05 May Discovering Rotterdam: 24 hours in the Netherland’s second city
Vibrant, colourful and packed with fascinating architecture, Rotterdam is a city that doesn’t disappoint. It’s the perfect location for a short break – and distinctly different to the Dutch capital. In this travel guide, I’m sharing everything that delighted me during our 24 hour stay.
Rotterdam surprised me.
Not that I didn’t have high hopes for the city. But, I’d always thought of Rotterdam as a very contemporary city, all glass-fronted skyscrapers.
Which it is, in large part.
What I’d not realised though, was how diverse the city is. Yes, there’s plenty of sleek glass and curves. It’s a dream for modern architecture enthusiasts. But wander down any street and you’ll realise this is just one part of the puzzle. There are teetering rows of red-brick townhouses, as pretty as Amsterdam’s, alongside old canals. There are art deco beauties, early modernist concrete apartment buildings and even quirky cubist fantasies – like Piet Blom’s cube houses. You’ll never guess what’s around the next corner.
Rotterdam is an A to Z of Dutch architecture. And whilst not all of it might be to your taste, almost certainly some of it will. Taking it all in is a way to understand this vibrant city and how it’s grown – and it’s what fascinated me most about this industrious city.
We spent the best part of 24 hours meandering our way around the city in early April, as part of a five day trip to the Netherlands. There’s plenty in this city to entertain you for longer, but a day is just enough time to get a sense of the place and enjoy some of its best bits.
What to see and do in Rotterdam
There’s a surprising amount to see and do in the world’s largest port city. Don’t be put off by its fearsome reputation as a centre for business and industry – Rotterdam has nurtured both its creativity and heritage and above all else, knows how to have fun.
In part, we followed our noses as we explored the city and in part checked out interesting spots we’d read about before we arrived. Pedestrian-friendly, packed with interesting contrasts and curiosities around every corner and helpfully signposted – Rotterdam is the sort of place where you want to get lost.
Here are our favourites.
Markthal and the Cube Houses
Let’s start where we did, by Blaak station in the centre of town.
It’s a good place to get a feel for the diversity of the city, and if you’ve only got a few hours in Rotterdam it’ll give you a chance to experience some of the city’s highlights. There’s a fantastic collision of architectural styles in this area, as well as some of the city’s best-known landmarks.
At the centre of the square is the unmissable Markthal, the first covered food market in the Netherlands and one of Rotterdam’s most striking new additions. I won’t go into too much detail now, as I’ll talk about our experience here later, in Where to eat in Rotterdam.
Almost directly opposite you’ll spot Piet Blom’s ever-intriguing Cube Houses. An icon of the city’s skyline since they were first built in 1984, the forest of yellow houses is a surprisingly charming and curious place. Head up the steps close to the foot of the Blaaktoren (a building which Ben rather delightfully described as a giant children’s crayon) and meander through the interior courtyards. Everyone is welcome to explore the exterior of the building on foot, but if you’d like to see inside you’ll either need to pay €5 for entrance to the small museum or check into the Stayokay Rotterdam hostel, like we did. Housed in part of the development, we loved the quirky hostel so much that I’ve written a separate post about it here;
Wind your way through the communal spaces of the Cube Houses and you’ll suddenly arrive at a balcony overlooking water below. This is Oudehaven, part of the city’s old canal network. Surrounded on two sides by modern developments – and on a third by a small paved square and older, brick buildings – this canal basin is just lovely. Old barges are moored along the waterside, restaurant terraces spill onto the pavement and you’ve got a great view of the Witte Huis, the oldest high-rise building in the Netherlands.
Explore the riverside
From Oudehaven it’s only a short walk to the riverside.
The River Maas winds through the city of Rotterdam, wide and slow. A major shipping route, the waters are busy with low-rise river cruisers, old barges and container ships. It’s the beating heart of this city, and the city’s wealth over the centuries has been built on its waters and shores.
There are a few good reasons to head this way. The Erasmusbrug is the first. This enormous contemporary bridge links the two halves of the city and is a fantastic piece of contemporary engineering. Gracefully arcing across the river, it’s prettiest at sunset.
But if you want to see it at its most exciting, you’ll have to keep your fingers crossed. Whenever large ships need to pass, traffic halts on this major thoroughfare and a huge section of the bridge cantilevers up to allow the boat through. Not that we’d realised this, of course. Walking back from dinner, happy and full, we were suddenly stopped by flashing traffic lights and mildly astonished to see the road ahead of us heading skywards. It’s one way to add a bit of drama to an evening stroll!
The wide paths along the waterfront are easy to explore on foot or by bike although we – perhaps unsurprisingly – choose running as the best way to investigate this part of town. It’s a good way to a sense of scale in this city and to see more of the patchwork of architecture that gives Rotterdam its character.
If you’ve never visited Rotterdam before, like me, you can be forgiven for thinking the city will be chock-full of twentieth century architecture. And given the destruction of the city during WW2, it’s a surprise stumbling across pre-war buildings at all if you only explore the city centre.
But meander your way a little out of town, and you’ll find Delfshaven. This little neighbourhood of canals and red brick townhouses is everything you’d expect of, well, Amsterdam. Delfshaven is a slice of old Rotterdam, and I immediately fell in love with it. You’ll find pretty streets to explore, a venerable old windmill, narrow little bridges to wander across and heritage barges and narrowboats lining the waterside.
It’s well worth the walk to see a different side of the city. And a very authentic one too. These homes aren’t for show, this is where real Rotterdammers live – and it’s all the more lovely for it.
Luchtsingel is one of those delightfully odd places you find yourself visiting only you’re not quite sure why.
The reason I say this is because still not entirely such what the Luchtsingel is for. We liked it but were slightly mystified.
A stone’s throw from the imposing Stadhuis, it’s a meandering raised walkway that sort of goes from nowhere to nowhere. It’s painted bright yellow, and is oddly fun, even though there’s not really much to do aside from walk along it. I might not know why it’s here, but it’s an enjoyable bit of whimsy in the city.
And I fibbed a little, it doesn’t quite go from nowhere to nowhere. We stumbled across an excellent bar at one end. More on that later.
One of Rotterdam’s largest green spaces, Het Park doesn’t disappoint. A short distance from the cafes and restaurants of fashionable Witte de Withstraat and the Cool District (no, it’s really called that) there’s a little oasis in this bustling city. Stroll through the woodland, photograph the tulips (well, everyone else is) and seek out the beautiful buildings tucked away in the parkland.
If you’re keen to check off a few Rotterdam landmarks, it’s also next door to the Euromast. This 1960’s spire punctuates the city skyline in the way that only modernist architecture can. Book a tour or a table at the restaurant, perched in the crow’s nest 100m above the city, if you want to check out the panoramic views of the city below.
Although we popped into the park our way back from Delfshaven on our first afternoon, I also headed here first thing the next morning, to run. It’s a quiet, peaceful spot that’s especially pretty at first light.
Where to eat in Rotterdam
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t miss the Markthal building. It’s one of the most striking buildings in the city, a huge contemporary curved structure – filled with offices and apartments – that arches over the food market below. The space is open daily from noon until 8pm and has the most fantastic muralled ceiling inside that’s worth a visit in its own right.
We stopped here for lunch on our first day as it was conveniently close to our hostel – and we were keen to explore inside. There’s a real mix of stalls from smart tapas bars, grocer’s veg stalls and spice vendors to street-food-type stands offering takeaway snacks and small plates. We tucked into fresh Turkish food at Ekmekci and really enjoyed it. Just be aware that the Markthal is a fast-paced space so don’t expect to sit down for a lazy, long lunch – there are better spots in this city. Stop by instead to enjoy the building itself and savour a few snacks.
Markthal Rotterdam – Ds. Jan Scharpstraat 298, 3011 Rotterdam
Whilst the Markthal grabs a lot of attention in Rotterdam, it isn’t the only food market in town.
Across the river in south Rotterdam is another – one that I loved the moment I stepped inside. Foodhallen is a smart but vibrant market housed in a beautifully converted brick warehouse. Unlike Markthal, which is a little brash and busy, Foodhallen is laid back, elegant and oozes the kind of ambience that makes you want to pull up a chair and settle in for the evening.
Alongside fifteen or so independent food stalls, each cooking fantastically different cuisines, there’s a comfortable communal seating area and comprehensive bar. We made ourselves at home and browsed through an enjoyable selection of Dutch and Mexican food (yes, I know that’s an improbable combination) washed down with a few drinks.
Foodhallen Rotterdam – Wilhelminakade, 3072, Rotterdam
Witte de Withstraat
Of course, there’s a downside to spending only 24 hours in a city.
There’s only so much you can eat.
If we’d had more time, we undoubtedly would have made our way to Witte de Withstraat for a lazy brunch or dinner and drinks. This is a great part of town to stroll through – all independent shops, chic wine bars and hip cafes and restaurants. Even mid-afternoon, when we meandered through, it felt laid-back and inviting. Next time I’m in Rotterdam, I’ll be sure to head here.
Where to drink in Rotterdam
Of course, no travel guide from the Girl with a Saddle Bag would be complete without a recommendation for somewhere to stop for a beverage. We hadn’t researched ahead on this front – we hoped we stumble across somewhere good. And on this occasion, we were in luck.
Exploring Luchtsingel, we stumbled across Biergarten at one end of the suspended walkway. With the early evening sun sinking low and lighting up the terrace and tiered seating in this enticing looking bar, we couldn’t just walk past.
It’s a great spot to while away an hour or two with friends. There’s also a surprisingly good selection of craft beers as well as snacks if you’re hungry.
Biergarten Rotterdam – Schiestraat 18, 3013 BR Rotterdam
Staying in Rotterdam
As I mentioned earlier, we checked into the remarkable Stayokay Rotterdam – a hostel housed in Piet Blom’s iconic Cube Houses. I liked this place so much I’ve written a separate post about these unusual buildings and what it’s like to stay here.
It’s centrally located close to the Markthal and Oudehaven so even if the architecture doesn’t excite you, the convenience and cosiness might.
Things to know before you go
A quick thing I’d wish I’d known before I’d arrived. Monday is the day that many businesses in the Netherlands close!
Rotterdam’s museums, as well as some eating places, don’t usually open on a Monday. Check the opening days and hours before you arrive to avoid disappointment, especially if you’re heading here as a day trip from Amsterdam. If Monday is your day of arrival or departure it’s worth planning your time so check out some of the city’s other sights instead.
There is no overground tram system, like in Amsterdam, to speed up getting around. You could take the metro, but I’d recommend taking a slower pace and either walking or hiring a bike to help you soak up the city.
It’s a wrap
Would I go back to Rotterdam? Absolutely.
There’s so much more I’d like to see. Great looking cafes, interesting museums and architecture delights.
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about Rotterdam. Visiting early in the week in mid-April, no part of the city felt busy. Yes, there were plenty of people milling around, giving it a pleasant buzz. But there were no coach trips or huge crowds of tourists. The city was alive without being overwhelming, with it a more laid-back atmosphere compared to nearby Amsterdam.
I’d recommend a stop here to anyone visiting the Netherlands, and I’m thrilled we made time for it on our trip.