Netherlands: Rotterdam Is a Feast for the Eyes

Ferries on the Niewe Mass river in Rottterdam. Read about why this city is a feast for the eyes and about why it's worth a visit. Max Hartshorne photo.
Ferries on the Niewe Mass river in Rotterdam. Read about why this city is a feast for the eyes and about why it's worth a visit. Max Hartshorne photo.

Rotterdam, the Netherlands: A Second City without the tourists of Amsterdam but lots to enjoy

By Max Hartshorne

Local guide Narjara Grondman shows me the Food Fenix, where you order a board of whatever foods you like.
Local guide Narjara Grondman shows me the Food Fenix, where you order a board of whatever foods you like.

I was in Amsterdam for a fast three-day business trip in December.

I wanted to see a little more of the country, so I chose a nearby city, Rotterdam, without knowing much about what I’d find there. It was an easy hour-long train ride between each city’s center.

And it was a good decision! Once again, an unsung and less heralded European city had impressed me. Maybe it was the grand hotel room, on the sixth floor of the Inntel Hotel, with huge picture windows displaying the nighttime view of the Erasmus Bridge soaring above the harbor, and the tramways scooting across the river.

The fast, free Wi-fi, friendly helpful staff, the sauna in my room, and the exciting downtown all made me say, wow, what a city!

The Hotel New York is located in a former Holland America lines office, and is a lively place to enjoy dinner in Rotterdam.
The Hotel New York is located in a former Holland America lines office and is a lively place to enjoy dinner in Rotterdam.

Dining at the Bar

The Hotel New York, my dining destination, was once the office of the Holland America Line, it’s where the paperwork for millions of immigrants who traveled to the US was processed, and it’s right on the city’s harbor-front.

Their restaurant with high ceilings was busy on a Tuesday night, there were festive Christmas lights and a great vibe all around.  Ferries continuously crossed in front of the building, bound for across the harbor or to other destinations further down the river.

I took a seat at the bar and began to chat with Laura, the young bartender who was happy to chat.  She said she had just rented a place in the city, and she was very pleased to be living closer to work. Like many locals her age, she is happy to be giving up a commute to live right in downtown.

I ordered a big plate of Normandy oysters and lacquered salmon, and thought about how often a second city like this doesn’t get as many visitors.  Amsterdam, it was clear from talking with her, gets way more attention than this sturdy old port city.

What they don’t get in Rotterdam are millions of tourists, but what they have to see is interesting and worth the trip.

The Cube Houses are famous in Rotterdam, built in the 1970s designed to resemble trees. Max Hartshorne photos.
The Cube Houses are famous in Rotterdam, built in the 1970s designed to resemble trees. Max Hartshorne photos.

Bud Break

After dinner, I stopped into a coffee shop for a quick smoke.  Unlike in Amsterdam where the friendly marijuana bud-tenders were relaxed behind a bar, here, the pot was doled out from behind a glass window as if it were a bank or a seedy convenience store.

Not nearly as casual. “It’s different here than in Amsterdam,” said the unsmiling clerk. Still, I had no complaints about the product or the price.

Sticking out over the river is the Unilever building, another star in a city full of dramatic buildings.
Sticking out over the river is the Unilever building, another star in a city full of dramatic buildings.

Then I walked down the street and heard the sound of some horns playing.

It was a club with a top-notch group playing rock and jazz, with a woman singing, a guy wailing on trombone, with drums and guitar and keyboards. Good stuff!  I was liking this second city already!

Beautiful Architecture

Rotterdam is a feast for the eyes. If you love interesting buildings and daring architecture this is a city to see.  I took a bike ride making a giant loop around the city with Narjara Grondman, a trained architect who showed me some of her favorite buildings and gave some background into the history of the city.

I kept wanting to stop our bikes to photograph the impressive range of modern buildings, at every turn I found a new surprise or funny juxtaposition.

During WWII, Rotterdam was one of the hardest hit cities in the Netherlands, so what we see now are post-war buildings with just a few exceptions.  Dominating the city skyline is the Erasmus bridge, built in the early ’90s. It takes trains, cars and of course, bicycles, across the river in nicely separated lanes.

Pinchos, or tapas, in the Markthal Rotterdam.
Pinchos, or tapas, in the Markthal Rotterdam.

Visible behind the bridge are three very large buildings, which have the same hallmark as many other buildings here–many voids and cutouts.  The city’s very modern Central train station, built in 2014, emerges from the ground like a giant upside-down V-shape.

Then there are the city’s famous cubes, upside-down apartments, built in the 1970s. Their yellow exteriors stand out near the harbor where many locals live in luxurious houseboats. The houses were built to represent trees and be a village within the city.

The Markthal Rotterdam is the largest indoor market in the Netherlands, and has apartments on each side plus many subterranean levels. Stunning!
The Markthal Rotterdam is the largest indoor market in the Netherlands and has apartments on each side plus many subterranean levels. Stunning!

The Dramatic Markthal

Perhaps the most dramatic building I saw in Rotterdam was the Markthal, the biggest indoor market in the Netherlands.

It’s shaped like an arch, with a cavernous inside, and in the structure’s thick outside walls, 228 apartments have been built, their apartment windows dot the front and sides.

Inside, artwork depicting the Horn of Plenty stretches across the vast ceiling. There are 15 food shops, eight restaurants and a wine store below with parking underground.

We pedaled along the bike lane—we almost never had to ride on the street—and came across many buildings with large wings sticking out, with open areas between buildings, and circular designs.

A factory for Unilever sticks out as if it’s been plopped down by God, perpendicular to the river.  The gorgeous Market Hall uses special glass that flexes in the wind on either end of its massive circular shape.

I was surprised that in a city with fewer than 700,000 residents, there are so many high-rise buildings.  Following a trend seen in the US, younger workers like Laura want to live right in the city, so these deluxe condos and next-to-the-action apartments are all quickly rented.

I learned too, that if you have a vacant apartment here it’s likely someone will try to live there illegally. There’s a huge business of landlords paying people to be ‘anti-squatters’ to keep their flats from being taken over!

The Maritime Museum

Maritime museum has interactive displays and tells the fascinating story of the Rotterdam waterfront.
Rotterdam's Maritime museum has interactive displays and tells the fascinating story of the Rotterdam waterfront.

This museum was one of two I’d highly recommend.  The Maritime Museum is right on the river and presents everything about the city’s longtime role as the capital of shipping in Europe.

There is a room full of small models showing what it’s like below the austere decks of the city’s many houseboats, as well as a diorama that shows every foot of the city’s harbor, in relief. It’s the kind of museum both adults and kids will really enjoy spending time exploring.

A shop selling marijuana: It's much different than Amsterdam, no brown cafes, just storefronts where you can buy pot.
A shop selling marijuana: It's much different than Amsterdam, no brown cafes, just storefronts where you can buy pot.

A second museum worth visiting is the Kunsthal Rotterdam, where a major exhibition of the life and work of influential American artist Keith Haring was on display.

New in the city is the Luchtsingel, a 390-meter wooden walkway that links the Schieblock, a creative meeting place, with the former Station Hofplein, that is now home to restaurants, shops, and a jazz club.

Dining in Rotterdam

Along with ten Michelin starred restaurants in Rotterdam, like Joelia, just honored with a star this year, the dining scene in the city was eclectic and fun.  We enjoyed a lunch of lentil soup and couscous at the Bazar, which is a funky 28-room hotel and world restaurant that’s casual and relaxed.

I also had a cheap and very tasty plate of rotisserie chicken and local beer at  Scharrels and Schuim, which had just opened and means ‘chicken and beer.’  The perfect repast for a solo diner at the bar.

If you like hot and spicy, I learned that in Suriname, once a Dutch colony, they grow some of the world’s hottest peppers, and one called Madame Chanet, which can be added to the glorious chicken soup at a tiny hole in the wall called Mini 32. A fiery taste treat I won’t quickly forget.

One tip—If you’re heading to Rotterdam by train, make sure to reserve a separate ticket to get all the way past the airport Schiphol. I had to get off and buy another ticket so make sure your tickets will take you the whole way.

Find out more about Rotterdam at http://en.rotterdam.info/

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