As a tourist destination, Rotterdam often flies under the radar of international tourists. As the the second-most populous city in the Netherlands, it invites unwarranted comparisons to Amsterdam, but tourists who expect to find just another Amsterdam will be disappointed - the history and people of Rotterdam have endowed it with a character that is uniquely its own.
One of the first observations that visitors make is that Rotterdam scarcely looks like a typical Dutch city, and it's not: the city center was razed by aerial attacks in World War II, and the present cityscape, with few exceptions, dates from the post-war era, when Rotterdam established the unique architectural sensibility that's become its trademark.
Architecture buffs will stare in wonder at the bold experimentalism of the Kubus apartments, a series of apartments in the shape of tilted cubes at the city's Old Harbor (one model apartment is open to visitors); the canonical Huis Sonnevelt, the pet project of two Dutch architects of the 1930s "Nieuwe Bouwen" movement (see under Arts & Culture, below); and countless other examples of novel post-war architecture.
Rotterdam is also the pinnacle of Dutch multiculturalism: half of its residents have at least one parent who was born outside the Netherlands. This translates to a cosmopolitan city where the imprint of diverse ethnicities - from the substantial Antillean and Cape Verdean communities to Rotterdam's own Chinatown - can be seen. Delve into the multicultural mix with a trip to the Wereldmuseum (World Museum; see below).
Not far from the pristine new Central Station is also one of the country's best attractions for kids - the modern and spacious Rotterdam Zoo.
Rotterdam as a Port City
Of all its attributes, Rotterdam is perhaps most famous as one of the world's busiest ports, a distinction it shares with several Asian cities but is unique on the European continent. Visitors shouldn't pass up a stop at the Havenmuseum (Harbor Museum), a free open-air museum which - save for the museum pavilion - never closes its doors; here, visitors can marvel at historic ships from the period 1850 to 1970, moored at Rotterdam's oldest harbor.
Naval buffs will also want to check out the Maritime Museum, where several concurrent exhibits touch on different facets of maritime history; Museumschip Buffel (Museum Ship The Buffalo), a boardable restored marine ship, is a visitor favorite.
Museum Rotterdam, while not a maritime museum per se, can hardly avoid reference to the city's maritime importance; amid its Old Masters, period rooms and other artifacts, the museum's Dubbele Palmboom location, in the maritime district Delfshaven, often features the port in its exhibits.
Arts & Culture in Rotterdam
Rotterdam holds some of the nation's - and Europe's - finest museums and exhibition spaces, and art buffs will find both familiar masterpieces and the latest from the contemporary art world in the compact city center, much of it situated in or around Museumpark.
- No art lover should miss the fantastic Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, a mouthful of a museum whose treasury of Dutch and European art span an impressive chunk of art history: from the Old Masters, to the seminal modern art movements of the 19th- and 20th centuries, and up until the present day. Exhibits are typically enlivened by the museum's penchant for innovation and often quirky sense of humor.
- Another Museumpark favorite is the Kunsthal (Art Hall), an exhibition space that eschews a permanent collection in favor of some 25 spectacular exhibits each year, from retrospectives of world-renowned artists (recent years have seen Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper and Alberto Giacometti) to explorations into current events and popular culture.
- More specialized museums and exhibition centers also abound in Rotterdam. The national architecture museum, the Nederlands Architectuurinstitut (NAi), is entrusted with the documentation and promotion of the Netherlands' rich architectural history. In addition to its three exhibition spaces, the institute also encompasses the Huis Sonnevelt, a 1930s icon of the Dutch "Nieuwe Bouwen" (functionalist) movement; admirers of Le Corbusier will notice the Swiss architect's palpable influence. The Chabot Museum affords visitors the unique opportunity to explore in-depth the life and work of painter/sculptor Henk Chabot, a pioneer of Dutch expressionism.
- Notable museums outside the Museumpark area include the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, which has stimulated minds and artistic sensibilities for more than 20 years with its provocative exhibitions; and the Wereldmuseum (World Museum), which introduces visitors to traditions and trends in the visual arts of the world.
Where to Eat in Rotterdam
Rotterdam's restaurant scene takes its cue from the multicultural currents that pervade the city; diners have their choice of cuisines from all over the Americas, Europe and Asia - the latter at its densest in Rotterdam Chinatown, directly south of Central Station.
- Izkaya - While the name refers to a Japanese concept - an izakaya (with the extra "a") is a bar that serves small dishes with its drinks, not unlike Spanish tapas bars - the menu at Rotterdam's Izkaya takes its cue from all over Asia. Dinners can choose from sharable small or medium dishes that draw from the flavors of Japan, China, Thailand and even India via one of the restaurant's most touted features - the touchscreen menus built into each tabletop. Diners can also use the screen to find out what's on in the city, play an electronic round of Battleship with their tablemates, or even peek into the kitchen via a webcam.
- Parkheuvel - This double-Michelin-starred restaurant is one of Rotterdam's, and the Netherlands', finest; Chef Erik van Loo turns out refined continental cuisine with the occasional Dutch accent - oysters from the province of Zeeland, marinades infused with Dutch spirits, even the skillful incorporation of the traditional pannekoeken - that draws rave reviews from diners and critics.
- Lebkov - This convenient café is just meters from Rotterdam Central Station, where it serves fresh triple-decker sandwiches, soups, salads, snacks, and some of the best coffee in town in its lively, checkered lunchroom.
Get to Rotterdam
Take the train from Amsterdam, or fly directly to Rotterdam - both are convenient options thanks to an efficient rail network and an airport that serves several low-cost airlines.