This guide on what to do in Rotterdam came about following a kind invitation to the city from Rotterdam Partners.
In 1996, the British band The Beautiful South released the song ‘Rotterdam (or anywhere)’. It lingered in the charts for months and haunted my brain for even longer. For twenty years, this vaguely depressing tune was my only point of reference for Rotterdam: Holland’s second largest city and Europe’s busiest port.
When Lonely Planet therefore voted Rotterdam one of the top ten cities to visit in 2016, I was a little surprised. Perhaps it was Beautiful South’s confusing claim that ‘the whole place is pickled, the people are pickles for sure’, but I was unsure what to expect from this seafaring port.
Nonetheless, when Rotterdam Partners invited us to visit one windswept weekend in March 2016, we were curious to see what all the fuss was about. With Beautiful South’s song on loop in our brains, we set off ready to explore and unpick those famous 1990s lyrics.
How To Get To Rotterdam
Let’s begin this guide on what to do in Rotterdam with the essentials: details on how to get to Rotterdam, how to navigate the city and where to stay once there.
From the UK, Rotterdam is both cheap, quick and easy to get to.
By Ferry: If you fancy travelling to Rotterdam at a more relaxed pace, then consider taking the ferry. Currently, this route is operated from Hull by P&O Ferries and takes approximately 12 hours. For more details on this overnight ferry route, take a look at Monica’s experience, via The Travel Hack.
By Train: Rotterdam is easy to reach via the train, thanks to Eurostar. Taking just 3 hours and 13 minutes, you can purchase a return ticket from London St Pancras International for around £160 (in Standard Class). Rotterdam’s train station – Rotterdam Centraal – is in the very heart of the city and close to all hotels and attractions.
How To Travel Around Rotterdam
Boasting a fairly compact and small city centre, Rotterdam is incredibly easy to navigate almost entirely by foot. Indeed, this is how we explored much of the city.
However, if you’re intending on visiting parts of the city that are slightly further afield, then there are a wealth of transport options available.
Waterbus or Watertaxi: We got the Watertaxi when visiting the city’s famous Hotel New York (departing from Veerhaven or Leuvehaven and leaving every 15 minutes). It was a beautiful and fantastic way to see the city from its famous waters and cost just €2.90 each.
The RET Network: Rotterdam’s RET network covers its bus, tram, metro, lightrail and waterbus system, and is a convenient way to travel. To use the network, you’ll need to purchase a ‘Public Transport Chip Card‘ (OV chipkaart). Available at most stations (and newsagents) we’d advise you get a Disposable Travel Card, lasting from 1 – 24 hours.
Rotterdam Welcome Card: This card is great for those visiting Rotterdam for a short break, and includes free transport for 1-3 days, alongside discounted entrance fees to the city’s leading museums and attractions. These cards begin at €12 for 1 day.
The Tourist Day Ticket: Costing just €13.50, this day ticket offers a flat rate on all RET travel throughout greater Rotterdam, The Hague and wider attractions across South Holland. These are ideal if you’re hoping to explore more than just central Rotterdam and are available at the Tourist Information Offices throughout the city.
Where To Stay in Rotterdam
Rotterdam has plenty of brilliant hotels: ranging from art-deco inspired luxury to cheap and cheerful boltholes.
Affordable Options: When we visited Rotterdam, we stayed at the very affordable Hotel Ibis (£66 per night), located just a five minute walk from the city centre. Other alternatives (within this price bracket) include the very cool CitizenM hotel (£106 per night) and CityHub Rotterdam (£51 per night) – a capsule style hotel.
Bigger Budget Options: For the style conscious amongst you, a stay at Rotterdam’s historic Hotel New York is a must. With a mouth-watering restaurant offering fresh seafood and brilliant cocktails to boot, the hotel represents a little piece of the city’s seafaring and cosmopolitan past.
The History of Rotterdam
As we drove into Rotterdam from the city’s airport, the skyline began to immediately fill with bold colours and irregular shapes.
Large, yellow cube houses loomed heavily over us; like dice rolling across the skyline. An enormous, inverted U-shaped building dominated the horizon, its interior resembling a paintbox. Nearby, a towering bridge crossed a large river, mimicking the shape of a giant swan. Rounding the corner and a large skyscraper – constructed from a Rubik’s Cube of boxes and colours – appeared.
It was not the cityscape that we’d expected.
However, once you learn a little of Rotterdam’s history, this ambitious architecture makes more sense.
In the height of World War II, Rotterdam became a key target for the German Luftwaffe. A large port, providing the allies with goods and weapons, it was decided that Rotterdam must be bombed – and heavily. In the space of a few hours, over 97,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city, destroying it entirely.
Aside from 3 original buildings, nothing remained of this once medieval city.
However, within three days, Rotterdam was back on its feet. Rather than mourn the loss of its former buildings, it decided to wipe the slate clean; starting afresh. With an entirely blank canvas, the city had the rare opportunity to create something new, modern and relevant: a city like no other.
Walk through Rotterdam and it’s obvious that the city fulfilled this pledge – creating a topography that is bold, garish and silly. Refusing to take itself too seriously, Rotterdam – a city that rose from the ashes – has a Carpe Diem attitude; one that can be felt throughout its buildings and many streets.
What To Do In Rotterdam
Explore The Historic Quarter
A disclaimer before we begin: any historic tour of Rotterdam is brief, given the fact that much of it was left in a cloud of rubble in 1940. However, pockets of its medieval past remain and are definitely worth exploring.
Make the time to head over to Delfshaven: a small slither of historic Rotterdam that escaped the bombings. After getting a water taxi there, this medieval quarter appeared a little surreally on the other side of a highway: a large windmill, pretty harbour and traditional Dutch houses waiting for us.
Quiet and peaceful, we walked through this area in the sunshine; admiring the many houseboats and the famous Pilgrim Fathers Church – home to the Pilgrim Fathers, before they left for America in 1620. Although small in size, there are plenty of cafes here to enjoy a coffee in; giving visitors a moment to sit back and imagine just what the original Rotterdam would have looked like.
In terms of what to do in Rotterdam, a visit to this beautiful corner of the city is a must.
Built between 1897-1898 and only 11 stories high, it’s hard to believe that this spot was ever considered to be a large building; yet it remained one of Europe’s tallest structures for years.
Sitting proudly on the city’s old harbour (Oude Haven), this gorgeous Art Nouveau building juxtaposes sharply with the post-modernist Cube Houses that sit behind it. Stop by to admire its beautiful interior and to enjoy a cup of coffee in its Grand Café.
Another surviving building that we managed to visit was Rotterdam’s City Hall. Again, this building sits quietly amongst a sea of modern and cutting-edge architecture, and although made up predominantly of offices, is definitely worth a walk past.
Whilst you cannot visit independently, guided tours are available via the Tourist Information Offices.
Explore Rotterdam’s Modernist Architecture
Even before its bombings, Rotterdam was beginning to experiment with its architecture and design.
In the 1930s, work began on Huis Sonneveld: a forward-thinking home based on a new style of integrated living. Today, the house has been meticulously restored and is open to the public; allowing visitors to be transported back to the eerily immaculate world of 1930s functionalism.
We loved visiting this home-come-museum, with its lime green dinner set and tiled bedrooms. Built to be functional rather than cosy, the house features garish turquoise bathrooms, enormous living areas and a ‘spiritual’ terrace on the rooftop; allowing visitors to develop their inner eye. When wondering what to do in Rotterdam, make a trip to this museum one of your more unusual choices.
Huis Sonneveld costs €14 to enter (you can buy your tickets online here).
Explore Rotterdam’s Post-Modernist Skyline
When planning what to do in Rotterdam, it’s almost impossible to overlook a visit to the city’s most eye-popping architecture: the notorious 38 ‘Cube Houses’.
Found in the city centre, these bright yellow, vertigo-inducing homes are difficult to miss. Sitting at an unnerving 45 degree angle and balanced on a pedestrian bridge, the houses were designed by the ambitious Piet Blom in 1970s.
Home to Rotterdam locals, one of the homes is now a small museum – known as the Kijkkubus (or Show Cube).
After climbing up winding staircases and glancing down at the busy road beneath us, Claire and I both felt a little dizzy and disoriented. However, once inside, the homes were evidently a feat of engineering and unexpectedly homely. For a unique experience, you can now even sleep inside one of the cubes, at the StayOkay Hostel (dorm rooms begin at £34 per night and include breakfast).
Explore Rotterdam’s Latest Architectural Triumphs
Leading and controversial architecture remains one of Rotterdam’s passions, and new and exciting buildings continue to regularly appear on the city’s skyline.
One of these is De Markthal (or, the better sounding ‘KoopBoog’).
Enormous and shaped like a horseshoe, the Markthal is filled with incredible food stalls and over 228 apartments. Most impressive of all, however, is perhaps its 40m high murial; adorned with giant broccolis, raspberries, grapes and butterflies.
When planning what to do in Rotterdam, definitely ensure that you visit the Markthal at night, when the bright colours pop against the night’s sky – it is a breathtaking sight (the Markthal is open nightly until 8pm).
Rotterdam’s ‘vertical city’ – De Rotterdam – is the Netherland’s largest building and designed by award-winning architect, Rem Koolhaas. Made up of various cubes and boxes, this influential building bears a resemblance to a giant game of Tetris.
Nearby is the dizzyingly tall bridge ‘Erasmusbrug‘ (nick-named ‘De Zwaan’), which crosses Rotterdam’s vast Nieuwe Mass river. Sublimely photogenic, it’s worth returning to see the bridge once night falls.
A bridge-loving city, Rotterdam also boasts the vibrant Luchtsingel (‘air canal’) footbridge, which connects the city centre with Station Hofplein.
This bright yellow, wooden bridge is made up of planks bought by Rotterdam’s citizens and businesses; each of which is individually inscribed. On an otherwise grey and windy day, this bridge appeared as a giant rainbow crossing the city.
Where To Eat in Rotterdam
Now, no guide on what to do in Rotterdam would be complete without mentioning where to eat.
Home to over 170 different nationalities, Rotterdam is not a city with just one cuisine. Bursting with quirky cafes, stalls overflowing with freshly made waffles, exquisite seafood and contemporary dining venues, Rotterdam’s food scene is anything but predictable.
Indeed, it’s even been voted the culinary capital of the Netherlands.
To help ensure that you have your fill whilst visiting the city, below is a summary of our suggested places to eat in Rotterdam.
Hotel New York
Hotel New York, sat on the Wilhelmina Pier, was once home to the American Holland Line; a place where European emigrants left for a new life in North America.
One of the few surviving buildings following the bombings of WW2, Hotel New York offers a beautiful Art Deco restaurant (‘NY Basement‘), home to some of the most delicious sea food in Rotterdam. On the look out for a little aphrodisiac? Hotel New York is your place – boasting its very own (and much lauded) Oyster Bar.
This restaurant is so delicious that we visited twice.
Bazar, located on one of the most famous streets in Rotterdam, is more like a North African bustling market than a restaurant. With hanging glass lanterns casting colourful lights across the tables, this is a relaxed and fun place to eat. The food, mainly North African and Middle Eastern, is some of the tastiest we’ve tried in a while.
Washed down with a fresh mint tea in an equally colourful mug, we fell in love with this restaurant and would highly recommend it.
The Bazar also offers an equally glamorous and exotic hotel that we would love to stay in.
No visit to Rotterdam would be complete without a visit to the famous Markthal, which is impossible to miss.
A food lovers heaven, the Markthal is filled with stalls overflowing with fresh food, and is home to restaurants, bars and even a supermarket on the lower level.
Fenix Food Factory (open Tuesday – Sunday)
The Fenix Food Factory was created by seven Rotterdam based food entrepreneurs and sits just across the water from Hotel New York.
Housed in an old warehouse, this quirky space is a real foodie gem. The factory offers a fresh food market selling locally made goods including: cheese, meat, cider, coffee and products from a local brewery and bakery. This is the perfect place to visit to pick up a few items for lunch whilst enjoying views of the city’s skyline.
Shopping in Rotterdam
Witte de Withstraat
In terms of what to do in Rotterdam, there are plenty of shopping options to keep you occupied.
Once a rather shady part of the city, Witte de Withstraat enjoyed a makeover in the early 1990s and is now one of the trendiest streets in Rotterdam. As well as plenty of places to eat and drink, the street boasts boutique shops and eclectic art galleries. This is the perfect place if you’re looking for something unique and a little different (there’s even a shop that sells the same glass lanterns found in Bazar).
We also found other lovely homeware shops in the now converted old railway viaduct – Station Hofplein.
Rotterdam is a city that took us by surprise.
Often overlooked for the Netherland’s (often over-visited) cities of Amsterdam and The Hague, Rotterdam seems to exist within its own dimension; a unique experiment in architecture, design and urban planning. Wonderfully quirky, filled with vibrant blends of colours, cuisines and cultures, Rotterdam is a fun and laid back city; and one we would urge you to visit.
Unapologetically different – and with no intention of looking back on its medieval past – Rotterdam is one of the Netherland’s most exciting cities.