Rotterdam vs Amsterdam: What’s the Difference?

Rotterdam vs Amsterdam: What's the Difference?

If you plan on visiting the Netherlands, you may wonder about the differences between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. These very different cities each have their draws, which can make it difficult to decide which one to visit.

There is a long-standing rivalry between the Dutch capital of Amsterdam and the major port city of Rotterdam. This rivalry dates back to the 13th century when the two cities were granted city status.

So if you’re wondering whether to visit Rotterdam or Amsterdam, we’ll help you understand the similarities and differences between these great Dutch cities.

Why Visit Rotterdam?

Rotterdam, Netherlands, city skyline at twilight.
SeanPavonePhoto / Adobe Stock

Rotterdam is a major port city located in the province of South Holland. Located an hour southwest of Amsterdam, Rotterdam is a trendy yet family-friendly city. The popular city is a fun destination for all ages with contemporary architecture, excellent shopping, great nightlife, numerous attractions, and diverse cuisine.

Rotterdam is a very modern city with a unique architectural landscape, as much of the city was demolished during World War II. So, unlike many European cities, Rotterdam has many modern skyscrapers dotting the sky.

Rotterdam Architecture Highlights Walking Tour
Architecture Highlights Walking Tour in Rotterdam/ Viator

One of the most popular ways to see and appreciate Rotterdam’s architecture is the Architecture High lights Walking Tour, which takes you to the Erasmus Bridge (designed by Ben Van Berkel), the Rotterdam Central Station, the Markthal, and the Lijnban. Or, if you’d rather enjoy the skyline from the Maas River, this harbor cruise is an awesome way to experience Rotterdam!

If you like architecture, you’ll love visiting Rotterdam’s cube houses (Kubuswoningen), an interesting residential development. These unique homes are tilted 45 degrees on their sides to make the most of the space. You can also stay in one of the cube homes at the Stayokay Hostel Rotterdam.

National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The city offers many tourist attractions that make Rotterdam worth visiting. Near the city center, visitors will find museums like the Maritime Museum, which showcases the city’s seafaring history, and the Municipal Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, one of the city’s most impressive art museums, with works from Rembrandt to Rothko. You can also visit the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam to learn about cultures around the world.

There are many family-friendly attractions in Rotterdam, from the Euromast (if you’re not afraid of heights!) to the Rotterdam Zoo, where you can see King Penguins, giraffes, polar bears, and sharks!

If you want to experience a foodie’s paradise, a guided trip to the Market Hall (Markthal) should be on your itinerary. This utopia will have your mouth watering before you even set foot inside, with everything from coffee shops to cheese, delicacies, restaurants, and sweets.

Most people find the summer months the best time to visit Rotterdam, with great weather, plenty of festivals, and a lot to experience. And with only a ten-minute drive from The Hague airport, it’s an easy destination to travel to.

See Related: Holland vs Netherlands: What’s the Difference?

Why Visit Amsterdam?

Canal and skyline in Amsterdam
Alexi Tauzin / Adobe Stock

Located in the province of North Holland, Amsterdam is the Netherland’s capital. As the most populous city in the country, Amsterdam is a destination for art enthusiasts, architecture lovers, history buffs, and culinary aficionados. And truth be told, it’s also one of the best cities for adult fun in the Red Light District.

The capital city retained most of its centuries-old architecture, as it was spared from destruction during World War II. Visitors to Amsterdam will appreciate the 17th century narrow houses in the Canal Ring and the Royal Palace. You can learn the history of this 17th-century building with this Royal Palace entry ticket (including an audio guide).

Life of Anne Frank and World War II Walking Tour in Amsterdam
Life of Anne Frank and World War II Walking Tour / GetYourGuide

History buffs will appreciate this highly-rated small-group tour which gives you a history of Anne Frank and her family’s hiding place in Amsterdam.

The Museum District in Amsterdam is one of the best in the world, with the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Rijksmuseum. You’ll find avant-garde art at the Stedelijk Museum, great Dutch artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, and an amazing collection of Van Gogh at the aptly-named Van Gogh Museum.

With numerous bike paths, exploring the city on a bike is easy and safe. A guided bike tour of Amsterdam is a fun way to explore historic drawbridges, artist studios, the Vondelpark (Amsterdam’s largest park), and other cool sites in Amsterdam Centraal.

The A’DAM Lookout is a fun attraction for those that aren’t afraid of heights. You can enjoy the view of Amsterdam from the observation deck, but the real thrill is riding on the highest swing in Europe!

Heineken in the Red Light District, Amsterdam
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Amsterdam has some of the best nightlife in the country, with dance clubs, bars, and adult fun in the Red Light District. Because the Red Light District is known for its strip clubs and live sex shows, you’ll find the area full of tourists.

Amsterdam is home to some of the best restaurants, including Spectrum and Rijks at the Rijksmuseum. These Michelin-starred restaurants are just the beginning of Amsterdam’s exciting culinary scene.

Most visitors find Amsterdam’s peak season to be the summer months, but it’s a year-round destination full of fun, art, culture, and food.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam vs. Amsterdam – How Are They Different?

Size

Towers of Amsterdam Along with Canal Houses
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Amsterdam is the largest city in the Netherlands, with almost a million residents. As the second largest city, Rotterdam has just over 650,000 inhabitants.

Rotterdam is larger than Amsterdam in size, however, by approximately 40 square miles.

See Related: Things Amsterdam is Famous For

Port

Container operation in port of Rotterdam Europort
donvictori0 / Adobe Stock

While these two famous cities both have a seaport, Rotterdam is known as the “gateway to Europe.” Rotterdam’s port is both the largest and busiest in the Netherlands and in all of Europe.

Cost

Overview for Rotterdam city from Euromast tower
Ali A Suliman / Shutterstock

Rotterdam is significantly cheaper to visit than Amsterdam, with many day-to-day costs less expensive. It’s also less expensive to stay at a hotel or vacation home in Rotterdam vs. Amsterdam.

Architecture

Rijksmuseum Building
Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe Stock

The striking modern architecture of Rotterdam is completely different from Amsterdam’s historic center. Unfortunately, the city of Rotterdam was accidentally bombed by friendly fire during WWII. This demolished the city’s historic buildings, giving way to modern design and architecture.

Amsterdam, however, still has much of its 17th-century architecture, with its narrow canal houses and other historic buildings. Although just an hour apart, Amsterdam’s historic city is strikingly different from Rotterdam’s cutting-edge architecture.

Types of Tourists

Young woman tourist standing with photo camera on the Dam central square during the morning in the old town of Amsterdam city
RossHelen / Shutterstock

While Amsterdam is more touristy, it’s not as good for family-friendly travel. Rotterdam is much more family-friendly, and some consider the city safer than Amsterdam.

However, both of the cities are good for group travel and for couples.

See Related: What Does a Tourist Look Like? Tips to Not Look Like One

Rotterdam vs. Amsterdam – How Are They Similar?

Diversity

People in Amsterdam City Centre
Brother’s Art / Adobe Stock

While there is a famous rivalry between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, they have many similarities. Because of their liberal attitude toward immigrants, both are multicultural cities. Amsterdam has over 175 cultural backgrounds, while Rotterdam has ethnic groups from Morocco, Turkey, Surinam, and Cape Verde.

Canals

Amsterdam City, Illuminated Building and Canal at night
gnoparus / Adobe Stock

One of the obvious similarities between the two great Dutch cities is that they were both built on canals. These canals were built for transportation, defense, trade, drainage, and sewage.

If you’re deciding whether to visit Rotterdam or Amsterdam, some visitors say that Amsterdam has more picturesque scenery around their canals, but Rotterdam locals may disagree!

See Related: Best Canals in Amsterdam You Need to See

Bike-friendly

Bicycles parked on a bridge in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Marina Datsenko / Shutterstock

Both Rotterdam and Amsterdam are bike-friendly, allowing easy travel to attractions and museums.

Public Transit

Modern streetcars and people at tram stop on sunny day
New Africa / Adobe Stock

One of the best things about European cities is the awesome public transportation. Rotterdam and Amsterdam offer public transit to get around the cities, from buses, trams, metros, and ferries.

Food

Fresh Herring in Amsterdam
rh2010 / Adobe Stock

If you’re trying to decide between Rotterdam or Amsterdam, the extensive food choices in both cities may make your decision more challenging! Amsterdam has many options, from fine dining to food carts, but you may pay more in touristy areas. Rotterdam is quickly becoming a hot spot for foodies, from small ethnic restaurants to large popular chains.

See Related: Different Types of Traditional Dutch Food

Nightlife

Night city view of Amsterdam canal Prinsengracht with houseboats
Kavalenkava / Adobe Stock

Both cities offer incredible nightlife, although Amsterdam has considerably more bars, clubs, and concert venues. However, this is likely due to the city’s tourism rather than local demand.

If your idea of nightlife is a live sex theater show, you’ll likely want to head to Amsterdam, but Rotterdam offers plenty of pubs, clubs, and restaurants.

There are also awesome night activities in Rotterdam, like the Witte de Withstraat, where you can visit all the local galleries for free. Amsterdam offers something similar, called Museumnacht, where you can enter the local museums for free.

Museums

View of famous Van Gogh Museum
dbrnjhrj / Adobe Stock

If you’re considering whether to visit Rotterdam or Amsterdam, the choice of museums may make your decision challenging. You’ll find the best art, culture, and history museums in the whole country, in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

Art museums in Amsterdam, like the Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk, and Rijksmuseum, attract art enthusiasts from all over the world. But you can also find incredible art in Rotterdam at the museum district Museumpark and on the gallery-lined Witte de Withstraat. Museumpark includes the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and Kunsthal Rotterdam.

What’s Better About Rotterdam?

Rotterdam is a big port with plenty of attractions, museums, and nightlife. This trendy city attracts many visitors for its modern architecture and welcoming feel.

Modern architecture

Modern architecture in Amsterdam
trolhas / Adobe Stock

While the reason for Rotterdam having modern architecture isn’t great, it’s made the city a destination for architecture junkies. The famous Cube Houses growing out of concrete pillars are a sight! You can also see the Meuse Tower (the second tallest building in the Netherlands), the Erasmus Bridge (the longest bridge at 808 meters), and the Rotterdam Market Hall (a gorgeous architectural wonder).

See Related: Tips to Plan an Amazing Girls Trip to Amsterdam

Lower cost

City ​​market in Rotterdam on a sunny day seen from outside in holland
Alessia / Adobe Stock

Rotterdam is considerably less expensive than Amsterdam, with plenty of options for cheap eats, budget accommodations, bike paths, and free street art. You can also listen to live music on Witte de Withstraat on the weekends or take a cheap water taxi to see Rotterdam from the water.

Fewer Tourists

Young woman is standing on the balcony and looking on old marina and city center in Rotterdam
Sergey_T/ Adobe Stock

While Rotterdam has its fair share of tourists, it’s nothing like the craziness of Amsterdam. Rotterdam has many attractions, but the city is more spread out, giving it a more laid-back city vibe than a tourist magnet.

More Family-Friendly

Vondelpark in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Kavalenkava / Adobe Stock

There are more family-friendly attractions in Rotterdam than in Amsterdam. While some nice playgrounds and parks in Amsterdam are good for kids, most of the city is focused on nightlife. However, Rotterdam has an excellent zoo, the Maritime Museum (with a kids’ marina!), and the Euromast, to name a few kid-friendly attractions.

See Related: Things to Do in Amsterdam (From a Local)

What’s Better About Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is a big city with a small-town feel. As the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam has a lot to offer visitors. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in Europe and offers delicious cuisine, world-class museums, and historic architecture. One of the main differences between Amsterdam and Rotterdam is the Red Light District. This adults-only district in Amsterdam is a huge draw for tourists who want to see risqué theater or live sex shows.

Historic buildings

Royal Palace at the Dam Square in Amsterdam
TTstudio / Adobe Stock

Unlike Rotterdam, Amsterdam still has much of its 17th-century architecture. The centuries-old architecture draws many visitors, including the Oude Kerk, Rijksmuseum, and the Royal Palace. All of the buildings were constructed between the 13th century and the 18th century, many of which are in Dam Square.

Beautiful city center

Canal in Jordaan Neighborhood of Amsterdam
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

While both Rotterdam and Amsterdam are built around canals, Amsterdam’s city center is much more beautiful. Amsterdam’s city center is pedestrian-friendly, with a network of canals and small neighborhoods.

Day trips

Landscape with tulips in Zaanse Schans, Netherlands, Europe
Olena Zn / Adobe Stock

When you stay in Amsterdam, you are in the perfect spot to take quick trips across the Netherlands and Europe. You can head to Zaanse Schans to see windmills and wooden clogs, visit Bruges (in Belgium) to see the medieval bell tower and the Markt, or take a drive to Düsseldorf, Germany, for boutique shopping.

See Related: Day Trips from Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District

Red light district in Amsterdam the Netherlands by night
Nataraj / Adobe Stock

Although it may not be a perk for everyone, the Red Light District is one of the most unique aspects of Amsterdam. Often popular for bachelor and bachelorette parties, the Red Light District has strip clubs, sex theaters, and legal prostitution.

Lax attitude about marijuana

Cannabis coffee shop located on the biggest square in Amsterdam
Steven Bostock / Shutterstock.com

Again, this may not be why you visit Amsterdam, but it’s one of the more popular reasons that younger tourists go. The coffee shops in Amsterdam allow soft drugs, so you can order an Americano coffee and some weed. However, smoking in public is not legal, so you must finish your joint in the coffee shop.

Who Should Visit Rotterdam?

Rotterdam, Netherlands. City skyline on a beautiful sunny day.
jovannig / Adobe Stock

Rotterdam is the perfect city for families, couples, and groups. There are also a lot of things to do for a romantic getaway. Rotterdam is a cultural and architectural destination with plenty of museums, festivals, and events.

Who Should Visit Amsterdam?

Amsterdam Netherlands, city skyline Dutch house at canal waterfront with spring tulip flower
Noppasinw / Adobe Stock

Amsterdam is a fantastic town for groups like bachelor and bachelorette parties, couples, and friends. This city is known for its nightlife but is also great for history buffs and art lovers. Backpackers like Amsterdam for its proximity to other cities in the Netherlands and budget accommodations like hostels.

Related Resources

Kyle Kroeger
WRITTEN BY

Kyle Kroeger

Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He's a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he'd heard.

Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he's learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.

He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time. Read more about his portfolio of work.