Rotterdam was quiet when I arrived at 8 am on a bus from London.

I had spent the night drifting in and out of sleep, lolling my head onto the shoulder of the Brazilian man next to me maybe one too many times, and staggering through late-night passport controls. I was sleepy and sore. And I wanted somewhere cozy and warm to hole up – and that’s exactly what Hostel Ani and Haakien offered.

Close to the station, small and friendly, it was the perfect hostel to welcome me to the Netherlands. Even off-season, the place had activities every night. Pizza evening, guided tours, bike rides, bingo night, club crawls, bar karaoke, pasta night, graffiti tours, architecture tours. It’s ideal for solo travelers. Downstairs is full of sloppy armchairs and book exchanges, along with tables to work and study. The kitchen is large, tidy and a great place to cook some proper food. It even offers a free breakfast and coffee throughout the day.

The whole hostel was clean and colorful, with random, quirky features. You can tell its run by locals and friends. So if you’re looking for a chilled but active, clean but quirky and small but social place to stay in Rotterdam, Hostel Ani and Haakien is a fantastic choice.

Architecture

I dropped my bag and took a big, cyclical walk of the city. Rotterdam offers many free gems to enjoy. Hidden artistic features litter the streets. The city was bombed and almost destroyed during the war, so it’s now home to countless modern architectural surprises. Like passing a square to see yellow, cubed houses in the corner.

You can go inside these strange buildings to try to gain a sense of its distorted perspective. One of them is a museum, explaining the history behind the slanted floors and tilted windows. These sliding, sloping, skewed houses are not easy to live in. Residents have to specialize every piece of furniture to the unique dimensions.

When walking through the center of Rotterdam, it’s hard to miss the Markthal. Grand and grey on the outside with a colorful and artistic inside, it dwarfs the square it stands on. You can find food from all over the world beneath its painted roof. Individual stalls offer a dynamic range of delicacies, from typical Dutch frites to tapas to local cheeses.

Other architectural wonders include the Erasmus Bridge. It’s named after Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, an esteemed 15th Century scholar – and the guy who pays for you to go and study in Europe for a year. The bridge also carries you to the south of the city and is one of the largest in Europe.

I followed long, tree-lined avenues along the river to the harbor. The city was sleepy and slow all morning. Bikes glide past silently. With fewer cars, the only sounds are the gentle tinkling of trams. I walked through Het Park to the Euromast, which costs a few Euros to climb and witness panoramic views of Rotterdam.

On tired legs, I found myself back at Rotterdam Centraal, the main station. With a grand, sweeping curve of a roof, it’s another architectural highlight of the city. I went inside to pick up a programme for the International Film Festival.

IFFR

The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) happens every year at the end of January. It provides a platform for independent and experimental filmmakers throughout the world. I met people staying two weeks in Rotterdam solely for the festival. It’s a big deal – and the whole city was energized.

If you go 30 minutes before a film, the tickets are half price. I did exactly that to watch Those Who Are Fine, a slightly depressing but very amazing film. The cinema atmosphere is laid back and artistic. For a sharp and refreshing style of film, IFFR is definitely worth a visit next January.

Like film festivals? Check out Gothenburg International Film Festival and Edinburgh Film Festival. Both are also in Europe!

Hostel ROOM Rotterdam

During my other days in the city, I stayed at Hostel ROOM Rotterdam.

I stayed in the Clock Tower Room, a penthouse on the top fourth floor of the building. Without a doubt, it is hands down, the best hostel room I have ever stayed. And if you are in Rotterdam, you should jump on the fantastic opportunity to experience this place! As a luxurious treat on your travels, it is definitely worth the splurge. Or, if you’re traveling as a small group, it’s a piece of travel paradise for near the same price as a dorm.

This hostel is part of the Europe’s Famous Hostels group. After staying in two of these hostels now, I can confirm that they do have special qualities.

So many chain hostels are rising up to accommodate growing numbers of travellers in Europe. Sadly, this means there are increasing clinical and dispassionate hostels. However, Europe’s Famous Hostels promotes only the most social and personal hostels, with all the original values that inspire people to travel in the first place! Cosy common areas, social activities, laid-back staff and fair prices.

Hostel ROOM Rotterdam was a perfect example of the unique gems that this association is promoting.

It has a vibrant communal space with daily activities. The clean, cosy lounge is always buzzing and welcoming. They also have a happy hour every night, selling terrific Dutch beer at the cheapest prices in town.

I met people from all over the world in just one night. Played a wooden, sliding disks game, which I later discovered is called sjoelbak. Ate classic Dutch treats provided by the hostel. I also finally had the chance to cook a proper, fresh meal in their kitchen. Got to know the friendly staff and get local recommendations. And I still got chance to work on my laptop in the evening.

Basically, this hostel has everything you need. Including the amazing staff, incredible rooms and unique atmosphere that makes traveling exceptional!

Kinderdijk Windmills

From the hostel, it’s easy to reach Kinderdijk. This small town holds a world-famous collection of windmills, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s only a short walk to the riverside, where a waterbus takes you out of Rotterdam. You can get a direct ferry in the summer, but the off-season journey is easy too. I got a ferry to Ridderkerk, then changed to a small boat to Kinderdijk. You can also cycle from Alblasserdam Kade, and bike through the flat, Dutch countryside to the windmills.

Visiting Kinderdijk is a great way to get out of the city – to get some space and time in nature. Old, traditional windmills line canals, with straight, parallel paths for walkers and cyclists, all creating a wonderful, quintessential Dutch image. There is a museum on site. It shows the inside workings of a mill and explains the history of their roles as family homes as well as industrial buildings.

International vibes

During my time there, Rotterdam felt like a very international city. One evening, I went to the Bored to Death book club. Although it was a local group, they spoke in English and read English texts. I hadn’t read the book – The Master and Margarita – but was welcomed anyway.

In general, it was very easy to travel the Netherlands as an English speaker. Almost every Dutch person I met knew the language and spoke it perfectly. It made me feel guilty, with only a handful of Dutch words left unspoken in my mind. But it was also great. It meant I could do so many things – go to the cinema, the theatre, a local book club.

So why not look up a group, event or meetup in Rotterdam. You’ll probably find something to spark your interest – and meet some lovely, local people.

The more time I spent in Rotterdam, the more I liked it. Some cities strike you straight away. They are vibrant, fun, or beautiful. Rotterdam isn’t beautiful. But it is vibrant and fun beneath its typical city surface. As a whole, it might seem a bit grey or conventional, especially on the drizzly January days I spent there. But it has wonderful, colorful surprises around every corner. From bright yellow cube houses to old, wooden escalators to grand, artistic ceilings.

Give Rotterdam the chance to draw you in and it will!

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