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Last updated on May 11, 2023 by Wandering our World

If you’re planning a trip to the Netherlands and want to experience the very best in Dutch culture, cuisine, and activities, it makes sense to visit one of the country’s two biggest cities: Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Since they’re only an hour apart by car – or 40 minutes by train – it’s relatively simple to hop from one city to the other without any hassle. And travelers are encouraged to see both cities, if they have the time and budget to do so of course.

Yet, despite being quite close together and both ranking among the most-visited cities in the country, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have some pretty big differences in several key areas, like their architecture, nightlife scenes, affordability, and general vibes.

For example, while Amsterdam is known for its historic buildings and 17th century architecture, a lot of Rotterdam’s old buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, and the city has since been rebuilt, giving it much more modern aesthetics.

Of course, there are many other big differences between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and our guide will compare both cities in a range of categories, from accessibility to attractions, to help you make the best choice for your next trip. Let’s get started!

CONTENTS:

  1. A Quick Overview
  2. Which Is Best For Activities?
  3. Which Is Better For Day Trips? 
  4. Which Is Better For Nightlife? 
  5. Which Is Best For Shopping? 
  6. Which Has The Best Food? 
  7. Which Has The Best Hotels? 
  8. Where To Stay According To Your Budget
  9. Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
  10. Which Is Better For Couples?  
  11. Which Is Better For Backpackers? 
  12. Which Is Cheaper? 
  13. Which Is Easier To Get To?
  14. Which Is Easier To Get Around?
  15. Which Is The Better Choice? 
An infographic pitting Rotterdam vs Amsterdam and showing some of the key differences that will be discovered later in the article.

A Quick Overview: Rotterdam vs Amsterdam

Rotterdam: A Quick Overview

Rotterdam is the second-biggest city in the Netherlands. It has a population of around 650,000 people, with close to 2.4 million in the full metropolitan area and is located in the province of South Holland in the southwest part of the country, not far from The Hague. Its name means ‘Dam on the River Rotte’.

The history of Rotterdam goes back to the 13th century. A dam was first built on the Rotte in 1270, and Rotterdam was given city status less than a century later, in 1340. The city grew in size and influence over the years, thanks to its large port, but during World War II, the city was almost entirely destroyed in an event known as the Rotterdam Blitz.

Even though the Blitz wiped out many historic landmarks and structures, Rotterdam was rebuilt and came back even stronger, earning the nickname of ‘Gateway to Europe’ for its exceptional transport and trade links.

It also has the biggest seaport in the whole of Europe, and it’s a very diverse and multicultural city, with people of more than 180 nationalities living here.

It may not boast the same tourist numbers as Amsterdam, but Rotterdam has a lot to offer, from its diverse and friendly population to its eclectic mix of architectural styles.

It’s also said to be a very laid-back and relaxing place to visit, a far cry from the sometimes hectic and chaotic nature of Amsterdam’s crowded center.

Erasmus Bridge at Twilight, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
iStock.com/mihaiullia

Amsterdam: A Quick Overview

Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands, as well as being the largest city in the country, with a population in excess of 921,000 in the city itself and more than 2.4 million in the metropolitan area.

It’s situated in the northwest part of the Netherlands in the province of North Holland, and its name can be literally translated to ‘Dam on the River Amstel’.

The history of this city is believed to date back to the 12th century, or perhaps a little earlier. It began life as a pretty small fishing village, gaining city status in the early 14th century and thriving from that moment on, thanks largely to strong trade routes across the Baltic Sea and beyond. By the 17th century, Amsterdam was one of the richest cities in the Western World.

These days, Amsterdam may not have quite as much global influence, but it’s still a wealthy and popular city, as well as being a major touristic destination, with one of the world’s busiest and biggest airports in the form of Amsterdam Schiphol.

People from all around the world come to this city, and it’s known far and wide for its famous canals and laid-back lifestyle.

Known as the ‘Venice of the North’, Amsterdam is a really beautiful city. It’s livelier and more action-packed than Rotterdam.

It’s known for its very progressive approach to certain subjects, with a prosperous Red Light District and many ‘cannabis coffee shops’, along with more traditional tourist landmarks, like museums, galleries, and markets.

Canal in Amsterdam Netherlands houses river Amstel landmark old european city spring landscape.
iStock.com/Yasonya

Which Is Best For Activities?

Here’s where things get interesting, as Rotterdam and Amsterdam have quite different activities and attractions for visitors to enjoy.

In Amsterdam, for example, there are many historic landmarks and beautiful old buildings to admire as you wander around, but most of Rotterdam’s old architecture was destroyed, making it less appealing for history buffs.

Fortunately, Rotterdam’s rebirth since World War II has paved the way for more modern and innovative buildings and attractions, like the city’s famous Cube Houses, or Kubuswoningen.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam can offer quite a quirky mix of unusual attractions, from its famous cannabis cafes to museums specializing in strange subjects, like cats and microbes.

Both cities also have great cultural institutions, like the Anne Frank Museum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or Wereldmuseum and Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, providing the typical touristic experiences you expect from a big European city, and both have parks and green spaces, too.

Let’s take a closer look at how they compare city by city so you can see which will suit your holiday the most!

Winter night time at Spiegelgracht canal in Amsterdam. Trees lit up and boats on the water
iStock.com/Wigginsn

Rotterdam: The Activities

Rotterdam is a maritime city, famed for its gigantic port, so it’s only fitting that one of the best places to start your adventure in this city is at the Old Harbor, or Oude Haven.

This place not only has a whole host of cafes for people-watching and coffee-sipping, but it’s also filled with colorful houseboats and other vessels of all sizes.

Continuing the seafaring theme, visitors to Rotterdam will surely want to check out the city’s Maritime Museum.

This museum charts the fascinating connection between Rotterdam and the sea, from the city’s founding, right up to the modern age, with a fascinating collection of ship models, maritime artifacts, paintings, and more.

Other popular museums and galleries around the city include the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which has a fabulous collection of paintings and sculptures from all over Europe, as well as the Wereldmuseum, which celebrates global cultures, and the Het Nieuwe Instituut, which focuses on Dutch design and architecture.

Speaking of architecture, Rotterdam is also home to the famous Cube Houses, and even though many old buildings were destroyed in WW2, some historic monuments are still standing, like the Town Hall and Great St. Lawrence Church.

There are also family attractions, like the Rotterdam Zoo, and trendy cultural hubs, like the appropriately-named Cool District.

Picturesque Delfshaven in Rotterdam at Twilight, The Netherlands. Its small historic centre has been carefully preserved and it escaped the Second World War bombing raids.
iStock.com/mihaiullia

Amsterdam: The Activities

Over in Amsterdam, many historic buildings are still standing, untouched by the ravages of war, and there are some fabulous old landmarks to check out.

The Nine Streets is a good place to get started – this trendy touristic hotspot is home to some charming cafes and cute boutiques, while also being lined with 17th century buildings and providing fabulous views of the canals.

Like Rotterdam, Amsterdam also has plenty of fascinating museums. The Van Gogh Museum, for example, pays tribute to the county’s most famous artist, with a wonderful collection of Van Gogh’s paintings, sketches, and letters.

While the Rijksmuseum offers an even bigger and broader collection of artworks from Dutch masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

History lovers won’t want to miss out on the Anne Frank Museum, housed in the very same building where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis, while Amsterdam also has many quirky and unusual museums and cultural landmarks, like the Houseboat Museum, Pianola Museum, and Museum of Torture, filled with terrible instruments of punishment from days gone by.

Outdoor enthusiasts can also find a lot to do around Amsterdam. There are urban beaches here, like Blijburg Beach, for sunbathing and swimming, as well as large parks, like the expansive Vondelpark.

You can also find trendy culture and entertainment hubs, like NDSM Wharf and De Hallen, and even the Red Light District can be charming during the daytime.

Overall, for activities and attractions, Amsterdam is primarily the place to be. It has more things to do and a wider range of options, as well as being a little greener and more scenic.

However, if you’re looking for that off-the-beaten-path feel and prefer to avoid the crowds, Rotterdam isn’t a bad option, with great design and maritime-themed attractions.

Beautiful tranquil sunset view of Amsterdam. Colorful houses in a terrace fashion in background
iStock.com/standret

Which Is Better For Day Trips? 

Rotterdam and Amsterdam are really quite close together, so they have pretty similar day trip opportunities and common destinations.

However, you may find that one city is a little more tailored to meet your needs for day trip adventures.

From Rotterdam, it’s common for travelers to head out to nearby Kinderdijk, a small village where you can see some iconic Dutch windmills up-close on bike trails, footpaths, or boat rides.

A little further away, Bergen op Zoom is also worth checking out, with a 15th century palace and pretty old town district.

Over in Amsterdam, there are terrific transport links all across the nation, and you can easily reach cities like Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht with ease.

You can even choose to head over the border into other European destinations, like fairy tale Bruges in Belgium or the super old city of Cologne, in Germany.

Overall, both of these cities work pretty well for day trips and both have fantastic transport links around the Netherlands and beyond, so neither one is really better or worse than the other.

Bruges, Belgium. Medieval ancient houses made of old bricks at water channel with boats in old town. Summer sunset with sunshine and green trees. Picturesque landscape.
iStock.com/Yasonya

Which Is Better For Nightlife? 

If you like to stay out late in the places you visit, visiting bars and clubs to mingle with locals and have a good time, you’re guaranteed to have a whole lot of fun in either Amsterdam or Rotterdam.

Amsterdam is often regarded as one of the main nightlife capitals of Western Europe, boasting a huge number of clubs, bars, and evening entertainment venues.

There’s everything in the city from lively dance clubs with music playing until the early hours to chilled-out wine bars and LGBT-friendly spots too – head to places like Dam Square and Rembrandtplein for the best experiences.

The nightlife scene in Rotterdam is smaller and less developed, although there are still quite a lot of alternative clubs and great pubs selling a variety of European craft beers and big brand drinks.

That makes Rotterdam perfect for those travelers who simply want to sip their drinks in a welcoming and friendly place or potentially make a few friends among the local population. 

Both cities have decent nightlife, but Amsterdam reigns supreme. It’s one of the liveliest spots in Europe, and a surefire hit for clubbers and party-lovers.

Crowd applauding at club
iStock.com/bernardbodo

Which Is Best For Shopping? 

When you’re not busy browsing the museums or admiring the architecture of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, you might like to do a little shopping.

Both of these cities have long shopping streets, lined with big-brand stores and indie boutiques, as well as some great weekly markets for fresh produce and treasure hunting.

Amsterdam’s Nine Streets area is a great place to shop. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s also home to some of the city’s most charming stores, with some great retro and vintage-themed emporiums, in particular. Utrechtsestraat is also a super spot to find unique and eclectic items.

If fancy fashion is more your thing, head to the Magna Plaza mall, while antique collectors can while away the hours in the Spiegelkwartier.

For market shopping, Amsterdam also has many options – there’s the famous floating flower market of Bloemenmarkt, for example, as well as the Albert Cuyp Market for street food and clothing or the Waterlooplein for bargain goods.

Over in Rotterdam, the shopping scene isn’t quite as deep or diverse, but there are still more than enough stores to keep you busy.

Head to the Lijnbaan and Beurstraverse to find a wide range of shops selling souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, and more, or hit up one of the city’s mega malls, like Zuidplein, which is the biggest mall in the entire country, with more than 150 stores.

Both cities are pretty solid options for shopaholics. Rotterdam has the biggest malls, but Amsterdam has more quirky shopping streets and amazing weekly markets.

Lifestyle portrait of a young stylish businesswoman walking the bridge during the morning in Rotterdam
iStock.com/RossHelen

Which Has The Best Food? 

For a long time, Dutch cuisine was seen as a bit bland and boring, but it’s starting to emerge into the spotlight, with some traditional recipes enjoying modern makeovers and a fabulous array of pastries and other sweet treats.

But where will you eat best between Rotterdam and Amsterdam?

Well, Rotterdam is actually becoming a bit of a foodie haven, with a lot of trendy little restaurants, craft bars, and other interesting eateries dotted across its districts.

It’s a good place to go if you’re looking for fresh flavors and innovative cuisine that blends elements and influences from all over Europe, Asia, and beyond.

In Amsterdam, you can get some of the very best Dutch food in the country, with many of the nation’s top chefs having their own restaurants in the capital.

Like most other European capitals, Amsterdam also has quite a diverse culinary scene, including everything from big fast food chains to Asian eateries, pizzerias, and so on.

For cuisine, it’s pretty much a tie between Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

You’ll probably have more options in the capital, since it’s such a big city, but there are perhaps even more exciting and innovative eateries to try in Rotterdam. Both cities have similar prices for food, too.

woman hand with Stroopwafel in Amsterdam - typical Dutch food - two circular pieces of waffle filled with caramel-like syrup
iStock.com/fokkebok

Which Has The Best Hotels? 

When it comes to accommodation, Amsterdam has a lot of options to choose from, but hotels in this city can be pretty pricey, especially if you want to stay near the center.

In fact, a lot of places sell out during the peak touristic season, and travelers may want to stay on the outskirts of the city and use the metro to travel in each day.

Rotterdam isn’t as touristy as Amsterdam, so it doesn’t have the same wide range of hotels, guesthouses, and private rentals, but there are still plenty of good places to stay, including major chain hotels.

Plus, the prices are cheaper in Rotterdam, even in the center, so it’s the better choice for people traveling on a limited budget.

Traditional old buildings and tulips in Amsterdam, Netherlands
iStock.com/Olena_Z

Where To Stay According To Your Budget

Amsterdam

Budget: The 3-star Top Of The City bed & breakfast is set in the heart of the city within walking distance of many of the main attractions. The hotel is clean, modern and set right beside a canal so you’ll be staying in a fantastic setting too. See photos and rates!

Luxury: There’s many reasons for Hotel TwentySeven being one of the best rated 5-star hotels in Europe. For one, with just 16 suites the service is extremely personal, the decor is gorgeous, and the on-site restaurant even has a Michelin star. On top of that, the location is unbeatable. See photos and rates!

Rotterdam

Budget: Set on a leafy, quiet street in the city, Bed and Breakfast Rotterdam is a wonderful budget stay which is perfect as a base for any city break. See photos and rates!

Luxury: The five-star Slaak Rotterdam is perfect if you’re looking for world-class service and fantastic facilities in the heart of the city. The rooms, views and location are all excellent for the price. See photos and rates!

Aerial panorama of Rotterdam. Rotterdam, South Holland, Netherlands.
iStock.com/benkrut

Which Is Better For A Family Trip? 

When it comes to family trips, there are many reasons to visit both Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but you may find that Rotterdam is slightly more kid-friendly than the Dutch capital, and many families opt to visit Rotterdam, because of its many child-oriented attractions.

Not only does Rotterdam have museums and galleries that can appeal to kids of varying ages, but it also has a super zoo, with Rotterdam Zoo known as one of the prettiest in all of Europe.

There’s also a miniature park called Miniworld, which has a remarkably intricate recreation of the city in mini format, complete with its own day-night cycle.

Kids can also enjoy the many interactive exhibits of the Rotterdam Maritime Museum, or even head to the Kids Marina, where children can actually take on the role of a captain and steer their own little boats around a small, safe section of the harbor.

Playgrounds and play areas can also be found all over Rotterdam, and there’s a very safe and welcoming atmosphere here.

Parents may hesitate about heading to Amsterdam with little ones, due to the city’s associations with cannabis culture and its infamous Red Light District.

In reality, the true picture of Amsterdam is much gentler than its harsh media representation. It’s a safe and friendly place with kid-friendly attractions like the Royal Zoo and NEMO Science Museum.

Families can find much to love about both of these cities, but Rotterdam may just have the edge, thanks to its diverse attractions.

Magnificent male lion at Colchester Zoo, UK
iStock.com/ilaskey

Which Is Better For Couples? 

We also have to consider couples who might be planning a trip to the Netherlands, seeking romance, adventure, excitement, and a brief escape from regular life.

So, which city works best for romantic getaways?

Well, if you’re looking for beauty beyond measure, Amsterdam is the place to be. It’s often described as one of the prettiest cities of Western Europe, with its charming canals, 17th century buildings, and flower-lined streets.

There’s so much for couples to love about Amsterdam, from the romantic atmosphere to the many gourmet restaurants and long list of attractions.

The city’s nightlife should also appeal to couples that like to stay out late, while simple strolls through the streets or slow boat rides along the canals are also great ways to spend time and make memories.

In Rotterdam, the lack of historic buildings make the city feel a little less special, and it doesn’t quite have that same romantic feel that is present in Amsterdam or other European capitals.

However, there are still nice things to do and some great restaurants to try.

Overall, it’s Amsterdam that takes the win in this category, and most couples will definitely have a happier time in the Dutch capital rather than Rotterdam.

Amsterdam Damrak during sunset, happy couple man and woman on a summer evening at the canals, a dutch couple at Waterfront by Dancing house of Amsterdam during a summer evening in Amsterdam
iStock.com/fokkebok

Which Is Better For Backpackers? 

If you’re planning a backpacking tour of Europe, it’s likely that Amsterdam is pretty high-up on your list of potential destinations.

Amsterdam is widely-considered a key pilgrimage site for any adventurer, and the city’s many hostels, friendly cafes, and lively nightlife make it a very desirable destination.

A lot of backpackers also head to Rotterdam, either on day trips or for short stays.

It’s not quite as lively or action-packed as the capital in terms of nightlife and activities, but it has plenty of hostels to choose from, along with some fun festivals if you time your visit just right, so it’s certainly worth considering for a brief backpacking stay.

Overall, it’s clear that Amsterdam is the more appealing option for backpackers.

Backpacker using her phone in a hostel
iStock.com/Rawpixel

Which Is Cheaper? 

Our comparison of Rotterdam and Amsterdam couldn’t be complete without taking a look at the typical costs of trips to these two cities, and many people will want to know which one is cheaper when trying to decide which city to visit.

Well, we can confirm that Rotterdam is definitely a little cheaper than Amsterdam in the area that arguably matters the most: accommodation.

You should be able to find hotels and other places to stay with lower nightly rates in Rotterdam.

However, when it comes to things like food, public transport, and activities, prices are more or less the same in these cities.

So, even though Rotterdam is the overall winner in this category, there’s not a massive difference in price between the two locations.

Rotterdam Netherlands, sunset city skyline at Old Port (Oude Haven)
iStock.com/Noppasin Wongchum

Which Is Easier To Get To?

When it comes to accessibility, there aren’t many places in the world that can compete with Amsterdam. Its airport – Schiphol – is one of the busiest in the world, with a colossal, sprawling web of connections all across the globe.

You can fly here directly from the US, Canada, Japan, China, Brazil, South Africa, almost anywhere in Europe, and countless other locations.

Rotterdam also has an airport, which it shares with the city of The Hague.

Rotterdam The Hague Airport is much smaller than Schiphol, and it mostly serves Europe and North Africa, with direct flights to places like the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and Spain.

It’s not the easiest to get to, but is conveniently located just a short bus ride from Rotterdam’s city center.

Overall, Amsterdam is much easier to get to for travelers all over the globe, with countless flights arriving every single day of the year.

Amsterdam Netherlands typical dancing houses in spring landscape with tulips in the foreground in focus
iStock.com/Evgeniya Abrosimova

Which Is Easier To Get Around? 

Both Amsterdam and Rotterdam are pretty big cities, with a lot of things to see and do in their various districts and neighborhoods.

Both cities are pretty walkable and very bike-friendly, too, in typical Dutch fashion. However, you might have to rely on public transport to reach certain places. 

Rotterdam has water buses and water taxis to traverse its waterways, with dozens of landing points across the city, as well as buses, trams, and metros.

You can grab a public transport card for the duration of your stay and use it on all of the main public transport services with ease and convenience. It’s all very efficient and pretty easy to understand. 

Amsterdam also has a terrific public transport service, and it’s really easy even for first-time visitors to understand.

You can hop on one of several metro lines to make your way around, or rely on the city’s buses and trams.

With its more tourist-friendly feel and surprisingly simple systems, Amsterdam’s public transport is the winner in this category.

Old bicycles on the bridge in Amsterdam, Netherlands against a canal and old buildings during summer sunny day sunset. Amsterdam postcard iconic view
iStock.com/nantonov

Rotterdam vs Amsterdam: Which Is The Better Choice?

Overall, there’s a lot to love about both Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and anyone seeking the most fulfilling Dutch adventures should absolutely head to one (or both) of these cities.

They’re very pleasant and safe places, with friendly locals, interesting histories, and their own distinctive advantages.

But the best option for most travelers will undoubtedly be Amsterdam.

The Dutch capital is the prettier of the two cities, with postcard-style scenes around every corner, thrilling nightlife, and world-class attractions, like the Rijksmuseum.

It’s a brilliant backpacking destination and has tons of appeal for couples or solo adventurers.

With that said, Rotterdam is still worth considering, particularly for families who might be put-off by Amsterdam’s seedier side, or those looking for something a little different to the chaotic capital city experience.

It doesn’t have as much historic beauty, but it’s still a fabulous emerging destination with impressive food and fun cultural activities.

Author

  • Wandering our World

    Hi! I'm Matt, a former globetrotting journalist who's previously worked for media like USA Today and the BBC. I now run the Wandering our World team - this article was either written by one of our freelance staff writers and then edited by me, or written by myself.