Innovative and refreshingly-bizarre buildings that push the limits of what is possible. This is why you should visit Rotterdam, the architectural capital of the Netherlands.
Very young and very cool. That’s how I felt about Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands. It wasn’t really on my list of places to visit, but when I had a chance to go there for a videography gig, I used a couple of spare days after my assignment was over for some sightseeing.
The cool part of my trip was that I stayed with a friend who lives there: instead of staying in a hotel, I stayed at his place, which was a typical Dutch house in Vreewijk, a pretty suburb of Rotterdam. The house had three floors and a small garden, which was full of beautiful flowers and garden decorations.
Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, was during World War II of strategic importance to the Allies and sadly a major German bombing assault in 1940 destroyed most of its city center. After the war, city officials decided not to re-build the metropolis in the old way and, as a result, the stage was set for new designs and architectural talents.
It was young post-war architects who did such a fantastic job creating the “new Rotterdam”. The city center today provides insights and an overview of Rotterdam’s architecture from World War II until today.
GETTING AROUND ROTTERDAM
What is the best way to get around Rotterdam? Get on two wheels! The city is compact metropolis with most landmarks and scenic spots just minutes away on your bicycle. You can rent your own bike or join a biking tour. I took a cycling tour that focused on city’s architecture with Urban guides (2.5 hours, € 25.00 including bike).
Consider getting the Rotterdam Welcome Card, that includes a ticket for public transportation, discounts for many tourist attractions and — very important! — a city map. You can purchase a Welcome Card for one, two or three days, depending on your time schedule and personal plans. (1 Day € 10, 2 days € 13.50 and 3 days € 17.50).
So, let’s get this started! Here is a list of my favorites things to see and do in Rotterdam. Enjoy!
01 | ERASMUS BRIDGE
The Erasmus Bridge has become an icon of Rotterdam. It spans 800 meters across the Maas river, connecting the northern and southern parts of the city. Thanks to its prominent horizontal base, the bridge has been nicknamed “The Swan”.
You might have spotted the Erasmus Bridge in a Jackie Chan movie or during the televised coverage of the Tour de France when the bridge served as starting point for the race.
02 | CENTRAL STATION
Rotterdam Central Railway Station is brand new and was just completed in 2014. As my Dutch friend told me, there were many public discussions and forums about the design of the station and the result is splendid. To me, it’s the most modern and beautiful train station in Europe (and yes, even ahead of some German stations that I also like very much).
The station building has a modest transparent glass view from the north, while the south station entrance features a striking slanted roof with the original clock and station sign from long ago.
03 | CUBIC HOUSES
The block of toppled and tilted yellow-and-grey cubes is the most playful building (and my favorite one) in Rotterdam. Cubic houses (Kubus Woningen) were constructed by Amsterdam architect Piet Blom in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He came up with the concept of a village within the city: each house represents a tree, and all the houses together represent a forest.
Each house has three levels connected by narrow staircases: The first level is the living room, the middle level houses the bedroom and the bathroom, and third level provides extra space for either a second bedroom or another kind of living or studio place.
TIP: There is a hostel located in one of the cubic houses. It’s a great chance to experience life in house without a single straight wall!
04 | MARKET HALL
The first indoor market in the Netherlands was opened in 2014 and this is it. I really love Market Hall for connecting public and living spaces. It’s basically a market with a variety of stalls and little restaurants with residential apartments above them. Imagine living in an apartment above the market area with a perfect view from your window overlooking the hustle and bustle of a busy vegetable market!
Inside Market Hall, and don’t miss this, there is a spectacular mural by Dutch artist Arno Coenen, created with special 3D-animation and printed on 4000 steel panels. A must-see.
05 | SS ROTTERDAM
Nicknamed “Behold La Grande Dame,” this iconic cruise ship (now retired from passenger service and resting in Rotterdam’s port) was once the flagship of Holland America Line. It was built in 1959 in Rotterdam, and on its maiden transatlantic voyage to New York carried the Crown Princess of the Netherlands to Manhattan.
It’s a 222-meter-long ship with 10 decks, and nowadays it functions as a hotel (you can spend a night in one of its 254 rooms), a museum and a restaurant. Tourists can take look around and let the audio guide tell you a bit more about the history of the ship. The tour costs € 16.
TIP: Consider having a drink or two on board the ship. The restaurant features the most beautiful outdoor terrace in Rotterdam.
06 | ROTTERDAM ZOO
The Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp) is located in the northeast part of the city. It has a tradition of nearly 160 years and pays for one of Europe’s most beautiful zoos.
Visiting the zoo can easily fill up an entire day, but if you only have limited time, make sure you don’t miss the highlight: The Oceanium. In an amazing shark tunnel, you will get to see scary yet elegant sharks swimming just a few centimeters away from the glass enclosure. There are also sea turtles, penguins, snakes and a variety of other marine creatures.
07 | KINDERDIJK
Visting the picaresque mill network in Kinderdijk village is definitely the greatest half-day trip in Rotterdam. The collection of 19 authentic windmills is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and has become a global Dutch icon.
Constructed to manage the water on the polder at Lek and Noord rivers, the windmills have been in operation since the 18th century. You can visit Kinderdijk by foot or by bicycle, and my suggestion is to place yourself as far as you can from the main gate since there will be less people there. Get ready for some stunning scenery!
TIP: There is no entrance fee. You only pay if you want to visit two windmills inside (and I strongly recommend it, too). Online booking saves you 10 percent.
08 | POSSE ESPRESOBAR
I walked into Café Posse by complete chance, but I really loved it! I noticed the place because of its inviting outdoor terrace. The café is also worth with visiting from inside, too, of course. It’s inside of a warehouse that was built in 1922. Apart from that, they have some funky decorations all around the place.
The bar is known for its tasty brunches, and there are fun things happening at night as well. On Sunday night, a DJ plays music on vinyl records. The owner of the cafe is involved in various social projects that aim to help disadvantaged youth.
09 | EUROMAST
At 104 meters, Euromast is the highest observation tower in the Netherlands. It was constructed in 1960 as the tallest building in Rotterdam (taken over by Erasmus MC eight years later. The elevator takes about 30 seconds — it’s that fast! The Observation deck offers a 360° view of the entire city of Rotterdam.
There is a very special activity that you can do up there: abseiling. Do you have enough courage to do so? Abseiling is offered there from May to September on Saturdays and Sundays and costs € 52. This is pretty much the only observation tower in Europe that you can abseil from. I didn’t try this one, but it’s now on my list!
10 | SPLASH TOUR
What a funny moment, when you are walking around the Mass riverside and suddenly spot a tourist bus making its way in the water!
The yellow Splash tour bus, the Dutch version the iconic doubledecker London buses, offers a sightseeing tour to see the city’s major monuments and to experience a “dive” into the Maas River. The whole experience lasts 60 minutes and costs €24.50.
If you wanna stay longer, you can easily spend 10 days in the Netherlands. For exploring more of the old continent, check out the six week European backpacking itinerary by fellow travel couple. See also free things to do in Amsterdam and other things you should see in Amsterdam. And if you want to explore the capital of Netherlands as a local, make sure to check these 11 travel tips.
If you are heading to the Netherlands with your kids, definitely check this fellow blogger’s post on the best child-friendly holidays in Holland.
HAVE YOU VISITED ROTTERDAM?
There must be so much going on especially on the art/club scene. If you’ve been to Rotterdam, I’d like to hear about your favorite activities.