City Guide: A Weekend of Things to do in Rotterdam
Rotterdam is the Netherlands' second city and has a very different personality to Amsterdam, one that I quite like, even though I shouldn't because Amsterdammers aren't supposed to like Rotterdam and vice versa. But I like to go against the tide so I've enjoyed spending many a weekend in Rotterdam over the five years I've lived in the Netherlands and while I've mentally composed a pretty impressive list of things to do, I've failed miserably in my duties to report them back to you. Today I'm changing that. Today I'm emptying my brain of this information. Today I'm hopefully giving you lots of ideas of things to do, places to eat, and bars and things to check out in this city guide for an action-packed weekend of things to do in Rotterdam.
Things to do in Rotterdam in One Weekend (or More!)
Actually, let me be honest before we go any further. I'm sort of using writing this Rotterdam guide as a way to prepare for the ultimate task - writing an equivalent guide for Amsterdam... But don't let that take any shine away from Rotterdam, which is a brilliant city to hang out in for a weekend. It has everything from a rich history to spectacular architecture, cultural delights and an art and design scene that rivals the best in the world. So go get some cheap flights to Rotterdam, brush up on your cycling and dust off the camera. Here's what you've got to look forward to.
Where to stay in Rotterdam
I've stayed in quite a few hotels in Rotterdam so these are my picks based on my own experience. Of course there are also Airbnb and self-catering options but I think you'll find the hotels in Rotterdam affordable and quite competitive in terms of offering good value of money and some character or style.
For style, comfort and an excellent location, head to Nhow Rotterdam, a modern hotel which I wrote a review of here. It has a slightly strange layout with the lobby on the ground floor and almost everything else several floors higher but this means good views. For the best possible outlook over the River Maas which flows through the centre of Rotterdam, head to the bar's terrace outside. Even if you're not staying at Nhow Rotterdam, I would highly recommend going there for a drink, just to enjoy the views of the Erasmusbrug all lit up at night.
For a boutique hotel with a fascinating story, head to Suite Hotel Pincoffs. You can read the full story about the hotel's building and the man it's named after in an article I wrote here, but in short expect excellent personable service, spacious rooms, a delicious breakfast and a great location to explore the city from. They also have a sister hotel called Stroom but I'm yet to check it out.
Not far from both Nhow and Pincoffs is Hotel New York, arguably Rotterdam's most famous hotel. Again steeped in history - it's at the end of the pier thousands of Europeans caught ships to America from and is the shipping company's former headquarters - the hotel's art deco features have been lovingly preserved and staying here is a luxury, timeless experience. If you can't stay here be sure to have lunch or dinner here, or a drink on the sun terrace outside if it's warm enough.
I also stayed in Mainport during its soft launch (just before officially being opened) and despite a few teething problems I can see how it had the great potential to be a lovely, stylish hotel. The rooms were big with huge, luxurious bathrooms and I had a fantastic view of the Leuvehaven harbour area.
The Student Hotel is my choice for those looking for cool budget accommodation. My full review is here, but in short this hotel has a very contemporary feel with all the basics covered, plus a few little extras like free bikes to ride and lots of events happening in the restaurant/bar downstairs.
Other mid-range and budget hotels that I've not tried myself but hear good things about include Citizen M, easyHotel and the soon to be opened Hotel Bruno by Room Mate. If you're looking for a hostel, friends of mine have loved King Kong Hostel and also StayOkay which will mean you actually stay in the famous cube houses (see below)!
Things to do in Central Rotterdam
Tips for getting around central Rotterdam
I've divided this list of things to do into places in the centre of town and things further out, i.e. more than a half hour's walk or bike ride, or where public transport is possibly needed. Speaking of which, as an honorary Dutchie I would always hire a bike to explore another Dutch city but failing, that for Rotterdam it costs just 6,00 Euros to get a one day (24 hour) travel card that can be used on trams, the metro or buses (you can buy the card when you board either or from the places listed here, where you can also read more information about public transport). If you're planning on going to a few of the museums listed here (or others!) you may also want to get a Rotterdam Welcome Card which gives you discounted entry to several places and includes free public transport.
Rotterdam has a bit of a sprawling centre thanks to the wide River Maas which pushes through the city, opening up for the port which is now out of town but the centre of Rotterdam is where it actually first started so that's where you can find a lot of history. There are several little harbours scattered around the various waterfronts but despite being a bit spread out public transport and cycling can make it very easy to get around Rotterdam without too much trouble. So let's get started...
Explore the city's maritime history
When I say that the harbour is big, I mean, like really, really big. It's Europe's largest port and for many decades until the 1960s Rotterdam was the busiest port in the world. I've only seen the harbour at night on a boat tour and so didn't see much detail (because there was a bar and live music on the boat as well so my priorities were tested...) but trust me it's huge and if maritime history is your cup of tea then you should make doing a harbour tour a priority. I can't wait to take my young son to Rotterdam when he's a bit older so he can look at boats for as many hours as he desires and we'll almost certainly start this exploration with the Maritime Museum and then go on a boat tour of the harbour to see the stacks and stacks of freight containers. I did an evening tour with Spido and would be happy to go with them again.
Admire Rotterdam's architecture
While for many, Rotterdam is synonymous with all things shipping, personally when I think Rotterdam I think SKYLINE, because it is a small city with a big skyline and a wide array of gravity-defying, breath-taking and almost eye-popping architecture. Personally, it's enough to just wander around and stare up at the skyscrapers (that are still popping up everywhere) but I wouldn't dismiss going on a dedicated architecture tour and I would also like to go to Het Nieuwe Instituut and Sonneveld House to find out more about certain architectural movements in Rotterdam.
Have your mind blown at the Cubed Houses
They have to be seen - both outside and inside - to be believed. That's all I'm going to say and I'm only going to post one photo because I WANT YOU TO GO SEE THEM FOR YOURSELF AND GO "Huh?".
Get a great view (and thrill) at Euromast
I've never gone up to the top of Euromast and I'd love to for the views. What I'm less keen to do is abseil off the side of it which you can do now... No thank you, but good for you if you are keen.
Find the three big bridges
Ah yes, this is a lot more up my street. Hunting for bridges. All three of the bridges across the River Maas are memorable in their own ways, but I find the 19th century movable railway bridge, known as De Hef, the most romantic. I which I could have seen it in action. It must have seemed so very incredible when it was built and indeed it was the first of its kind in Western Europe (it used to lift up to allow large boats to pass). In 1993 it was replaced by underground rail tunnel but it remains open to curious visitors wanting to learn more.
Hang out with the cool kids around Witte de Withstraat
Regardless of your age, regardless of your music taste, regardless of how cool you think you are, go hang out in a bar or a coffee shop around Witte de Withstraat and you'll feel like you're in the place to be. (A kind warning, if you're over 30 you may also feel old, out of touch and even less cool than you originally thought but that's the price you pay for hanging out with the cool kids around Witte de Withstraat!)
Enjoy my favourite photography museum - Nederlands Fotomuseum (Dutch Photgraphy Museum)
I love how sometimes a country's premier museum for something is not in the capital city. It keeps us on our toes, right? Well, the Dutch Photography museum is firmly in Rotterdam and is most definitely worth checking out if you have even a remote interest in photography. They normally have a temporary exhibit upstairs and then a vast and varied permanent level downstairs where you can learn all about some key Dutch photographers in a really cool and quirky way (I won't spoil the surprise!).
Learn about the world at Wereldmuseum (World Museum)
Paying tribute to both Rotterdam's shipping history and its multicultural population of over 170 nationalities, the World Museum is a collection of items from all over the world. It's a lovely museum that reminds me of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in that it aims to educate about the world's rich variety of cultures and traditions, but also highlight the things that unite us - historically and today.
Get your food and architecture fix at Markthal
If you've never seen a photo of Rotterdam's Markthal let this one be the only one as it's well worth leaving this spectacular building a surprise. I was lucky enough to go there for the press day prior to the official opening so while I didn't get to eat any food while I was there I did get to explore the striking building from all angles, including the penthouses that are in the top of the building's arch. I definitely need to go back and try the food soon!
Enjoy one of the best contemporary art museums in the world
Ask me what my favourite modern art museum is in the Netherlands I would have to say it's Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Considering I live less than a kilometre away from Stedelijk (Amsterdam's contemporary art museum) this is really saying something. When I visited I just felt I was going on a journey through different movements that somehow blended into each other. I was also almost the only person there so I just remember it being a very relaxing and enjoyable few hours.
Go for a run along the River Maas
What?! You're including running as something to do on my relaxing city break in Rotterdam? I thought I knew you, Frankie. I thought you were a cake-munching, run-dodging lazy person like me?! Yes, I am! 100% but I feel compelled to recommend this running route because it's a good 'un! It's completely flat (duh, we're in the Netherlands!) and it offers amazing views of the bridges I just mentioned, and it's an opportunity to see more of the city... and to eat more cake later on in the day. If you start close to the beginning of Erasmusbrug, on the north side of the Maas and head away from the bridge towards Willemsbrug you'll find markings and even a sprint track. Go run, be healthy, and then ready to eat more later. Yay!
Eat more food at Fenix Food Factory
See, I told you food was coming! The Fenix Food Factory is Yin to Markthal's Yang, as it's a lot less flashy and modern, but it still has a ton of character and most importantly plenty of food and drink. I haven't been for a while so can't say for sure what's on offer but I was there last I ate a hot dog and drank cider - the time of my life!
This is also a great place to be in the evening as there are a few bars and you can also spill out and...
Explore the Kattendrecht area
Traditionally where sailors would get off their ships and indulge in all the naughty things, this little neighbourhood has rightfully exploited their den of iniquity image and has become a cool hipster neighbourhood to hang around in or get a anchor tattoo in. Just a short walk across the water (over a bridge - not miraculously!) from Hotel New York on Wilhelminakade, this is also where the Nacht van de Kaap festival takes place (see below).
Check out the shops at Oldenbarneveltstraat
Time to do some shopping? Well, forget about the busy central shopping district and head to Oldenbarneveltstraat which has more independent and unusual boutiques and shops. This is also where you'll find Alice in Cakeland, considered the Netherlands' first American-style cupcake bakery.
Soak up some community spirit (and yellow) on Luchtsingel
Luchtsingel was the highlight of my last visit to Rotterdam (apart from Koekela - see below!) as it allowed me to see the city from a totally different angle. Funded by locals' donations, this Highline-style bridge and walkways were built to try and smarten up an otherwise neglected part of town that is dominated by a large road and a wide stretch of railway tracks heading to Centraal Station. Now there's a bridge across the road and a bright yellow wooden road to follow... but sadly no tin man or scarecrow.
Hang out with some animals at Rotterdam Zoo
I'm still yet to see Rotterdam Zoo for myself but hope to soon with my two-year-old son but my cousin and friends have been and highly recommend it. It is likely to be less crowded than Amsterdam's Artis Zoo and has all the big animals you'd expect - giraffes, elephants, monkeys - and there's also a oceanarium and kids' playground. I'll report back as soon as I can on the highlights!
Go for a stroll along Oude Haven
One of many old ports that are worth having a little walk around, I've specifically mentioned Oude Haven because it is THE old port of Rotterdam, and is also where you'll find bars and restaurants along the waterfront and surely you're a bit hungry and thirsty by now. While you're there you can also....
Pop into the Wittehuis, Europe's first skyscraper
Okay, so skyscraper is perhaps a little far-reaching here as it's barely fog-scraping on a misty day, but it really was Europe's first high-rise building. Built in 1898 on the Oudehaven, and inspired by the building work happening in New York, this beautiful UNESCO Heritage site is one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in a multi-storey building. What's most amazing about this building is that it survived the brutal bombings that flattened most of the rest of Rotterdam, making it even more special. There's a cafe/restaurant on the ground floor that has maintained a lot of the interior style too. A real treat for people who love Art Nouveau (me, me, me!).
More walking and boats and views at Parkkade
Okay, let's just get another walk along the water out the way. Parkkade (park canal) offers views across a much bigger stretch of the Maas so you can expect bigger views and bigger boats. It's a popular spot for locals on evening walks or runs so always nice to feel like you blend in with the locals a bit.
Have a picnic in Het Park
Parkkade is actually on the outskirts of Het Park, Rotterdam's imaginatively named main park. Here is where you can find something for everyone - running routes, dog-walking areas, playgrounds, etc - so if you like to explore public spaces or green areas in a city, head here.
Go vintage shopping and buy things you don't have room for in your suitcase!
Arguably my number one favourite thing to do in Rotterdam is vintage shopping. You could say I judge a city by the quality of its vintage shopping, and Rotterdam is up there, yessireee. This is possibly because I know where to go (and wrote a guide so you do too) but also because it feels more manageable than in Amsterdam where there are more vintage shops but not necessarily better quality. If you only have time for one shop, go to Tony's Garage, you won't regret it!
Admire the work of local designers and makers at Groos
Moving into the present day, Groos is a shop at the base of the Luchtsingel where you can admire and shop local makers', designers' and creators' products. "Groos" actually means "proud" in the local Rotterdam dialect so try and drop that into conversation to look like a real Rotterdammer (or maybe don't because it's quite hard to pronounce... trust me I've been struggling with Gs and double vowels for five years!).
Admire more boats (and have a drink at) Veerhaven
Another old port to find a bar in and have a drink... now do you see why I like Rotterdam so much? You'll find a different kind of boat parked up at Veerhaven - more sailing boats than barges. They have lots going on here during Wereldhavendagen (see below). And as for that drink, you can head to Cafe Loos listed below.
See what's on at WORM Rotterdam
WORM is one of those places that is really difficult to define. It's a space, and it's all about the arts but also digital technology, and their mission is to create "...an Avantgardistic State; a physical and mental state of being where we offer alternatives and hangouts that offer a workable alternative to dominant cultural movements". Sooooo.... yeah. But don't roll your eyes yet. They have a lot of cool stuff going on and there close to Witte de Withstraat so if you're in the area, go, hang out and report back to me if you have a better definition of what's going on there.
Things to do outside of central Rotterdam
When I wrote two articles for Travelettes explaining the many good reasons someone should travel to Rotterdam - most of which are listed here - I was amazed at the response of people highlighting places to go just outside the city because I had only really focused on what there was to do around the city centre. While I feel that most tourists and travellers won't want to venture too far away from the city centre during a short weekend - and rightly so because there is so much to see and do - I did agree with them that some of their suggestions deserved a closer look by me, and now I feel they need to be included in this list. So here we go. Here are some places worth checking out if you fancy a little adventure further away from the centre of Rotterdam. (All places are easy to reach by public transport - or even walking - and can be done on that one-day travel card I mentioned earlier).
I stayed in Kralingen on my first trip to Rotterdam (in the Student Hotel) and found a young and lively area because of the high student population (Erasmus University is here) but ultimately a calmer place than Rotterdam's centre. I really liked the views of the city from the water's edge and would actually walk into the city centre (or cycle) from my hotel which was easy enough taking around 20-30 minutes. It was even quicker by bike. Unfortunately, I didn't really explore much more of the area - though I was very intrigued by Aloha, an old indoor swimming pool now converted into restaurant and bar - and so would try to change that starting with...
If you're in Kralingen, then you may want to find Arboretum Trompenburg, a botanic garden and home to over 4000 different types of plants and trees. It's only 7,50 Euros to enter and inside is a tea house and obviously a lot of greenery. From the photos I've seen it reminds me of a much prettier and WAY quieter Keukenhof, which makes it well worth seeking out.
Kralingse Bos (Kralingen's Woods) is apparently where local Rotterdammers go for long bike rides and Sunday morning runs. If that sounds too much like hard work you can just go there to have a gentle stroll, or watch other people being fit. Definitely an opportunity to escape the urban jungle if those skyscrapers get too much.
I was tempted to keep this in the list above because a) it's really quick and easy to get to on the metro and b) I wanted it to be among your very top things you do in Rotterdam because it's a must-see, brilliant place to head to and explore. Postcard-picturesque, quaint and cute in a way you don't expect from Rotterdam, and quintessentially Dutch, Delfshaven is soooooo pretty, but it's also a very important place historically speaking as it's where the first Pilgrim fathers departed from on their journey to the new world. You can see more pictures and read more about the history of Delfshaven here.
Van Nelle Fabriek
Disclosure: I've not yet been to Van Nelle Fabriek myself but I really want to go and explore this factory built in the International Style of architecture from the 1920s, so much so that I felt it deserved inclusion in this list. My friend Michael Turtle has been and took some amazing photos of this old tobacco factory that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about the building's history and see his fantastic photos here.
Schiedam is its own city but kind of tags onto the side of Rotterdam and has all the quintessentially Dutch architecture you may think that Rotterdam is missing. You'll find a windmill (and windmill museum), canals, bridges, gabled houses and a whole lot of history, thanks to 226 different monuments relating to times in Schiedam's past. This is definitely a place to explore if you've already done Rotterdam a few times but also don't want to stray too far for a day trip.
Kinderdijk is to Rotterdam what Zaanse Schans is to Amsterdam, i.e. think WINDMILLS. This collection of 19 windmills are another of the Netherlands' UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can take a boat tour to see them all. Otherwise wander around for free but you will need to pay to go inside the windmills that are open for visitors to look inside. Thanks to Veronika's Adventures for this photo and additional info.
Places to eat and drink in Rotterdam
I've listed my favourite places we've eaten at on our previous visits to Rotterdam. The list isn't very long as we've often eaten too much at Fenix Food Factory or we've eaten a big breakfast or had lunch at the hotel (speaking of which I do recommend Hotel New York for lunch though maybe make a reservation if it's a weekend), but here are the highlights including some great bars for evening drinks. (And if you'd like to know more about the craft beer scene in Rotterdam, check out this post.)
I make no apologies for this cake shop/cafe being top of my places to eat in Rotterdam. I could live off their white chocolate brownie, or "blondie". Please can you buy me some and send it to me in Amsterdam? Thanks!
Typically Dutch in that the service is fairly awful (or average on a good day) and you'll find lots of people eating yellow fried food on bread (don't ask) but there's a nice gently buzzing atmosphere in here and I liked getting lots of looks from the locals who wondered why we had dared to disrupt their otherwise tourist-free Sunday morning.
I'm not really a bagel lover, but I love these bagels and their fillings and even toppings... need I say more?
Rotterdam's coolest coffee shop (not that kind, though there are several of that kind in Rotterdam) Hopper Coffee has good coffee, good cakes and good Instagram worthy decor.
A bit further out of town than I expected to travel but I trust people when they say this is Rotterdam's best pizza. The restaurant and the staff were SO Italian (in a good way!) and I felt like I could have been in a city's Little Italy.
One of Rotterdam's finest people-watching (and being people-watched) spots is the terrace of Cafe Loos and while I personally don't always like sitting outside when you're slap bang next to a main road, this bar makes it not only bearable but kinda cool, especially on a sunny summer's evening. Head here for a drink after wandering around Veerhaven or Het Park. I can't vouch for the food but the interior really reminds me of the kind of Parisian bistro that doesn't try very hard - to the point of being rude - but still serves up a great meal. Report back if you eat there, please!
Bird Jazz Cafe
Now we start with the list of places I REALLY WANT TO GO to in Rotterdam but haven't yet. Closely associated to the North Sea Jazz Festival, Bird Jazz Cafe has hosted some of the best names in jazz, soul, hip-hop, funk and R&B music... and the food and drinks isn't awful. Be sure to book tickets for a night out here... and I'll be very jealous.
Music venue/bar/restaurant Rotown has all the "slashes" but it's worth going there for a spot of dinner before you indulge in some late night debauchery. They have a lovely conservatory part out the back with lots of natural light and we were very pleasantly surprised by the burgers we enjoyed. A great place to both start and end your night.
Full of vintage furniture and blessed with the best whisky and whiskey collection in all of Rotterdam (I believe) this is a bar where the staff know their drinks and the other customers probably know a lot about various random things because I've always enjoyed how mixed and mostly relaxed the crowd here are. The food here is also worth trying as they serve up traditional Dutch dishes with a slight Eastern influence.
Loved among locals, Bij Bao is a Chinese restaurant no fewer than five Rotterdam residents have told me to to check out. The problem is I don't like Chinese food... or maybe this is a problem Bij Bao can help me solve? Either way I'm tempted to go just because it's located on Pannekoekstraat - Pancake Street!
Another favourite with locals, we tried to go to Little V but couldn't get a table. Serving up Vietnamese food the V in Little V doesn't just stand for Vietnam but for Verassing, which means surprise in Dutch! We'll try to go again on our next visit to Rotterdam and will let you know!
On one other article I wrote about Rotterdam locals also recommended Toffler, Perron and BAR for clubbing. They're all close to Hofplein.
Festivals to know about for visiting Rotterdam
Rotterdam is a city of festivals, truly. There seems to be something of a substantial size happening every month, if not week. The best way to find out what's going on is to check out the website that is dedicated to Rotterdam festivals. But off the top of my head the following are festivals I know and either loved myself, or have heard them come highly and fondly recommended. Dates will change every year for these festivals and events so be sure to check before you go when they're happening.
International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in January/February
This year's IFFR screened 531 films and 140 of these were world premiers. What this means to those of us who know not much about film festivals is that IFFR is a big deal and shouldn't be dismissed as an unimportant event. If you love film, you'll love IFFR.
Art Rotterdam Week in February
A celebration of local, national and international art, exhibits and works are on display across the city and free shuttle buses can be taken from place to place to make sure you see as much of Art Rotterdam Week as possible.
Motel Mozaique in April
A festival for fans of music, art, dance, theatre and visual performance, Motel Mozaique showcases up and coming talent in all these arenas and is a much loved festival among young Rotterdammers.
And don't for get King's Day on 27th April where everybody wears orange, drinks too much beer and sells all their stuff on the streets (legally) - not necessarily in that order.
Open House Rotterdam/Dag van de Architectuur in June
Open House Rotterdam or Architecture Day as the Dutch directly translates as is actually a weekend when the humble public can go inside Rotterdam's most astonishing buildings which they're usually supposed to keep out of... for free!
North Sea Jazz Festival in July
Arguably the best festival I've ever attended - the music was just sooooo good and the atmosphere so fun-loving - I haven't been able to return to the North Sea Jazz Festival since because tickets always sell out before I get my act together and organise going. The good news is even if you don't have tickets to the festival, you can still enjoy some of the music as they have the North Sea Round Town where some of the performing musicians, bands and singers all perform in public places around Rotterdam.
Rotterdam Unlimited in July
The most colourful festival in Rotterdam and possibly the whole of the country, Rotterdam Unlimited is a festival celebrating the richly multicultural make-up of the city. The highlight is a street parade that is basically one huge party through the centre of Rotterdam, so big that it's apparently the biggest street festival in the whole of Europe, which as a Londoner who used to live a mile away from the Notting Hill Carnival, I know this means it's BIG
Wereldhavendagen in September
A weekend celebrating the maritime history of Rotterdam, the World Port Days festival is much-loved by all generations of Rotterdammers. Boats of all sizes open their doors so you can climb aboard and explore lifeboats, steam boats, navy vessels and many more, and while I went before I had my son, I could tell it was definitely a family-friendly festival. The not-so-family friendly part happens on the Saturday night at De Nacht van de Kaap, over in Kattendrecht. Think semi-drunk people dressing up as sailors and errr. working women from a time gone by, throw in some music, dancing and fireworks and you've got a party worth sending a shipload of sailors on their merry way...
And that's it... my monster city guide to Rotterdam has come to a close. You can finally go back to looking up flights and booking your hotel now that you've got more than enough ideas to keep you busy during your weekend there. Please do let me know if any of these listings are inaccurate or out of date, but most importantly - HAVE FUN! Rotterdam is a fantastic city that is welcoming to visitors in a way that perhaps Amsterdam isn't, so enjoy!
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Frances M. Thompson
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