Is Rotterdam your next destination and you’re trying to do it on a budget? Or do you just love a freebie? Maybe you’re another Rotterdam resident victim to the high rental costs and looking to explore the city for free?
Whatever your reasons, we’ve got you covered! Luckily for you, Rotterdam has plenty of free things to enjoy. So, without further ado, here are the 20 best and free things to do in Rotterdam in 2021 (yes there really are that many)!
1. Explore the Markthal
The Markthal is home to all of the amazing food that you can possibly imagine. This indoor market, housed in a typical Rotterdam crazy-yet-cool building, is a must-see if you are in Rotterdam! Inside you’ll find a variety of different food stands, shops and restaurants. Many of these stalls have upstairs seating, so you can look down on all of the crowds stuffing their faces (perfect for people who like people watching — GUILTY).
The Markthal also has a variety of different living spaces along the outside. Yup — people live in there! Thankfully, the ceilings are so high that you can’t actually peer into the houses like we’re used to, but they sure as hell can spy on you.
Oh, and if you walk into the Markthal, don’t forget to look up at the ceiling — the place is so impressive.
2. Walk along Rotterdam’s harbour
Okay, so not ALL of Rotterdam’s harbour, it’s pretty damn big (the biggest in Europe in fact), but some of it is really beautiful. If you start at Oude Habour and cross the road, you can walk all along the front, past all of the world flags and all the way to the Erasmus bridge.
Once you’ve crossed it, you can then walk along the edge of the cruise terminal and all the way up to Hotel New York. Even from there, you can carry on walking along the front all the way up to the SS Rotterdam.
Not only is it free, but it keeps you fit and it’s a beautiful walk on a summers day. You can also cycle it instead if you prefer.
3. Visit the Cube Houses
If you’re on your way to the Markthal, then it would be hard to miss these. The iconic cube houses of Rotterdam dominate your vision when in the area. It’s the perfect Instagram shot and the ideal place to take a wander. Walk up the steps and go for a stroll there — you’ll find a few cute shops, a museum, a hostel, and people’s houses — uh-huh, people actually live in these.
To see what it would be like for yourself, you can visit the cube house museum, which is essentially a showhouse, showing you what the inside of the cube houses actually looks like. You pay a few euros at the door and then you can go and look around. Personally, I could NEVER live somewhere like that, the whole place completely spun me out and made me feel dizzy and weird, but it is totally cool to go and see for yourself.
4. Walk along the Erasmus Bridge
“The Swan,” as it’s known, is the iconic bridge of Rotterdam, connecting the north and the south. I love walking across the bridge because of the view. If you walk from the north to the south, you’ll have a great view of De Rotterdam — a huge and disjointed skyscraper. At night it’s especially nice as the bridge lights up and so do the houses and offices around it.
Prewarning: if you’re looking to check these sights out by bike, make sure that it’s not too windy on that day as riding your bike across the Erasmus Bridge, reeeaaalllyyy isn’t fun.
5. Go to Het Park
If you’re looking for some big open space, then there is actually no shortage in Rotterdam. Het Park by the Euromast is just one of those places and the walk to and from the park is just as nice (if you’re lost, just head for the Euromast — you can’t miss it).
There’s plenty of green places to sit down and read a book or sunbathe, and you can feed the ducks on the lake. It’s a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle of the city, which is much needed.
6. Catch a train at Rotterdam Centraal Station
Rotterdam central station, in my opinion, is the most impressive part of Rotterdam — it’s an architects heaven. The inside is impressive enough, but then when you walk outside the front entrance and you’re literally surrounded by all the different and funky skyscrapers. When you turn around, you’ll see Rotterdam Central Station in all its glory.
The area is beautiful and the perfect place to go for a wander. There are some cool graffiti and architecture as well, along with plenty of terraces to get that much-needed beverage after your walk.
7. Get on board the SS Rotterdam
The SS Rotterdam is another absolute icon of the city. It was launched back in 1953 by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The SS Rotterdam sailed for 41 years until it stopped in 2000. She was then restored and was brought back to Rotterdam, where it opened as a hotel, restaurant, and event venue. You can enter completely free to have a look around.
You can also have a bite to eat on the inside or outside of the SS Rotterdam and it’s the perfect place to go on a summers day. Afternoon tea? You can do that. Fine dining? You can do that. Greasy nachos and a beer outside? You can do that too. It’s certainly the go-to place in Rotterdam and a real piece of history.
8. Check out a food hall
There are a variety of food halls here in Rotterdam and there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of window shopping! However, if you think you’re going to cave in and buy half of the place out, then maybe skip this one and avoid it like the plague. 😉 The reason why the food halls are pretty damn sweet is because there’s a lot of history behind them.
Fenix Food Factory — the most hipster place ever — is housed in an old port warehouse in Kadendrecht. Overall, the place has been maintained to look just like it was from an old warehouse, but it’s been revamped to look trendy and up-and-coming, with cute little fairy lights and a nice outside space to have a beer and a burger. It’s really nice in the summer and also somewhere to escape to if it’s pouring rain and you’re feeling sorry for yourself.
Another is the reasonably new Foodhallen Rotterdam. The Pakhuis Meesteren where it’s located has a lot of trading history, as it was home to the Pakhuismeesteren van de Thee company, where tea and nuts were stored from the former colonies. Since then it has been left unloved, despite it being a pretty cool building. Now it houses many different food stalls…just when you thought the Markthal was the only good food place we’ve got. 😉
9. Visit Hotel New York
Hotel New York is the former head office of the Holland Amerika Line and here is where many people left for North America, hoping to find a better life. A lot has changed since then, as it transformed into a hotel and a restaurant/bar.
Hotel New York is THE place to stay in Rotterdam and while the hotel certainly isn’t on the cheap side, the building and area around it are lovely. If you have any spare euros at all, grab a drink and sit on the terraces, it gets busy in the summer and it’s hard to find a seat, but it’s so worth it.
10. Go to Festival TREK: a food festival
Yup, it’s gratis and I’ve decided to mention it as I go every year and it’s really funky. It’s found near Blijdorp Zoo in a beautiful park and it’s a festival full of really cool food trucks, with performances, cocktails, shisha pipes, fairy lights and a really chill ambience. Of course, it’s not totally free if you’re going to want to buy something (which you are), but you can make it as cheap or as expensive as you’d like.
11. Visit the historical Delfshaven and Pelgrimvederskerk
If you know about the history of Rotterdam, you will know that a lot of the old city got flattened by bombs in 1940. The neighbourhood of Delfshaven is one of the few parts that actually survived. Visiting this neighbourhood, you are treated to old Dutch canal houses and a beautiful yacht marina. You can visit antique stores, beer breweries, small galleries and art studios, and restaurants here!
But the most interesting part of this borough of Rotterdam is its history: it was originally Delft’s harbour before becoming a part of Rotterdam in the 19th century. The people who lived there survived by fishing for herring and making the famous distilled gin of the Netherlands, jenever.
This neighbourhood is also home to the Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim Father’s Church), which dates back to 1417. It was originally a Roman Catholic Church, which later turned into a Protestant church in 1574, because of the Reformation. Also, this neighbourhood’s port was also from where the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to Southampton in England on Speedwell and then boarded the Mayflower that sailed to the Americas.
12. Go and see Het Havenmuseum (the Harbour Museum)
You might have heard of the Maritiemmuseum at the harbour (which you should seriously consider exploring), but did you know there is an open-air, freely accessible part called Het Havenmuseum? It is located at Leuvehaven 50, and it is right next to the Maritiemmuseum. You can see the history of the port of Rotterdam from 1850, all the way to 1970. You can walk into most of the ships docked there, and discover what they look like from the inside!
13. Attend World Harbour Days
The World Port Days, or the Wereldhavendagen, in Rotterdam, happen every year and they let you experience one of the world’s biggest harbours in a very personal way. It’s a three day festival with demonstrations and tours to companies that operate from the harbour.
There are activities for the visitors of the festival to enjoy, like the Royal Dutch Navy helicopter shows, boat races on the river Maas, diving presentations and more! The Dutch police and fire brigade also participate, showcasing everything they have to show off.
14. Relax at Luchtsingel
If you look at the satellite overview of Rotterdam, you will be able to spot this bright yellow line running from Rotterdam North to the centre. It is right around the corner from the central station, and you walk around the 390m long wooden pedestrian bridge. It connects the central station with Rotterdam North and that with the Binnenrotte.
Besides the wooden bridge, there is the DakAkker — a harvestable roof where vegetables, fruits and herbs are grown; the Roof Hofplein which acts as a small public venue space for events; and the park at Pompenburg where you can relax when the sun is shining.
15. Purchase a Rotterdam Pass
This one is a little too hard to believe: buying this pass lets you do almost 750 free or discounted things around Rotterdam. You can go play a game of laser tag, or go to one of the many museums at a discounted price, or even grab some pancakes!
The best part is that it’s valid for a whole year, starting always on March 1 until the end of February of the NEXT YEAR! You pay only 60 euros for the whole year, or 12.50 euros if you’re a student. And we all love our discounts, don’t we? Check out their blogs on what other people have done with this pass for some ideas, or just go to their shop to know what’s on discount or free! You can get this pass at the central library at Blaak or order it online.
16. Discover the Kabouter Buttplug
One of my most favourite public art pieces in Rotterdam: the Kabouter Buttplug. This one deserves a special mention, not because of its aesthetic prowess (I am not the best judge for that), but the idea behind why the artist Paul McCarthy made it.
The L.A. based contemporary artist is known for his provocative art pieces which send the faint-hearted into a frenzy. This sculpture is nothing less: it’s supposed to be a tribute to Christmas, with Santa Claus holding a bell in one hand, and what is supposed to be a Christmas tree in the other hand. But, as you can see in the picture below, it looks far from a festive tree.
This statue has travelled all around the city, where it was first supposed to be displayed near the De Doelen building, then moved on to the courtyard of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, following resistance from many people due to the sexualisation of Mr. Claus. Finally, it was moved to Eendrachtsplein because of renovations that were happening at the museum courtyard.
17. Admire the street art in Rotterdam
Exploring the city through street art is one of the best ways to see it. Rewriters Rotterdam has come up with an app that guides you through the city, giving you the context and relevance of each street art piece. The whole city becomes a sort of an open-air museum you can walk through to enjoy some amazing pieces.
You can download the app for just 99 cents, and this gives all the information you need to truly enjoy the streets of Rotterdam! If you want to see the main route before you actually spend those cents, they offer a free downloadable map you can use as well.
18. Go on a free walking tour
If you don’t particularly care about street art, you can join a free walking tour of the city that starts at the Markthal. You are taken around the city by true Rotterdammers who will tell you a little bit about everything you need to know about the city: Erasmus of Rotterdam, World War II bombardment, the quirky architecture, and Rotterdam’s port.
There is no better way of getting to know the city because it is conducted by volunteers who truly love living here. You can book a spot for a tour at their website where you can see just why it is worth taking it! The testimonials from people who have already participated are all glowing, and the tour guides are all very happy to help you to get to know the city better.
19. Visit Leeszaal Rotterdam West
One of my favourite places in the city, only because I am a total bookworm. The Leeszaal or the Reading Room hopes to keep the spirit of a public library alive, where you can go there to read, write, or meet interesting people from the neighbourhood. You can borrow books without applying for a library card. Did you love the book you borrowed? You can keep it! You are under no obligation to return it, but you do have the option of leaving behind any book you have already read.
20. See the Floating Forest
You can spot this floating forest at Rijnhaven, where there are miniature trees floating on the Maas. There are as many as 20 trees right now floating around on the river, waiting for you to grab a seat at the many benches on the riverside (when the weather permits it), watch them float around!
This has been around since 2016, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re definitely missing out on a very fun free thing to experience in Rotterdam.
Things to do in Rotterdam with kids
Stuck for things to do with kids in Rotterdam? Apart from some of the things listed above, there are plenty of parks and walks that you can do with children in and around Rotterdam.
There are also many cinemas too, so maybe you could catch a movie with your kids? Rotterdam has an amazing zoo (Blijdorp Zoo) and plenty of museums with children-friendly sections.
Things to do in Rotterdam when it rains
There’s a ton of things to do outside, but what about inside? Like we said above, Rotterdam has many museums (think the Museum pass!) — the perfect place to go to on a rainy day.
You can also go shopping, as Rotterdam has for example Zuidplein Mall and Alexandrium Mall, along with plenty of shops in the city centre. Here you can also take a bite to eat in one of Rotterdam’s many restaurants. Who doesn’t love a bite to eat and a shopping spree?
Where’s your favourite place in Rotterdam? Know of any other free things to do in this city? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: Skitterphoto/Pixabay
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2020, and was fully updated in August 2021 for your reading pleasure.