Amsterdam Or Rotterdam? Which Dutch City To Explore?

Amsterdam or Rotterdam
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Amsterdam or Rotterdam is a choice between two the major metropolises in the Netherlands. Both are pretty huge destinations that attract millions of people each year. And both have their own unique vibes, sets of sights, and things to do. But which should you go for?

That’s what this guide is here to help you with. It will run through several of the major aspects of both towns to highlight where wins out on the nightlife front, where has the best hotel choices, which is easier to get to, and a whole load more.

We’ll warn you: It’s not an easy decision. Amsterdam brims with historical areas and moving museums, but Rotterdam counters that with an edgy student vibe and a pretty OTT nightlife offering, not to mention some of the most striking modern architecture in the country. Let’s get to it…

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for ease of travel?

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Rotterdam shares its gateway to the airs with the nearby Hague. Cue Rotterdam The Hague Airport, a relatively small international terminal that’s only served by a handful of airlines – TUI, BA, and budget carrier Transavia among them. There are some handy links in and out, but they tend to come at a premium and most people still travel to Rotterdam via Amsterdam. That said, this city is on the main high-speed train line coming west from Paris, which is convenient.

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Amsterdam hosts HUGE Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. It’s one of the top hubs in Europe, rivalling even Heathrow and Frankfurt. Long haul, short haul, premium, budget – you name it, it’s here. Links connect to London, to Mexico City, to Dubai, to NYC, and that’s really just scratching the surface. A 20-minute slow train goes from the terminals to downtown Amsterdam. You can also go green and hitch a train to Amsterdam Centraal. Fast connections come in from Paris, Berlin, and Brussels several times every day.

Winner: Amsterdam.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for general vibe?

Amsterdam canal
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It might seem a little strange to say this, but Rotterdam has the big city vibes when it comes to these two. Yes, Amsterdam is the famous capital of the Netherlands but it’s the second city that oozes modern charms. That’s mainly down to the sad fact that Rotterdam had a lot of rebuilding to do in the post-war period, giving the town a steel-clad edge. But it’s also because there’s a huge student population and business presence in Rotterdam, elevating the town to the position of economic powerhouse.

Amsterdam, on the other hand, retains its medieval heart. It’s a city of winding canals and cobbled lanes that go this way and that. That gives it an air of romance, but also has another upshot…It’s uber touristy. During the peak summer months, you can be lost amid a sea of backpackers, Interrailers, and city breakers. The atmosphere in other quarters is undeniably of a European capital, though – just check out the business hubs of Almere and Zuidas (although why would you?).

Winner: Draw. This really comes down to what you’re after.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for history and culture?

Architecture in Rotterdam
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Amsterdam is the winner here because it came through the tumult of the 20th century largely unscathed, while Rotterdam was virtually entirely destroyed. The core of the capital is still around old Dam Square, and there are lovely Flemish and Gothic buildings to wonder at – the Oude Kerk dating to 1213, the Royal Palace, the 1400s Begijnhof. On the cultural side of things, there’s one stand-out: The Rijksmuseum, which hosts priceless pieces by the Dutch Masters. That’s also backed up by galleries that showcase Van Gogh, diamonds from around the world, and modern design art.

Rotterdam lacks that immersive and historic center. That’s something you’ll notice right away, as the town is beset by high skyscrapers and the shimmering outline of the Erasmus Bridge. That’s not to say it’s void of culture, though. It most certainly is not. There are the dual collections of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen to get through, the Rotterdam Maritime Museum for those interested in the trading past of the town, and the more off-beat Chabot Museum.

Winner: Amsterdam, although there’s more nice culture in Rotterdam.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for hotels?

Hotels in Rotterdam
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There’s over 1,000 individual hotels and rentals on offer on for the capital of the Netherlands. That’s a good number, but you’ll still find that they’ll sell fast for the peak season in summer, so always reserve ASAP. The quality of hotels in Amsterdam is now pretty fantastic, especially if you plump for one of the town’s uber-cool design hotels. Here are just a few of our favorites:

  • nhow Amsterdam Rai ($$-$$$) – This curious cuboid hotel in the cool Zuid district has murals on the lobby floors, Tiki lounges, and even suites with freestanding bathtubs overlooking the city
  • Hotel Estheréa ($$$) – There’s a fantastically kitschy feel to this vintage hotel in the midst of the Amsterdam old center.
  • Mr. Jordaan ($$) – Exposed-brick walls and noir bar spaces combine in this moody hotel in the Canal Ring.

Rotterdam offers a much more business-orientated array of hotels thanks to its economic and enterprising side. They are spots with on-site conference centers and meeting rooms for the folks jetting in on official biz. There are also some fine chain hotel choices in the center for those on a sightseeing mission, but they’re largely modern, contemporary affairs that tick the basics. Some do stand out from the crowd, though. Check out…

  • Hotel Bazar ($$) – A zingy and bold hotel with very boutique rooms. One’s even done head to toe in zebra print.
  • CityHub Rotterdam ($) – Basic, modern, and budget friendly CityHub Rotterdam is a pod hostel with a great vibe.
  • Hilton Rotterdam ($$$) – Trust the mainstay chain of Hilton to take care of your luxury stay in the city. The gym is particularly fantastic.

Winner: Amsterdam, for the boutique hotel offering.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for nightlife?

Amsterdam downtown
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Rotterdam emerged as one of the leaders in the Europe techno and EDM scene in the 1990s. It was sort of the main competitor to Berlin, but never quite as big. Still, that means there are pumping clubs that attract world-class DJs here, in the form of The Maassilo and Now&Wow. More recently, the city has garnered its own array of comedy clubs and live music places, mainly driven on by the student crowd, who largely gather for pre-sessions in the tight-knit bars of Witte de Withstraat.

Amsterdam has a lot more places to party the night away. The Red Light District needs a special mention for its less-than-savory venues. They are riskay spaces that offer a more triple-X version of the after-dark scene. But there are also so-called “coffee shops” there – let’s just say the scent in the air isn’t a Colombian single origin! Locals in The Dam usually gather around the two plazas of Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein, which are packed with beer bars, al fresco drinking terraces, and dance clubs.

Winner: Draw. Both cities are well known for their nightlife scenes.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for food?

Food hall in Rotterdam
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Amsterdam is a great city to pick if you’re on a food trawl through the Netherlands. The capital draws creative and edgy chefs, but also has a strong connection to the traditional cooking of the country. There are some dishes that everyone should sample, including raw herring and pickles from the street stalls and the poffertjes pancakes, which are an Amsterdam specialty. There are also some super-classy joints to book into if you want fine dining, like de Silveren Spiegel and Flore – just have the budget to matc!

Rotterdam actually wins this one for us, though. It’s become something of a think tank for foodies and experimental cooks and can draw on the melting pot of cultures that comes with being one of the largest ports in the world. One trip to the incredible Markthal will reveal that. It’s set in a cavernous tunnel building with stalls selling everything from Greek mezze to Hungarian goulash. The town is a falafel haven, too, has East Asian cookhouses touting dim sum, and Indian curry joints that smell of spice. It’s cracking.

Winner: Rotterdam.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam for day trips?

Tulips in Amsterdam
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Amsterdam is often seen as the gateway to the Netherlands and it’s true that there are loads of top places to explore from the big city if you can peel yourself away from the coffee (*ahem*) shops. Let’s begin with a bit of Dutch nature in the form of the Keukenhof Gardens, which bloom with tulip beds in the spring months. Then there’s the Alkmaar Cheese Market, a place to shop gouda to your heart’s content. A shorter trip away is old Haarlem, where you can lose yourself in brick-covered lanes amid centuries-old houses.

Over in Rotterdam, the day trips are led by visions of the Kinderdijk windmills – you know, the scenes you’ve seen on the postcards for the Netherlands! It’s also totally worth breaking away from the center to see Scheveningen, especially in the summer months. It’s a long, sandy stretch on the North Sea that’s the premier beach town in the country – good for lazing and sunbathing and swimming. The Hague is a must, too, particularly if you’re interested in international politics.

Winner: Rotterdam.

Amsterdam or Rotterdam? Our verdict

To be honest, we love Amsterdam and Rotterdam. We’ve certainly had a blast hitting the bars of the Dutch capital, being wowed by the medieval relics there, and tasting pancakes in late-night eateries. But then we’ve also enjoyed seeing the modern edge of Rotterdam, where students and business folk seek out food halls and artisan coffee roasters. Our advice? Do both. They are only 45 minutes away from each other by train and there are over 100 services every day!

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.