Oft overlooked in favour of Amsterdam and The Hague, Rotterdam is Holland‘s fun-loving commercial behemoth replete with dazzling architecture, cosmopolitan cuisine and its own answer to the Rio Carnival.
The Rotterdam experience starts with a sense of amazement. Stepping out of Central Station it’s immediately obvious that this is no cutesy tulips-and-clogs traditional Dutch town, as the walls of shining silver skyscrapers and brightly coloured tower blocks rise up on every side of you. After wandering around the city for awhile, you will soon discover why. Instead of rebuilding its historic centre, this forward-thinking port town employed an army of mad architects to completely redesign the city after it was flattened by German bombs in May 1940. They did a great job and created a new heart for Rotterdam that is not only modern and functional, but arresting and unique.
But fans of cosy redbrick houses and canals needn’t dismay, Rotterdam also has plenty of architectural pockets that look ‘typically Dutch’. Although most of these lie a little outside the city center, one welcome exception is the Oude Haven, Rotterdam’s oldest port and nowadays a popular hangout by day and nighttime. Sitting here the contrast of Rotterdam couldn’t be clearer – behind the old Dutch ships anchored steadily in the abandoned harbor, Rotterdam’s modern architecture gleams in the sunlight.
Today Rotterdam has the third biggest harbor in the world, making it the industrial heart of the Netherlands, and with with roughly 50% of citizens claiming a non-Dutch origin, the city is a truly multicultural composition. It is famed for its festive summers, which makes up for the long winter. In the warmer months everyone is out and about, enjoying music at the North Sea Jazz Festival or watching Brazilian mamas shaking it at the Summer Carnival (see ‘Experience & Events’ section below). Besides its festivals, there is a more constant component to the city that makes Rotterdam well worth visiting: the Rotterdammers themselves… many dedicated to the city’s big three: architecture, art and music!
Best of the Beaten Track
Since Rotterdam is situated on the river Maas and crossed by many canals, which in turn fill a number of old harbors, there is lots of water in the city center. Consequently, many activities in Rotterdam involve: boats! Don’t head straight to Spido’s harbor tour because there are more fun ways to discover Rotterdam from the water. One rather unusual mean of transportation is the water taxi. With their wooden interior and black paint it is a classy way of going around.
One route which you can integrate well into a city walk is to take the water taxi from Leuvehaven in the city center (close to the Maritime museum) to the old and stylish Hotel New York situated on Kop van Zuid. Walking back you’ll walk past grand architecture and over the spectacular Erasmus Bridge. This mighty pontoon cost about 75 million Euros to construct and, simply put, the outcome is fantastic! Come back at night and walk over the bridge, looking up the 139 meter high pylons and let your gaze wander over the illuminated city skyline. When the bridge folds up to let the REEEALLY big ships pass through it looks like a scene out of Inception.
If a water taxi strikes you a bit dull, you might prefer to take a speedboat. And speaking about boats, there are some that house restaurants. A not only culinary but also cultural highlight is the Spanish tapas boat Tinto that also organizes weekly outdoor cinema on their decks (cult, arthouse and classic movies, every Saturday at 9pm – if the weather is bad they move into the basement). In the basement of the Black Zwan, a pirate ship, you can find a Lasergame playground. Lasergame is a hide and seek shooting game comparable to paint ball.
Finally switch elements from water to air, and climb the Euromast from whose outlook you’ll get the orientation you missed while wandering around the streets. For the adventurous, there is the opportunity to ‘abseilen’ your way back to solid ground.
Taking place near-monthly in the summer season, the Swan lifestyle market has diverse and creative offerings that include jewelry, vintage clothes and affordable art. Alternatively the Witte de Withstraat and the area around Zaagmolenkade (‘Oude Noorden’) is great for shopping: there are many galleries, interior design shops, vintage fashion stores, food markets and even a whisky shop to name a few. Both areas have the great advantage of also having a lot of cafes and restaurants for a lunch or café break. Also at Witte de Withstraat you’ll find the contemporary art museum and TENT, a exhibition space for yet more cutting edge creativity.
A great opportunity to watch locals or get a snack for lunch is the market at Blaak. With its 140 or so stalls it’s huge and extends beyond fresh and ready-to-go food. Cheap ‘fashion’, electronics, vintage furniture, paintings – all there (Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday, from the morning to about 4-5ish in the afternoon). Rotterdam also has a vibrant street art scene; you’ll find plenty of graffiti and stencilling around Schiestraat, only two minutes walk from central station, whilst city-approved statues crop up in every corner of the city. A great place to take a break is Kralingen Plas, about 15 mins by bike from the city center. Its long boardwalk perfect for relaxing – most beautiful is the lake and the view over the city skyline at sunset.
Experience & Events
Rotterdam is famous for its action-packed festive summer season. The biggest and most colorful one is the week long summer carnival in June, which mimicks the famous Brazilian festival and includes Crowning of the Queen, Battle of the Drums and a Street Parade. Sometime around August/September the Museums Park hosts Pleinbioscoopopen an open-air cinema fest for movie lovers. A guide to all festivals is available here.
A great thing to do if you have a day to spare is a bike ride through the scenic flat meadows to Delft, the home of the painter Vermeer. The ride takes about one hour if you go straight. Delft will reward you with its cute historic city center – check out the market place and climb the church tower of the Nieuwe Kerk.
A new modern way to experience the city, with a hint of indulgence, is on a hot tub tour of the waterways (check out my report!).
Couchsurfing is a great way to get to know locals + stay for free, whilst budget travelers who prefer a bit more control over their travels can book themselves into the StayOkay: a hostel in the famous Cubus houses with individualized rooms. Meanwhile Bazar is a small oriental hotel, with individually decorated rooms in the style of different Latin American and African countries. The recently reopened Mainport Hotel, apart from providing Rotterdam with a new architectural landmark, offers a modern and stylish stay for luxury travelers. Many rooms have spa options like a whirlpool. Rooms start at 150€.
Witte de Withstraat has many restaurants and many of the cuisines on offer reflect Rotterdam’s extremely diverse ethnic make up, including the much-hyped Bazar, a three-storey Turkish restaurant, and the Indonesian Satebar. Sumo is must for Asian food fans: they have an original concept where you pay once and can order seven small dishes in five rounds (about 25€). The best Mexican food is served in Popocatepetl – don’t forget to also order a frozen Margarita! The organic Spirit has a big vegan/vegetarian buffet, price is paid by weight, and delicious breakfast is served at Picknick. For something 100% native climb on board the pancake boat, which combines a ride on the river with unlimited Dutch pancakes.
To start your night out ‘gezellig’, check out one of the many bars in Witte de Withstraat, such as Witte App for its social and cozy atmosphere or the Hawaiian Tiki Bar; around Oude Haven, such as bar elit, a funky cocktail bar; or Nieuwe Binnenweg, where I would recommend Boudewijn, a Belgian Beer Café with lengthy beer menu. A great location for dance events is the old factory outside the city center that houses both Massilo and factory010. These funky clubs are only open for special dance-events so check the online party agendas! GiveSoul organizes techno parties in different locations across the city. BIRD is cool venue for live music. For clubbing, Toffler and Perron are reliable in booking the best DJ’s from the electronic/techno/house scene.
The budget airline Ryanair flies into Rotterdam / The Hague, but flights into Eindhoven or Amsterdam (Schiphol) are often cheaper. The train from Amsterdam or Eindhoven to Rotterdam will cost you about 15€. All international flights arrive in Amsterdam (Schiphol) from where you can take a train to Rotterdam (it’ll take about one hour). International trains connect Rotterdam to Germany (Deutsche Bahn) and France (Thalys). From Brussels (about one hour train ride from Rotterdam) the Eurostar connects mainland Europe to the UK.
For events, check out the local guide. More good parties are listed on resident advisor’s event search page. For details about accommodation, main attractions, and everything else check out Rotterdam’s official website. Roodkapje has info about artsy events, parties and exhibitions.
Sadly, there are not many city guides only about Rotterdam. Wallpaper City Guide Rotterdam (Phaidon, 2010, 10€) is one of them. Besides, you can get valuable (and free!) information and maps at the tourist information in R’dam.
Karakter (‘Character’) is an old movie about a complicated father-son relationship set in Rotterdam. It won an Oscar for best international movie. On YouTube, you can find the official promotion video for the city. There is also a great animation about how the city was rebuilt after German bombing in 1940.