Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ second largest city, is easy to see in one day. There’s plenty to do here, and despite its size and a population of more than 600,000 inhabitants, it is a city that is very easy to explore on foot.
This post outlines the top things to do in one day in Rotterdam and the top things to put on your Rotterdam itinerary.
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Why visit Rotterdam?
To first-time visitors, Rotterdam is architecturally like no other Dutch city.
A large chunk of Rotterdam’s city centre was flattened by invading Nazi Germany in the early stages of World War II. Presented with a blank canvas, planners decided to reinvent the cityscape and rebuild Europe’s largest port along contemporary architectural lines.
The result is a fascinating blend of impressive architecture with attractive waterfront townhouses that survived the wartime devastation.
There are also glittering modern skyscrapers, and some very cutting-edge building designs that quite often are bold artistic urban statements.
In the second largest city in the Netherlands, you are never far from the water.
But rather than being dominated by the intricate canal networks that characterise many Dutch cities (although they are still here), it is the expansive Nieuwe Maas shipping channel and the port of Rotterdam that defines the city. Huge cruise ships and cargo containers can be seen sailing to and from the North Sea and beyond.
All of this makes Rotterdam a surprising city and a fascinating one to explore. It’s a great city break and a perfect day trip if you’re visiting other places in the Netherlands.
Where is Rotterdam?
Rotterdam is located in the district of South Holland, an area that borders the North Sea and Belgium.
The Netherlands is not large by any stretch, and the superb intercity train network means it is easy, quick, and relatively inexpensive to get around.
Consequently, it can be easily reached from the capital Amsterdam (which is less than an hour away by train), and the Hook of Holland (Hoek van Holland). Antwerp in Belgium can be reached in just over an hour by train.
Rotterdam’s close proximity to other historical centres of interest means you could also consider day trips to Delft, Den Haag, Dordrecht, Gouda, Leiden, and Utrecht, to name just a few.
If this interests you, I have listed information on a few day trips at the end of this post.
Getting around Rotterdam
Boasting many unique tourist attractions and excellent local transport links, it’s not hard to see why so many people come to check out what this vibrant city has to offer.
As major cities go, it’s not huge. It’s therefore easy to explore on foot.
However, if you want to cram in as much as possible during your one day in Rotterdam, then the easiest way might be to invest in the Rotterdam Welcome Card.
The Rotterdam Welcome Card has several options that give discounts on admissions to attractions, exhibitions and food and drink.
You also get unlimited travel on public transportation including the buses, metro, and tram services, as well as discounts for bike rental if you prefer to see the city by bike.
How to get to Rotterdam
Most air passengers arriving in the Netherlands will land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. From here, it is less than an hour to Rotterdam’s striking modern train station (Rotterdam Central station/ Rotterdam Centraal).
A smaller number of travellers also have the option of arriving at Rotterdam The Hague Airport. This has connections to nearly 50 European airports and is even nearer to the city than Schiphol.
Train connections within the Netherlands are really efficient.
And given that the Netherlands is a relatively small country, if you want to do a Rotterdam day trip you can get here very quickly on the intercity services.
You can travel to Rotterdam from neighbouring Belgium. Brussels is between one and two hours away depending on the train you catch. You can also travel from Paris in around two and a half hours.
And from London, you can now take the Eurostar train to Rotterdam, a journey time of around four hours.
You can also book tours to Rotterdam from Amsterdam that will also take you to other towns and places of interest.
Things to do with one day in Rotterdam
Below is my list of the top things to see with one day in Rotterdam.
Explore the Delfshaven neighbourhood
Delfshaven is a great place to go to if you want to get an idea of what Rotterdam looked like before the Nazis destroyed most of the inner city in May 1940.
Take the short tram ride west from central Rotterdam to Delfshaven. This is a small, harbour-side neighbourhood with a range of bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. It even has a windmill!
Aside from the traditional Dutch-style architecture that you probably associate with Amsterdam and other cities, the suburb is home to several notable attractions.
This includes the De Pelgrim brewery, where you can sample some local beers and take a tour to learn how it is made. It is housed in an old 16th century building that was once Delfshaven’s town hall.
Also make sure you pop into the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church.
On this site in the early 17th century, the English pilgrims who had moved to the Netherlands met before making the epic journey across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life.
Go into the only medieval building left in the city
Badly damaged during the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam – only the medieval church walls and tower survived the devastating blitz – St Laurenskerk (or grote of sint-laurenskerk) was painstakingly restored by locals in the aftermath.
It should not be missed on a visit to the city.
Originally completed in 1525, Rotterdam’s main church is the oldest building in the city and the only surviving example of late Gothic architecture here.
If you have a good head for heights, climb its 300 steps to the top of the tower. You will get a superb bird’s eye view of the city’s skyline from the roof.
Be mindful, however, that the tower is only open to visitors on Wednesday and Saturdays between March and October.
Tickets, which can be purchased for a small fee, can be bought on the day from the desk inside – or you can book in advance here.
For more information on what you can see in the church, click here.
Marvel at the modern architecture
One of the few plus points of having to rebuild the centre of Rotterdam from scratch after the devastating destruction brought about by the Nazi blitz is that architects had virtual free rein to experiment and create awe-inspiring contemporary architectural showpieces.
If you arrive at Rotterdam’s Centraal station you’ll immediately get an insight into this. The first thing you’ll see is a futuristic design that includes an angled hall for passengers to stare up at and admire.
Exploring Rotterdam, you’ll come across many examples of signature cutting-edge modern designs.
One of the best places to see this is in the Overblaak Development. This is where you’ll find the famous cube houses designed by celebrated Dutch architect Piet Blom.
The development comprises the Blaaktoren. This is a 61 metre residential tower with a sharp pencil-like roof, and the cube cube-shaped luxury apartments which are commonly described by locals as a “forest”.
One of these apartments – the Kijk-Kubus Museumwoning – has a showhouse open to the public where you can see what it might be like to live in one of these.
You will find the massive Markthal (market hall) a short walk away.
Housed in a glittering horseshoe-shaped glass-walled building with a distinctive mural ceiling depicting fruit and veg, it has a range of food stalls on the ground floor. It’s a great place to stop for a snack.
Across the Nieuwe Mass river in Wilhelminapier, is the “Vertical City” called De Rotterdam.
This is a huge waterfront design near the Erasmus Bridge. It comprises three interconnected towers. Inside you’ll find a mix of apartments, cafés, conference facilities, offices, restaurants and shops, and a hotel.
The Luchtsingel bridge is a 400m long pedestrian bridge, which apparently was the first public infrastructure to be completed using crowdfunding contributions. With its bright yellow painted walkways, the bridge is an important pedestrian artery that has reconnected three central districts.
If you are particularly interested in Rotterdam’s modern architectural wonders, you can book a guided tour to learn more about these.
Go on a harbour tour and see the unique Erasmus Bridge and Rotterdam skyline
One of the must-dos if you are visiting Rotterdam, particularly on a warm and sunny day, is to take a harbour boat tour.
It’s by far the best way to marvel at the city’s distinctive skyline and take photos of some of Rotterdam’s most eye-catching architecture and landmarks.
Most notably this includes the 800m long Erasmus Bridge, an impressive steel cabled bridge that locals affectionately call “the Swan” (“De Zwaan”).
This 75-minute harbour boat tour has audio guides in Dutch, English, French, and German and there is also wheelchair access.
You can cancel up to 24 hours in advance and get a full refund if the weather conditions look bad on the day. The tour starts in Willemsplein (a square on the north side of the Erasmus Bridge).
This hour-long guided cruise on the Nieuwe Maas river has the added option of a live tour guide. It also offers wheelchair access and free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.
For visitors that fancy something a bit different and want a bit of history, a great way to do this is via this two-hour cruise on an historic boat.
Passengers climb on-board the “Nehalennia”. Some of the waterfront highlights you get to see are the Erasmus Bridge, the SS Rotterdam cruise ship, the historic Hotel New York (the former headquarters of the Holland America cruise line) and the Euromast.
Wander around the old harbour and visit the White House (Witte Huis)
Located in the area known as the Maritime District, the old harbour (Oude Haven) is a fascinating place to stroll around and admire the surroundings and historic buildings.
Close to the water with old ships moored up at the quayside, there are many bars, cafes, and restaurants to stop at in this popular entertainment spot.
One of the main attractions in the old port is the Het Witte Huis.
This is a popular café and restaurant with locals and visitors alike. It is named after the striking art nouveau building called the White House (Witte Huis) that overlooks the harbour.
Impossible to miss, the ten-storey construction miraculously survived the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940 and it is one of Rotterdam’s few surviving heritage buildings.
It was apparently the tallest office building in Europe when it opened at the turn of the 20th century.
Located next door to the Marines Museum (an interesting visitor attraction itself that showcases the history of the country’s Marine Corps), on certain occasions the White House opens its doors to visitors.
When we were there, we were lucky enough to be taken on a tour up to the rooftop, where we were got some superb views across central Rotterdam in every direction
Learn about Maritime history in the Maritime Museum
For a country (and city) with such an important maritime past, this aptly named museum, which is right next to Leuvehaven port, is another must-see attraction, particularly for children and young adults.
The Maritime Museum Rotterdam showcases both permanent and temporary activities and exhibitions, some of which are recent additions. For example, visitors can learn about the city’s past, present, and future in the new “Destination Port City” exhibition.
This includes a virtual tour that traces how Rotterdam grew into Europe’s largest port.
In contrast, the “Offshore Experience” provides some great interactive activities based around the challenges of operating in the North Sea oil and gas industry. One of the activities allows you to experience what it is like being 3 kilometres underwater.
Grab lunch at the Market Hall (de Markthal)
Another Rotterdam landmark, the Market Hall is a futurist design with a multipurpose function.
During the day, the main hall serves as a central market where locals can come and buy a diverse range of produce from nearly 100 fresh food stalls. It’s a great spot to stop for a snack and coffee.
After the stalls close up for business, the lower levels come alive with restaurants. The glittering u-shaped building is also home to over 200 apartments.
Look out over the city from the Euromast Tower
Located to the west of Het Park, a large English-styled garden popular with locals, and standing 185 metres high, the Euromast is one of the best vantage points to visit for a panoramic view over Rotterdam.
The observation deck gives you a 360-degree experience, and you ride up to the top of the mast in a glass elevator.
If you fancy going out in the evening for a drink and meal, heading out here would be a great thing to do. Complete with stunning night-time views, there’s a cocktail bar and brasserie.
Other things to do in Rotterdam
With just one day in Rotterdam, you may only have time for the main sights listed above. However, Rotterdam has lots more to offer, especially if you want to extend your stay.
If you particularly like museums, Rotterdam has some excellent ones worth visiting.
One of them is the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. This is a fine arts museum that showcases work by Dutch greats like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Bosch, plus other notable painters. Nearby is the Kunsthal, another art museum.
If you are a fan of photography, then make time for the Nederlands Fotomuseum. Its collection is vast, with thousands of images, including ones from top Dutch photographers.
Museum Rotterdam has two sites. One is located in the Timmerhuis building in the centre of the city. This takes the visitor through Rotterdam’s fascinating history from its early founding all the way through to future plans.
The second covers the period 1940-1945 and gives you a sense of what it was like living under the Nazi occupation.
One of the highlights, if it can be called that, is an “immersive multimedia experience” that documents the Nazi blitz that destroyed the historic heart of the city.
If you prefer to be out and about in the fresh air and are visiting the Euromast, the large Het Park nearby is worth exploring.
For places to eat, drink and shop, head to Witte de Withstraat. This is a trendy tree-lined street in between the Maritime Museum and Rotterdam Central station.
Is one day in Rotterdam enough?
I’d definitely say that one day in Rotterdam is enough. Its centre is really easy to explore on foot, so you can easily see the main sights in one day if you plan your time carefully.
The Rotterdam Welcome Card is, however, handy if you want to take the pressure off and use public transport to get around. It also gives you discounts to enter museums.
That said, if you planned to visit for longer, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. There’s also a range of other places nearby that you can visit.
Day trips from Rotterdam
It is easy to make day trips from Rotterdam to other notable Dutch towns and cities of cultural, economic and historical interest. The following are some of the best day trips you can take.
- Amsterdam: highlights include exploring the capital’s extensive canal network (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), taking a boat cruise on the water, and admiring the fabulous architecture dating from the “Golden Age” from the late 16th to 17th century. It’s also the perfect place if you’re an art lover. The city has superb museums, notably the internationally renowned Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Fast trains take about 40 minutes.
- Delft: One of so many beautiful and historical places of interest that can be easily reached from Rotterdam, this university town is where the famous Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was born. It is also where you will find the ceramic Delft Blue pottery, among many attractions. A typical train journey takes around 12 minutes.
- Den Haag (The Hague): Located on the North Sea, The Hague is where the Dutch Parliament and the UN International Court of Justice are based. There are lots of things to do in this fascinating city. Highlights include the Noordeinde Palace, which is one of several royal landmarks. A short ride from Delft, the train journey from Rotterdam is about 25-30 minutes.
- Gouda: famous for the Dutch cheese, the town of the same name is popular with tourists in the spring and summer, so the best time to visit might be in the off-peak seasons. Aside from the cheese, there are lots of reasons to visit, not least the Sint-Janskerk church with its stunning 16th-century stained glass windows. It takes about 15-20 minutes to get here by train from Rotterdam.
- The Keukenhof gardens: This has been described as one of the most stunningly beautiful spring gardens anywhere in the world. It’s a must-see place if you’re visiting during the spring and early summer. In 2023, it opens on 23 March. Keukenhof has a vibrant festival-like atmosphere and if you visit on a fine day, it’s a lovely place to wander around with an ice cream listening to the music being played. To read more about what you can do here, read my post on my previous visit.
- Leiden: Leiden is famous for being the birthplace of Dutch master painter Rembrandt and is the home of the oldest university in the Netherlands. The beautiful city has a real buzz and so much to offer if you’re visiting. This includes boat rides on the extensive canal network, some excellent museums, the De Valk windmill and the impressive Pieterskerk church. Leiden is small, and so it would be easy to see the entire city in just a short trip. We stayed here when we visited Keukenhof as buses go directly to the gardens from the main station.
One day in Rotterdam
I hope this has convinced you that Rotterdam should be put on your list of city breaks. It’s a great city and easy to visit in just a day.
I also hope this post has given you ideas of things to put on your day itinerary. If you have any questions, do let me know.
Other ideas for short European breaks
In France, I’ve written about my two days in Lyon: things to do on a short break in Lyon. Further south, on the Cote D’Azur, is the small town of Menton, close to the Italian border. This is one of the 11 best days trips from Nice that you can take.
For ideas for more European short breaks, covering other countries such as Portugal, Spain, the UK, Italy, and Malta see my website.