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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
We peeked into some of the Houses’ communal gardens, and imagined what life must be like there.
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.
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.
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
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stena Line covered our expenses on this trip.
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