Edgy, vibrant and eclectic Rotterdam traces its roots back 750 years, when people began settling around a new dam harnessing the River Rotte. Reduced to a blank canvas by the Luftwaffe in 1940, Rotterdam became a post-war design playground for visionary architects. Scratch below the surface, however, and you’ll find reminders of a more distant past, as our local correspondent Tim Skelton discovers.
To see how Rotterdam once looked, ride the metro to Delfshaven, a picturesque district that miraculously escaped the war unscathed. It’s an open-air museum with gabled houses lining pretty canal waterfronts, and with a working windmill at one end. Don’t miss a visit to the Pilgrim Fathers’ Church (Aelbrechtskolk 20). Originally built in 1417 as the Chapel of St Anthony, it gained its current name from being the site where a group of English Puritans prayed on the evening before sailing for the Americas aboard the Speedwell in July 1620 (albeit they were forced to switch to the more seaworthy Mayflower en route). Another great building clinging doggedly to the past is the St Laurenskerk (Grotekerkplein 27). Founded in 1449, this great church was the only medieval building in the centre to survive the bombs. Time your visit for a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon in summer and you can climb the soaring tower for stunning views.
As Europe’s busiest port, Rotterdam is proud of its seafaring connections. To learn all about this watery bond, make a beeline for the Maritime Museum Rotterdam (Leuvehaven 1, 010 413 2680). A highlight for many is a large interactive multimedia presentation about the workings of the vast seaport, showing how the area has developed over time. But arguably the most prized exhibit is the 15th-century wooden Mataró, believed to be the world’s oldest model ship.
The museum sits at one end of the Leuvehaven dock, and the historic ships moored along the quay form the Havenmuseum (Leuvehaven 50, 010 404 8072). You can board some to look around, or admire their elegance from dry land. One standout is the De Buffel warship. First built in 1868, it’s been sumptuously restored and fitted out with authentic touches, such as the mahogany-lined captain’s cabin.
A somewhat younger leviathan is moored three kilometres to the south. The 228-metre SS Rotterdam (3e Katendrechtse Hoofd 25, 010 297 3090) was built in the 1950s and plied a route back and forth across the Atlantic as the flagship of the Holland America Line. It’s now a floating hotel, where you can stop by for a drink and a look around.
Windmills are everywhere in the Netherlands, and Rotterdam has the most famous examples in the country. Some 14 kilometres southeast from the centre is Kinderdijk, where you’ll encounter the romantic sight of 19 mills stretched out along a rural canal. They date back to 1740 and their former job was to drain water from the surrounding polder. There’s usually at least one interior open to visitors, so you can check out how the millers and their families once lived.
You'll find half a dozen oddly tall windmills clustered in Schiedam, a few minutes west of Rotterdam by metro. There were once 20 here, and they were built high above the surrounding buildings to compete for wind. They were used to grind malt for the town’s many jenever (Dutch gin) distilleries, about which you can learn more by visiting the National Jenever Museum (Lange Haven 74-76, Schiedam, 010 246 9676).
From Hieronymus Bosch to Piet Mondriaan, Dutch painters have long enjoyed a global reputation. And if you want to see works by the best artists from the 14th to the 20th century, look no further than the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Museumpark 18-20, 010 441 9400). One of the country’s finest galleries, it’s home to works by Flemish and Dutch masters including Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Rubens, as well as others by such international greats as Dalí, Magritte and Warhol.
The World Museum (Willemskade 25, 010 270 7172) takes a different approach. Its art collection is devoted to non-Western cultures, including some pieces that are around 2,000 years old. Reflecting the diverse people who have passed through or moved to Rotterdam through the ages, it tells the story of how the port’s global links helped to create today’s multicultural metropolis.
In amongst its hundreds of glitzy modern bars, Rotterdam still finds room for places where you can sip a drink in historic surrounds. Now overshadowed by neighbouring skyscrapers, the Hotel New York (Koninginnenhoofd 1, 010 439 0500) was once the HQ of the Holland America Line shipping company. Built in Jugendstil style in 1901, its mosaic-tiled-floor bar is an atmospheric spot for an aperitif or a bite to eat.
The 1904 building housing the Locus Publicus (Oostzeedijk 364, 010 433 1761) is another great escape story: it was left untouched by the 1940 bombs even though buildings across the street were destroyed. It was originally a grocery – as evidenced by its tiled wall friezes depicting farming scenes – but is now a charming pub. In winter you can even warm your feet around a wood fire as you choose from its menu of 250 different beers.
For an even more characterful drink, head to De Pelgrim (Aelbrechtskolk 12, 010 477 1189), a brewpub beside Delfshaven’s Pilgrim Fathers’ Church. Arrive on a quieter afternoon and you may only be disturbed by the occasional chiming of the pub clock. The Puritans met up here before leaving for America in 1620, and there’s a passenger list from the Mayflower on the wall.