What to see in Rotterdam in one day. Our family day trip with Stena Line UK

Rotterdam Netherlands

Rotterdam, in south Holland, is a vibrant, fun city that’s easy to get around if you just have a short amount of time. Stena Line invited us to try out one of their day trips. We spent the day sampling food, drink and attractions in the largest city in south Netherlands. Here’s our post on what to see in Rotterdam in one day.

(Stena Line invited me to write this post, and paid our expenses on this trip.)

Getting there: Harwich to Hook of Holland

We set off for Harwich from our home in south-east London late on a Friday afternoon. Stena Line’s direct ferries run from Harwich to Hook of Holland. The port is an easy 30-minute drive away from Rotterdam. Our eight-hour overnight crossing on a ‘Superferry’ included access to a cosy cabin, as well as all the ferry’s onboard facilities: the cinema, restaurants and lounging areas. We travelled via the Hollandica on the way there, and on the Brittanica on our return.

Ferries depart Harwich at 11pm, and 8.30pm is the time when boarding officially opens. So if, like us, you’re travelling with youngsters, you can either dine before you arrive at the ferry terminal, and then put the children to bed straight away. Or you could go to the ferry’s restaurants, and eat your meal with a view of the harbour, while you wait for the ferry to set off.

Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland

We dined in the Metropolitan Restaurant.

That’s what we chose to do. Our tickets included a meal in the Metropolitan Restaurant. Although the Metropolitan was more formal than the buffet-style Taste Restaurant next door, the staff were super-friendly. They didn’t bat an eyelid when we rolled in with our bags, coats and stuffed toys, straight from parking the car.

Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland

The children were entertained by an activity sheet, which came with coloured pencils.

For the under-7s, a menu included chicken nuggets, meatballs or fishfingers, and Dutch pancakes somethered in ice cream and jam. Children over 7 could choose from the adult menu, and their dishes came in smaller portions.

Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland

Our daughter’s chicken nuggets were served in the Dutch style: with apple sauce.

The food was superb. My starter of feta, mint and watermelon was just the refreshing palate cleanser I needed after a busy Friday. D and our son tucked into yummy halloumi burgers stacked in brioche rolls, while I enjoyed chicken in a piquant mango sauce. The chocolate fudge avalanche cake, with cointreau and berry sauce, was deliciously decadent.

Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland

Feta, blueberry, melon and mint salad in the Metropolitan Restaurant.

Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland

Chicken in mango sauce, with rice and asparagus.

Stena Line Harwich to Hook of Holland

Chocolate fudge avalanche cake, with cointreau and berry sauce.

After dinner, we headed straight for our cabin, a five-berth with a sea view. It was comfortable, cosy and private, with its own bathroom and crisp white sheets. I’ve posted about Stena Line cabins, including a video tour, in my post, All Aboard the Stena Line to Holland.

Stena Line ferry Harwich to Hook of Holland

There was much excitement about sleeping on the ferry.

Stena Line ferry Harwich to Hook of Holland

Our cabin was a five-berth. The family kindly let me take the double bed 🙂

Stena Line ferry Harwich to Hook of Holland

We had an ensuite bathroom, as well as space for our luggage and coats.

What to do in Rotterdam in one day

Rotterdam’s simple nature makes it easy to navigate, and straightforward when you’re travelling with kids. Lonely Planet named it one of their top city destinations for 2016, calling it “a modern metropolis rather than an ersatz recreation of a Golden Age port”. Rotterdam was bombed heavily during WWII, and so a lot of its architecture is new. It combines functional spaces and straightforward transport systems with cutting-edge, uber-cool urban design. Around every corner there’s something exciting to look at – and a decent bar or cafe to relax in.

We spent our day in Rotterdam in mid-December. The daylight hours were short, and the weather was crisp and fresh. So we decided to focus our activities on the city’s cold-weather attractions. On another day trip, no doubt we’d have taken a harbour tour with Spido, to explore the port that made its name as an international hub in the 17th Century, during Holland’s booming Golden Age. Spido’s 75-minute tour takes in the innovative 1950s cruise ship, the SS Rotterdam, which ferried the Dutch party set back and forth to the USA.

Cool architecture and urban design


The Erasmus Bridge and De Rotterdam Tower. Image by Pixabay.

On a return trip, we’d spend more time admiring Rem Koolhaas’s De Rotterdam Tower, a higgledy piggledy stack of apartment blocks. We’d pause for longer at the Erasmus Bridge, shaped like a swan, and the iconic Centraal Station redevelopment, with its solar panel roof. We did go for a wander around the Old Harbour, one of the remaining spots from the ‘old’ Rotterdam. I could imagine us lingering there a long while on a balmy evening, spending time in  laughter and merriment under the waterfront parasols.

Rotterdam Netherlands

Bars and eateries lined the waterfront at Rotterdam’s Old Harbour.

Family-friendly Rotterdam attractions

Rotterdam has plenty of family-focused attractions. The Blijdorp Zoo would be on our list for next time, as would the Maritime Musuem and Miniworld, where youngsters can see tiny Dutch houses and buildings.

Instead, we decided to make the most of a pre-Christmas trip to a city that was in full festive swing. We took it easy, with lots of lingering in warm places, and plentiful stops for hot chocolate. D and I agreed that the Netherlands is THE easiest country we’ve travelled to with the kids. Our day in Rotterdam was no exception. Here’s what we chose to do with our one day in Rotterdam.

Cube Houses Rotterdam

Cube houses Rotterdam

Rotterdam’s Cube Houses clustered together in an elegant star shape.

Cube houses Rotterdam

The Cube House communal spaces were filled with greenery.

What and where are the Cube Houses?

Top of my list of what to see in Rotterdam, were the Cube Houses, next to the Waterfront in the Laurenskwartier District. We enjoyed visiting them so much that I’ve written a separate post on the Cube House village. To me these jaunty banana-coloured dwellings summed up Rotterdam in a nutshell. They were exactly what their name suggested: houses shaped like cubes. But their bright pops of colour sang out against the functional concrete of the city’s flat, level streets.

Cube houses Rotterdam

The Cube Houses were designed to look like a village of urban ‘trees’.

Piet Blom designed the Cube Houses in the late 1970s, and the last cube house was finished in 1984. Now, the 38 cube homes and two commercial spaces are all inhabited, with a 300k Euro price tag on each one-bedroom dwelling.

The cubes are set around a set of leafy courtyards. Our ferry arrived in Hook of Holland at 8am Dutch time. This allowed us to arrive at the underground car park next to the Cube Houses before 9am. We had the Cube House courtyards practically to ourselves. It was a good place to wander around, get our bearings, and make a plan for the day.

Cube houses Rotterdam

We peeked into some of the Houses’ communal gardens, and imagined what life must be like there.

Cube houses Rotterdam

Some of the Cube Houses had communal gardens that you could peek into.

Inside the Cube House showhome

We went into the Cube House show home. Piet Blom imagined the cluster of houses as a wood, with each individual residence being a tree. To enter your house, you climbed steep stairs up the ‘trunk’ of the tree. And inside, the rooms were open plan, in a circular layout around a central core.

Cube House Rotterdam

The top floor of the Cube House showhome was a light-filled, angular but comfortable space.

To fit the unusual spaces, residents needed tailor-made furniture. They also needed to embrace open-plan living. In the show home the bedroom and study space formed one curved living area. The only door inside the place was in front of the bathroom – and that was made of glass (although this might have been just to show visitors what it looked like inside). The top floor of the show home was a beautiful low-ceilinged space, with circles of paint, and retro curves on the chairs, to contrast with the sharp angles of the walls. As the first people into the Show Cube, we spent a good half hour there, chatting and reading our books.

Cube House Rotterdam

Sitting outside the Chess Museum in the Cube House village.

Dwellings weren’t the only things to see in the Cube House village. There was a gift shop, a beautician, and a mysterious glass-fronted space, where about twenty people were sitting with VR headsets on. We also found a charming Chess Museum, with sets outside where you could just sit and play.

The read more about the Cube House show home and the Cube House village, read this post.

De Markthal Rotterdam

De Markthal Rotterdam

Rotterdam’s Markthal is draped with a horseshoe of apartments.

We decided to go on a recce for lunching opportunities. Our destination was De Markthal, which was a few minutes’ walk from the Cube Houses. Only five years old, De Markthal was bustling with life and energy when we visited. The outdoor Saturday market was set up, with stalls selling hot chestnuts, clothing and Christmas decorations. But we hurried past, into the Markthal’s warm interior. Light poured into the space through the collossal glass front of the building, illuminating the gigantic fruit, flowers and animals painted onto the ceiling.

De Markthal Rotterdam

If you look past the Christmas tree and baubles, you can see the windows of apartments dotted about in De Markthal’s ceiling mural.

‘Horn of Plenty’ (Hoorn des Overvloeds) was the name of artist Arno Coenen’s ceiling design. Its name reflected the abundance of food and drink on sale at the 100 or so stalls in the hall’s main section. Everywhere we turned, a new scent or sight hit us. We saw bowls heaped with aromatic spices, in shades of saffron, magenta and cocoa. A woman made stroopwafels in front of us, sandwiching gooey, melting caramel in between two crispy, buttery slices of biscuit. Giant, brightly coloured waxy rounds of Dutch cheese were chopped up into morsel-sized pieces, so we could sample their sharp, creamy flavour. And the aroma of hot chocolate, mulled wine and craft beer trailed round after us, tempting us into stopping a while, to drink in all this goodness.

Stroopwafels in De Markthal, Rotterdam

A woman made stroopwafels in front of us. If you want to see her in action, watch to the end of these Instagram stories.

Cheeses at De Markthal, Rotterdam

Cheeses were sold as rounds, or chopped up into smaller segments.

Cheeses at De Markthal, Rotterdam

Doughnuts at De Markthal, Rotterdam

Doughnuts are a Dutch speciality, and these were the prettiest I’ve seen.

Salami at De Markthal, Rotterdam

De Markthal sold produce from other countries as well as Holland’s finest fare.

Oysters at De Markthal, Rotterdam

Fish and shellfish were plentiful in the market.

As well as the food stalls, De Markthal also boasts an enormous subterranean car park, shops and restaurants. An elegant horseshoe of 228 apartments drapes over the top of the hall. For our lunchtime stop we chose a busy Middle Eastern eaterie, before strolling around to do some Christmas shopping. There was no shortage of opportunities to buy food gifts of chutneys, preserves and fine wines. We also nipped into Habitas, a lovely cookware shop selling Delft pottery and bowls made of olive wood.

De Markthal, Rotterdam

De Markthal was decorated for Christmas.

De Markthal Rotterdam

Outside De Markthal was the regular Saturday outdoor market, and a ferris wheel.

Het Park

Fortified by hot chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles, which was our last purchase in De Markthal, we picked up the car and drove to Het Park in Westzeedijk. It was close to the centre and we could easily have walked there from De Markthal. But this area would be our final stop before heading back to Hook of Holland for the ferry, so we wanted the car to be nearby.

English garden in het park Rotterdam

Dudock in Het Park is a brasserie set in a 1750s manor house, which you can see in the back of this picture.

Het Park was designed in 1852. Landscape architects Zocher and son created it in the style of an English country garden. It’s a lush, green space, with wooded areas, wide lawns and a formal maze. It’s full of picnickers in the warmer months. A smattering of restaurants and a barbeque area make it a popular destination for tourists and locals who want to eat lunch in a tranquil environment.

Ijsvrij in Het Park

Het Park hosts regular events and small-scale festivals. When we visited, the Ijsvrij winter festival was set up in a large enclosed  marquee. A handful of people whizzed round the festival ice rink, in the lull between the daytime skating sessions, and the lively evening ice disco.

Ijsvrij in Het Park, Rotterdam

The cosy space inside the Ijsvrij tent was a good place to relax with the children. The Netherlands is an incredibly family-oriented country, and we found a huge stack of board games, as well as activity sheets with pens and pencils. The children nibbled on plump Dutch fries to keep them going until dinner on the ferry. Warm air circulated around the tent, but in case people still felt a little chilly, warm, snuggly blankets were laid out.

Ijsvrij in Het Park, Rotterdam

The Ijsvrij tent was warm, with snuggly blankets under the twinkly lights.

Ijsvrij in Het Park, Rotterdam

We played board games in Het Park’s Ijsvrij.

Euromast, Rotterdam

At one end of Het Park is the graceful Erasmus Bridge, and at the other is the Euromast, a 185-metre tall concrete tower built in the 1960s.

Euromast in Het Park, Rotterdam

Euromast overlooks Het Park.

When we visited, winds were quite high so the uppermost section of Euromast was closed to the public. We still managed to speed up to the lower viewing tower, to look at the city. A lift inside the 9m-wide trunk of the tower whisked us up 100m in just 30 seconds.

From the top, Rotterdam’s graceful architecture and meandering waterways looked utterly beautiful, in the twinkling light of early evening.

Rotterdam by night.

The SS Rotterdam 1950s cruise ship is on the right of this picture.

Rotterdam by night.

The Ijsvrij festival tent and ice rink are towards the bottom of this picture, in the centre. The tall glowing beacon towards the right near the back is the Erasmus Bridge.

The next time I plan a Rotterdam itinerary, I’ll include a daylight-hours trip up the Euromast Tower. The compact, inviting city was spectacular by night, with all its main features illuminated in twinkling brilliance. A daytime view would be a totally new experience. I imagine that the Euromast would be a good vantage point by day, for picking out all the city’s cool architecture and quirky design features.

Stena Line day trips

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Rotterdam, but the Stena Line sailings between England and Holland are convenient for other locations. As well as Rotterdam, there’s Delft, the Hague and Gouda, which are all less than an hour’s drive from Hook of Holland. The UNESCO World Heritage windmills at Kinderdijk are nearby, and this area’s not far from the Belgian border, making it an easy gateway to the rest of Europe.

We spent two nights away from home, and were able to explore a cool city in a different country. But we only drove a total of 223 miles. Most of that was taken up with the journey from south London to Stena Line Harwich. For us, 223 miles is the equivalent of a round trip to, say, Stroud in Gloucestershire. If we wanted to go to Bristol, or to Manchester, the driving distance would be further.

For more information on crossing times and prices of sailings to Holland from the UK, see the Stena Line website. To read more about what to see in Rotterdam, check out the Rotterdam Info website.

Stena Line covered our expenses on this trip.

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  1. December 18, 2018 / 8:01 am

    What a fantastic way to travel! Those cabins look so clean and modern. Would love to do this with the boys.

    • Nell
      December 18, 2018 / 10:33 am

      I’d recommend it. I think your family would enjoy a trip like this, Jenny!

  2. December 19, 2018 / 1:01 pm

    So glad to have read this. We’re planning a trip by car to Europe next summer and I’m getting ever so slightly nervous about the Channel Tunnel journey inc the roads around Folkestone post-whatever happens over the next few weeks… With the ferry departing so late from Harwich this might be a rather convenient option for us! And Rotterdam sounds like a great city to explore, love the sound of the cube houses and general modernity of it all.

    • Nell
      January 6, 2019 / 4:13 pm

      I know what you mean about transport options. I’d say this might be a less fraught route than crossing over via Kent and France. Time will tell, I guess….

  3. December 19, 2018 / 9:05 pm

    Wow! How much did you pack into 24 hours!? I’ve always wanted to do a ferry but wasn’t sure how the kids would do but looks like your had a great time!

    • Nell
      January 6, 2019 / 4:14 pm

      It did feel as though we packed a lot in, but because we had an early start it never felt rushed. So nice to wake up and find ourselves already in the Netherlands!

  4. December 20, 2018 / 9:46 am

    I really want to do this! What a fantastic way to travel. And I’m so impressed with the cabins – they look so modern. Looks like you had a fantastic time.

    • Nell
      January 6, 2019 / 4:14 pm

      The cabins were spotless. In fact, the whole ferry was excellent.

  5. December 20, 2018 / 7:11 pm

    That looks like such a FUN 24 hours! Your cabin looks so bright and spacious and the food looks really good. I’m tempted to visit Rotterdam now, it looks like a fun place to explore and those cube houses are fantastic!

    • Nell
      January 6, 2019 / 4:15 pm

      You’d love Rotterdam, Katja xx

  6. What a great way to experience Rotterdam without the expensive of paying for a hotel. The super ferry sounds fab and I love the look of the cube houses! Great way to enjoy the xmas markets in a different country:)

    • Nell
      January 9, 2019 / 10:56 am

      Yes, it was a lovely trip to do just before Christmas. I imagine it would be lots of fun in the warmer months, too.

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