Rotterdam is a city of weird, ugly and amazing skylines. It is wonky glass skyscrapers, tall thin Dutch buildings, idealist utopian architecture, concrete boxes that look pulled from Berlin, and small yellow cube houses thrown in to make sure the entire colour palette’s dealt with. It’s unusual for The Netherlands. After being flattened by WWII, it feels like architects were given free range on various plots of land to create something new in each. It’s also been named one of Lonely Planet’s Cities of 2016, behind Rough Guides and NYT who got their first, and said this in 2014. It’s just four hours door-to-door from London.
It’s a small city that’s easy enough to see and be left hungry in a weekend. I’ve been looking out for places that would make a brilliant weekend away from London without spending too long travelling, and this is one. We stayed for five days and there was still more we could have done. Between coffee, weird buildings, art, shopping in concept stores and whizzing around on hire bikes, there’s lots to do and it’s super relaxed. There’s a good blog post about why the Dutch are (apparently) baffled that tourist seem to love it, and some liken Rotterdam to Berlin in ways, which fails to annoy the un-irkable Dutch.
Despite being the second largest city, it’s also fairly small – or ‘manageable’, you might call it – and is neat for day trips. Rotterdam is also super close to Amsterdam and Utrecht, and even closer to The Hague. There’s a ‘cultural route’ that connects The Hague and Rotterdam (30km) or you can use the insanely good Dutch bike network to cycle to one of the nearby cities (Utrecht would have been the choice, if we’d been armed with road bikes).
Explore awesome architecture
Buildings are brilliant and you can go on tours of them. Alternatively, if not so much your thing they also tend to hold really good things inside them too. Like modern art or cake. There are a lot of structures and buildings that appear in endlessly curated lists around the web (e.g. here). Or this one, or this one which has a video too.
The Erasmus bridge is very famous and important to cycle back and forth across, or at least peer at (and you can’t really miss it). Silly cyclist included for scale.
One of my favourite buildings are the row of yellow cubes that sit at 45 degrees, which sit as part of a bridge across a main road been converted into a cheap hostel. We did this. It’s no AirBnB homeliness but starting the day exiting through a forrest of yellow cubes each morning is fun, if you’re big on yellow cubes.
This flat block looked like a Dutch version of the Barbican and we kept finding ways to end up cycling past it.
Rent a dodgy bike
Not obligatory but very important. Rotterdam is small and relaxed, and you can pedal around it on an old heavy bike. The cycle lanes system – which the Dutch have nailed – looks a bit like being on a system of pseudo-roads and it’s all very fun. The way that everyone cycles is unsurprising but always wonderful to see in action (and no one really used their car horns either – I didn’t realise until we were back in London what an absence that was). Whizzing around Rotterdam and seeing all the buildings fly past is my favourite way to see things rather than schlepping about – I’d rather zip around and be pleasantly surprised as I go. It feels more like you’re a living part of the city, not just looking on.
There’s a tree in Rotterdam we cycled past every day that has a tiny wheel hanging from a branch. And the wheel has lots of colourful spokey-dokes things on it, too. And I cycled past it and grin like a tit.
Eat, drink and see
There were SO many good places to eat and drink and see and do. Here are some things we went to: my favourites are listed super quickly, because there are such things as travel guides and Google Local for a reason.
There’s the excellent and vast Keith Haring exhibition, ‘The Political Line’ on until February ’16 at the Kunsthal. His first exhibition outside of the USA took place in Rotterdam in 1982 and his drawings are peppered around town because of this year’s show. Sijf nearby is lovely for one of many beers after, when it starts raining incredibly hard.
Moored at the east of the port is dinner on a boat at Vessel 11 – Rotterdam’s answer to a British gastro pub which continues to be very Dutch and is insanely charming.
Further east near the east station, Rotterdam Blaak are the Cube Houses near where we stayed and there’s a bundle of brilliant places around there, too. You can nip in and see a ‘design museum’ version of a yellow cube building which looks a lot more swish than the inside of the hostel. Restaurant Pickinick is a really relaxed wholesome restaurant, Urban 9 for more coffee. An old church called Laurenskerk is the only genuinely old building I remember seeing, too.
Near the Centraal station, Lokaal is a beautiful gold-leaf tinged coffee shop and concept store Groos is just around the corner for a necessary stop at a concept store (and a lot of the stuff they stock’s nice). Time it right, and on the very top of the building, above the 6th floor on the roof, there’s a beautiful cafe space that grows its own food on rooftop allotments.
There’s also a yellow bridge, which I am unsurprisingly a big fan of, along with a bunch of odd street art pieces along the way.
Go south of the port for what used to be Chinatown but is now full of bare looking buildings turned into 60s-style coffee shops in Kopi SoeSoe’s case and a brewery, De Kaapse Brouwers, in a big food hall. There’s a thin pedestrian-bike bridge that connects it, for a good wander.
Hunt green spaces
There are a lot of gorgeous green areas that we didn’t have a chance to make it out to. This alternative guide to Rotterdam’s green spaces picked up at Simple Bike looked brilliant and included places like Kralingse Bos – a huge lake and wooded area. Most of the areas are slightly outside of the city but sound worth the hunt.
Rotterdam is brilliant and travelling is magic. I find myself almost scared in the time we travel home, that somehow I will simply forget how easy it is to move and blow your mind.