I’ll be honest, we went to Rotterdam purely for Villa Zebra. I’d been obsessing over it and its interactive children’s art installation for months, and there was just no question of us Finding Nederland without also finding Villa Zebra. At the same time though, devoting a whole eight-hour sojourn to an entirely different city to hanging out in a kids’ arts centre sounded fairly bonkers and, with Amsterdam’s abundance of museums and Utrecht’s abundance of Miffy, it doesn’t immediately make sense to dedicate much of your time in the Netherlands to a city known for its seaport and being the subject of a really shit song by the Beautiful South.
But, once I’d begun poking around, I discovered that Rotterdam is packed with family-friendly treats, with the only problem being that it’s also geographically massive – okay so it’s still only like a fifth of the size of London but it’s still pretty huge – and most of the things I found were just too far away from each other to cover in a day. So I (grudgingly) made peace with the fact that we just wouldn’t be able to do most of the amazing things I’d found and planned a day around the very centre of the city, with the idea that one day we’d come back and do everything else… maybe.
MUSEUMS: Villa Zebra
Villa Zebra is like nothing we’ve ever done before but also really reminded me of MACHMit! in Berlin, if such a paradox is possible. Like MACHMit! it’s more of an art-themed play centre than a museum (and to be honest it’s not really a museum at all), and somehow you just know nothing like this has, does or will ever exist in the UK. As with the Kinderboekmuseum in Den Haag, we could have easily spent most of a day here (past me was an idiot for thinking we couldn’t), and even though it’s technically aimed at 2-12s both girls had a brilliant time here. The first thing I would say is bring cash. A lot of places don’t take Mastercard and Visa (something we discovered on our Netherlands trip two years ago and had totally forgotten about) and we ended up having to do a slightly awkward bank transfer to be granted entry here. The next thing I’d say is start at the back, which is where you’ll find SELF!, a rather excellent permanent art installation/playhouse featuring five works of interactive art. Again, this was like nothing we’ve ever seen before; a maze of colourful rooms including a zebra circus with a Walala-esque dressing room, a series of beautifully illustrated fairytale-inspired rooms, a fully stocked grocer’s shop, an island, and something involving an origami cat. I kept returning to this with Roma, who enjoyed crawling round it and rummaging, while Babu got involved with some of the big-kid activities like the garden diorama making (check the website for daily activities) and building with white LEGO. Roma also absolutely adored the giant dolls’ house and I was naughty and ignored the signs telling kids not to climb inside because it was too cute watching her crawl from room to room like a real-life giant baby. Anyway there was a pair of full-on eight year olds camped out on the top floor when we arrived so I decided it was probably absolutely fine to let a one year old wander around the bottom rooms. One minor disappointment was the monochrome play area that I was expecting to see out the front, which apparently burnt down in 2015 has been replaced by a cute but much less exciting looking growing garden. Tickets cost €8 for everyone aged 2 and over.
Stieltjesstraat 21, 3071 JV Rotterdam
Maritiem Museum Rotterdam
Maritime. Does anyone here that word and feel anything approaching excitement? Maybe you do, but I sure as hell don’t. It’s funny though, because I’ve actually been to a disproportionate number of museums themed around the subject for a single human with zero interest in naval matters, and they’ve all been really good. Maritiem Museum Rotterdam though, is my favourite. While I was initially seduced by its very cool looking shipping-themed rooftop play area featuring a yellow crane and moveable cargo, I was actually really impressed with the entirety of this museum, which whilst devoting its entire second floor to children has also succeeded in creating a genuinely fascinating museum experience for adults too – all themed around, y’know, MARITIME. There was a really interesting interactive exhibition called Dealing with Drugs where you can play along as a port official or customs officer (but it’s obviously not for kids); a VR Offshore Experience that looked quite hefty and was, again, probably better for older ones; and a horribly claustrophobic immersive cruise-ship experience that confirmed that I never want to board one as long as I live (Babu actually loved this one). But while I always approve when museums – particularly those whose subject matter is traditionally very tedious – put on fun, un-stuffy exhibitions for adults, I have to say that the kids’ bits were still my favourites. A particular highlight was the sea monsters zone, which came complete with a giant octopus whose enormous tentacles inflated and deflated, scaring the crap out of Babu as she ran past; and the brilliant shipwreck-themed indoor playground, although I know it was 108 years ago but the Titanic slide still felt a little bit iffy. Tickets cost €14 per adult, €10 for 4-15s and free for 0-3s.
Leuvehaven 1, 3011 EA Rotterdam
We’d booked to do this pancake-cruise-meets-soft-play situation in Rotterdam but ended up literally missing the boat. Luckily we managed to rebook to do the same cruise in Amsterdam the next day, and you can read the review here.
Dutch people know what they’re doing when it comes to dressing their kids and jazzing up their bedrooms, and Rotterdam is packed with beautiful boutiques where you can make like a local and get the goods. I was particularly keen to visit BonBon on the Block in Terbregge and Little Department Store in Hillegersberg-Zuid, but Klein Beginnen & Grooot in Overschie and Datte & Die in Kralingen. look amazing too. If we had more time I’d also love to visit the Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses) which you can also stay in, the Plaswijckpark theme park and Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp), which all look immense.
Roro clowns around at Villa Zebra, Rotterdam