Poor Rotterdam. It never had a fighting chance to win my affections. I arrived on a chilly, rainy afternoon after spending a few (relatively) warm, sunny days in Amsterdam. With my hood up against the wind and the occasional raindrop, I began the half-hour walk from the (admittedly striking) train station to my AirBnB with a minor sense of unease, and it only grew the further I walked. It wasn’t that the city seemed unsafe — more that it was slightly unwelcoming. I saw almost no one on my half-hour walk, a striking change after busy Amsterdam. The streets were unsettlingly quiet. The city gave off a distinctly barren vibe. The modern, clean lines of Rotterdam’s buildings were a jarring change from Amsterdam’s old-world charm, and they didn’t do much for me on that grey day.
I wish I could say my impression improved as the day went on, that I found a bit of charm in a seemingly charmless city. It didn’t happen, though. Perhaps the weather was to blame, but I found myself listless and anxious to leave. I gave the city a fighting chance, or as fighting a chance as I could in just under 24 hours. I had a good wander and I saw a few of the top sights, but I just didn’t connect with it.
Which is not to say the city has nothing to recommend it. The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen was an absolute highlight, with a surprisingly diverse collection. Although I got in for free thanks to my Museum Pass, I’d have happily paid the price of admission (€17,50 for adults as of January 2018). An eclectic yet engaging mix of Old Masters, Impressionists, Expressionists, Surrealists (and undoubtedly many more -ists) makes up the main collection, so you’re not sure what to expect in the next room. It’s also quite an educational spot; I didn’t know much about the De Stijl movement before spending time here, but the curators have done an excellent job of tracking the movement and I spent good long time reading through the signage. (Which, as a side note, is why I adore solo museum-ing. Free reign to… read!)
The museum also houses a fantastic display of “household objects that chart the history of design over eight centuries.” As I wandered through the basement rooms, I kept expecting the collection to come to an end — and then I’d turn the corner and find yet another room of, say, mid-mod chairs or pipes (including a charming one that’s shaped like a dog).
The museum was blissfully quiet and uncrowded, a welcome change from the tourist-filled museums of Amsterdam. I was impressed and gratified I’d made the walk, and spent a few happy hours exploring.
After all that intense arting, I needed sustenance — in the form of cake. I headed to Heavenly Cupcakes, grateful for a chance to sit indoors and sip a hot beverage after a chilly walk. I ordered a slice of vanilla cake with raspberries and buttercream; it was perfectly serviceable, if a bit dense in texture. My perfect afternoon pick-me-up would’ve included a side of espresso, but alas: The espresso machine was being serviced at the very moment I stopped by. A pot of hot tea made a suitable replacement, and I enjoyed a leisurely snack in the otherwise empty cafe before heading back into the chill.
Suitably sugared up, I walked to the can’t-miss destination you’ll find on all city guides to Rotterdam: the Markthal (Market Hall).
A vast indoor market characterized by its striking curved and reflective exterior, a dizzying indoor mural, and dozens of stalls, the Markthal is as good a place as any to spend a few hours in Rotterdam. Although it previously housed a vegan-friendly eatery, on my visit the Markthal was sadly devoid of much vegan fare, as far as I could tell. Still, there were plenty of bulk shops and a few bars, so you can always buy looseleaf tea and/or get a beer! Neither of which I did, but — you could.
The area around the Markthal also features the stunning elevated yellow cube houses that sometimes crop up on Pinterest and make you do a double-take. They’re even more impressive in person than in photos, and I wandered in the little cube-y “neighborhood” for a good while, wondering whether I should’ve shelled out for an AirBnB room in one of them. But I hadn’t, so eventually I returned to my regular ol’ AirBnB to charge my phone and fret over what to do next. I decided to keep it simple and go for dinner. Burgertrut was just a mile away, so I hoofed it to this indie eatery for a — you guessed it — burger.
The place was packed when I arrived, with patrons who skewed heavily towards the hipster more than the hippie. (I didn’t realize overalls are now “on trend” until I saw a band of teens rocking them!) Luckily, the relaxed atmosphere meant I could grab an open seat on a couch and order from there, rather than waiting for a table to open up. I was seated right next to a visiting artist who was working on some kind of wall mural. Burgertrut is just one piece of a larger organization that includes a public studio and a communal art space. We chatted briefly while I waited for my food, and then I adopted an awkward silence and pulled out a book to read. As one does.
While Burgertrut is not a fully veg establishment, it does have a fair few thoughtfully crafted vegan options alongside its organic meaty burgers. I opted for the curry burger with a side of fries and vegan mayo and found it all perfectly tasty (especially with a beer). Wholly sated, I decided to call it a night and headed back to my AirBnB.
The next morning, I hoofed it to Rotterdam Centraal where I grabbed breakfast: an Alpro vanilla yogurt and a cup of fruit. This ersatz parfait was a surprisingly filling breakfast, and I thanked the vegan gods that Europe sees fit to sell vegan yogurt in its train stations. And then I was off. Bruges was my next stop, and as I’ve shared, it blew me away.
So, Rotterdam. I left feeling perfectly happy to put it in my rear-view mirror, but also with a tiny crumb of regret. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to be like so many other European cities I love; by its very nature, it’s a different beast. Rotterdam sustained heavy bombing during World War II, and rather than try to recreate its older architecture, the city was designed anew in a much more modern style. And while I did enjoy and appreciate elements of that style — the Markthal and the cube houses, to name a few — perhaps I needed to clear my mental slate and judge the city on its own merits, not in Amsterdam’s glow.
And if I’m honest, there were a few moments that made me think Rotterdam had hidden depths I left unplumbed. I saw a few pairs of honest-to-goodness punks, for example, that made my counterculture heart sing a bit. These were not the try-hard young hipsters of Amsterdam but grizzled old-school punks, and a quick Google search does indeed indicate that Rotterdam is home to a legitimate punk scene. I’ve also heard that Rotterdam is tops if you enjoy clubbing and “nightlife,” but as I spend 99% of my nights on the couch knitting, reading, or re-watching The Office, this fact holds no appeal for me. (Another high point? Finding this statue of Fikkie the dog… and his poo. Yes, I consider this a high point. No, I am not ashamed.)
My one actual Rotterdam regret is not taking an afternoon trip to see the Kinderdijk waterfalls (see here and here). It had been on my tentative to-do list, but the timing just didn’t work out — you have to take a water bus over to them, and the schedule didn’t make sense given my limited time in the city. They look really lovely, though, and they remain on my bucket list.
All in all, with six months of retrospection behind me, I’m glad I visited Rotterdam. The cube houses had been on my to-see list for years, and my sense of the Netherlands as a whole country was deepened by my visit. Will I return? I could be convinced. It’s easily accessible by train, so a half-day visit could happen at some point — and definitely with a visit to Kinderdijk built in. Maybe I’ll even shell out for a cube house for a night.
Other vegan options in Rotterdam
My pre-visit list of Rotterdam vegan restaurants wasn’t huge since I knew I’d only be spending a single night there. Here are a few places I didn’t get to try.
- Gare du Nord: Vegan bistro in a train car! Lots of organic,and local options. Reservations recommended.
- Happy Kitchen: Eco-friendly eatery and small grocery store featuring vegan foods that skew towards the organic, raw, and whole-foods-based.
- Tribestlife Raw Food Kitchen: Cafe with a bevy of raw, organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegan menu items. Choose among small bites, heartier dishes, sweet treats, and plenty of hot and cold drinks.