What first strikes you about Rotterdam isn’t the clean streets or endless stream of trams; it’s the cyclists. They’re everywhere, happily pootling along on safe and orderly cycle lanes. It’s enough to make any British cyclist weep.
No potholes, no impatient drivers – this is a city I could see myself living in. Based at the mouth of the Nieuwe Maas, leading into the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta at the North Sea, Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port. It held the world title until recently.
As you’d expect, it’s home to 174 nationalities, so is bursting with culture everywhere you look. Street art lovers will be in heaven. Love music? You’re in for a treat. And its modern architecture will keep your Instagram feeds topped up nicely.
Wherever you look, it’s clear there’s a vibrant creative scene here. This is home to street artists Danny Rumbl and Tymon Ferenc de Laat, illustrator Xaviera Altena, design agency Studio Dumbar and world-renowned architectural firm, MVRDV.
On a warm September weekend, I headed over to Rotterdam to discover why this is the city everyone is talking about.
Where to stay
It isn’t often that I’m underprepared for a city break. But on this occasion, I failed miserably and forgot lots of things. But I didn’t have to worry. My hotel of choice, The James, had everything I needed in its lounge and 24-hour store on the second floor: a plug adaptor, hairspray and deodorant. Stress over.
It’s a pleasant stay. For a very reasonable price, you get a spotless room and comfortable bed in the Cool District in central Rotterdam, close to everything you need.
Fancy something a little bit different? More sustainable, even? Culture Campsite offers a bed in small sleeping pods made from upcycled materials. Based in Delfshaven, less than 10 minutes from the city centre of Rotterdam, it’s a unique experience that’s open April to October. Prices start from 65 Euros per night for one or two people. There’s even a wood-fired hot-tub.
The James. Image courtesy of Rotterdam Partners
Culture Campsite. Image courtesy of Rotterdam Partners
A first walk around the city
Fresh from a nice hot shower and an Earl Grey (they don’t have English Breakfast tea…bring tea bags!), I ventured out for a late afternoon walk. I wanted to check out this famous street art everyone always talks about. You can follow this street art route – there’s even a free downloadable map or you could get the handy app.
Artists include Bruce Tsai, Speto, Nas Bami and Tymon. A few artworks are interactive, like Dean Botlek‘s Make it Happen piece on the corner of Schilderstraat and Schiedamse Vest. You can photograph yourself getting a “leg up” from one of the white characters. Or Calvin Sprague’s artwork at the Delftsestraat, where you can look like you’re riding a bike.
And more incredible street artworks have just been added during the recent Pow! Wow! Festival, which I felt lucky to attend. The biggest street art celebration in the world (which began in Hawaii), it took over the streets of Afrikaanderwijk, a neighbourhood that lies in the Feijenoord district of the city. My personal favourite is ‘Roze’ by Telmo Miel – the Dutch brothers who call themselves mural painters.
Street art by Calvin Sprague at the Delftsestraat. Photography by Eric Fecken. Courtesy of the photographer and Rotterdam Partners.
Friday hotspots for lunch and a little architecture
After working up an appetite, I headed to Markthal – a jaw-dropping market hall that has lots of different stalls to choose lunch. I opted for a healthy salad and walked back outside to sit in the square and watch the world go by. It was another opportunity to be envious with all the cyclists and their happy, healthy lives.
For lunch, you might also consider By Jarmusch, a hotspot inspired by American diner culture. It’s a place where the eggs are served to order, the acai bowls are full of fresh fruit, and you can customise food to your taste. Located in Het Industriegebouw, there are lots of design shops nearby, should you wish to browse post-lunch.
Refuelled and ready for more walking, I wanted to see some architectural hotspots. The Cube Houses are probably the most famous in my mind, and they didn’t disappoint. The unusual bright yellow structure set against the bright blue autumn sky.
For a more thorough tour, you might call upon the expertise of Silvia and Tania, founders of Walk Rotterdam who offer guided walks focused on architecture, art and local history.
Finishing off my first day, I headed over to Dumbo, a vegan restaurant on Hoogstraat that has more than enough to keep any conscious foodie happy. Try the Watermelon Steak or The Taco Social Club platter – that’s a personal recommendation.
The Markthal. Photograph by Ossip van Duivenbode. Courtesy of the photographer and Rotterdam Partners.
Cube Houses and the White House. Photograph by Iris van den Broek. Courtesy of the photographer and Rotterdam Partners.
Saturday brunch and street culture
Is there any better way to spend a Saturday morning than at an art gallery? Kunsthal always has great exhibitions to browse. I managed to catch the last of Street Dreams: How hip hop took over fashion and was in nostalgic heaven. Currently on show is a major retrospective of Joana Vasconcelos and an exhibition on Joost Swarte – which pays homage to fifty years of the illustrator and designer’s work.
With the sun shining, it seemed only right that I next visited the much-loved local landmark, Op Het Dak, which translates to “on the roof”. A popular brunch hotspot, you have to walk over a bright yellow bridge, known locally as Luchtsingel to get there. Then, it’s up a lift to the top floor where you’ll find a café flooded with natural light. Tables overlook a rooftop garden with gorgeous views across Rotterdam. I enjoyed the Brekkie dish: an oven-baked pancake topped with an egg sunny side up, mushy pea and mint with Booji cheese and salad.
Just around the corner lies Hiphophuis, a thriving community that shares a love of hip hop and street art. They’ve been around since 2002 and host lots of events, classes and open DJ sessions. I met its director Aruna Vermeulen who said: “Everyone uplifts each other here. There’s real energy.”
You can see what makes it unique and see what’s on during your city break. I was lucky to catch some dance competitions outside the venue from members who attend the organisation’s lively dance classes.
People walking across the Luchtsingel. Photography by Iris van den Broek
Hiphophuis. Image courtesy of Rotterdam Partners
Saturday night music and dinner in a former swimming pool
Saturday isn’t Saturday without a little music and dancing. A recommended nightspot is WORM on Witte de Withstraat, an area that has gone through massive regeneration.
Speaking to its director, Janpier Brands, you gain an understanding of local attitudes to gentrification.
He said: “This area used to see a lot of shootings and there were prostitutes, too. In the last decade, all that has gone. Gentrification is happening. Buildings are being torn down. We want to try and avoid this special area becoming too commercial and ruining itself. We’re asking, how can we develop this further but maintain the quality of the streets? Retail, social housing, art and culture – how can we do good? WORM has a role to play in this. We’re working with the city council to help.”
Janpier is just one of the many people I met during my weekend break who love their city. There’s a local pride I’ve not seen elsewhere in a long time. It’s refreshing.
Witte de Withstraat. Photography by Iris van den Broek. Courtesy of the photographer and Rotterdam Partners.
With that thought in mind, I headed over to a former swimming pool that’s now a restaurant. Aloha Bar has an outdoor terrace overlooking the Nieuwe Mass and the famous Erasmusbrug bridge. Not a bad spot to watch the sunset.
Another restaurant to try is Vislokaal Kaap, serving organic fish, seafood and vegetarian dishes on Delistraat. Go big and order the Fruits de Mer Kaap – oysters, shrimps, crab claws and winkles.
Or if that doesn’t take your fancy, there’s the Fenix Food Factory opposite, a food market with lots of different options. Here you’ll also find famous local brewers Kaapse, where there’s usually a line out the door. Take your beer and food out onto the market’s terrace that overlooks the water, and you’ve got yourself a perfect people-watching spot.
And if you’ve still got some energy left, right next door is the Dutch Pinball Museum. Yes, that’s right. A building full of a hundred pinball machines from different generations that you can also play. Hours of fun.
Aloha. Image courtesy of Rotterdam Partners
Mensen at the Fenix Food Factory terrace. Photography by Iris van den Broek
Sunday art and yet more delicious food
There wasn’t much time left before my Sunday evening flight home. So I popped along to Atelier van Lieshout to see their latest exhibition Secret Society. Set inside former industrial buildings, it’s an incredible space to discover some new art while gaining an understanding of Rotterdam’s heritage.
After catching a water taxi from a nearby pier (which can be booked in advance and is a great way to see Rotterdam from the water), I went for lunch at Weelde, renowned as a “free state” in Rotterdam. They grow a lot of produce in a big greenhouse on-site, and there’s always a lot of music and art to enjoy over a delicious baked artichoke and fresh salad.
Finally, back in the city centre, I’d recommend hiring a bike, particularly if you’re a keen cyclist. Not only is it a wonderful feeling to be a respected road user, but it’s also just a lovely way to see Rotterdam. It was the perfect end to a creative, cultural and bohemian spirited weekend in the Netherlands’ second-largest city.
Weelde. Image courtesy of Rotterdam Partners
Cyclists ride past the Cruise Terminal. Photography by Iris van den Broek
When to go
Not surprisingly, Rotterdam has cultural events throughout the year. Art Rotterdam kicks off each February with events, exhibitions and workspaces happening all over. During the same month, you can also enjoy IFFR, an annual film festival, not to be missed.
But that’s just a glimpse at what’s happening. You can discover more festivals, shows, exhibitions and events at rotterdam.info.
How to get there
Fly to Amsterdam and take an express train to Rotterdam. Simple. After just 25 minutes of speeding past flat Dutch countryside, you arrive in the Netherlands’ second-largest city after Amsterdam.
If flying isn’t your thing, then Eurostar offers direct trains from London to Rotterdam. Unlike airports, you don’t have to worry about how many liquids you can take with you. No, ‘Is toothpaste considered a liquid?’ worries (if it’s “spreadable”, it’s a liquid) or having to wait for your hand luggage to be checked again. Just sit back, relax, and you’ll be in Rotterdam in three hours.
Creative Boom would like to thank Rotterdam Partners for making this article possible and for such an enjoyable trip to Rotterdam.