With a thriving young community, world-class restaurants and an endless supply of must-see attractions, there's so much more to Rotterdam than its famous shipping port
Rotterdam may not spring to mind as a destination for a weekend break (its Dutch sibling, Amsterdam, has a habit of stealing the limelight) but to miss it would be to miss out. Scratch beneath the surface, and it quickly becomes clear that bohemian Rotterdam – home to the largest port in Europe – is a vibrant metropolis, brimming with cultural attractions. And at less than an hour's flight time from the UK, it’s ideal for a whirlwind weekend away.
After Rotterdam was heavily bombed during World War Two, much of it had to be rebuilt. From the 1950s onwards, there was a focus on transforming the city into an innovative new centre of contemporary design and this resulted in an intriguing blend of architectural styles, from the futuristic Erasmus Bridge, nicknamed The Swan (De Zwaan), to the quirky Cube Houses built by architect Piet Blom in 1984. It’s a youthful city, constantly evolving, and it’s easy to be drawn into the buzz around the centre of town, where hip boutiques jostle for space with trend-setting design stores and lively restaurants.
As soon as I arrived, I boarded a speedboat for a water-taxi tour. It's a great way to get your bearings and see much of the city in a short space of time. Rotterdam is situated on the banks of the Nieuwe Maas, one of the channels in the delta formed by the Rhine and Meuse rivers, which divides the northern and southern parts. A deep-water channel, the New Waterway connects the town with the North Sea at the Hook of Holland.
We zoomed past the 186-metres-tall Euromast lookout tower, which has long been a major tourist attraction, and got a close-up look at the impressive, soon-to-open Cruise Hotel. The SS Rotterdam was formerly the most prestigious ship of the Holland America Line and will soon provide a quirky base for visiting tourists, complete with a theatre and museum on board. Bedrooms, thankfully with portholes, are divided into themes (Original, Manhattan and Bahamas), to illustrate the extensive worldwide journeys of the ship.
Having worked up an appetite, we returned to dry land and made our way to Parkheuvel restaurant (Heuvellaan 21; +31 10 43 60 530; www.parkheuvel.nl), which has a peaceful terrace overlooking the Maas, for lunch. Chef Erik van Loo gives ingredients an experimental twist and we feasted on lobster with cured ham and melon, tender rack of lamb and mouth-wateringly good sea bass. Raspberries stuffed with white chocolate mousse and a white chocolate and rum milkshake were the icing on the cake. With a Michelin star to its name, Parkheuvel is pricey but worth splashing out on, and deserves its standing among Holland’s hottest restaurants.
Next, it was time for some sightseeing. Rotterdam has a raging art scene, and fascinating museums include the Netherlands Architecture Institute, the Boijmans Van Beuningen – housing fine art from greats like Monet, Dali and Van Gogh - and the Kunsthal, with an eclectic display of old and new art. Kids will love the Natural History Museum, with its giant stuffed prehistoric mammals, and the Diergaarde Blijdorp Zoo (www.rotterdamzoo.nl; adult admission €18 and free for under-threes), which has a long, clear shark tunnel that visitors can walk through. Having made friends with the polar bears at the zoo, we then enjoyed the photography on display at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, especially the 'Contemporary Brazil' exhibition, which runs until late September 2009.
Arriving back at boutique hotel Suitehotel Pincoffs (rooms from €125), we gratefully rested our weary feet. Set in an attractive former 19th-century customs office building in the trendy Kop van Zuid area, it nestles next to a charming quayside. With fantastic river and bridge views through soaring windows, our spacious suite had an enormous comfortable bed, beautiful original fireplace and freestanding bath. We had to practically tear ourselves away to see more of the city’s sights.
That evening we were in for a culinary treat at Amarone (Meent 72A; +31 10 414 84 87; www.restaurantamarone.nl), a stylish, candlelit restaurant in the heart of town with an open kitchen and excellent French-Mediterranean cuisine. Chef Gert Blom’s signature dishes include thinly sliced scallops with hazelnut, truffle and pecorino foam. Everything was absolutely superb, and the three preparations of lamb (neck, leg and fillet) were to die for.
After dark, Rotterdam is no less appealing; in fact the city is in its element, showing off a diverse and unpretentious nightlife scene. As well as countless late-night clubs such as Maassilo and Off_Corso, pulsating with everything from Euro pop to Latin house, there are sleek bars including Bar Soho, known for its mean mojitos.
After a fun night out on the tiles and indulgent lie-in the morning after, it was time to hit the shops. Areas and streets for cutting-edge fashion and unusual design objects include the Meent, Linjbaan, Witte de Withstraat, Coolsingel and Van Oldebarneveldstraat. The Kruiskade is home to shoe store Shoebaloo, converted from a former cinema into a spectacular showroom, and fashion victims will love So.eve on Karel Doormanstraat for clothes by D&G, Drykorn and RED Valentino. Face 1 Design on the Meet sells beautiful gifts and accessories for the home. We filled up some bags and surveyed our purchases over lunch at Dudok, a buzzy and reasonably priced brasserie on the Meent. Bazar on Witte de Withstraat is another hot tip for lunch.
To sum up, Rotterdam is unbeatable for an action-packed weekend break. Arrive on Friday morning, launch straight into sampling the world-class restaurants and varied nightlife, satisfy your inner culture vulture with some art browsing on Saturday and shop till you drop until boarding time on Sunday. At just 45 minutes' flight time from London, there’s really no excuse not to!
- Take a harbour tour by Spido boat (www.spido.nl; €9.25 per adult for a 75-minute trip) to voyage among the shipyards, docks and busy traffic of sea-going and inland ships
- Sample the finest, freshest seafood at Las Palmas (www.engelgroep.com), a short stroll from Suitehotel Pincoffs. It has the buzzy atmosphere of a fish market and serves a killer bouillabaisse and abundant shellfish
- Get a bird's eye view of the city from the top of the Euromast (www.euromast.nl). New high-speed automatic elevators swoosh you up to the platforms, then take the Space Cabin to experience the sensation of a rocket launch
- Have a dining experience you’ll never forget at The Ivy (www.restaurantivy.nl). Head chef François Geurds (formerly of the Fat Duck in England) takes you on a journey of the senses, using clever techniques like ice filtration
- Make like a local and hop onto the user-friendly subway and tram systems to get around. They’re clean, quick and refreshingly straightforward to navigate
When to go
There’s never a dull moment whatever time you visit Rotterdam, with cultural events and activities going on year-round. Throughout 2009 and 2010, Rotterdam is a designated Holland Art City, part of an extensive cultural extravaganza that sees it joining forces with Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, to host various arty attractions. Other highlights include the International Film Festival Rotterdam each January, and the annual North Sea Jazz Festival, the biggest jazz festival in the world.
From November 2, 2009, low cost Dutch airline transavia.com (www.transavia.com, 0906 680 0065) flies up to twice daily between London Gatwick and Rotterdam from £46 one way including taxes.
The centre of the city is only about five miles from the airport; expect a €25 cab fare. Alternatively, the RET Airport Shuttle 33 connects it to the centre, takes 20 minutes and costs less than €3.
For more information on what to see and do, visit the Rotterdam Marketing website: www.rotterdam.info/uk