Europe Trip Day 9: Rotterdam

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

After spending three nights in Rotterdam, it was finally time for us to see the city itself!

A quick note on staying in Rotterdam: we stayed at the Novotel Brainpark, which is a bit east of the city center. Novotel Brainpark is right by Erasmus University and feels very much like your typical American hotel–and, consequently, very much unlike your typical European hotel. The neighborhood around the hotel also felt very suburban, despite being in the Rotterdam city limits. There were no restaurants around the corner to pop into for a meal or sights to see close by (other than the university, I suppose). That worked out just fine for us, because our main concern as far as hotels in Rotterdam went was free parking. We were right by the highway, which made all of our day trips super simple (though it was a pretty quick walk to the subway from our hotel as well, and a quick subway ride to Rotterdam Centraal.). But if you want to be within walking distance of the city center, Novotel Rotterdam definitely isn’t your best bet.

Rotterdam is unlike any other city we visited on our Europe trip. Much of the city was destroyed in World War II, when the Germans dropped over 1,300 bombs on Rotterdam, destroying over 28,000 buildings. Because of that, the city center in particular is extremely modern compared to what you’d see elsewhere in the Netherlands. As an aside, the story of the bombing of Rotterdam and its rebuilding reminded me a lot of Chicago’s history, where a city-destroying event provided a blank slate for trying new architectural and city-planning ideas.

We started our day by returning the car to the car rental facility just outside Rotterdam Centraal, then headed out to get breakfast before commencing on–what else?–a Rick Steves walking tour. For breakfast, we opted to visit Op Het Dak, a little cafe that proved much trickier to find than we anticipated. It’s a rooftop facility: something that probably would’ve been a lot more obvious to us if we spoke Dutch, given that the name literally means “On the Roof.” *facepalm* I had my first-ever avocado toast there (not something I expected to eat in the Netherlands!) and was very impressed by the cafe in general. They grow their own food in a rooftop garden, which I thought was so cool! It was all very hipster and delightful.

And then we were off! This was one of the longest Rick Steves tours in terms of distance–about four miles–but we didn’t have anywhere to be until around 6 p.m. that evening, so we had plenty of time. We started at the Schouwburgplein, which led us into the Lijnbaan. The Lijnbaan is an outdoor shopping area for pedestrians only: no cars can drive up to the shops. Think the Oakbrook Center, for my fellow Chicagoans, just downtown rather than plopped in the middle of suburbia.

We saw City Hall and St. Lawrence Church, two of the very few buildings in the city center that survived the bombing.



We reached St. Lawrence Church by taking the beurstraverse, a passage that goes under Coolsingel (a road), allowing pedestrians to get to the other side of Coolsingel without waiting for traffic. Beurstraverse is also lined with stores, so it seamlessly blends in with the Lijnbaan.

We walked down Hoogstraat to a gigantic open area from which we could see several of Rotterdam’s modern (as in time, not as in the less-is-more, minimalist style) architectural highlights, including Markthal, the library, and the Pencil (a building that looks, unsurprisingly, like a pencil).


(Library is on the left, Pencil on the right)

We went into Markthal, and it was incredible! It put every other food hall I’ve ever visited to shame. It was huge, for one thing, but the variety of offerings was amazing! If you could imagine it, they seemed to have a stand that sold it at Markthal. The design of the building is also something else. It’s shaped like a horseshoe, and the center of it is where the food hall sits. Around the outside are apartments, offices, and retail space. The inside walls are covered with an enormous mural that I wish I could’ve captured in a picture. If you ever go to Rotterdam, I highly recommend checking out Markthal so you can fully appreciate this building.


(Also so you can see Markthal in all its glory, which this picture does not capture.)

From there, we walked through the courtyards underneath Rotterdam’s legendary cube houses, which I found baffling. Apparently they’re fully functional, normal houses, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how that works. There is a house museum you can visit which probably would’ve cleared things up for me, but we didn’t go in.

We saw the Oudehaven (Old Harbor) and Witte Huis (White House) on our way to the Maas River. Rotterdam’s Witte Huis is more of a Witte Skyscraper – or at least it was at the time of its construction in 1898. It’s 10 stories tall, which isn’t much by today’s standards (in Rotterdam or elsewhere in the world), but was quite the feat at the time.


The Maas River is the body of water that connects Rotterdam to the North Sea (and thus, the world), so it’s pretty significant to the city’s becoming the largest port in Europe. We saw the Williams Bridge, then walked along the water through the Parade of Flags to get to de Boeg (The Bow), a monument to those who died at sea during WWII. We had a good view of the Erasmus Bridge and the skyscrapers on the south side of the Maas River from there, so we sat for a bit before continuing on the walking tour. Though we had locked the majority of our luggage up at Rotterdam Centraal after returning the car, we both still had backpacks on, and they got awfully heavy after awhile!


Once we were ready to get moving again, we headed back into the city past the Leuvenhaven, once a bustling port but now home to the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam. In a plaza outside the Maritime Museum, we saw De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City), a sculpture commemorating the bombing of Rotterdam. It’s quite striking.

We walked down Witte de Withstraat, a road full of bars and restaurants, and stopped to get beer (or, in my case, water) at Bierboutique. Witte de Withstraat ended at the Singel Belt, and following that brought us back to the train station. Witte de Withstraat the Singel Belt were the only part of the walking tour that went past any sort of historic architecture, which really put into perspective just how much of the city was destroyed during the bombing, if we could take a four-mile walking tour and not see any significant collection of historic architecture until the very end.


On another note, we saw some coot chicks in the Singel with their parents. I thought they were so ugly they were cute, but my traveling buddy thought they were just ugly, ha.


We had some time to kill before our train to Amsterdam would arrive, so we went back to Markthal, where I got a cupcake and my traveling buddy got fries. Good thing we had avocado toast in the morning to make up for it 😛

And that was Rotterdam! We made our way back to the train station, retrieved our luggage, and boarded the Thalys that brought us to the final stop of our Europe trip: Amsterdam.




  • Restaurant at Novotel Brainpark (once for dinner, once for breakfast). 2/5 for dinner, 4/5 for breakfast.
  • Op Het Dak (Schiekade 189, on the roof). 5/5
  • Bierboutique (Witte de Withstraat 40B). 5/5
  • Markthal (Verlengde Nieuwstraat). 5/5

Sights Seen:

  • Erasmus University
  • Schouwburgplein
  • Lijnbaan
  • City Hall
  • St. Lawrence Church
  • Beurstraverse
  • Markthal
  • Library
  • The Pencil
  • Cube Houses
  • Oudehaven
  • Witte Huis
  • Maas River
  • Parade of Flags
  • de Boeg
  • Erasmus Bridge
  • Leuvehaven
  • De Verwoeste Stad
  • Witte de Withstraat
  • Singel Belt

Europe Trip Day 8: The Hague

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

On Saturday, we donned our orange, had breakfast at the hotel, and headed off to The Hague to celebrate King Willem-Alexander’s 52nd birthday.


April 27 is Koningsdag (King’s Day) in the Netherlands, which is a holiday kind of on par with the Fourth of July in the U.S. It’s a holiday meant to instill a sense of national unity, which I think is part of the point of the Fourth of July, just instead of celebrating independence from a king, in this case, the king is the one being celebrated.

Amsterdam is the place to be on Koningsdag, which is exactly why we went to The Hague that day instead. I’ve lived through enough St. Patrick’s Days in Chicago to know that I do not enjoy being at partying ground zero on partying holidays, so if everyone was going to be in Amsterdam, The Hague seemed like a good place to go. Plus, it was ridiculously easy to access from Rotterdam. We thought we’d need to take Rotterdam’s subway to Rotterdam Centraal and get on an intercity train there, but it turned out that you could take Rotterdam’s subway all the way to The Hague. WHAT I WOULD GIVE for public transportation even half as comprehensive in this car-obsessed country. Of course, Rotterdam is also like 13 miles from The Hague, which is about the same distance as it is from Rogers Park to Soldier Field, so I suppose you can take Chicago’s subway that distance as well…but it feels a lot more comprehensive when it goes between cities.

Anyway, since it was Koningsdag, we didn’t want to make too many firm plans about what to do in The Hague because we didn’t know what would be open. One thing I did want to prioritize was visiting Mauritshuis, home of The Goldfinch, the painting around which the novel The Goldfinch revolves. Since I spent 21 and a half hours reading The Goldfinch earlier this year, I definitely wanted to see the painting.

And I did! And it was very fulfilling 🙂 The Mauritshuis also has The Girl with the Pearl Earring, another painting that inspired a novel (and movie) by the same name, but as I haven’t read The Girl With The Pearl Earring (yet), I wasn’t as interested in that one. Fortunately, it seemed like no one else at Maruritshuis had read The Goldfinch, so I had plenty of time to look at the painting without feeling crowded 🙂

Mauritshuis was also where I saw my first Jan Steen paintings, and I instantly liked his work. A lot of Steen’s paintings are quite funny (on purpose), and I enjoyed that a lot more than the usual somber portrait/still life numbers.

Mauritshuis was really nice, and just the right size for an art museum in my opinion. It was small enough to see the whole thing in an hour or so, and I liked that more than a gigantic art museum where it feels like you could spend all day looking and only scratch the surface of its collection.


From the Maruitshuis we walked through the courtyard outside the Binnenhof (where the Netherlands’ Parliament meets).


When we emerged on the other side, we found a stand selling oliebollen (a Dutch donut, essentially), and I nearly lost my mind. My school always made oliebollen for fundraisers, and they are delicious. Oliebollen are a traditional New Year’s Eve food, so I definitely didn’t expect to find any on our trip. I was very pleasantly surprised to find them for sale on Koningsdag, and obviously bought one.


Our tickets to Maruitshuis also got us entry into the Prince Willem V Gallery across the street from the Binnenhof, so we figured we may as well go since it was free and we didn’t have anything else on the agenda. It’s really just two rooms, one small one and one main one, but the walls are absolutely covered in paintings. They have guidebooks (including ones in English!) in the main room that tells you about the artwork, which I’d definitely recommend grabbing if you want to know anything about what you’re seeing (including artist names and painting names, since none of the paintings are labeled on the walls).

From there, we decided to wander back towards the train station, not to go back to Rotterdam, but to check out some of the Koningsdag festivities we had seen walking to Maruitshuis earlier. There was a small music/food truck festival going on on Lange Voorhout (right by the old U.S. embassy, incidentally) where we hung out for a bit. They had portapotties at the festival you had to pay to use! I know a lot of public restrooms in Europe come with a charge, but I was surprised to see they charged for the privilege of using a portapotty, of all things. I can only imagine how that would go over in the United States!

There was a much larger fair going on at the park right outside Den Haag Centraal, so we went there next. It was a very much like your standard U.S. county fair: rides, carnival games, fair food, etc. We saw a TON of people walking around The Hague wearing either orange leis or red/white/blue leis (both for the colors of the Netherlands: orange for the royal family, red/white/blue for their flag), and figured since so many people were wearing the same thing, they must be giving them out for free somewhere. Turns out they were at the fair in that park, so we both got one of each.

We wanted to see the Peace Palace, so to get there, we walked back through the festival on Lange Voorhout and stopped to get poffertjes, mini Dutch pancakes drowning in powdered sugar. They were every bit as good as you’d think they’d be.


Our walk to the Peace Palace took us by Noordeinde Palace, a palace with royal offices, which was cool to see.


By the time we got to the Peace Palace it was, naturally, closed, so we took a couple of pictures and then returned to the park near the train station.


We had dinner at Paviljoen Malieveld, a pannenkoeken restaurant. Pannenkoeken are the Dutch version of pancakes, which I’d consider to be the halfway point between a crepe and an American pancake. We both got savory pancakes for dinner (I got ham and cheese) and split an apple cinnamon one for dessert. They were all delicious 🙂


And that was our day in The Hague! We went back to Den Haag Centraal, got back on the subway, and returned to Rotterdam. We certainly didn’t do as much in The Hague as we did other places, but I’m glad we left the agenda more open than usual so we could check out the things going on for Koningsdag.


The Google Doodle for Koningsdag in the Netherlands 🙂



Sights Seen

  • Maruitshuis
  • Binnenhof
  • Prince Willem V Gallery
  • Noordeinde Palace
  • Peace Palace


Europe Trip Day 7: Aalsmeer, Keukenhof, and Leiden

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

On Friday, we got up at 5:30 (what vacation?) to make sure we were on the road by 6:15 for our drive to Aalsmeer, where we had plans to visit Royal FloraHolland and see its famous flower auction. Visitors can arrive to the auction as early as 7 a.m., and I had heard the early you get there, the better, so 7 a.m. it was! (Or rather, it was intended to be. It was closer to 7:15 by the time we actually got there.)

If you’ve never heard of Royal FloraHolland, you aren’t alone! I hadn’t either, prior to planning this trip. If you’ve ever bought cut flowers, though, there’s a decent chance your flowers passed through Royal FloraHolland. It’s the world’s largest flower auction, and literal millions of flowers are sold at the auction every single day. Suppliers bring their flowers to the auction, and wholesalers bid on the flowers by price/stem. Once they purchase the flowers, employees on the warehouse floor fulfill their order, bring the flowers to the wholesaler’s truck bays, and off they go. The whole process, from purchasing to the time the flowers leave the warehouse, usually takes less than 90 minutes. And, if you figure in the time zone differences–the auction starts at 11 p.m. Chicago time–and the auction’s proximity to Schiphol Airport, it’s totally reasonable that the flowers purchased in Aalsmeer could be to your local florist by the time you’re on your way home from work that night.


The auction, it’s worth noting, works different than “normal” auctions. The price per stem starts at a fixed value (like 50 cents) and then goes down rather than up. The price ticks down on a clock that moves very quickly rather than being called out by an auctioneer, so a wholesaler’s bidder has to be ready to claim the price they want as soon as it shows up–and hope there isn’t another wholesaler willing to spend more. Once someone claims the price they want, that’s it: there’s no going once, going twice, etc.


Watching the auction was really interesting, but watching the action on the floor was far more interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that fast-paced and organized. The employees zipped around the floor on Segway-type vehicles, picking up carts filled with flowers they’d tow behind them. It was really something!


We spent about an hour at the auction, and then headed off to the whole reason we had come to the Netherlands when we did: Keukenhof.


Keukenhof is an 80 acre (!) flower garden made up almost exclusively of bulb flowers –  daffodils, tulips, that sort of thing. Those flowers only grow in the spring, and consequently, the garden is only open from mid-March to mid-May (it closed for the season yesterday, so, uh, sorry if this makes you want to go visit. There’s always 2020!). While the goal is to go at the height of the blooming, that varies from year to year, so if you live outside of Europe (*raises hand*), you have to pick a time to go and hope for the best. Mid-April is generally considered a safe time to go, hence why we went when we did. But, Keukenhof plants their flowers “lasagna style” (bulbs on top of bulbs), so if they’re open, you’ll definitely see flowers. The surrounding fields may have been deadheaded, but the garden itself will be fine.

Keukenhof was everything I hoped it’d be. Pictures could never do it justice. There are literal millions of tulips to see, in every shade and size and variety you can imagine. I took around 100 pictures/day on the trip, except the day we went to Keukenhof: I took over 400.


Being at Keukenhof felt like being at the United Nations (or what I assume being at the United Nations would feel like, as I’ve never been.) There were people from all over the world speaking all sorts of languages all around the garden. It was really cool!


Seeing Keukenhof was easily one of the top items on my travel bucket list, so I’m really, really glad I was able to go and see it in all its glory.


Since we got to Keukenhof pretty early, we had seen our fill of flowers by about 1 p.m., which gave us plenty of time for the last (tentative) item on the agenda for Friday: visiting Leiden.

Leiden actually has a bit of a connection to U.S. history, as it was the town where the Puritans who became the Pilgrims ultimately settled in the Netherlands after they left England.

To that end, our first stop in Leiden was the American Pilgrim Museum, which came highly recommended by Rick Steves, and thank goodness it did. I don’t think there’s any chance we would have accidentally stumbled into the museum. Its location is easy to find, but the museum itself isn’t labeled at all, and it certainly wasn’t obvious that it was open. We actually got in because we peeked in the windows, and the girl manning the museum that afternoon saw us and let us in.

Anyway, once we got in, the museum was really cool! It’s in the oldest building in Leiden and gives you a good idea what living conditions were like in the 1600s (“cramped” would be the word I’d use). The house–which is a generous way of putting it, since it was really just one room–was about the size of a modest bedroom. An entire family would fit in that space! The museum was filled with items from the 1600s: books, tools, etc. It was fascinating!


Next door to the sample Pilgrim house (though still part of the museum) was an example of living quarters for a priest. It was bigger than the Pilgrim house and only had to hold one person, which would’ve been a lot more comfortable by today’s square footage standards. It, too, was filled with old items, including a chair from the 1100s that you were allowed to sit in! I thought that was pretty cool – and a pretty nice testament to the construction quality, since it’s held up all this time.

The Rick Steves walking tour for Leiden included the American Pilgrim Museum, so we picked the tour up there, finished it, then returned to the start to catch everything we missed (as the museum is close to the end of the tour). We saw the (outside of the) Hooglandse Kerk and walked around it before heading over to a canal. I was in A Mood by that point for a couple of reasons (getting up so early, worrying that we weren’t allowed to park the car where we parked it and that it’d get towed [that didn’t happen, for the record]), so we stopped for ice cream at IJscafe Danice in an attempt to bring my blood sugar and attitude up. It was a fairly successful endeavor 😛

After refueling, we continued on the walking tour. We saw yet another former waag that had also been converted into a restaurant and then walked farther west to get to the Galgewater, a street named after the gallows that used to be there. We crossed the water on the cutest bridge, the Rembrandtbrug, to get to Rembrandtplein, the area where Rembrandt was raised.


His childhood home isn’t there anymore, but there’s a nice statue to him in the plaza next to the former site of the windmill his father operated.


Leiden has dozens of hofjes. They’re courtyards that are technically public property, so you’re free to visit them, but it does feel a bit like walking into someone’s enclosed backyard. They were (to my understanding) generally built for the poor and elderly, though the one Rick Steves had us pop into now mostly houses students from Leiden University.

Speaking of Leiden University, that was our next stop on the walking tour. The university doesn’t have a central campus, so there isn’t a quad to stroll through or anything like that, but we saw several university buildings. We saw Pieterskerk, the square of which was where I saw my one and only Eurasian Jay – though the church itself is also nice to look at 😛


We saw the Gravensteen and passed through a hofje to see Jan Steen’s house–something that I would have appreciated much more had I seen it later in the trip, as, after two trips to art museums in the coming days, I decided Jan Steen is my favorite Dutch Golden Age painter. We finished the walking tour at the Burcht, a shell keep on top of a hill that provides really great views of the city, got dinner, and headed back to Rotterdam for the night.




  • A cafe in the main building of Keukenhof, 4/5
  • IJscafe Danice (Hoogstraat 6, Leiden), 5/5
  • Scarlatti (Stille Mare 4, Leiden), 5/5

Sights Seen