Rotterdam city guide

At first sight foreigners might perceive Rotterdam as a less friendly and less welcoming city than Amsterdam. The modern no-nonsense architecture is quite different from the picturesque old centre of Amsterdam. Compared to the capital there is a more “bright lights, big city” vibe which feels less cosy and intimate. But never judge a book by the cover. And besides: the skyline of Rotterdam with its skyscrapers, the Euromast tower and the majestic Erasmus Bridge (Erasmusbrug) over the Meuse (Maas) river is the best of the country. The Netherlands is a too small country for having real metro pole cities but Rotterdam comes most close. But it also has a laid-back attitude and friendly, human face. After all, the renowned Humanist Erasmus was born here and is intrinsically linked to this city as many names demonstrate: Erasmus Bridge, Erasmus University. The Erasmus Programme rings a bell, right? This international student exchange programme is every student’s wet dream. A chance to study abroad in a country of your own choosing was always very appealing to me and made me push for better grades while studying.

Erasmus Bridge over the Maas river and Rotterdam city skyline by night

Bright lights. big city: the Rotterdam skyline with the gracious Erasmus Bride, nicknamed "the Swan", is considered to be the most impressive of all big cities in the Netherlands

The Rotterdam people are very straightforward, which should not be confused with being harsh. While in Amsterdam they mainly talk and tend to be snobbish, the people in Rotterdam are actually working and really achieving something. At least according to the people in Rotterdam. It is this typical cultivated rival thing between the two biggest cities in the Netherlands, which you will witness in many countries. Rotterdam is famous for its working class mentality that made this city big and successful: “No words but deeds”, it is not for nothing that this is also a line in the anthem of the local famous football team Feyenoord. Rotterdam is similar to Warsaw, in regard to being completely obliterated during WW2 bombings. At the Leuvehaven near the Maritime Museum you can find a bronze sculpture of a man without a heart created by the French-Russian artist Ossip Zadkine. It’s a harrowing monument, called De Verwoeste Stad (The destroyed City). It symbolizes the destroyed heart of the city by the bombs of the German Luftwaffe. The government didn’t slack and began rebuilding this port town, perhaps a bit too hastily for its own good. Some people say that ditching the medieval town model, with the old town square and all, has stripped it of its typical Dutch character. Unlike for the Polish capital where everything was done to rebuild to a pre-bombing state, Rotterdam went with “everything goes” kind of approach.

But different doesn’t have to equal worse, right? They got a gnome statue that looks like Santa Claus with a butt plug. Rotterdam is statistically the busiest port in Europe and one of the biggest ones in the entire world. Its maritime legacy is clearly visible and accentuated via museums such as the Maritime Museum, art galleries and café’s that host engaging events at the waterfront. The city is also renowned for its tolerance and multi-cultural diversity, which also had its impact on the local restaurant scene. When you have a fling for Asian and other exotic dishes you just cannot go wrong in Rotterdam. In De Witte de Withstraat and other centrally located areas you will find the best Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in town. You never tried Surinam food? You definitely should! The cuisine of Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, is a wonderful blend of Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Latin American dishes. The best occasion to feel the Latin and Caribbean vibe of Rotterdam is during the Summer Carnival that usually takes place at the end of July. The event that is organized since 1984 traditionally kicks off with the Battle of the Drums when brass bands are competing for the prestigious Golden Drum in a marching tour around Hofplein and its surrounding streets. And then there is also the Mercado; a buzzing street market where you can stuff yourself with Surinamese bakkeljauw (stockfish), Antillean pastechi (stuffed pastry), tropical crushed ice and so much more. The absolute highlight and most famous part of the Summer Carnival is the Summer Carnival Street Parade. Thousands of extravagant costumed dancers, massive floats, brass bands, drummers and its very own elected Queen march and swing on catchy rhythms through the streets of Rotterdam centre.

One of my personally favourite events in Rotterdam is the yearly IFFR, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which has become the biggest international film festival in the world. Every year, at the end of January/beginning of February IFFR draws during 10 days film directors, screenwriters and especially (art) cinema lovers from all over the world in huge numbers to Rotterdam. Another world famous event in Rotterdam nowadays is the North Sea Jazz Festival. For many years it resided in The Hague but since 2006 it hopped over to Rotterdam. It’s now held each second weekend of July at the Ahoy venue. The North Sea Jazz Festival is a true melting pot of music styles and offers three days of jazz, blues, soul, funk, hip hop, R&B and much more of cross-over styles. After all; everything goes in Rotterdam.

At the end of a hectic day there is no better spot to hangout and chill in Rotterdam than at the Kop van Zuid, a little peninsula at the foot of the gracious Erasmus Bride. Cross the Maas river from the Northern to the Southern part of the city and you will arrive in this Walhalla for modern architecture lovers. The area is packed with old warehouses, which have been transformed into luxurious lofts homes for students and overseen by some impressive skyscrapers. At the right side of the Erasmus Bride, nicknamed the Swan, you can stroll along the Wilhelminakade with the fully restored Cruise Terminal, the former arrival and departure hall of the legendary Holland America Line. The famous Hotel New York at the very end of the peninsula is another must-see. Hotel New York was the Holland America Line’s head office and converted into a hotel/grand café in 1993. This is sacred ground since for thousands of emigrants in the past because during centuries this was the place where they said farewell to their motherland. Nowadays the big cruise ships dock at this area. A parking lot for wealthy tourists who have only little in common with the poor bastards who departed their country in the beginning of 1900s on a search for at better life in the US and Canada.

From the terrace in front of the hotel you can stretch out, have a cold beer and admire Rotterdam’s impressive skyline including the Euromast. The 185 metres high tower, or more correctly: mast, was erected in 1960 and is probably still Rotterdam’s most famous landmark. It offers a spectacular 360-degree panorama view of the city. If the 100m-high observation deck is still too low for you, you can take the rotating glass elevator (Euroscoop), which will bring you all the way to the very top of the mast.

I thought I knew the city well but it is only very recently that I found out that Rotterdam has also a statue of Tsar Peter The Great. It is situated at the Northern side of the river at the entrance of the Veerhaven on the Westerkade. From there you have another great view on the bridge and the surroundings skyscrapers. The statue was a gift of the Russian Federation to the city. It is less bombastic than most patriotic statues of him you will come across in Russia and fits therefore better in the Dutch tradition. Since he was not only a tsar but also the founder of the national navy in his country it also suits well in this harbour city.

Frog's eye-view of cube houses of architect Blom in Rotterdam

Eye-catching innovative Dutch archtecture from the seventies: the Cube houses of architect Blom in Rotterdam right next to metro station Blaak

A rather new attraction for locals and tourists visiting Rotterdam is de Markthal (Market Hall), a huge and stunningly designed covered food market. With close to hundred fresh food stalls, shopping units and restaurants it’s home to delicious culinary treats from all over the world. The roof covered with colourful paintings of food is real eye candy as well. Nearby is another Rotterdam tourist staple you cannot afford to miss: de Kubuswoningen (Cube houses) right above Blaak metro station. The renowned architect Blom turned conventional houses 45 degrees and placed them on hexagon-shaped pylons. His design aims to represent a village within a city. Each house stands for a single tree, and all the houses together make a forest. Be sure to visit them also from the inside. Just imagine people really live there: it’s truly amazing.

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