When I first came to Rotterdam six years ago it was a hard place to live. Home to Europe’s biggest port, it was gritty, urban and intimidating. They called it the city without a heart, and instead of trying to understand why, I’d flee up to pretty, polished Amsterdam at every opportunity. Luckily, time forced me to look closer at Rotterdam.
To understand the city, you have to understand its history. At the onset of World War II, Rotterdam’s historic centre was levelled by bombs, humbling this proud city. In the following years, the focus was on rebuilding, not aesthetics.
As I began to understand the city, I realised the people weren’t gruff, but hardworking and resilient. Looking past the urban grit, I started to see seasonal beauty: barbecues in the parks in summer and ice skating on canals during winter. And as time changed the way I saw the city, the city also changed. This has been Rotterdam’s year, with rapid regeneration allowing new areas to shine. Over the river, a new pedestrian bridge from the Wilhelmina Pier to the Katendrecht has brought new energy to a rough area.
In the north, the redevelopment of sections of the old Hofbogen overground railway line has drawn favourable comparisons with New York’s High Line. A few blocks north is Rotterdam’s new ‘Zoho’ area — an attempt to create an urban hub in a disused space, complete with repurposed train carriages and community gardens.
Internationally, the focus remains on the city’s architecture, and 2014 has seen a number of new buildings completed, including the De Rotterdam complex, Market Hall and Rotterdam Centraal railway station. While locals are just happy to be done with the construction that blocked bike paths for years, these new developments, along with a flood of trendy hotel openings, have seen Rotterdam appear on many 2014 global ‘hotlists’.
Most Rotterdammers are bemused by all the fuss, however. They’ve always known their city is the place to be. It’s just taken the rest of the world a little while to catch on.
Where to eat
This spring, the Fenix Food Factory (Veerlaan 19) opened in a former warehouse in Katendrecht, creating a space for bakers, cheese makers and brewers of cider, beer and coffee. At the high end of the dining scene, renowned chef Francois Geurds has opened a restaurant in the Hofbogen complex, FG Food Labs (Katshoek 41), with a rooftop garden and food laboratory. For the chef, it’s a chance to experiment with new dishes for FG, his two-Michelin-star restaurant; for diners, it’s a more relaxed and affordable way to try haute cuisine.
Being near the water means the city has great seafood restaurants, like De Matroos en het Meisje (Delistraat 52), in Katendrecht; Dutch celebrity chef Herman den Blijker’s fashionable Las Palmas (Wilhelminakade 330); and Restaurant Zeezout (Westerkade 11), across the river.
The city’s multicultural background is also reflected in its dining options. Indonesian and Suriname food combine spectacularly at Warung Mini (Witte de Withstraat 47) (try the amazing saoto soup), while the upmarket Asian Glories (Leeuwenstraat 15), is a Rotterdam staple.
Elsewhere, you can’t discuss Rotterdam’s food scene without paying homage to its street food. Rotterdam-based chain Bram Ladage makes some of the best fries in Europe, served with lashings of peanut sauce and mayonnaise.
And then there’s Rotterdam’s quirky culinary signature dish, kapsalon: hot chips covered in shawarma, Gouda cheese and salad greens with sauce. Hardly gourmet, but damn tasty.
Art & Design
Located on the Schiekade in the centre, Groos has a smorgasbord of locally designed items, from furniture and homeware to jewellery and food.
Other platforms have emerged for locals to showcase their wares, including Swan Market that’s spread to other Dutch cities since it was set up in 2010 and is now held every six weeks in venues across Rotterdam, although the newly introduced entry fee feels a little greedy.
While most international visitors focus on Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Museumpark 18-20), down the street, with its big-name art collections, the Witte de Withstraat in the city centre has been an important artistic melting pot for years. Each September the street hosts its own three-day arts festival, De Wereld van het Witte de Withkwartier, with parties, performance art and exhibitions.
The street is also home to a number of galleries including Showroom MAMA (Witte de Withstraat 29-31.) and Tent Rotterdam (Witte de Withstraat 50). One of the staples of the Witte de With art scene is De Aanschouw (Witte de Withstraat 80), a small gallery whose reputation belies its size. Every Thursday night at 9pm, the front window display is changed. This has become something of a ritual, with people gathering around it, eager to see what’s going to be unveiled next.
This relaxed anything-goes attitude is typical of the Netherlands. While you may have to wait a little for service (not a cultural strong point), you won’t ever be moved along if you’re just hanging out with friends, nursing a drink.
Most of the younger crowd favour at the bars along Stadhuisplein in the centre. But the drinking scene does offer more sophisticated options. Blender mixes designer cocktails, while trendy Café LaBru (Hartmansstraat 18a. T: 00 31 10 737 1205) is popular for its gin menu, stocking locally made favourite, Bobby’s gin. The arrival of speakeasy, De Docter, has added a touch of exclusive flair. There’s no address, just phone a number — and an anxious wait for your booking to be confirmed.
Rotterdam is also a festival city. From F1 car demos at VKV City Racing Rotterdam, to the International Film Festival Rotterdam and North Sea Jazz Festival. Much of the associated fringe events fill up venues such as Bird (Raampoortstraat 26-28), a popular after-party spot. And there are quirky events, including Wednesday Night Skate, in which crowds skate the streets on summer nights behind music trucks — a great example of how this city does things its own way.
Top 10 local tips
02 Get a trim at the New York Barbershop (voted Best International Barbershop 2013).
03 Take a water taxi to see the city skyline from a different perspective.
04 Check out The Dark Room, a permanent exhibition at the Nederlands Fotomuseum.
05 Get your nails done at 1950s-style salon The Leopard Lounge.
06 Head to riverside Delfshaven for cafes, windmills and harbour life.
07 If the canals freeze over, pick up a pair of skates from the shops on the Lijnbaan and join the locals having fun on the ice.
08 Do as the locals do: hire a bike at Rotterdam Centraal railway station.
09 Grab a coffee at Posse Espressobar.
10 Step back to the 1950s on the painstakingly restored SS Rotterdam, a floating hotel moored in Katendrecht.
Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card. RRP: £9.99 (Tor Books). Bestselling young-adult dystopian fiction, set in a futuristic Rotterdam.
Wallpaper* City Guide Rotterdam 2014, by various. RRP: £9.99 (Phaidon). Great guide to the city’s design, art and architectural highlights.
The Girl from Rotterdam: Memories of the war in Holland, by Elisabeth de Graaff. RRP: $9.99 (£6.20) (iUniverse). WWII biography of a Rotterdam teen.
De Marathon (2012). Mechanics train for the Rotterdam Marathon.
Who Am I? Jackie Chan uses the city of Rotterdam as his personal martial arts gym in this cheesy 1998 spy thriller.
Reykjavík-Rotterdam. 2010 Icelandic thriller set partly in the Port of Rotterdam.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)