All too often overlooked by visitors rushing headlong to Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ second largest metropolis has its own unique character based on a history of multiculturalism and a love for building modern architectural masterpieces. These two together, as long-term Netherlands resident Tim Skelton observes, give Rotterdam a dazzling ‘big city’ vibe like nowhere else in Benelux.
The Dutch aren’t known as early risers, but one place that opens at the crack of dawn is Ontbijtbar (Kruisplein 151, 06 4292 3241). This is a collaboration run jointly by the city’s finest bakers and coffee suppliers, so you know the ingredients are going to be the best, whether you order American-style pancakes, sandwiches, granola or the house special Eggs Benedict. The clue’s in the name: ontbijt is Dutch for breakfast. Another central place that bucks the lie-in trend by serving delicious croissants and filling breakfast platters is Picknick (Mariniersweg 259, 010 280 7297). Its terrace at the rear is on the aptly named Pannekoekstraat: Pancake Street.
Most museums don’t open until 11am, so the best way to work off breakfast is to take in some outdoor sights. Head southeast from the centre and you’ll find Leuvehaven – once a bustling port, it’s now lined with historic but long-retired ships and has the elegant sweep of Erasmus Bridge, stretching across the Nieuwe Maas River, at its southern end. If you’re around when it opens, the Maritime Museum (Leuvehaven 1, 010 413 2680) explains how this all once looked, and how the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest, still functions today. To prove not everything in Rotterdam is modern, take a metro west to Delfshaven, one of the few areas of the city left standing after the bombings of WWII. Strolling its lovely canals – spanned by picturesque bridges and lined with gabled houses – is a delight, and there’s even a working windmill at the far end.
The best place to be when the museums do open is Museumpark. Your first port of call should be the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Museumpark 18, 010 441 9400), one of the Netherlands’ finest galleries. Its collection is a who’s who of artistic geniuses through the ages, from Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt, to contemporary works by Piet Mondriaan and Andy Warhol. Just across the park, another must-see is the Kunsthal (Westzeedijk 341, 010 440 0301). It has no permanent collection of its own, but at any one time hosts up to half a dozen temporary exhibitions on a wide range of themes, from cutting-edge photography to James Bond memorabilia.
A little east of Museumpark, the city takes on a different tone. Witte de Withstraat is home to numerous galleries, shops and eateries. You’ll probably be getting peckish by now, so head first for the Nieuw Rotterdams Café (Witte de Withstraat 63, 010 414 4188), a popular hangout that occupies the former offices of the NRC, a Dutch national newspaper. They serve lunches ranging from simple soups or rolls, to heartier dishes including burgers that will set you up for the afternoon. If you’re there on a Sunday afternoon, it hosts free jazz concerts. The best gallery on the street has long been and remains TENT Rotterdam (Witte de Withstraat 50, 010 413 5498), a suitably minimalist space for the most innovative local artists.
Those in need of a mid-afternoon snack can do no better than head west to Koekela (Nieuwe Binnenweg 79a, 010 436 4774), said by many to serve the best cakes in town. But be warned: you’ll need to pack a sweet tooth to make the best of this place. Alternatively, head back to the river near Erasmus Bridge and take to the water. Spido (Willemsplein 85, 010 275 9988) offers 75-minute harbour cruises that will give you a true perspective of this forward-looking city and its modernist leanings. Back on dry land, nearby Wereldmuseum (Willemskade 22-25, 010 270 7172) is a celebration of Rotterdam’s history as a port city that has always welcomed global cultures. From the adjacent Veerhaven, take a water taxi across to Kop van Zuid, a former pier now filled with skyscrapers and home to Hotel New York (Koninginnenhoofd 1, 010 439 0500), formerly HQ of the Holland America Line, whose ships transported emigrants to the USA.
Stop at the Hotel New York for a scenic aperitif, or take a short walk across the footbridge to the Fenix Food Factory (Veerlaan 19D), an indoor market where you can buy freshly baked bread, local cheeses and just-brewed coffee. Make up your own bar snacks, then enjoy them with a craft beer brewed on site in the Fenix centrepiece, Kaapse Brouwers (Veerlaan 19D, 010 218 0853). If the weather is cooperating, the view of the city skyline from the waterside terrace outside Rotterdam’s newest brewpub is worth the journey in itself.
Back in Kop van Zuid, a restaurant with a fast-growing reputation among connoisseurs is HMB (Holland Amerika Kade 104, 010 760 0620), housed in De Rotterdam, a Rem Koolhaas-designed tower and the country’s largest building. The elegant atmosphere, backed by panoramic views of the Erasmus Bridge, is altogether more intimate, and the delicate dishes compliment the surroundings perfectly. For something spicier, but easier on the wallet, Deli Bird (Delistraat 46C, 010 485 5288) is a delicious Thai eatery around the corner. Or back in the city centre, another great option is De Harmonie (Westersingel 95, 010 436 3610). Its beautifully presented modern fare uses the freshest seasonal ingredients and is served ‘tapas style’, so you can sample a range of dishes over several courses.
After hours, the live music venue of choice for many is Rotown (Nieuwe Binnenweg 19, 010 436 2669). Concerts here normally start at 9.30pm. For a great selection of beers and wines, try the modernist industrial chic of Café Reijngoud (Schiedamse Vest 148, 010 414 6050). Or for something a little older in character, Locus Publicus (Oostzeedijk 364, 010 433 1761) is one of the Netherlands’ finest cafés. Compact and popular (it gets crowded at night), it has an open wood hearth that’s lit whenever the temperature drops. The lovely 1904 building somehow escaped damage in WWII, and if you can’t find something worth sampling among its 250 beers, then you aren’t trying!
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Written by World Travel Guide.