Amsterdam may be the Netherlands’ most popular destination, but the country’s equally charming “second city,” Rotterdam, exudes a distinct character that’s entirely its own. The majority of Rotterdam was bombed during World War II; the city impressively has since rebuilt itself as one of the Netherlands’ most alternative and edgy towns. Its hip boroughs are filled with ultra-modern architecture at almost every turn.

My mom and I decided to visit Rotterdam on our annual “girls getaway.” We wanted to see the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam, and felt comfortable as female travelers since this city is known to be safe for women and easy to navigate. Four days of exploring, admiring, and overeating later, Rotterdam exceeded every single expectation—and then some. Here’s a look at the diverse experiences that made this mother-daughter vacation complete.

ACTIVITIES

When it comes to things to do in Rotterdam, the best activities always come back to the city’s architecture—starting with its collection of around 40 “cube houses” that date back to the 1970s. These obscure yellow cube homes tower above the ground, making this stretch of Rotterdam feel straight out of “Avatar.” Architecture buffs can actually tour one of these homes, although they’re equally impressive when viewed from the street.

yellow cube houses atop residential buildings

The majority of Rotterdam was decimated by Germany during World War II in an event known as the Rotterdam Blitz, but one area is still impressively intact: Delfshaven. This small stretch of canals has a similar feel to Amsterdam; it’s an integral part of history as the Delfshaven port is where the pilgrims started their voyage to America. Charming old buildings and outdoor cafes in Delfshaven are a stark contrast to the modern new buildings Rotterdam’s known for. Delfshaven is the perfect place to unwind with a beer or two, especially at the Pilgrim Brewery (named aptly for its distinguishable past.) For more history, don’t miss the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church, the last place the pilgrims stopped to pray before setting sail.

To explore Rotterdam in a new way, you can also take rental bikes out for some cycling. We rode alongside commuters across the bridges—including Rotterdam’s iconic Erasmusbrug bridge—all the way up to the Natural History Museum, where we stopped, picnicked in the park, then rode through the city before heading back into town for lunch. We felt entirely safe riding alongside traffic, although it’s best to go slow, follow traffic rules, and use your hands as directional signals (just like you would when cycling anywhere in your hometown.)

bottle of beer on checkered table

DAY TRIPS

Holland is renowned for its charming collection of windmills, and the nearby Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the best places to see them. My mom and I felt completely at ease taking the straightforward line 20 waterbus (ferry) to the site. Once we landed and made the five-minute walk to the visitor center, we were bursting at the seams to start exploring. This collection of 19 working windmills is navigable by foot or boat. The pathways are lined with flowers and greenery, making the trails peaceful and the views even better. While it’s tempting to jump straight into the exploring, spend some time learning about windmill operations at the visitor center first. This adds context and appreciation to this impressive cultural attraction.

windmills along river

DINING

The best way to kick off any trip to Rotterdam is taking a scenic, culinary tour aboard a converted tram car-turned-restaurant. The RotterTram passes through the well-known and hidden spots of Rotterdam, with over three hours of fresh fine dining in a cozy window-view seat. The RotterTram was started via crowdfunding by a female entrepreneur, which made it all the more ideal for our girls getaway.

After a night of eating all the things on the RotterTram, nothing beats waking up to fresh local produce and cuisine at Rotterdam’s popular Markthal. While fresh fruits and vegetables abound, Dutch cheese is much more tempting—as is the lively patio at World of Drinks. This bottle shop has an impressive collection of beer and wine from around the world, with the option to buy and drink onsite or take the bottles to go. The shop’s experts love helping patrons uncover new drinks they never thought they’d like, which for me was a local bourbon-barrel-aged stout.

While every Rotterdam meal is tastier than the last, few restaurants can beat the plentiful seafood lineup at A La Plancha. This river-adjacent outdoor restaurant is only open during the warmer months; it’s the perfect, relaxed place to watch the sunset. We ponied up to the bar for our first evening drink before diving into massive plates of shrimp, octopus salad, and grilled whole fish.

cheese wheel on display in store
Some of the Markthal’s delicacies.
restaurant patio next to waterfront
The patio at a la plancha.

GETTING AROUND

Rotterdam has an easily navigable metro system, and it’s a historic site within itself: This was the first metro system in the Netherlands. It serves the majority of Rotterdam, with an efficient Rotterdam Tube System that can take you out to The Hague for another day trip or add-on to your vacation. Taxis are another easy option, as are Ubers.

ACCOMMODATIONS

While Hotel New York may sound like anything but “quintessential Rotterdam,” it’s actually one of the city’s most historic spots to stay. This classic hotel is the former head office of the Holland America line. Its unique history is made obvious through small decorative touches, although the high-ceiling rooms and chic dining areas feel anything but old school. Hotel New York was the perfect mix of old and new, which is exactly why my mom and I loved our time there.

hotel and playground in city

Whether it’s a girl’s getaway or a solo-female adventure, Rotterdam is an easy (and safe!) way to see the Netherlands in a new light. Architecture, fresh fare, and windmills galore are just a few of the many reasons to visit this increasingly popular city.

Have you take a girl’s trip to the Netherlands? Tell us your must-dos in the comments or on Twitter

Share this:
Stephanie Vermillion
Stephanie Vermillion is a travel and outdoor filmmaker and journalist based in the Midwest. Her work has been published in outlets like AFAR, Travel & Leisure, and Outside, and she's a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Follow her work on Instagram @bystephanievermillion or on her website, www.stephanievermillionstudio.com.