Rotterdam, Amsterdam’s Rival City

The treelined streets of Rotterdam, in the NetherlandsThe fires were everywhere, destroying everything in their paths as the bombs fell overhead. When it was over, there was nothing left except empty craters and a people looking to rebuild.

Unlike many other Dutch cities, Rotterdam was completely destroyed during World War II. But it turned the end of the war into a chance to rebuild itself into a modern city and shed its old 17th-century look. Now Rotterdam is filled with steel buildings, wide streets, high-rises, and other signs of modernity that many other cities in Holland lack. If there was an urban city in the Netherlands, I believe Rotterdam would be it.

Unlike other Dutch cities that are built around a small center that makes you feel like you’re still in Holland’s Golden Age, Rotterdam contains wide streets, no real “center,” few historic buildings, and many high-rises. Entering Rotterdam gives you an out-of-Holland experience. Over 40% of Rotterdam’s population is non-Dutch, and you won’t see hordes of young stoners cruising coffeeshops and red lights.

The strange buildings called the cubes in the city of RotterdamRotterdam is most famous for its architecture, with many of the tops firms in Europe headquartered here. The city boasts many architecture schools and even a funky architecture museum. Around the city, you see a lot of interesting buildings built in a modern style, the Dutch style, or that weird 50s industrial style no one really likes. Since the city is more spread out than it used to be, seeing all the interesting architecture can take awhile as you need to walk around quite a bit. My favorites were the Overblaak cubes, the industrial-looking building next to them, and the architecture museum.

Whereas Amsterdam has canals, historic homes, Van Gogh, and the Red Light District, Rotterdam has art, festivals, multiculturalism, and architecture. It’s a much more eclectic/arty city than its bigger rival. Besides the many architecture schools, there’s a big indie culture here, and you’ll find many streets dedicated to appealing to those “arty” types. In that spirit, it makes perfect sense that Rotterdam frequently has (free) festivals throughout the year. While I was there, there was a jazz festival and the following week some art festival was coming.

The outdoor market in Rotterdam where you can buy fruit and veggiesAmsterdam is an expensive place to travel, but not Rotterdam. Many of the attractions in Rotterdam are only around five euros, and the museums are free on Wednesday. On the weekends you can visit the large market near the Blaak metro stop. It’s a great way to get cheap food and mix with the locals. For a great view of Rotterdam, head down to the Euromast. This is the tallest structure in the city and provides a great view of the surrounding area. You can even see Den Haag from it! The tower has a great audio guide telling you the history of the city, and on some days, you even rappel down the tower.

One thing to skip—the Rotterdam Museum. I always visit historical museums. You can’t tell where the city is now if you don’t know its past. I’ve seen some bad ones, but this one was awful. It’s a video tour that requires you to watch each video before you move on, so you can’t go at your own pace. That wouldn’t be such a problem if the video had English subtitles. It doesn’t. It’s all in Dutch. Rotterdam has some great museums. This was not one of them.

Only an hour away, Rotterdam is a good place to go to contrast Amsterdam. Too often people sit in coffeeshops in Amsterdam and think that’s the Netherlands. But there’s much more to the country, and Amsterdam’s rival city is a good place to start exploring. The city doesn’t strike me the way Amsterdam or Utrecht do, but overall, those with a few days should check it out.

For more information, visit my page on backpacking Europe or my guide to the Netherlands.

  1. We didn’t go to Rotterdam when we were just in Holland, but were in den Haag and Utrecht for 5 days and loved it. While Amsterdam is a great place to party, the other cities offer a much better view of the dutch people.

  2. Omar

    Nice article, thanks for giving ‘Roffa’ props! It is indeed not only smoking up and hooking up that we do here in the Netherlands. I live next to the Delfshaven area, so next time you’re around, let me know!

  3. Brandon White

    It is impossible to compare both cities. While Amsterdam embraces the visitors, in Rotterdam not at all. Rotterdam has a small center which doesn’t feel like a center. The vibes are completely different: Rotterdam has a working class vibe during the day, after 6PM the city feels dead. Amsterdam has a vibrant, international and very cosmopolitan vibe. If it was up to me I would never choose to visit a city like Rotterdam. But if you travel there anyway… have fun!

  4. I love Rotterdam! Started studying here two years ago and it’s so much better than Amsterdam. It’s very different and don’t get me wrong, Amsterdam is beautiful. But, Amsterdam is very touristic and Rotterdam is much more laid-back and a perfect place for internationals. I am Dutch myself, but as a travel-maniac I really appreciate the international vibe in Rotterdam. Hence, I would totally recommend going to Rotterdam! It’s totally different from all other (old) cities in the Netherlands, even though if you know where to look you can also find canals and old Dutch-style houses in Delfshaven or Kralingen. The Kralingse Plas is a perfect get-away from the sometimes hectic city life and Blaak (market is open on Tuesday and Saturday by the way) is just one big architectural happening. Really great place to study!

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