Whether you’re new to the Netherlands or returning for a more extended vacation, Rotterdam is one of the best cities to explore. It’s the second-largest city in the country, offering a host of incredible landmarks and exciting sites, fun places to shop, and fabulous restaurants to dine in. It has so much to offer beyond these activities too, and many attractions don’t cost a dime.
Begin your adventure at Rotterdam Central Station, known for its modern architecture. It underwent a significant renovation in 2014 and has since become one of Rotterdam’s architectural highlights, servicing over 110,000 passengers on the floor each day. Entering the Rotterdam Central Station won’t cost you money, and admiring its impressive features is one of the best free things to do in Rotterdam. You may want to hop aboard the train for easy and convenient connections to Dutch cities like Amsterdam and The Hague or other major attractions beyond the city center.
However, the highlight of your journey starts as you step out of the central station and drop your bags off at luggage storage in Rotterdam. Now, you can discover the port city’s countless free sightseeing opportunities and experiences unlike anywhere else.
Board the SS Rotterdam
The SS Rotterdam was a former flagship of the Holland America Line, admired for its historical and cultural value and striking appearance. Its first voyage was on September 3rd, 1959, to New York, carrying 1,200 passengers and special guests. However, with the international requirements for cruise ships tightening in the early nineties, the steamship no longer meets all safety requirements. It eventually became an icon in the shipping industry.
In 2013, the ship became part of the WestCord Hotels and was transformed into the Captain’s Lounge, where guests can enjoy a drink and snack. Today, it offers an array of experiences, from lunch, dinner, and staying overnight to partying and organizing conferences and events. While you have to pay to dine or stay at the hotel, entry to the SS Rotterdam is free. You can go to the terrace, bar, and restaurants without an admission ticket.
Location: 3e Katendrechtse Hoofd 25, 3072 AM Rotterdam
Pass by the Erasmus Bridge
The Erasmus Bridge is one of the attractions in Rotterdam that you can’t miss. After all, it’s 139 meters high and 800 meters long and connects the northern and southern parts of the city. So, it’s hard not to notice this remarkable structure and pass by even once. However, more than its practical purpose, it’s well-liked for its view and the experience it can offer to locals and visitors alike.
There are many ways to experience the Erasmus Bridge for free. You can enjoy a drive or have a relaxing bicycle ride along the bridge and witness Rotterdam’s elegant architecture, historical neighborhoods and ships, and the Wilhelminakade pier along the way. You’ll also get a view of notable attractions like the Kop van Zuid, De Rotterdam, Maastoren Tower, and Delfshaven.
Location: Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam
Have a Picnic at Het Park
Escape from the city’s hustle and bustle at Het Park, a delightful urban oasis in central Rotterdam. It offers a quiet and tranquil place to relax and enjoy nature in the middle of the city. There’s plenty of green space to chill and sit down, bask in the sun, read a book, or spend a warm afternoon with friends and family or alone. It also has everything you need to enjoy nature, from trees and flowers to sculptures, art, and lakes.
Established in 1852, Het Park boasts an English-garden style nestled near the Euromast, the Netherlands’ highest observation deck. So if you get lost while strolling through the park, just look for the tower, and you’ll find your way.
Location: Baden Powelllaan 2, 3016 GJ Rotterdam
Enter Rotterdam’s Stunning Markthal
Rotterdam Market Hall, also known as Markthal, offers a one-of-a-kind market experience. It’s the first covered market in the Netherlands, making it world-renowned for its products and unique architecture. Its most distinguishing features are its arch structure and steel cable net façade with glass mounted in between. This allows the building to be closed off but its interior to be visible from the outside.
Anyone can enter Markthal for free as it’s officially a market and, therefore, should be publicly accessible. It’s open daily from 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM on Saturdays and Monday to Thursday, extends until 11:00 PM on Fridays, and 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM on Sundays.
While touring the market already offers a fantastic sight, you can also check out the available discounts and promotions during your visit. There are also other attractions near the Market Hall, including the Maritime Museum and iconic Cube Houses, next to the Rotterdam Blaak train station.
Location: Dominee Jan Scharpstraat 298 3011 GZ Rotterdam
Explore the Witte de Withstraat
Witte de Withstraat is the number one district for art and nightlife in Rotterdam. It spans from Schiedamse Vest to Eendrachtsweg, housing several museums and art galleries, restaurants and cafes, and monuments and parks along the way.
Specifically, the museums in Witte de Withstraat are the Mauritshuis, Maritime Museum, Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen, and the Kunstinstituut Melly, formerly known as Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Besides these galleries, you can’t miss out on the Grand café Nieuw Rotterdams Café (NRC), Ter Marsch & Co., De Witte Aap, Lonely Planet, Ballroom and LaBru, De Schouw, and other clubs in the area.
All in all, Witte de Withstraat is an ideal location for visitors of different interests for the variety of buildings in the street. The district can accommodate your needs and preferences, whether you’re into art, nightlife, or sightseeing.
Location: Witte de Withstraat 50, 3012 BR Rotterdam
Visit The Miller’s House De Ster en De Lelie
Rotterdam is home to the historic mills: De Ster and De Lelie, the only still operational snuff and spice mills. De Lelie was built in 1776, while De Ster was in 1829, and both are still used for grounding spices for sale and tobacco for demonstration. Therefore, not only are both structures visited by many for their historical significance but also for their produce.
Exploring De Ster and De Lelie is undoubtedly one of the best free things to do in Rotterdam. It allows you to experience grinding spices and producing snuff tobacco firsthand. The millers also thoroughly explain how the operation works for an educational experience. You can take a guided tour of the mills, stay there overnight, or relax with complimentary coffee, tea, and cake. It’s open from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Location: Plaszoom 322, 3062CL Rotterdam
Tour the Historic Delfshaven
In order to experience the history of Rotterdam firsthand, there’s no other place better than Delfshaven. It’s one of the few locations in the city that was spared from the World War II bombings and has been preserved ever since. So, if you want to see how Rotterdam used to look before the war, this is the place to be.
Exploring Delfshaven introduces you to buildings significant to Rotterdam’s history, such as the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church, established in 1620. It’s where the pilgrims gathered before they crossed the ocean to reach America. You can also find there the De Delft, an 18th-century warship replica, and an associated museum.
Besides the sights, Delfshaven is renowned for being the location for the only city brewery in Rotterdam, the De Pelgrim. Visiting the site allows you to discover the brewing process of authentic Rotterdam beer. You can even taste this for yourself if you wish to do so.
Location: Delfshaven, Rotterdam
See the Bobbing Forest
The first floating forest in history is in the middle of a highly urbanized city like Rotterdam. The Bobbing Forest comprises 20 Dutch elm trees in converted maritime buoys floating in Rotterdam's Rijnhaven.
The project was based on Jorge Bakker’s artwork “In Search Of Habitus,” which featured floating trees. It officially started in 2012 with thorough research on whether a floating forest can survive in the city, considering environmental factors like wind, billow, and temperature. After a series of prototyping and more research, it was launched in 2016 and has been floating since.
Visiting the Bobbing Forest doesn’t offer much, but seeing this momentous project for yourself provides a one-of-a-kind experience. The floating forest may be small-scale for now, but it opens the possibility of large-scale reduction of CO2 emissions in cities for future research.
Location: Delftsestraat 25 Rotterdam
Discover Art for Free on a Public Art Tour
If you love street art, don’t miss the chance to explore the public spaces in the city that are filled with spectacular art masterpieces. While strolling through the streets of Rotterdam, you’ll come across sculptures and murals by international and local artists.
One of the city’s sculptures you can admire every day for free is Zadkine’s The Destroyed City. It depicts a distressed figure with its arms and head lifted upwards. It also has a hole in its torso, symbolizing the city’s destroyed heart during the May 1940 bombings. You may want to check out the Sculpture International Rotterdam during your free walking tour to find a comprehensive collection of permanent and temporary sculptures and street art throughout the vibrant city.
Location: Eendrachtsstraat 10, 3012 XL Rotterdam
Admire the Kabouter Buttplug
While it can be included in your art tour at the Westersingel sculpture route, the Kabouter Buttplug deserves a special mention for its interesting story. It’s basically a sculpture of Santa Claus holding a Christmas tree, created by Paul McCarthy.
It was supposed to be placed at the Doelen theater’s entrance. Then it was moved to the courtyard of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen due to resistance from many people who were uncomfortable placing the sculpture in a prominent public space. So after a long journey, Kabouter Buttplug or Buttplug Gnome finds its home at Eendrachtsplein, where you can easily spot it.
Location: Eendrachtsplein, 3012 LA Rotterdam
Drive to the Kinderdijk Windmills
It isn’t exactly in the city but definitely worth adding to your itinerary, especially when planning a day trip from Rotterdam. Located about nine miles from central Rotterdam, Kinderdijk Windmills is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering a sustainable blend of technology and nature.
This windmill complex welcomes visitors to experience a unique piece of history. The series of nineteen windmills of Kinderdijk were constructed around 1740 and used for the last time during World War II. The site demonstrates the typical features of the technology, including dykes, pumping stations, reservoirs, administrative buildings, and remarkably preserved windmills.
Location: Nederwaard 1, 2961 AS Kinderdijk, Netherlands
Stroll down the Port of Rotterdam
As a major port city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam offers various ways to explore and experience the Maas River and the port. Walk around the waterfront and take in the uninterrupted view of the ships cruising by and the city’s unique skyline. The port spans a length of no less than forty kilometers, so you can take your time walking or cycling. Various walking and biking routes will take you to many well-known places and hidden gems awaiting discovery.
You can enjoy the scenery and the port environment any time of the year. But the best time to experience the port and the river to their fullest is in September during World Port Days. The area becomes alive and more lively with demonstrations, cultural entertainment, sailing trips, and excursions along the waterfront and on the water.
Location: 3198 LK Europoort Rotterdam
Visit Rotterdam for Free!
There’s no shortage of sights to see and activities to do in Rotterdam, whether you have the budget or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re into art and history and want to see museums, enjoy witnessing the city’s architectural marvels, or prefer to be out in nature; this Dutch city won’t disappoint you. With numerous free things to do in Rotterdam, you don’t have to be stuck in your apartment or hotel room just to save money. Travel by foot or take advantage of transit opportunities at Rotterdam Station. Gear up, wear your most comfortable outwear, and be ready for an unforgettable city adventure!