Bombed into near oblivion at the beginning of WWII, Rotterdam is the classic European city turned inside out: old on the edges with an entirely new center. A city of just over 600,000, it’s easily traversed by foot, tram, or, as I highly recommend for the true Dutch experience, by bicycle.
Unlike the sleek, Disneyland nostalgia of nearby Amsterdam, Rotterdam is still rough around the edges; there’s a blank slate attitude, a can-do, breathless ambition summed up in the city’s catch phrase, "Rotterdam, make it happen". For a unique view of the city’s informal spaces, take a stroll along the Luchtsingel (sky street), a bright yellow elevated walkway that starts at Hofplein, a four-block stretch of old train tracks (like an extra-small Dutch Highline). Below, a series of barrel vaults house everything from record stores to Michelin star restaurants. Start at Man met Brill for locally roasted coffee and, if it’s before 10:00am, a full breakfast for only €7.77. Drink in hand, climb the steps of the Luchtsingel and thread your way through towering buildings and over busy streets. Descend the oversized staircase-turned-seating at Biergarten, a crowded outdoor bar in the parking lot of an old office building.
Rotterdam is a casual city, terraces expand in the summer heat occupying plazas and waterfronts. Neighbours share drinks on the street and sidewalks are transformed into restaurants with seasonal street-food offerings. In December and January, festive, carnival-like food trucks serve oliebollen (literal translation, oil balls), fried dough covered in powdered sugar traditionally eaten on New Year’s. Richard Visser’s Oliebollen Kraam on Middelandstraat is a local favourite with a cult following. Starting in June, it’s nieuw haring season. Served from pop-up stands or canal-side snackbars, this Dutch delicacy is eaten standing up, the lightly pickled fish dangled above your open mouth shedding bits of raw onion.
If you’re visiting off season, don’t worry, try a classic brown bar for bier and borrel. Sijf on Oude Binneweg, voted the best café in The Netherlands in 2019, still feels like a secret. Patinaed by age, cigarette smoke, and generations of bent elbows, the Dutch Bruin Bar is a gezellig (closest translation, cozy) institution. Tucked into a generic shopping street, it’s an intimate maze of dark wood panelling, ornately carved banisters, red velvet curtains, and draft beers. Be sure to order the ubiquitous borrelplankje: an assortment of fried foods including the must-have bitterballen, designed to absorb whatever it is you’re drinking.
Just across the Mauritsweg canal, studded with public art including Paul McCarthy’s notorious Buttplug Gnome, is the beautifully landscaped Museumpark. A visit to the Kunsthal is a must. It’s a bite-sized museum—a sprint not a marathon—that hosts travelling shows, everything from contemporary fashion and design to renaissance etchings. Across the street, along the Maas Riverfront, is Het Park (The Park), a pocket of wondrous fairy-tale nature where willows dip into meandering streams, the light is milky, and the ground is carpeted with daises. It’s the perfect spot for an impromptu picnic or casual stroll.
If you’re exploring by bike, the ride to Hoek van Holland (Holland’s Corner) is an excellent day trip through the industrial outskirts of Rotterdam and the Dutch countryside, full of pleasant stops and curious digressions.
Head west out of the city through historic Delfshaven, a picturesque harbour crowded with sailing vessels, crooked row houses, and its own windmill straight out of the Dutch Golden Age. It’s worth a small detour north, along the Schie Canal, to see the Van Nelle Fabriek, a beautiful modernist factory that once produced everything from cookies to cigarettes.
Pass sheep grazing under graffitied overpasses and follow the river to M4H, a low-slung complex of old warehouses for an eclectic cross section of Rotterdamer life. Inhabited by startups and innovation labs, it’s also home to Weelde, an organic farm and restaurant by day and a labyrinthine Berlin-esque concert venue by night. Right next door is Atlier van Lieshout, the studio of Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout. The former-squat-turned-gallery is a warren of interconnected buildings filled with dark rooms, hidden levels, site-specific installations, and enormous, disquieting sculptures, a raw counterpoint to the polish of Museumpark.
Our last stop in the city is a quick visit to the Floating Farm where, surrounded by heavy machinery and apartment buildings, is the surprisingly delightful sight of 32 cows bobbing placidly in the harbour. Attended, and it seems, entirely unaffected, by a fleet of robots and a single farmer, the Floating Farm is an experiment (and a preview) of agriculture in the age of automation and rising sea levels.
It’s easy to forget but 90% of Rotterdam is below sea level. Dredged from the water with dikes, dams, and water pumps, the ride west reveals some of the massive infrastructure needed to keep the city (and the country) dry, like De Maeslantkering—a massive storm serge barrier that protects against flooding while muscular trusses the size of skyscrapers flank the river.
The rest of the trip is a straight shot along the Maas River (heavily trafficked by both flat-bottomed cargo vessels and bevies of swans) that ends at the North Sea. Squared off at an almost perfect right angle, The Hoek is an unusual and uniquely Dutch beach experience. Just to the south—bristling with trusses, refineries, cranes, and lifts—is the Port of Rotterdam, the largest seaport on the continent and the gate to Europe. The sea is a flat grey line, even on the sunniest days, and the strand (beach) is a soft stretch of scrubby dunes populated with caravans and beach bars.
Rotterdam, while still a bit off the beaten path, is a beta-city whose charms are tucked into the nooks and crannies of empty lots, old warehouses, parking garages, and rooftops. Its surroundings offer a glimpse of the real Dutch countryside, where pastoral polders and windmills play peek-a-boo with an endless sea of glasshouses and wind turbines all waiting to be discovered.