Rotterdam may not be top of the bill on the average European itinerary, which is why it’s the perfect destination! Check out our other 11 reasons to visit Rotterdam and see why this unique city needs to be added to your travel plans.
It was a quick, comfortable 20-minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport to Rotterdam Centraal Station. I must be honest, we didn’t know what to expect as our train came to a stop.
We thought perhaps just a smaller version of Amsterdam awaited us.
But from the moment we stepped off the platform, we realised we were wrong.
It turns out Rotterdam is one of the most modern cities we’ve been to. And it’s a side to the Netherlands and in fact Europe as a whole we hadn’t expected.
The moment we walked out onto the street amidst the rumble of trams, the futuristic buildings and the abundance of food ripe discovery, we knew we’d found another city to fall for.
11 reasons to visit Rotterdam
1. Modern architecture
In WWII, Rotterdam’s city centre was utterly destroyed. Since then, instead of trying to rebuild or reinstate what was there before, the city has turned the tragedy into an opportunity.
The architecture of Rotterdam – especially within the Ring of Fire – is like nowhere else on earth. Weird shapes sprout from the concrete, huge towers make a unique skyline and incredible structures are as functional as they are striking.
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s modern architecture to see
The Cube Houses on Blaak Street are set at a 54.7° angle and are domestic dwellings. There’s also a hostel here and a Cube House that’s open for public viewing.
Rotterdam Centraal Station, Markthal and the Erasmus Bridge are also especially worth a photo opp.
2. Old architecture and history
To say that Rotterdam was utterly destroyed isn’t quite true. There are five or six buildings that were left undamaged in the Nazi bombardment on 14th May 1940.
They make a fascinating contrast to the super modern majority of Rotterdam and represent important messages about war, progress and the value of our heritage.
As you walk around the city, you’ll come across a line of red lights sunk into the street. This is the Ring of Fire we mentioned before. It’s the border of the bombings and the fires that destroyed this city in the ‘40s.
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s old architecture
Find the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk near the magnificent modern Markthal. It’s a 15th Century gothic church that you can visit. How it survived the bombings when nothing around it did is a mystery.
The Delft Gate memorial, a steel reconstruction of the old gate to Rotterdam, looks like a metal skeleton and is very striking. Also the Witte Huls – Europe’s first skyscraper – is amazing.
Of course there’s cycling here. It’s Holland! But the whole experience is much calmer and more pleasant than trying to battle the traffic-hardened gangs on Amsterdam’s streets.
Cycle lanes are wide and well kept, bike hire is cheap and cars never have right of way. In fact there’s a limit on the size of engine allowed into the city. If you’re caught driving a roaring gas-guzzler in Rotterdam, you could get stopped and fined.
Travel tip: Cycling in Rotterdam
Make sure you stay on the right and don’t be surprised if you’re overtaken by a moped or two; they’re allowed in the cycle lanes too!
These bikes are much cheaper than other rentals… but just so you know, they are all back-pedal brake bikes.
Rotterdam city itself is quite leafy – more so than Amsterdam. But also dotted throughout its limits, Rotterdam has parks, lakes and of course the Rotte River to explore.
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s parks
We really loved cycling out to Kralingse Bos Park in the north of the city. There’s a woodland there as well as the obligatory windmill and for some reason a paddock full of deer.
At its heart the park has a huge lake that’s connected to the Rotte. There’s a marina and even a big sandy beach.
Finding something good to eat in Rotterdam is so easy. Cafés, restaurants, bars and bakeries are everywhere. And everywhere they’re not, you’ll find a market or food truck.
The only thing that’s largely missing is good coffee.
See below for our favourite spots:
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s food scene
For the best burger go to Ter Marsch & Co in the Cool District.
For the best coffee, go to Man with Glasses.
For amazing market food, go to Markthal.
And for the most amazing lunch options you’ll see in the Netherlands, go to the Fenix Food Factory.
6. The water
Rotterdam gets its name from the River Rotte, which joins the Nieuwe Maas River to run through the city out into the North Sea. The city doesn’t have quite the canal network that Amsterdam has because of the river and its tributaries.
Exploring the river system is lovely, and the port itself has a lot of civilian activation going on too; it’s not just dockworkers and wharf rats (see the Fenix Food Factory above).
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s waterways
Walk over the iconic Erasmus Bridge (locally known as ‘The Swan’) that spans the Nieuwe Maas River and connects the north and south parts of the city.
Explore the Leuvehaven to see the beautiful Witte Huls, the Maritime Museum and some great little spots to stop for a drink or a snack.
On your way to the Fenix Food Factory, you’ll come to the New York Hotel, which used to be the headquarters of the Holland America shipping company. This area is quite a spectacle as it’s the start of the estuary that opens up to the sea.
There are some amazing markets around Rotterdam that sell everything from flowers to food. I don’t know what Mrs Romance was happier about; the range of cheese we discovered or the €3 peonies she got.
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s markets
Markthal – right in the middle of the city – is incredible. It’s a 7-365 market and it sells all the food. It’s amazing.
At weekends, the square outside Markthal becomes one of the biggest outdoor markets in Europe and is quite a spectacle.
Markthal – by the way – is a mind-blowing piece of design in itself. The biggest glass archway in Europe opens to 2 levels of grocery shopping like you’ve never seen.
The graphics on the wall are the biggest printed decal in the world and the windows you see on the side and on the ceiling lead to actual apartments. Yup, people live in the roof!
Rotterdam by its very nature is a young city. You’ll find bars and clubs everywhere, and the when you go out at the weekend (and nights throughout the week) you’ll find streets packed with revellers.
There’s also a great craft beer and spirits scene here, so make sure you get your hands on some local drinks. Gin originated from this city (see our next point) so expect great things!
Travel tip: Rotterdam’s nightlife
If you don’t know where to go out in Rotterdam, make for the Cool District – yes, that’s its real name. Bars line the streets – it’s also home to the city’s best burger.
For a truly unique cocktail experience, make an appointment with the Doctor at Dr Rotterdam. This awesome speakeasy has a medical theme with a mind to cure your ailments with their magical elixirs.
You do need to book though – and be ready for an experience like no other.
West of Rotterdam city is the historic town of Schiedam (pronounced ‘Skee-dam’). This part of the Rotterdam metropolitan area wasn’t damaged by the bombs of WWII, so the buildings here are much older and more traditional.
There’s more of a canal system in Schiedam too, so there’s much more of that Amsterdam feel to the place. But it’s much friendlier and relaxed.
The most important thing about Schiedam though is it’s here that gin originated. How amazing is that?
Travel tip: Schiedam, its gin, windmills, festivals and museums
Stroll around the old streets and explore. This town is perfect for it.
Check to see what’s happening. Schiedam loves an excuse for a festival or party. Most weekends have something happening.
Make time to visit the Jenever Museum on the canal. Gin’s precursor jenever – or ‘genever’ – came from Schiedam and this museum tells the story. It’s fascinating and for a little extra money you can try a flight of jenever.
Schiedam had the largest number of windmills in the world at one point – most of them serviced the jenever distilleries.
10. The real Netherlands
Going off the beaten track means it’s easier to see the workings of a modern city as well as experience its tourist offerings. This is easy to do in Rotterdam.
Amsterdam is so busy and over-touristy (and the locals are over tourists too) but Rotterdam – even in peak season – has a peacefulness to it. A tranquility.
Travel tip: finding the real Netherlands
A lot of the time you have to avoid the tourist spots or go a couple of streets back to get away from the crowds.
In Rotterdam, if you see a crowd, go and have a look at what’s happening. It’ll probably be some crazy market or some street art the locals are enjoying.
In as much as Europe is all about the history and the past, Rotterdam is also about the future and the community.
11. Rotterdam is connected
Like so many European cities, Rotterdam is close to everything – especially by Australian standards! We were so impressed with how connected this city is. Check out these travel times:
From Rotterdam Centraal train station to:
– Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam – 20 mins
– The Hague, Holland – 24min
– Antwerp, Belgium – 32min
– Brussels, Belgium – 1h 25min
– Paris, France – 2h 35min
– Cologne, Germany – 3h 20min
Travel tip: getting to Rotterdam
It’s better to fly into Schiphol International in Amsterdam and get the train to Rotterdam than trying to fly direct to Rotterdam.
There are more flights, it’s cheaper, and it’s apparently easier and quicker to get to Rotterdam city from Schiphol, which is weird.
Bonus point – the Rotterdam outlook
Rotterdam loves a bit of weirdness. But within reason. These guys are still Dutch after all, and they adhere to the expression “doe maar normal, dan doe je al gek genoeg” – act normal; that’s crazy enough.
Still, the folk of Rotterdam love a bit of strange street art, unusual activations and weird-looking architecture.
They love repurposing old stuff to create a message and making new buildings art in themselves.
This attitude adds to the flavour of this unique city that blends old with new, weird with elegant and traditional with oblique.
There’s no city quite like Rotterdam… but I wish there were.
Have you ever visited Rotterdam? Do you have any other tips you’d like to add? What’s the most unique city you’ve visited? Tell us in the comments below!