While Europe’s busiest port may not sound like a tourist hotspot, I recently discovered Rotterdam to be a vibrant, lively, and cosmopolitan European city that offers fascinating contemporary architecture and is a significant historical place. This is even more remarkable, considering it was mostly levelled during World War II.

The Netherlands‘s second-largest city of 624,000 residents is where the 1,230-km-long Rhine River enters the North Sea. It originates in the glacial peaks of the Alps and flows through several Western European nations before flowing through the Netherlands.

My map of Rotterdam didn’t refer to the Rhine, but I discovered later that the river splits into several channels near its mouth, with Rotterdam situated on one known as the Nieuwe Meuse.

Not surprisingly, Europe’s busiest port constantly flows with river traffic, with boats and barges moving up and down, loading and unloading goods for and from all parts of the world.

One of the best ways to appreciate this is to join a Spido riverboat cruise that lasts just over an hour and provides the best way to orient oneself to several city sights. Water taxis also crisscross the river for speedy access to riverine sights.

While the riverbanks are lined with ships and container terminals of many descriptions, many historical references, including sailing ships and windmills, made me appreciate just how important Rotterdam is in global history.

Left: A few historic references remain in a city dominated by post World War II architecture. Right: The historic riverside precinct of Delfshaven is where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America in 1620.

In the historic riverside precinct of Delfshaven, I discovered that the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from here in July 1620. A little over 400 years ago, the pilgrims set off from the nearby town of Leiden and then set sail from Delfshaven on the Speedwell en route to Plymouth and then to America.

In Plymouth, they changed from the leaking Speedwell to the Mayflower and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to establish the first European settlement in North America. Today, some 30 million Americans can trace their ancestry to the passengers or crew of the Mayflower.

Rotterdam was also a departure point for many migrants who later headed off to the United States to what was known as the ‘promised land’. The Holland Amerika Lijn (Holland America Line) arranged many trips from their headquarters in Rotterdam on ships such as the SS Rotterdam.

Launched in 1958, the SS Rotterdam was retired in 2000 and is now a hotel.

The 228-metre-long vessel was built in 1958 and decommissioned in 2000 before being converted to a hotel, and is now moored near the famous Hotel New York. Both have been refurbished, and the SS Rotterdam now accepts guests rather than passengers.

The Hotel New York was the former headquarters for Holland Amerika Lijn Rotterdam.

Rotterdam was also one of several ports the Dutch East India Company used, which was instrumental in developing trade between Asia and Europe. The Dutch settled in Malacca (Melaka) and imported European goods into the region while exporting Malayan products to the world. Malacca was a key port in the spice trade that saw highly prized Asian spices such as nutmeg and mace exported to Europe.

Just near Rotterdam’s 800-metre-long Erasmus Bridge (also known as ‘De Zwaan’ or ‘The Swan’), there is a row of warehouses with the names Borneo, Java, and Sarawak displayed on their streetside façades. The Borneo warehouse refers to what is now Indonesian Kalimantan, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies.

Modern-day Rotterdam is a city with bold architecture, with most landmark buildings being erected following the devastation of World War II. The building that most impressed me was Markthal, a modern European market with a lively ambience of restaurants and fresh produce stalls beneath the colourful and contemporary graphics that adorn the interior ceiling.

The roof is a large arch that’s home to residential accommodation. Open-air markets on the Binnenrotte in front of Markthal are staged every Tuesday and Saturday and are very popular, with local residents stocking up on fresh produce and clothes.

Markthal Rotterdam is a mixed residential and office complex with a vibrant market.

Just adjacent to Markthal is the whimsical, surreal forest of topsy-turvy Cube Houses, designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom in 1977. These residential homes look like violent earth movements have upended them as they tilt 45o to a level cube.

Image by Richard Ciraulo.

The architecture of Rotterdam Centraal Station is impressive not only for its stainless steel cladding but also for its efficient functionality as a public transport node. Regional, Metro, and Paris-Amsterdam high-speed trains, buses, and trams all operate from or through Rotterdam Centraal.

Centraal Station Rotterdam is a transport hub including high-speed rail.

Another striking landmark is the stylish 44-storey De Rotterdam, the tallest building in the nation. Visit and take in the dramatic views from the nhow Rotterdam Hotel located in De Rotterdam, and indulge yourself at its cocktail bar terrace and restaurant on the seventh floor.

Take in the views of the river and Erasmusbrug from the terrace bar in the nhow Rotterdam. (Image courtesy of nhow Rotterdam Hotel.)

Order signature drinks like Vørding’s Rose Gin and Royal Bliss Tonic and enjoy the ever-changing river views. The bar specialises in gin cocktails, with several offerings served close to where they are produced in nearby Schiedam. Schiedam, Rotterdam’s Distillers District, is lined with romantic canals, drawbridges, windmills, and gin distillers in what was once the international heart of the gin industry. Family-owned distillery Herman Jansen has been producing award-winning gins here since 1777.

Enjoy a signature rose gin cocktail at the terrace bar at nhow Rotterdam Hotel. (Image courtesy of nhow Rotterdam Hotel.)

Rotterdam is an exceptionally flat cosmopolitan city, with the world’s flattest marathon being contested in the city. The city also has a sizeable student population, so there’s an energetic nightlife and restaurant scene, and many parts are accessible by public transport or bike pathways.

Being a flat city, Rotterdam is an excellent destination to discover by bike. (Image by micheile henderson.)

Witte de Withstraat, near the city’s cultural heart, is Rotterdam’s coolest food and bar street. It has outlets such as SOJUBAR (Korean), Hung Kee (Chinese), Yama (Japanese), De Witte Aap (bar), and Jaffa Shoarma (Middle East). You can enjoy a drink or meal here after visiting renowned museums such as Boijmans Van Beuningen, the Kunsthal, the Chabot Museum, or the Natural History Museum.

For fine dining in Michelin-star restaurants, seek out Gastrobar Ster, The Millén, Putaine, Héroine, Yano, and Aji. At its Pannekoekenstraat location, which is trending towards being the new Witte de Withstraat, Aji serves a fusion of local, Asian, and South American flavours.

Another personal favourite dining destination is Foodhallen, a repurposed warehouse now home to food stalls selling Mediterranean, Indonesian, Surinamese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, and Chinese cuisines in a funky, industrial setting.

Rotterdam is a city riding a wave of urban development, redevelopment, and regeneration, and its vibrant architecture is well worth admiring on your next European holiday.

Image by Mike van den Bos.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is one of the leading European carriers that fly direct daily from Kuala Lumpur to Europe. Passengers depart from Kuala Lumpur in the late evening and touch down in Amsterdam at sunrise. Schiphol Airport is a regional hub for KLM, with connecting flights all over Europe.

Frequent train services operate to Rotterdam, just 30 minutes to the south. For travellers planning to explore more of Holland and Europe, the most convenient travel mode is by train, which offers the best-valued tickets offered by Rail Europe.

A Eurail Pass is an all-in-one train ticket, offering travellers flexible access to many trains across Europe. Eurail Pass holders can go wherever they want and whenever they want. Alternatively, single tickets to Rotterdam can be purchased at Schiphol Airport.

For stunning views, the 278-room nhow Rotterdam Hotel operated by NH Hotels is ideally located in De Rotterdam, overlooking the river.

Check out Rotterdam Tourism’s website for more information. There is a tourism office on the concourse of Rotterdam Centraal where value-for-money day passes on the city’s transport system are sold. The Rotterdam Welcome Card provides free use of public transport and discounts to attractions, museums, and some restaurants.

All images are courtesy of the author unless stated otherwise.