Unusual Things To Do in Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague

By Abi King | Western Europe

Mar 03

Beach bars at Scheveningen The Hague

Three days, three cities: Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. It didn’t sound wild enough to be madness. But nor did it sound like astoundingly good common sense.

Why take three cities into the shower when you can just take one?

Why watch windmills and tulips through the windows of a train when you could be out there and at it, in a cultural sense of course.

Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s amazing how often the world rolls over and relishes in how wrong you can be. It’s as though your wrongness is the equivalent of tickling the world on its tummy and getting it begging for more.

Or at least, that’s what happened to me.

Here’s the lowdown of my three day challenge to see Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.

The Earring Girl - Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer in The Hague

The Hague – Den Haag – s’Gravenhage

This is the Netherlands with gravitas. Beautiful gravitas, uplifting gravitas but gravitas nonetheless.

It’s the home of the Royal Family. It houses the girl with a pearl earring. And it houses the International Criminal Court, the place where despotic tyrants are tried and held to account.


Things to see and do in The Hague

Oldest shopping centre in Holland

A new perspective: looking up at the oldest shopping centre in Holland

Where to eat

s’Goude Hoofta central guesthouse founded in 1423. Serves Dutch prawns, whiskey style, as well as soups and sandwiches. Outdoor tables for summer.

The PenthouseHolland’s highest restaurant on the 42nd floor. Bar area or gourmet dinner. Don’t miss the scallops in a white chocolate and bacon sauce.

Where to stay

Carlton Ambassador Hotel in a leafy, relaxed diplomatic part of town within walking distance of the Old Town. I loved Residence No 5 for a touch of ambassadorial class.


Skyscraper on harbour in Rotterdam - things to do take an architectural tour

Rotterdam – Putting the otter into Rotterdam

No, not really. No otters to be found (or none as far as I’m told…)

But Rotterdam does like to put the provocative into its cityscape, its art museums and pretty much every factor of daily life.

When the Nazis bombed the city centre, Rotterdam decided not to “rebuild” but to start anew.

When the old port faltered as fewer emigrants fled to New York , Rotterdam redesigned its waterfront.

And when the EU threatened to ban the outdoor sale of fruits and vegetables (don’t ask, or at least don’t get me started,) Rotterdam responded with Europe’s largest indoor market (and most spectacular one to boot.)

Spectacular indoor market in Rotterdam

Things to do in Rotterdam

Cool architecture is to Rotterdam what yellow taxicabs are to New York: ubiquitous and characterful. Unlike the taxis, some of the buildings are easy to miss if you don’t have a helping hand to put them into context. Enter ArchiGuides (and if you take a tour with Willem Besselink you get an insight into the city’s visual art scene too.)

Take a tour through Rembrandt and Van Gogh in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (and in addition to the art, enjoy the free wifi and banter about the nearby big city that we shalt never mention by name.)

Check out work from the less well known local boy Hendrik Chabot at the museum that bears his name.

And watch out for another local boy: Erasmus. Not only does his name decorate the backpacks of hordes of European students each year, but he also has a bridge. The Erasmus Bridge, in fact ;-)

Marvel at the bubbly floating buildings that represent Rotterdam’s scientific efforts to combat the threat of global warming.


Rotterdam Skyline

Where to eat in Rotterdam

Cafe-Restaurant Rodin – a light and airy restaurant in the vibrant Witte de Withstraat, this place brought warmth to my shivering bones through its truffle and mushroom soup and uber-friendly service.

Las Palmas – taste the city in all its modern glory in Las Palmas, creation of Dutch TV chef Herman den Blijker. Sea bream on pearl barley can seem dry and dull in lesser hands; here it’s perfection.

Where to stay

As a member of the delicious Design Hotels Group, The Mainport matches Rotterdam’s sense of style. It’s modern and funky with an international flavour (each floor has themes from a different part of the world and as Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam claims to be one of the most international cities in the world.) The Mainport suffers from a common affliction among modern hotels – difficult-to-find-all-the-light-switches-to-turn-them-off-at-night-itis but the view from the glass walled elevator more than makes up for that.

Tulips in Utrecht

Utrecht – The Medieval Muse

Unencumbered by the weight of the world’s wrongs or the pressure of reinvention in the wake of Nazi bombs, the university town of Utrecht seems to carry the spirit of Holland in more of an Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard kind of a way than the other two we’ve talked about so far.

Bicycles rest alongside canals like overlapping slates on an old church roof.

Church bells chime through courtyards and museums snuggle in between narrow, cobbled lanes. Chic and-perhaps-less-so bars and cafes pop up with aplomb wherever you look and from high street chains to unique boutiques, Utrecht is a place to shop, shop, shop.

Plus, there’s Miffy. Who’s that you ask? Well, let me refresh your memory…

The Miffy museum in Utrecht from @insidetravellab

Things to Do in Utrecht

Climb the Big Bad Dom. OK, confession time, I didn’t actually do this. Blame the bad foot still and the ongoing physiotherapy. BUT it’s beautiful to look at from below and, hey, if you have a spring in your step, climb all the way to the top of this 465 step tower (Holland’s highest, naturally.)

Centraal museum

On one side of the road, it hosts furniture and classical painted art. On the other, it becomes the Dick Bruna Huis, home to the legend and creation of childhood character Miffy. Here you can see original sketch drawings, colour cut out and other insights into how to make a bunny in a dress come to life before the age of CAD.

Shop, shop, shoppety shop

If you arrive by train, Utrecht will greet you with shops. Modern shops, high street shops, indoor shops, well, you get the idea…

Venture along the canals towards the museum district for a different flavour of shops. Old comic books, kooky art, vintage clothes and cute cafes set up their wares here. And, of course, right by the water’s edge, you’ll find painted clogs and buckets of tulips. For all the taste of the modern, sometimes it’s good to see a flourish of vintage Holland.

Where to eat

Cafe Olivier – specialising in Belgian beer and Dutch croquettes (watch out, they’re HUGE in Holland,) the real draw of this place is the cosy yet curious fact that it lives inside a renovated church. Full of student chatter and down to earth bites.

Keek Cafe in Utrecht


Putting it together: logistics

Each city can be reached with ease by train from Amsterdam Schiphol airport. You can buy tickets on arrival at the yellow ticket machines – and instructions are also given in English. The highlights of each city are close enough to manage on foot as long as you’re wearing a sturdy pair of shoes and are happy to clock up the miles (8 1/2 miles and counting, for example, on my Rotterdam trip.)

All that said, there are buses and trams in each city and plenty of helpful, friendly people about who speak spectacular English and are happy to help you out.

Bicycles in Utrecht Holland

Disclosure – The challenge to explore the three cities of Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague in three days came from easyJet (as did the flights.) I put the itinerary together myself, with some assistance from Rotterdam Partners and Den Haag Marketing. The pick of what appears here was entirely down to me, as ever, as always etcetera etcetera. After all, if I’ve had a bad time somewhere, why on earth would I recommend it to you?!

What did I miss? What other things are there to do in Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague?


About the Author

Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!

  • De'Jav says:

    Well written post with great tips.

  • What an awesome post! Easy to follow and so informative. The next time we find ourselves in the Netherlands, we will most definitely check out all three cities! :)

    • Abi King says:

      Ha – the deadline helped me organise my thoughts! Glad you found it useful…

  • It’s been so long since I’ve been back to Holland—lived there in 2005—so thanks for this peek at what it looks like now!

    • Abi King says:

      The worst thing? I looked at that and first though…2005, that was yesterday or thereabouts! Ah, how time flies…

  • I fully intend to take myself to all of these places in the near future. I love the spots you suggested to check out! Can’t wait to go see them for myself!

    • Abi King says:

      Looking forward to seeing your grand London based adventures!

  • Looks like you managed to see and do a lot in three days! I really enjoyed all three cities, too, in particular Utrecht. The city really surprised me with its beauty, and I loved the Rietveld Schroder House museum.

    • Abi says:

      Ah, interesting. I enjoyed all three but Utrecht was probably lower on my list…Perhaps because I had less time there to really get under its skin (and I didn’t manage to make it to the Rietveld Schroder House…) Ah, next time, next time!

  • Adam says:

    The EU has never theatened the outdoor sale of fruit and vegetables, that’s a very tired old myth.

    • Abi King says:

      Ooh, I like a good myth. Where did it get started do you think? Was something misunderstood? Or pulled out of thin air? Because I heard it several times…(which is how things get labelled tired old myths I suppose.)

  • Chris says:

    Great post! Massively inspired me to travel in Holland again, especially Utrecht!

  • Esther says:

    As a Utrecht local I say… you missed quite a lot! ;-) But thank you for including Utrecht in your trip in Utrecht. not many tourists do and I think it’s refreshing to see someone wander past Amsterdam for a change. If you ever decide to come back (and I hope you do!), maybe my wee guide will help you along:

    • Abi King says:

      I do hope to come back – yes! It felt like quite a busy day just getting around these and Utrecht definitely deserves more time. Thanks for the tips :-)

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