheese, sausage and bakery stalls, along with food stalls selling burgers, sushi, tapas and fish and chips. Some of the stalls have upstairs seating where you can eat what you’ve bought – we ordered a delicious Turkish pizza at Bab Tuma and sat upstairs to admire the mural.
Across the street from Markthal, you can’t miss the Cube Houses (Kijk-Kubus in Dutch). One of Rotterdam’s most iconic attractions, this curious complex was built in the 1970s by architect Piet Blom and looks nothing like any other housing development you might have seen (unless you’ve visited the prototype near Eindhoven). 40 cubes, turned at 45 degrees, sit on brick trunks, like trees in a forest.
You can see what it’s like to live in one of the Cube Houses by visiting the Kijk-Kubus Museum-house. The museum is a show house where you can see the joys and challenges of living in a tilted cube. You’ll enter from one of the pedestrian squares, up the external stairs then up the stairs in the brick trunk to the first floor.
Once inside, you can explore the living room, kitchen, and bedrooms, all with custom-made furniture to fit into the angles of the cube. Up on the top floor, there’s another room which can be used as a bedroom or living space, and which is wonderfully sunny with views over the city.
Visiting the Kijk-Kubus Museum-house is one of the top things to do in Rotterdam. It’s open 7 days a week from 11am to 5pm and costs just 3 euro to enter.
There’s another way to see inside the cubes, which is to stay at the Stayokay Rotterdam hostel. The hostel is in one of the large cubes and has rooms with distinctive sloping walls. There’s also a studio apartment for two people in another of the cube houses, with its own entrance.
Oudehaven (Old Harbour)
Together with the Delftshaven, this is one of the prettiest places to visit in Rotterdam. The Oudehaven is a small harbour, with the Cube Houses on one side and the historic Witte Huis, an early skyscraper, on the other. This is the old mouth of the River Rotte which gives Rotterdam its name and has been a harbour since the 1300s.
Rotterdam is one of the most important port cities in Europe and this is where it all began, although you might find that surprising if you visit Oudehaven today. Restaurants and bars line the waterfront, with outdoor tables decorated with twinkly lights on summer evenings. The lights reflect into the water, where you can see a collection of traditional sailing boats and cargo ships.
Oudehaven is particularly beautiful at sunset, when the golden light makes the Witte Huis and the red Willemsbrug glow, but if you only have one day in Rotterdam, it’s worth visiting at any time of day.
From the Oudehaven, head along the edge of the Wijnhaven, passing the Witte Huis and the Willemsbrug. If you have time, you could visit the Marines Museum, which explores the history of the Marine Corps.
After the lovely Regentessebrug, which was one of the few structures to survive the 1940 bombardment, the Wijnhaven meets the Leuvenhaven. There are a number of beautiful old boats and cranes on the Leuvenhaven, and you can visit the Maritime Museum, one of Rotterdam’s top attractions, with lots of interactive exhibits. It’s particularly good for children with lots to keep them entertained.
Erasmus Bridge (Erasmusbrug)
Where the Leuvenhaven meets the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam’s main waterway, you’ll see the Erasmus Bridge. Although the bridge only opened in 1996, it quickly became a symbol of the city and acquired the nickname “the Swan”. Seeing the bridge and crossing it is one of the best things to do in Rotterdam.
The Erasmus Bridge is 802 metres long and carries road traffic, trams, bikes and pedestrians across the Nieuwe Mass between north and south Rotterdam. At the end of the bridge where the swan’s neck is, a section opens to let tall-masted ships through, and seeing the road rise into the air is a fascinating experience. The section of the bridge that rises up is the longest and heaviest of its type in western Europe.
There are two of the top things to do in Rotterdam near the southern edge of the Erasmus Bridge.
The deRotterdam building is a modern icon of Rotterdam, designed by local boy and international architecture legend Rem Koolhaas and built between 2009 and 2013. The building aims to be a “vertical city”, with space for offices, hotels, apartments and leisure, and its striking design is intended to reveal itself with different views as you move past it.
The nHow Hotel inside deRotterdam has a roof terrace bar where you can admire the Erasmus Bridge below and watch the boats going past on the river.
Holland America Line headquarters – now Hotel New York
Past deRotterdam, at the end of Wilhelminakade, you’ll find the old headquarters of the Holland America Line, now Hotel New York. The Holland America Line sailed its first ship from here to New York in 1872, and over the next 25 years, 400,000 people emigrated from the Netherlands to the United States from their dock in Rotterdam. Visitors from the USA often list visiting this spot as one of their favourite things to do in Rotterdam.
There are a couple of popular food places near deRotterdam and the Hotel New York. The Fenix Food Factory food hall and microbrewery is just across the Rijnhavenbrug – I didn’t find it as impressive as Markthal but it is very popular with people visiting Rotterdam. Behind Hotel New York and just across the street from the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Foodhallen Rotterdam has 12 food stands, a gin bar and a coffee shop.
Euromast and Het Park
Head back across the Erasmus Bridge to the north bank of the Nieuwe Mass, then turn west, towards Veerhaven, another pretty harbour which is home to small leisure boats. The little white wooden office building is particularly cute. From here, take Parklaan, a wide, tree-lined street with some of the most beautiful houses in Rotterdam. This area was home to well-to-do Rotterdammers during the 1800s and reminded me of fancy neighbourhoods in New York.
Parklaan leads, not unexpectedly, to the simply named Het Park (The Park). This large, beautiful park is one of the largest areas of green space in central Rotterdam and is well worth a visit on a sunny day. We visited in the early evening and it was still full of people having picnics, riding bikes, playing with their kids and enjoying time with their families. There are flowers, wooded areas and lawns, along with a couple of cafes and restaurants.
When you’re walking through this part of the city, you can’t miss Euromast, another of the top things to do in Rotterdam. Euromast is a huge observation tower and until recently was the tallest building in the Netherlands. A lift whisks you up to a crow’s nest style open-air viewing deck 96m (315ft) up, and a further mini lift, the Euroscoop, takes you up to the very top of the space tower above the viewing platform, a total of 185m in the air.
Unfortunately, the Euroscoop was being renovated when I visited, so I could only go to the lower level, but that was easily high enough to get a fantastic view over the city and the river. Euromast is open until 10pm so it’s a nice way to round off your day in Rotterdam if that works best for your timings.
From Euromast, turn west along the river, heading for Delfshaven. This was once the port for the city of Delft, which didn’t have its own river, and is now another lovely part of Rotterdam. Delfshaven escaped the worst of the bombing in 1940 and the warehouses, wharves and bridges here show a different side to Rotterdam; hanging baskets swing from small ships and barges, the tall warehouses have been converted into offices, studios and covetable houses and there’s even an old windmill.
Like the Holland America Line headquarters, Delfshaven is a top place to visit in Rotterdam partly because of its connection to North America. In 1608, a group of religious dissenters from England fled to the Netherlands. After living in nearby Leiden for a number of years, they decided to leave for North America. The Pilgrim Fathers left Delfshaven on board the ship Speedwell on 21 July 1620, first kneeling in prayer on the quay near the Delfshaven church. While the church has been rebuilt a number of times, most notably in 1761, visiting the church, now known as the Pilgrim Fathers Church is one of the most popular things to do in Rotterdam.
As well as the Pilgrim Fathers church and the windmill, attractions at Delfshaven include the Dutch Pinball Museum (sadly not open when I was there) and lots of cafes, restaurants and bars, including the De Pelgrim microbrewery and the Poolcafé Delfshaven pool hall.
From Delfshaven, either walk (via the Westersingel sculpture route) or take the metro to Rotterdam Centraal Station for the last stop on my Rotterdam day trip itinerary.
Rotterdam Centraal Station
Railway stations don’t often appear on lists of top things to do, but like Porto‘s, Rotterdam’s is an exception. Rotterdam’s original four city centre stations were combined onto one site after World War 2, then in 2014 the 1950s Centraal building was demolished and rebuilt into its stunning current form.
You don’t need to buy a train ticket to see the best of Rotterdam Centraal – instead, head outside to Stationsplein to see the gorgeous, swooping silver roof – part space age, part fighter plane, part steampunk. The “Centraal Station” lettering and clock were saved from the old station at the request of Rotterdam residents. If you’re interested in architecture, then it’s a must-see – it was definitely one of my top things to do in Rotterdam.
From Rotterdam Centraal, you can return to where you started at Rotterdam Blaak by train or on foot, perhaps via the city hall (Stadhuis) and the shopping district around Beursplein. Alternatively, you can get back to Amsterdam by train from Rotterdam Centraal.
2 days in Rotterdam
With 2 days, you have more time to explore more areas of Rotterdam and get to know the city better. 2 days in Rotterdam also gives you plenty of time to visit the many museums or take a guided tour.
Museums in Rotterdam
Rotterdam has a real wealth of museums. The Museumpark, to the east of the city centre between the Erasmus Bridge and the Euromast, has six museums:
- Natural History Museum Rotterdam
- Het Nieuwe Instituut, which focuses on design, architecture and digital culture
- Art gallery Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (temporarily closed) and its new Depot (which you can visit), which has a collection spanning western European art from the middle ages to the present day
- The Chabot Museum, dedicated to Dutch painter and sculptor Hendrik Chabot and housed in a gorgeous art deco villa
- Huis Sonneveld, another 1930s home which has been amazingly well preserved
- The Kunsthal, another art museum which hosts a wide range of temporary exhibitions
Other popular museums to visit in Rotterdam include the Maritime Museum on Leuvehaven, the Tax and Customs Museum near Het Park, the Dutch Pinball Museum on Delfshaven and the Museum of Chess Pieces in one of the cube houses. Museum Rotterdam ’40 -’45 NOW brings to life the experience of living in Rotterdam during the war years.
Tours around Rotterdam
Once you’ve seen the top things to do in Rotterdam on my one day itinerary, you might be looking to see some aspects of the city in a bit more depth on a guided tour.
There are lots of tours to choose from, including harbour tours, a tour on an amphibious bus (which we saw splashing through the waves near the Hotel New York – it looked like a lot of fun!), a guided tour of the Heineken brewery, architecture walking tours and Segway tours.
3 or more days in Rotterdam
Rotterdam makes a great base for day trips, thanks to its great train connections and position in the south of the Netherlands.
I chose to take a day trip to Delft and The Hague but you can also take very easy day trips from Rotterdam to the UNESCO-listed Kinderdijk windmills, to the Thursday cheese market in Gouda, to the beach at Scheveningen, just outside The Hague or even to Antwerp in northern Belgium.