The second largest city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam lies on both banks of the Nieuwe Maas, the tidal southern arm of the Rhine, where it’s joined by the little River Rotte. It’s also the world’s largest port, home to the massive Europoort facility through which so much freight passes on its way to and from the continent.
Although almost completely destroyed by German air attacks in 1940, central Rotterdam was energetically rebuilt after the war and replanned with modern shopping streets, residential districts, and high-rises, making it one of the most modern and architecturally interesting places to visit in Europe.
Despite it’s modernity, the city dates back to medieval times and was already prosperous 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 hub, its early prosperity leading to the birth of Rotterdam’s most celebrated citizen, the humanist Erasmus, born here in 1467.
Today, Rotterdam is as popular for its vibrant entertainment options as it is for its many fine museums, splendid architecture, and maritime tourist attractions. To help you make the most of your time, be sure to read our list of the top tourist attractions in Rotterdam.
1. The Old Harbor and Marine Museums
Rotterdam’s Old Harbor (Oude Haven), part of the city’s revitalized Maritime District, is a boat basin filled with restored historic boats, including houseboats lived in by locals. In good weather, you can sit outside one of the many cafés and restaurants and enjoy people watching, or stroll around and watch the boats being painted or repaired. Signs identify the ages of the boats and show pictures of this area in its heyday as a commercial port and shipyard.
A short walk from here is Maritime Museum Rotterdam. Established in 1873, the museum provides a fascinating look into the city’s connection to the sea and its many waterways. Its large collections cover the history of shipping and seafaring, including ship models, a reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old vessel, and numerous seafaring paintings.
Another marine-related tourist attraction is the adjoining Maritime Museum Harbor, an open-air facility that’s home to the well-preserved 19th-century ironclad Buffel, as well as an old lightship. All told, more than 20 historic vessels are on display here. Both facilities offer English-language guided tours.
A recent addition to Rotterdam’s roster of important old vessels is the SS Rotterdam. Launched in 1958, it’s considered the finest Dutch-built passenger vessel ever to sail. This sumptuously decorated vessel is now a hotel and museum, and one of the favorite things to do here is have lunch or dinner in its dining room. For those traveling with kids, check out the Kids Marina, were youngsters can captain their own mini-version of a cargo or passenger vessel.
Address: Leuvehaven 1, 3011 EA Rotterdam
2. Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen
Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen | Ira Smirnova / photo modified
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, one of the Netherlands’ (and Europe’s) most important art centers, is known for its superb collections of paintings, sculptures, and applied and decorative arts from across the continent.
Painters of the 14th to 16th centuries 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 the latter’s works can be viewed), while later centuries are represented by Monet, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Modern painters represented include Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall.
Another museum of note is the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, an ethnographic museum established in 1883, with excellent displays of artifacts from ancient and modern cultures from around the world.
Address: Museumpark 18, 3015 CX Rotterdam
3. Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk
Great St. Lawrence Church (Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk) is all that’s left of Rotterdam’s medieval buildings, most of which were destroyed during WWII. Located in Grote Kerkplein, the late Gothic church dates from the 15th century and was built on once marshy ground giving the building a peculiar lean that was only halted after its foundation was rebuilt in 1650. It was heavily damaged in b.o.m.b.i.n.g.s, but was fully restored at the end of the w.a.r.
Upon entering the church, you’ll be struck by the beauty of the bright interior, an effect heightened by the colored glass of its windows. The church is famous for its three Danish organs, the largest of which stands on a marble base on the inside wall of the tower. The bronze doors of the main entrance, on the theme of W.a.r and Peace, are by the Italian artist Giacomo Manzu, and in front of the church is a statue of Rotterdam’s most famous son, Erasmus.
Guided tours are available (although the small admission fee includes a very informative audio guide), and the church also hosts frequent music concerts and other events.
Address: Grotekerkplein 15, Rotterdam
4. The Cube Houses
Rotterdam is home to many fine examples of modern architecture, much of it inspired by the city’s waterside setting, as well as a response to the devastation of WWII. Pushing the architectural envelope to the max are the city’s famous Cube Houses (Kubuswoningen). Designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom, this block of houses, with their unique cube-shaped upper stories, are clearly visible from a walk through the Old Harbor.
One of them, the Show Cube, is open to visitors and contains displays on the design and history of the buildings. An interesting museum dedicated to chess is also located here.
Another architectural gem is the White House (Witte Huis). Once Europe’s tallest building, this stunning 10-story Art Nouveau structure was built in 1898 and is now a National Heritage Site, with superb views from its rooftop. Those with an interest in the design of buildings should visit the Het Nieuwe Instituut, home to a superb museum outlining the development of various architectural movements over the decades.
Address: Overblaak 70, 3011 MH Rotterdam
5. Market Hall
One of the most popular gathering points in Rotterdam is the impressive Market Hall (Markt), a huge office complex that opened in 2014. Nicknamed “Koopboog” (Horseshoe) by locals, it’s an architectural marvel, with the soaring arched ceiling of its food hall covered in larger-than-life murals of vegetables, fish, and other produce, celebrating the fact the market itself is a kaleidoscope of fresh and prepared foods.
You’ll find fast foods of every sort here, along with classy restaurants serving everything from traditional Dutch favorites, like Stroopwafels, to Balkan foods, Spanish tapas, and exotic Indonesian dishes.
6. The Kinderdijk Windmills
On the River Noord, just 23 kilometers east of Rotterdam, is the beautiful little village of Kinderdijk. Taking its name from a famous legend that describes a baby’s cradle being stranded here during the St. Elizabeth’s Day flood of 1421 — the name literally translates as “the “children’s dyke” — it’s one of the most visited places in the Netherlands.
Each of its 19 perfectly preserved 18th-century windmills is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built between 1722 and 1761, together they comprise the largest surviving concentration of windmills in the country, a history that’s celebrated during special Mill Days, when their sails are once again set in motion.
Fun things to do include exploring the museums located in the Blookwer and Nederwaard mills, as well as the Wisdom pumping station. Fun tours along the canals are also available.
Address: Molenkade Nederwaard 1, 2961 AS Kinderdijk
The centerpiece of Coolsingel — nicknamed the city’s “Cool” district and the main street of Rotterdam’s city center — is the Town Hall (Stadhuis). Built between 1914 and 1920 in Dutch Renaissance style, it miraculously escaped destruction in the bombing of the city during World War II. While you can’t visit the richly decorated interior on your own, guided tours are available and can be booked through the city’s tourist office.
Opposite the Town Hall, in the busy Stadhuisplein, is a war memorial designed by Mari Andriessen. Other Coolsingel highlights include the Beurs-World Trade Center, a high-rise building with a facade of greenish-blue glass, and the Bijenkorf (“Beehive”) department store, designed by leading architect Marcel Breuer in 1958. Fronting Bijenkorf is the 26-meter-high work of sculpture, Construction (1957), by Naum Gabo, a French sculptor of Russian origin.
The popular shopping streets of Lijnbaan and Koopgoot are also in this area. A few blocks northwest from Bijenkorf, you’ll come to De Doelen, a concert hall and congress center rebuilt in 1966 after its destruction in 1940. It offers seating for 2,200 people, excellent acoustics, and a superb roster of concerts. Nearby is Theater Rotterdam Schouwburg, the city’s municipal theater, which opened in 1988.
8. Boat Tours of the Europoort
Rotterdam’s massive port occupies half the city’s total area of 247 square kilometers, much of it in turn occupied by Europoort, a huge complex known as the “Gateway to Europe.” In addition to countless large freight vessels, you’ll see mile after mile of quays and storage facilities built to service the world’s busiest port.
One of the most popular tours of the port area begins at Maeslantkering near Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland) and includes a close-up look at the city’s massive surge barrier. Evening tours are also fun, especially with Rotterdam’s most famous landmarks, including the superb Erasmus Bridge, being spectacularly illuminated.
9. Rotterdam Zoo
Established in 1857 and one of the oldest zoos in the Netherlands, Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp) is well known for its successful breeding programs. Highlights of this 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, in fact, a priority here: the Asian section includes a swamp forest with two large aviaries for exotic birds, a Mongolian steppe, a bat cave, a Chinese garden, and numerous creatures indigenous to the region.
Also worth exploring is the zoo’s Oceanium, an excellent aquarium featuring a large collection of marine life from the Americas. And, if after your visit the kids still have energy to burn, pay a visit to Plaswijckpark. This fun family park features boat and train rides, an adventures playground, plus a petting zoo.
Address: Blijdorplaan 8, 3041 JE Rotterdam
10. The Euromast
One of Rotterdam’s most distinctive landmarks, the Euromast lies at the north entrance to the Maas Tunnel. Erected in 1960, this 185-meter-high tower houses two restaurants with superb city views, each at the 92-meter mark.
For thrill seekers looking for more than just great views there’s the chance to abseil down the building, while those looking for a unique overnight stay can book one of two stunning suites located at the 100-meter point. English language guided tours are available.
Address: Parkhaven 20, 3016 GM Rotterdam
11. Delfshaven and the Pilgrims
The old district of Delfshaven, unlike much of the rest of Rotterdam, survived WWII largely unscathed. Consequently, its unspoiled old architecture has resulted in it becoming one of the most popular spots in this big bustling city.
Delfshaven 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’s notable for the Old Church (Oude Kerk), where the last service was held in 1620 by the Pilgrims before sailing for the New World to found Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is commemorated with a memorial and bronze tablet.
12. Kunsthal Rotterdam
Exhibit at the Kunsthal Rotterdam | Rob Oo / photo modified
Another example of the city’s modern-yet-functional architecture is the Rotterdam Kunsthal, or Art Hall. This trendy gallery opened in 1992 and hosts a variety of constantly changing exhibits of visual arts, design, architecture, and culture from across the globe.
Another gallery of note is the Chabot Museum, which features the works of Dutch painter and sculptor Henk Chabot. It’s housed in a superb white villa built in 1938.
Those with an interest in photography should plan on visiting the Netherlands Photo Museum (Nederlands Fotomuseum). Highlights include a broad collection of historical images by a number of Dutch photographers.
Address: Museumpark, Westzeedijk 341, 3015 AA Rotterdam
13. Miniworld Rotterdam
Miniworld Rotterdam | Gerard van Enk / photo modified
Miniworld Rotterdam is one of the newest tourist attractions in the Netherlands — and one of the best for kids. Set in a large warehouse and covering an area of over 535 square meters, Miniworld recreates many of the most recognizable landmarks and places to visit in the Netherlands on a miniature scale.
Crisscrossing these displays is a 2.3-kilometer-long network of model rail tracks, with some 150 trains buzzing around at any one time, between them pulling an impressive collection of over 1,800 pieces of rolling stock. Close to half the exhibit features parts of Rotterdam, allowing the little ones in your party to recognize some of the many attractions they may already have visited.
If you’ve got the time, book a fun behind-the-scenes tour. Along the way, you’ll visit the Miniworld workshop and learn how the trains are controlled from the command center, including how the whole display is lit up when night falls — an event that happens every 25 minutes in Miniworld Rotterdam.
Address: Weena 745, 3013 AL Rotterdam
14. Museum Rotterdam
Museum Rotterdam is one of the best places to visit for those wanting to learn more about the history of this fascinating port city. Established in the 1950s, the museum displays a rich collection of documents and artifacts, including artworks from the 17th and 18th centuries. Of these, the most important works are by Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch.
More recent history is also featured at the museum’s Coolhaven annex. Dedicated to World War II, Museum Rotterdam ’40 -’45 NU opened in 2015 and features exhibits relating specifically to the Dutch wartime experience. A notable artifact on display is the original flag of surrender used in May 1940 after the country was i.n.v.a.d.e.d by Germany.
Address: Rodezand 26, 3011 AN Rotterdam