When I lived in the UK there were many cheap flights a week to the Netherlands. Mostly drunk rowdy footballers or others looking forward to the red-light district were heading to Amsterdam. But those are not the only attractions in this incredible country. Rotterdam is a reason to head to the Netherlands and skip Amsterdam.
Rotterdam is the second-largest city in the Netherlands and if you’re looking to get out of the tourist hubbub of Amsterdam, Rotterdam provides a bit of a slower way of life with just as much fun and excitement. Settlement in the area dates back to at least 900 AD and by 1150, the development of the area came to a standstill because of flooding. The locals, fearing the loss of their land due to the water, soon began building dikes and dams. Eventually, a dam on the Rotte river was built in the 1260s and thus the name “Rotterdam” came to fruition. Where the dam was built is where the present-day Hoogstraat (high street) is. With the control of the coast via dams, the city was able to grow even more and soon it became the largest sea-port in the world. While it’s been surpassed by other ports in the world since then, the Rotterdam port is the biggest in Europe.
Rotterdam was mostly destroyed during the Second World War so a lot of the post-war and newer architecture leans on the more modern side giving the city a distinctly contemporary look unlike what you’ll find in Amsterdam. Explore the colorful and diverse city of Rotterdam, do a little shopping, check out the museums, and learn about the interesting history. Here are some of the best things to check out in Rotterdam.
Explore Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen
While Amsterdam is home to major and important art museums, Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen gives the Rijksmuseum a run for its money. Paintings and art from the 14th to the 16th century are presented here with works by famed Dutch artists such as Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt, and Rubens just to name a few. While there is a strong focus on the legendary Dutch painters, there is also a large Emphasis on other European masters with displays from Monet and Gaugin along with modern painters like Picasso and Matisse. All of this and more make it an important museum, not only for the Netherlands but for Europe as a whole. Paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from different periods spanning the entire continent make Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen a must-see, and along with the gorgeous grounds and manicured lawns outside, a museum is a perfect place to people watch.
Get a glimpse of History at The Old Harbor and Marine Museums
While Rotterdam is home to one of Europe’s most important ports, the Old Harbor (Oude Haven) was where it all began. Rotterdam thrived as a city during the medieval period and into the Renaissance because of its thriving harbor. The area that once led to the city’s thriving economy is now a tourist center home to maritime museums, cafes, seaside restaurants, and of course, plenty of boats. The marina itself is a sort of living museum with old boats signifying their age, their name, and more so you can stroll along and check out what’s there. A short walk from the harbor is the Maritime Museum Rotterdam which was built in 1873 and provides reconstructed 2,000-year-old vessels, and 19th-century ironclad flagships. If you’re looking for an interesting place to stay, the 1958 SS Rotterdam, which was once considered “the finest Dutch-built passenger liner ever built” is now a hotel and museum. The chicly decorated vessel offers lunch and dinner in the dining room or book a room for the night and get a little taste of the age of old-school passenger sailing.
Stay in a historic hotel at Hotel New York
From the 19th to the early 20th century, many people looking to immigrate to America did so by catching a ride on the Holland-America line of passenger ships. Just in the span of a decade from 1900 to 1910 15 million immigrants left Europe and those leaving would stay here before getting on the boat. The purpose of the building was two-fold: it served the offices of the Holland-America line and provided accommodation to ticket holders before they got on the week-long voyage to New York. Although the building wasn’t officially a hotel at the time, it became one officially in 1993 when two local entrepreneurs bought the iconic building to keep it from falling into disrepair. The building has over 72 rooms, two restaurants, a conference center, and sits on the east side of the river offering some pretty incredible views. The Holland-America building (now the Hotel New York) is also listed as a National Heritage Site and is also filled with memorabilia from its days as the last stop for European immigrants.
Check out the remains of Medieval Rotterdam at Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk
During World War Two, the German army planned to conquer the entire country within a day. Much to their surprise, the Dutch put up a fierce defense of the country and the city of Rotterdam but to get them to surrender, the German air force bombed the city into submission. Over the course of the war, Allied air forces also bombed the city in certain areas where the Germans established strategic centers usually around the ports and the harbor. Suffice it to say, much of the city was destroyed and one of the only few remains of the city’s original medieval buildings is the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk. Translating to the Great St. Lawrence Church, the church was built in the 15th century and while some of it was destroyed in the bombings, much of it was spared and restored following the war.
When you enter the church you’ll notice the striking play on light offered by the large windows and colored massive stained glass fixtures. The elaborate Danish organs sit on a large marble base on the wall of the tower. The church offers tours and often music and cultural events are held here as well.
Get a taste of some not-so-local food
Rotterdam is the biggest city in the Netherlands that is home to the largest community of people from Cape Verde and the Dutch Antilles outside of those countries themselves. Nearly 50% of the population have either one or both parents born in another country so if you’re looking to get a taste of some delicious Caribbean or African food, there are a few good spots in the city. Afrikaanderplein Market on the south side of the river is a market mostly geared towards Antillean and African locals and it’s a great place to get some affordable food that is bursting with exotic and interesting flavors. Blue Caribbean offers a few spots around town for takeout and dine-in options featuring classic island-inspired dishes and La Bandera also brings a taste of the Antilles with a Latin fusion twist and fun environment.
Spend the Day at Market Hall
Opened in 2014, the eclectically designed Market Hall is nicknamed “the horseshoe” by locals. It serves as both a marketplace and office building but what makes this place worth visiting is that it is essentially an architectural marvel with its large semi-circular facade, and large windowed section facing the courtyard area. The inside of the structure is designed by artist Arno Coenen and shows various colorful fruits, animals, plants, and insects. All of it comes together to make a veritable kaleidoscope so make sure to look up while you’re doing some shopping.
So aside from the cool design of the place, what about the shopping itself? Well, the market is absolutely massive with a wide variety of shops, stalls, boutiques, and even restaurants and bars. Check out tapas bars, traditional Dutch restaurants, tea bars, Balkan grocers, and Indonesian noodle stands, just to name a few. You’ll walk in thinking that you’ll buy a thing or two and end up spending more than you bargained for, but at least you’ll have tons of goodies to show for it!
Check out Rotterdam’s Weirdest Sculptures
Rotterdam is a city of art. The museums and art galleries truly reflect that but what makes the city an interesting one is the amount of public art and sculptures around the city. Most of which is kind of strange.
- Biopik: Located in the gardens of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Biopik is a large yellow phallus-shaped sculpture hidden in the gardens of the museum. Made by Joep van Lieshout, a well-known artist in the Netherlands, the sculpture sits on the property of the museum and represents the need to reproduce while at the same time disregarding the thoughts of purposeful design. In short, it expresses just doing its own thing. It was built in 1992 and caused some controversy after which it was moved to a less noticeable location.
- The Polaroid: When the war ended, the city of Rotterdam had to hastily rebuild itself. In the after-war years, aesthetically boring concrete buildings sprang up, and in an effort to make the cityscape more interesting a collective of artists installed The Polaroid (amongst some other art installations). The Polaroid is a massive depiction of, you guessed it, a polaroid complete with a massive red pin holding it in place. Its weird position under an overpass and slightly askew positioning make it interesting to look at and the picture depicted changes over time.
- The BMW: Built by the same eclectic folks who made The Polaroid, The BMW was unveiled in 1987 and features the German car hanging precariously over the edge of a parking lot as if in a mid chase scene.
- Paul McCarthy’s Santa Claus: Christmas time is a wonderful time of the year. Christmas markets are bustling, people are out shopping, spending time with family and friends. So why is this sculpture notable? The city of Rotterdam commissioned American artist Paul McCarthy to build a Christmas-themed sculpture and he delivered. But the controversy surrounding it wasn’t because of religious intolerance. It was because they found the little Christmas tree the Santa is holding to be too sexual. Without giving too much away the sculpture soon got the nickname “the buttplug gnome” and the name stuck. People tried to get rid of it but it found a new home going from the front of the Opera building to Museum Park.
Get a feel for the Dutch Countryside at Kinderdijk’s Windmills
The city of Rotterdam is a lot of fun but if you’re looking to get out of the city a little bit and explore some of the beautiful Dutch countryside then the iconic Kinderdijk’s Windmills are just a short drive outside the city center. Translating to “the children’s dike” the name comes from a local legend of a cradle being stranded there during the flood of 1421. But what most people come here for is to check out the canals and the windmills that line the waterways. The 19 windmills built in the 18th century are a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the most-visited sites in the Netherlands. Make sure to bring your camera!
Our Final Word
Rotterdam is an amazing modern city filled with some pretty cool things to see. Museums and interesting artwork not only line museum walls but the streets as well. Buildings with fun designs make the city feel unique and cool while the history of the city stays alive through monuments and structures. So next time, skip Amsterdam and head to Rotterdam. You won’t regret it.