Rotterdam is a city that rose like a magnificent phoenix from the ashes.
Due to its highly strategic port, the Netherlands’ second biggest city was flattened in a Nazi bombing raid on May 10th 1940. Only a handful of historic buildings survived the onslaught.
However, when the time came to rebuild Rotterdam, enlightened town planners and architects used its destruction as an opportunity to build a strikingly modern city that pushes the envelope of urban design. What we see today is an architectural showcase designed by the great and the good of contemporary architects.
There are boldly futuristic apartment buildings, office towers, libraries, bridges, market halls and subway stations. But, as a nod to the Rotterdam’s past, remnants of the city’s few surviving historic buildings are tucked between its more contemporary creations.
Many people visit Rotterdam as a day trip from Amsterdam, as part of a cruise itinerary or stay for just one night. If that’s the case for you, here are the best things to see in Rotterdam in one day. However, if you have a little bit more time in this accessible and vibrant city – which I recommend! – I have also included some additional places to check out.
Exploring Rotterdam in one day
To help you make the best of your day in Rotterdam, here are nine key sights, linked by a self-guided walking tour. Your walk starts at the central railway station (Rotterdam Centraal) and ends at the Old Harbour. It is around 3 miles long.
Rotterdam self-guided walking tour – map
Here’s a map of my walking tour to help you:
If you would like to use public transport to help you to see these sights, fast forward to the end of this post for some tips on how to get around Rotterdam.
Getting to central Rotterdam from a cruise ship
If you arriving in Rotterdam on a cruise, reaching the city centre is a breeze.
Cruise Terminal Rotterdam is centrally located at Wilhelmina Pier, at the southern end of the Erasmus Bridge. The nearest metro station is Wilhelminaplein, five minutes’ walk away. From here, it’s four stops north to Rotterdam Centraal on Line D or Line E.
The cruise terminal is also served by tram #23 and #25.
1. Rotterdam Centraal train station
Our first Rotterdam sight is a modern architectural gem.
Opened in 2014, Rotterdam’s futuristic central train station is massive, spread over 430,000 square feet under a cathedral-like roof. Before you start your walk in earnest, you might want to pick up a city map from the train station’s Tourist Information Office.
When you exit the station into the plaza, turn around and look back at the station to admire its flying saucer-shaped roof, its tip in harmonious juxtaposition with the adjacent buildings.
Walk along the boulevard-like Krusiplein and then take a left turn down Koningginnebrug. Pass through Schouwbergplein, one of Rotterdam’s striking public plazas, to reach Korte Lijnbaan.
2. Rotterdam’s Shopping Zone
Korte Lijnbaan forms part of Lijnbaan, Rotterdam’s fairly unremarkable network of pedestrianised shopping streets. So why is this included in the walking tour?
Lijnbaan’s claim to fame is that it was the first pedestrianised downtown shopping area to be developed in Europe. As such, it was a huge tourist attraction in the 1950s when such developments were novel.
Today, it has lost its shine and its shops are a little down market. Nonetheless, it is pleasant and, as a cycle-free zone, you don’t run the risk of cyclists approaching you from behind you like silent assassins!
When you reach the statue of the rasslin’ bears, take a right, and when you reach the tram tracks take a left. You are now in Beustraverse, another shopping street.
Carry on straight and you will reach Hoogstraat, which was at the heart Rotterdam’s downtown area pre-1940. Are you now ready for a pit stop?
If so, then grab a prized pavement table at Poffertjessalon Seth (Hoogstraat 147) and order a portion of their tiny traditional pancakes (€3 for 10), smothered in butter and dusted with icing sugar. They are like little sweet clouds of heaven.
Now on a sugar high, head toward the steeple of St. Lawrence Church.
3. St. Lawrence Church (Laurenskirk) & Erasmus
St. Lawrence Church is one of the few buildings that survived the WW2 bombing raid. Completed in 1525, this imposing Gothic building is Rotterdam’s oldest.
I didn’t go inside, but if you fancy a peek it will cost you €2. St. Lawrence Church is open 11:00 – 17:00, Tues – Sat. It also hosts concerts. If you have a head for heights, for €5 you can climb the tower on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer months.
Have you heard about the Erasmus programme? This is a European exchange programme designed to enable students gain experience in another country, either by as part of their degree programme or as a work placement.
Now meet the man who inspired this. The statue of Rotterdam native, Desiderius Erasmus (1469 – 1536) graces the plaza in front of St. Lawrence Church. Erasmus was a Renaissance humanist scholar who studied extensively abroad to avoid the fate of his like-minded friend, Thomas More, who had his head chopped off by Henry VII.
Other Rotterdam landmarks are also named after him. We’ll come across at least one other in this walking tour. But, for now, continue to the end of Hoogstraat and straight ahead you will see a white building with yellow tubes. Head towards this building which is Rotterdam’s City Library.
4. The City Library
Often compared to Paris’ Pompidou Centre, Rotterdam’s City Library is in keeping with the French building’s aesthetic of “form follows function”, celebrating the guts of a working building.
If you have time, it is well worth going inside the building and talking the escalator all the way up to the top floor to fully appreciate this space. I loved the funky 1970s-style lampshades.
Exiting the City Library, walk back across the plaza towards the modern dome-shaped building which is Rotterdam’s Market Hall. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, a market is held in this plaza.
5. Rotterdam Market Hall (Markthal)
If you only have one day in Rotterdam, its Market Hall is a must-see. It is not like any other covered market that I have come across on my travels. Gleaming and modern, this cathedral of food, boasts a spectacular 36,000 sq ft ceiling mural featuring fruits, vegetables and other market goods.
Beneath this domed ceiling is an extensive food market with more than 100 retailers, restaurants and fast-food stands. Is it lunchtime yet? This is one of the best places in Rotterdam to stop for a drink or a quick bite to eat.
Back outside, you will be able to spot the distinctive tower block dubbed “The Pencil” by Rotterdamers because of its shape. Make your way toward it and you will arrive at the Cube Houses.
6. The Cube Houses of Rotterdam
For many, the Cube Houses are the stars of Rotterdam’s architectural show. Designed and built in the late 1970s by the architect Piet Bloom, these innovative buildings have achieved iconic status.
This urban forest of 39 identical yellow cubes sit on a hexagonal poles, their walls tilted at a precarious 54.7-degree angle. Each cube houses a single family on three levels: the lower triangular level is the living room, the middle level for sleeping and bathing and the upper level is additional sleeping or living area.
For a closer look, follow the signs to the museum to enter a series of courtyards around which the Cube Houses are clustered. You can enter one of the houses themselves by paying €3 to visit Kijk-Kubus Museum House.
Alternatively, if you are after a more immersive Cube House experience, you can stay in one at the Stayokay Hostel (Overblaak 85-87). Typical prices are from €32 per night in a six-bedded dorm room (breakfast included). For more privacy, a double room is available from €81 per night.
From the Stayokay Hostel, take the steps down to Rotterdam’s Old Harbour. As this is the end point of our Rotterdam walking tour, we will return here. But if it is time to refuel you can do worse than to take a break at one of the harbourside bars and restaurants.
If you want to carry on, walk around the left-hand side of the harbour, cross the main road and then go under the bridge’s flyover to reach the Maas riverfront.
7. Maas Riverfront
The red bridge to your left is the Williams Bridge (Willemsbrug). With your back to the Williams Bridge, stroll along the riverfront boardwalk. In around 15 minutes you will arrive at the Parade of Flags, 200 of them representing the nationalities of those making up Rotterdam’s multi-ethnic population.
Remember Erasmus from earlier in our walking tour? Here, another Rotterdam landmark that bears his name, the spectacular 800-meter long Erasmus Bridge (Erasmusburg). The graceful shape of its 139-meter high pylon has given it its nickname, “The Swan”.
The Erasmus Bridge is considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful bridges and it forms part of the city of Rotterdam’s logo.
To continue our walking tour, turn right to head away from the river and up Schiedamsedijk. Then turn right to reach the Maritime District.
One hundred years ago, Leuvehaven was a busy commercial port. Today it’s a harmonious blend of the old and the new, with a few remaining historic harbour buildings sprinkled amongst new tower blocks. It is an open-air venue for all things related to nautical history.
It is also home to Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum. In the plaza behind the museum is the symbolic De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City) statue, commemorating the city’s WW2 destruction.
Follow the road (Blaak) around to the right at the Maritime Museum and just past the Blaak metro station you will find yourself back at the Old Harbour.
9. The Old Harbour (Oudehaven)
Rotterdam’s Old Harbour is a modern recreation of what the harbour would have been like, based on what little was left of it after Hitler had his way with the city. However, with its enticing outdoor bars and restaurants and a handful of historic ships, it is a very pleasant area to stroll and sup.
It must be time for that cold drink now. You deserve it and where better to end your day in Rotterdam? Enjoy!
If you have more than one day in Rotterdam …
Do you have two days in Rotterdam? Even better!
To reach my first two recommended places – Delfshaven and Luchtsingel – you will need to hop on the city’s metro system. They are both so worth the trip, albeit in very different ways.
Mercifully saved from the destruction wrought by the WW2 bombing campaign, Delfshaven is a very well-preserved area of Rotterdam and gives us a glimpse of what the city would have looked like in its golden age.
As its name suggests, Delftsaven was actually the port for Delft, six miles north-east of Rotterdam. Walk along the idyllic Voorhaven canal, crisscrossed by bridges, lined by historic buildings with a working windmill in the distance. It doesn’t get much more Dutch than this.
Don’t miss the Pilgrim Fathers Church (Oude de Pelgrimvaderskerk), near the main drawbridge. It was here that the Pilgrims prayed the night before they set sail for the New World on 1st August 1620. The rest, as they say, is history.
How to get to Delfshaven
To get there, take metro line A or B toward Schiedam Central, or line C toward De Aakers, and alight at Delfshaven. Alternatively, tram #4 will bring you there.
Images of this 390-metre long footbridge, slightly east of the main train station, have graced many an Instagram feed. This bright yellow walkway connects Rotterdam North to the central area and, in doing so, has revitalised a once-neglected area.
Each of the 8,000 wooden planks forming Luchtsingel is inscribed with the name of the person who funded it, or a message of the funder’s choice. If you get a chance to visit, take a peek at the community area. It’s not often that you see sheep waiting for a train that will never arrive!
How to get to Luchtsingel
There are nine different entrances to the bridge. I made my way to Rotterdam Stadhuis, one stop from Rotterdam Centraal (Lines D and E) from where it is a five-minute walk.
Rotterdam’s Instagrammable subway stations
Rotterdam’s architectural treasures can also be found underground. My favourites were Marconiplein and Blaak.
If you manage to visit Blaak station, look out for the remains of Rotterdam’s city walls which are suspended over one of its platforms.
Rotterdam’s street art & Witte de Whithstraat
If I have time, I try to check out street art in the city that I am visiting.
The street art scene in Rotterdam is centred around Witte de Whithstraat, which is the city’s hipster central. This lively street is lined with restaurants that represent Rotterdam’s ethnic diversity, boutiques, art galleries and even a Dutch “coffee shop”.
If you head to Rewriters Rotterdam, you can download a free downloadable map. An app is also available.
Amsterdam or Rotterdam?
Go to Amsterdam for its canals, its medieval buildings and a window into the Netherlands’ past. Rotterdam is modern Holland and without the crowds that can often swamp Amsterdam.
Don’t visit Rotterdam expecting a living Vermeer painting. Instead, come for bold modern architecture and a multicultural buzz that is hard to beat. You won’t be disappointed.