While Amsterdam has long been one of the most popular European destinations, Rotterdam (just 50 miles southwest) has gone widely overlooked. With world-class museums, top-notch dining, and yes, canals and coffee shops, it’s an ideal place to spend a few days without the crowds.
Located on the North Sea, the Port of Rotterdam was once the busiest in the world and remains the largest in Europe to this day. Shipping containers dot the seascape and an increasing number of restaurants and museums give the waterfront area an industrial chic vibe.
With its sharp and stunning angles, the Erasmus suspension bridge (completed in 1996) looks like a work of art while serving its utterly practical purpose of uniting the northern and southern parts of the city. As a result, the southern part has experienced a revitalization of development in the last two decades. As a whole, the city features an abundance of world-class architecture, from sleekly designed Rem Koolhaas buildings to Piet Blom’s quirky Cube Houses, which jut out with vibrant, jagged beauty amidst a standard brick apartment landscape.
Biking is a popular, easy way to get around. As this is Holland, expect sophisticated paths that protect the rider from traffic and connect easily with cross streets. Because biking is so engrained in the culture, the cyclists here are quite good and with that comes speed — this is not the place to learn if you’ve never rode before. Sign posts specifically for cyclists, in red/white and green/white, make navigation easy, even if you don’t have a specific place in mind. This makes it an ideal mode of transportation for hitting up many of the city’s attractions.
The comprehensive photography museum Nederlands Fotomuseum now occupies a former Holland America workshop in southern Rotterdam. With expansive concrete floors, oversized windows and soaring ceilings, the building provides a dramatic atmosphere for viewing the collection of over five million images. While the museum has exhibited famous photographers like Nan Goldin and Henri Carter-Bresson, the real draw is the local artists, many of whom remain unknown outside the Netherlands.
The rest of the city’s top-tier museums are clustered together in an area called Museumpark, making it easy to experience a one-day, sensory overload art explosion or visit the lot over a few days for more leisurely absorption. The area is meticulously landscaped, with wide walkways and lush plantings.
Don’t miss the Kunsthal and Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen. Both are diverse in their offerings and meticulous with their curation. The Kunsthal recently featured a major retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, known for bringing sculptural beauty to nude portraiture. Aptly named “A Perfectionist,” the exhibit captures a brilliant artist in a state of constant searching. A telling quote is written on a black wall: “I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied.”
Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen’s permanent collection dates back to c. 1300 and includes more than 145,000 objects. With this kind of breadth, the museum can feel like a time portal. From Paul Cezanne to the surrealist masters, a casual browse can easily turn into a four-hour event. Luckily, there’s a bright café with locally-sourced cuisine to buoy the spirits mid-visit.
To come down after a day of sightseeing, there are plenty of coffee shops from the 4 Floors to the more overtly named Coffeeshop Bob Marley. Unlike in Amsterdam, there aren’t mobs of bro-tourists crowding the shops, so your high will be decidedly more chill.
The only time there’s a hint of a crowd is for a weekend in July when the North Sea Jazz Festival comes to town. Regarded as one of the best in the world, the festival has consistently drawn big names since ’76, booking legends like Chick Corea, Wanye Shorter, Tony Bennett, along with next generation artists like Brad Mehldau and rising star Trombone Shorty.
For a combination of location, style and value, it’s hard to beat the five-star Mainport Hotel (Leuvehaven 77). Right outside its sleek doors, there is a metro stop that whisks you to Central Station in five minutes. It’s also a short stroll from Museumpark and across the street from the Erasmus bridge, putting the whole city at your fingertips. The rooms are colorfully decorated and feature comfy beds and deep soaking tubs. Saunas up top have commanding harbor views, making cold weather trips appealing.
For a less typical experience that draws on the city’s maritime history, board the SS Rotterdam (3e Katendrechtse Hoofd 25). Once a flagship vessel of Holland America, this massive ship is now permanently docked and has been gussied up to accentuate its mid-century charm, while still providing modern comforts. Be forewarned: the rooms are on the small side. Also, the location is secluded at the end of a long pier — a good walk from the metro and everything else. But it has no peers for a singular experience.
Restaurants, Bars and Cafes
Housed in the lobby of the Nederlands Photomuseum, Las Palmas (Wilhelminakade 330) features an open kitchen and a French-inspired menu that draws on the local seafood bounty for classics like bouillabaisse and whole dorade in salt crust. Appetizers at this airy brasserie, like cherry duck liver and salmon quinoa with black garlic octopus, are more sophisticated than the casual dress code would imply.
A snapshot of hipster culture at its best, Dertien (Schiedamse Vest 30) is a modern Dutch bistro with a rustic, elegant atmosphere that is as carefully chosen as the local farms that supply the seasonal ingredients. The full menu is served at the bar (an ideal place for solo diners) and is displayed above it on a large board, with changes daily. that changes daily. A wood oven adds to the charm.
Bright lettering on white brick walls makes Supermercado (Schiedamsevest 91) pop out from its quiet surroundings. This pan Latin restaurant offers ceviche, tacos and chimichurri steak along with oversized margaritas and homemade ice tea. There’s nothing Dutch about it on the surface, but perhaps the greatest charm of Rotterdam is the multitude of surprises it contains.
Located on the expansive peninsula of Katendrecht — Rotterdam’s former Chinatown, known for debauchery — De Kaapse Brewpub (Veerlaan 19-D) is the first of a growing trend of top-notch craft brewers. With an inviting, industrial chic taproom and an array of brews, including a black IPA and a rotating experimental series, it’s a good place to linger with a group of old (or newly made) friends.
A curvy and invitingly elegant bar is the hub at De Witte Aap (Witte de Withstraat 78). The lively, refined bohemian crowd comes more for the atmosphere than the beer selection. A bright chandelier hangs above and the small, café-style tables make for easy socializing. Open in the afternoon and located near Museumpark, De Witte Aap is good daytime stop, as well.
It makes sense that a city with a great jazz festival would have a great jazz café. Dizzy’s (Gravendijkwal 127) has been that place since 1977. A casual Dutch menu, including cheap sandwiches and omelets, complements the cozy environs. Live music holds court on Sunday afternoons and Monday and Tuesday nights.
The two Michelin star FG – Francois Geurds is casual in dress code and in the woodsy sleek vibe, but not in the fancifully prepared plates. The dishes Geurds churns out in his namesake restaurants are stunningly plated and intricately constructed. In another metropolitan city, you would not be welcome to wear sneakers here, but the Dutch do things differently.
Parkheuvel (Heuvellaan 21), located in a semi-circular pavilion overlooking the Rotterdam Harbor, has been wowing diners since 1986. The art deco décor at this two Michelin star restaurant is among the most formal in the city, exuding elegant warmth. Parkheuvel is ideal for enjoying sprawling modern Dutch meals that begin with an aperitif and stretch through several hours before finishing with a digestive.
Note: Stores are generally cash only in Rotterdam, even high-end ones.
Keet Rotterdam (Oppert 2a) offers a rotating array of stylish products from startups and local businesses alike. Think of it as an Etsy you can browse through in person. They also have a café with coffee, smoothies and, most importantly, free Wi-Fi to break up the browsing experience.
With a selection of clothes and home furnishings that covers a wide range of styles and periods — from vintage to industrial, retro to modern — Plek (Nieuwe Binnenweg 178) caters to many tastes. This family-owned store resembles a minimalist loft with items strewn artfully about by themselves or on carefully organized racks and open shelves.
Groos (Achterklooster 13) focuses on made-in-Rotterdam products. The fine-crafted goods include cozy socks, minimalist chairs, artfully designed mirrors and everything in between. It’s a good place for both a unique souvenir or redecorating your apartment.