The second largest city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam, lies on both banks of the Nieuwe Maas, the southern arm of the Rhine, where it is connected by the small river Rotte. It is also the world’s largest port, home to the enormous Europoort facility through which so much freight moves to and from the continent. Although it was almost completely destroyed by German air raids in 1940, the center of Rotterdam was energetically rebuilt and replanned after the war with modern shopping streets, residential areas and high-rise buildings, making it one of the most modern and architecturally interesting cities in Europe.
Despite its modernity, the city dates back to the Middle Ages and was already wealthy by the 13th century, when a dam was built to separate the Rotte from the Nieuwe Maas (hence the city’s name). Rotterdam has also long been important as a cultural centre, its early prosperity leading to the birth of Rotterdam’s most celebrated citizen, the humanist Erasmus, born here in 1467. Today it is as popular for its lively entertainment options as for its many fine museums , beautiful architecture and maritime tourist attractions.
1 The old port and maritime museums
The Oude Haven (Old Haven) is a boat basin filled with restored historic boats, many of which are houseboats where their owners live. When the weather is nice you can sit outside in one of the many cafes or take a stroll and watch the boats being painted or repaired. Signs identify the age of the boats and show photos of this area in its heyday as a commercial port and shipyard.
A short walk from here, Maritime Museum Rotterdam was founded in 1873 and offers a fascinating look at the city’s connection to the sea and its many waterways. The large collections cover the history of shipping and seafaring, including ship models, a reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old ship and numerous nautical paintings. Another maritime tourist attraction is the adjacent Harbor Museum , an open-air facility that is home to the beautifully preserved 19th century Buffel , an iron ram ship, as well as an old lightship (over 20 historic ships in total are on display). Both facilities offer English-language tours. A recent addition to Rotterdam’s selection of important old ships is the SS Rotterdam , launched in 1958 and considered the finest Dutch-built passenger ship. This luxuriously decorated ship is now a hotel and museum, and one of the favorite things to do here is have lunch or dinner in the dining room.
Address: Leuvehaven 1, 3011 EA Rotterdam
Official site: www.maritiemmuseum.nl
2 Museum Boymans-van Beuningen
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, one of the most important art centers in the Netherlands (and Europe), is known for its beautiful collections of paintings, sculptures and applied and decorative arts from all over Europe. Painters from the 14th to the 16th century are particularly well represented, with works by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The 17th century is represented by Rembrandt and Rubens (26 of his works are on display), while later centuries are represented by Monet, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Modern painters represented are Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. Another notable museum is the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam , an ethnographic museum founded in 1883, with excellent displays of artifacts from ancient and modern cultures from around the world.
Address: Museumpark 18, 3015 CX Rotterdam
Official site: www.boijmans.nl/en/
3 Large one of Sint-Laurenskerk
Great St. Lawrence Church – Grote or Sint-Laurenskerk – is all that remains of Rotterdam’s medieval buildings, most of which were destroyed in the Second World War. On the Grote Kerkplein, the late Gothic church dates from the 15th century and was built on a once boggy ground that gave the building a peculiar slope that was only stopped after the foundation was rebuilt in 1650. Severely damaged by bombing, but fully restored at the end of the war.
Upon entering the church you are struck by the beauty of the bright interior, an effect that is enhanced by the colored glass of the windows. The church is famous for its three Danish organs, the largest of which stands on a marble base on the inner wall of the tower. The bronze doors of the main entrance, on the theme of War and Peace , are by the Italian artist Giacomo Manzu, and in front of the church there is a statue of Rotterdam’s most famous son, Erasmus. Guided tours are available, although the small entrance fee includes a very informative audio guide.
Address: Grotekerkplein 15, Rotterdam
4 The Cube Houses
Rotterdam is home to many fine examples of modern architecture, most of which is inspired by the city’s waterfront location and a response to the destruction of World War II. Pushing the architectural envelope to the maximum are the city’s famous Cube Houses (Cube Houses). This block of houses, designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom, with their unique cube-shaped upper stories, is clearly visible from a walk through the old harbour. One of them, the Show Cube, is open to visitors and contains displays on the design and history of the buildings.
Another architectural gem is the White House (White House). Once the tallest building in Europe, this beautiful ten-story Art Nouveau building was built in 1898 and is now a national heritage site with stunning views from the roof. Finally, those interested in building design should visit the Netherlands Architecture Institute , home to a wonderful museum chronicling the development of various architectural movements over the past decades.
Address: Overblaak 70, 3011 MH Rotterdam
Official site: www.kubuswoning.nl/introkubuseng.html
5 Shop hall
One of the most popular gathering points in Rotterdam is the impressive Markt, which opened in 2014. The soaring vaulted ceiling is covered in lifelike murals of vegetables, fish and other food objects, and the market itself is a kaleidoscope of fresh and prepared foods. You’ll find fast food of every kind and restaurants serving everything from traditional Dutch favorites such as Stroopwafels, Balkan food, Spanish tapas and exotic Indonesian dishes.
6 Windmills of Kinderdijk
On the River Noord, just 23 kilometers east of Rotterdam, lies the beautiful village of Kinderdijk (the “kinderdijk”). Taken from a famous legend describing a baby’s cradle stranded here during the St. Elizabeth’s Day flood of 1421, it is one of the most visited places in the Netherlands. Each of the 19 perfectly preserved 18th-century windmills is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built between 1722 and 1761, together they form the largest remaining concentration of windmills in the country, a history celebrated during special Mill Days , when their sails are set in motion again.
The centerpiece of the Coolsingel, the main street of central Rotterdam, is the Stadhuis (City Hall), built between 1914 and 1920 in Dutch Renaissance style. It almost miraculously escaped destruction in the bombings of World War II. You can’t visit the richly decorated interior on your own, but guided tours are available through the tourist office.
Opposite the town hall, on the busy Stadhuisplein, there is a war memorial designed by Mari Andriessen. Other highlights of the Coolsingel include the World Trade Center , a high-rise building with a facade of greenish-blue glass, and the Bijenkorf Warenhuis (beehive) (by Marcel Breuer, 1958). Fronting Beehive is the 26 meter high sculpture, Construction (1957), by Naum Gabo, a French sculptor of Russian descent.
The popular shopping streets of Lijnbaan and Koopgoot are also in this area. A few blocks northwest of the Bijenkorf, you come to De Doelen , a concert hall and conference center that was rebuilt in 1966 after its destruction in 1940. It has seating for 2,200 people and excellent acoustics. Nearby is the Schouwburg (Municipal Theater), which opened in 1988.
8 Boat trips from the Europoort
Rotterdam’s gigantic port covers half of the city’s total area, 247 square kilometers, largely occupied in turn by Europoort, a huge complex known as the Gateway to Europe. In addition to countless massive ships, you’ll see mile upon mile of docks and storage facilities built to serve the world’s busiest port. One of the most popular excursions starts at Maeslantkering near Hoek van Holland and includes a close-up view of the city’s enormous storm surge barrier. Evening trips are also fun, especially with Rotterdam’s most famous sights, including the stunning Erasmus Bridge , being spectacularly lit up.
9 Blijdorp Zoo: The Royal Zoo
The Koninklijke Diergaarde Blijdorp (Diergaarde Blijdorp), founded in 1857 and one of the oldest zoos in the Netherlands, is known for its successful breeding programs. Highlights of these include a number of young elephants, as well as the rare red panda, fascinating creatures to watch as they explore the large enclosures designed to resemble their natural habitats. Natural habitats are a priority here: the Asian part includes a swamp forest with two large aviaries for exotic birds, a Mongolian steppe, a bat cave, a Chinese garden and countless creatures native to the region. Also worth exploring is the Oceanium, an excellent aquarium with a large collection of marine life from America.
Address: Blijdorplaan 8, 3041 JE Rotterdam
Official site: https://www.diergaardeblijdorp.nl/en/
10 The Euromast
One of Rotterdam’s most striking landmarks, the Euromast is located at the northern entrance to the Maas Tunnel. This 185 meter high tower was founded in 1960 and houses two restaurants with a beautiful view of Rotterdam, each 92 meters away. For thrill seekers looking for more than just great views there is the chance to abseil through the building, while those looking for a unique overnight stay can book one of two beautiful suites 100 meters away. Guided tours in English are available.
Address: Parkhaven 20, 3016 GM Rotterdam
Official site: www.euromast.nl
11 Delfshaven and the Pilgrims
The old district of Delfshaven, which, unlike much of Rotterdam, survived the Second World War largely unscathed, is one of the most popular places in this large, bustling city. It is revered by the Dutch as the birthplace of Admiral Piet Hein, a 16th-century hero of the country’s long war against Spain. For Americans, it is notable for the Oude Kerk (Old Church), where the last service was held in 1620 by the Pilgrims before sailing to the New World to found Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is commemorated with a memorial and bronze tablet. Also worth a visit is Dubbelde Palmboom Museum , housed in a 19th-century warehouse with a large collection of material on the history of Rotterdam, including archaeological finds, utensils and equipment.
12 Kunsthal: Kunsthal of Rotterdam
Another example of Rotterdam’s modern-yet-functional architecture is the Kunsthal, or Art Hall. Opened in 1992, this trendy gallery is home to a variety of constantly changing exhibitions of visual art, design, architecture and culture from around the world. Another gallery of note is the Chabot Museum with the work of Dutch painter and sculptor Henk Chabot, housed in a beautiful white villa from 1938. Those interested in photography should visit the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Dutch Photo Museum), where highlights include a wide collection contain historical images by a number of Dutch photographers.
Address: Museumpark, Westzeedijk 341, 3015 AA Rotterdam
Official site: www.kunsthal.nl/en-2-Kunsthal-Rotterdam.html
Where to Stay in Rotterdam for Sightseeing
If you are visiting Rotterdam for the first time and want to see some of the city’s best sights, the best area to stay is in the city center. From here you are close to attractions such as the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen; the Euromast; Erasmus Bridge; and Coolsingel, the city’s main street. Here are some highly rated hotels in and near the city center:
- Luxury Hotels: In a prime location, a five-minute walk from the city center, the Mainport Hotel offers impressive views of the city skyline from the banks of the Maas and blends influences from east to west in its sultry, modern style. The spa features a Finnish sauna and hammam. The Suite Hotel Pincoffs is located on the riverside of the city center, a few steps from public transport. Housed in a historic 19th-century customs house, it is often regarded as the city’s best boutique hotel with its affordable yet elegant suites. If you prefer a big chain hotel, the pet-friendly Hilton Rotterdam, with a 24-hour fitness center and a Michelin-starred restaurant, is within walking distance of the central station and shopping area.
- Mid-range hotels: At the upper end of the mid-range hotels, citizenM Rotterdam, just steps from Blaak station and a short walk to the maritime museum and Coolsingel, bills itself as affordable luxury, with a wall-to-wall window in every room, a homely lobby that feels like a living room and an innovative design concept. The nearby Ibis Rotterdam City Centre, on a small canal, is also great value, with small, bright rooms, while the Holiday Inn Express Rotterdam – Central Station is a short walk from Central Station and fantastic shopping.
- Budget Hotels: The easyHotel Rotterdam City Center is located close to the Museum Park, Central Station and great shops and restaurants. It offers small, clean rooms in the heart of the city. Hotel Baan is located near a train station and within walking distance of the Euromast. Bienvenue, a two-minute walk from the city center, offers simple rooms at a budget-friendly price.
Day trips from Rotterdam
Many pleasant excursions await an easy commute from Rotterdam. One of the most popular is Bergen op Zoom , a historic old town some 67 kilometers south that is known for its large squares and pleasant pedestrian areas. It’s also where you’ll find Markiezenhof Palace , a 15th-century mansion that now houses a cultural center and museum with numerous fine paintings and antique furniture. Also worth a visit are Breda , 52 kilometers southeast of Rotterdam, with its museums and monuments, and the city of Gorinchem , 44 kilometers to the east. Another must-see is the Witches Weighhouse (Museum de Waag) in Oudewater, famous because it was once used for weighing suspects of witchcraft; if you were considered light enough to ride a broomstick, the theory was that you were a witch (fortunately for the women of Oudewater, none of the accused were considered light enough to be punished). About 70 kilometers from Rotterdam, Zierikzee on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland lures tourists with its marina, a picturesque old city center and beautiful beaches lined by wooded dunes.
Schoonhoven, halfway between Rotterdam and Utrecht, is a good day excursion for its beautifully preserved medieval buildings. St. Bartholomew’s Church , founded in the 13th century and notable for its tendency to lean away from the vertical, has stalls depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Be sure to see the 17th-century pulpit with its figures of the 12 apostles, and the grave of Olivier van Noort, the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the world in the early 17th century. The Schoonhoven Stadhuis (City Hall), built in late Gothic style in 1452, but heavily modified in later centuries, has a domed hexagonal tower with a carillon of 50 bells.
Other city highlights include the picturesque Weigh House (Waag) from 1617 atop a dam above the harbour; the Gold, Silver and Clock Museum (Dutch Gold, Silver and Clock Museum); and the Edelambachtshuis , a granary built in 1566 that now houses a collection of jewelry from the 1600s to the 1900s.
Bergen op Zoom
One of the most popular excursions from Rotterdam is Bergen op Zoom , a historic old town 67 kilometers south that is known for its large squares and pleasant pedestrian zones. It’s also where you’ll find Markiezenhof Palace , a 15th-century mansion that now houses a cultural center and museum with numerous fine paintings and antique furniture. Also to the south, Zierikzee on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland lures tourists with its marina, a picturesque old town center and beautiful beaches bordered by wooded dunes.
Tips and tours: Getting the most out of your visit to Rotterdam
- Half-Day Walking Tour and Harbor Cruise: You can see Rotterdam’s top attractions from land and sea on the half-day Rotterdam Walking Tour including a harbor cruise. The old port, the cube houses and the museum park are just some of the attractions on the route of this private tour. After strolling the city streets, relax on a harbor cruise and see the city from a different perspective.
- Architecture tour: If you want to know more about Rotterdam’s characteristic buildings, the private Rotterdam architecture walking tour is an excellent option. During this three-hour walk you will see impressive buildings such as Rotterdam Central Station, the Cube Houses and the Markthal in Rotterdam and hear fascinating stories about their history.
More Must-See Places to Visit near Rotterdam
Almost every point in the Netherlands is within easy reach of Rotterdam. Just to the north is the porcelain center of Delft and beyond both The Hague and Leiden, one of the country’s most important cultural centers. Only 40 minutes by train, busy Amsterdam is another good base for day trips. Just to the north, Haarlem lies between Amsterdam and the North Sea. A few kilometers east of Rotterdam lies the country’s fourth largest city, Utrecht, and behind it, on the banks of the Rhine, lies Arnhem. To the north extends the Hoge Veluwe National Park, with its excellent Kröller-Müller Museum with 280 works by Vincent van Gogh. South of Rotterdam lies Eindhoven, full of art museums, parks and beautiful historic buildings.