Nicknamed “Manhattan on the Maas,” Rotterdam is a shiny, new city rising phoenixlike from the ashes of its destruction in 1 terrible night during World War II. With only wisps of the old gabled townhouses left around Delfshaven and Oude Haven, this is a skyline of innovative buildings, its iconic landmark the elegant lines of the Erasmusbrug cable bridge, nicknamed “the Swan” (or, if you're not quite as charmed by its looks, "the Dishwashing Brush") and floodlit at night.
Near Oude Haven is the geometric chaos of cube-shaped, custard-yellow Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses); they were designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom in the early 1970s and are quite a sight. One of these lopsided little abodes, the Kijk-Kubus (Show-Cube), Overblaak 70 (www.kubuswoning.nl; tel. 010/414-2285), is open for visits daily 11am to 6pm. Admission is 3€ for adults, 2€ for seniors and students, 1.50€ for children 4 to 12.
Skyscrapers glitter in the burgeoning downtown area and around the banks of the River Maas, where abandoned wharves have all but disappeared under a slew of stylish new builds. As the city’s heavy industry migrated northwest towards the North Sea, the old port district of Wilhelminapier has been revamped with innovative skyscrapers, including the Norman Foster-designed World Port Center, the 44-story Maastoren (currently The Netherlands’ tallest office building), the all-white New Orleans apartment tower, and Rem Koolhaas’ colossal glassy De Rotterdam complex; all can be seen on a boat tour of the harbor (see below).
Koolhaas designed the Museumpark’s Kunsthal Rotterdam in the 1990s, setting a precedent for stylish public buildings that has been followed by the red-brick New Luxor Theatre, the frothy bubbles of the Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion) in the Rijnhaven, and the dynamic Red Apple apartment block. In 2014 the futuristic, tunnel-shaped indoor food market Markethal (Market Hall) opened, featuring a massive arched ceiling covered with colorful, cartoonish images of produce; the same year, the remodeled Rotterdam Centraal train station unveiled a striking angular metal-clad roof. More innovative architectural projects are slated for the city, including the transformation of the historic former post office—one of the few buildings left standing after the 1940 Rotterdam Blitz.
Not all of Rotterdam is spanking new. Take the Metro to the tiny harbor area known as Delfshaven (Delft Harbor), a neighborhood the German bombers somehow missed. Historically this is one of the most important places in Europe for U.S. citizens, for it was from here that the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers embarked on the first leg of their trip to found Massachusetts in 1620. Wander into the 15th-century Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim Fathers Church), Aelbrechtskolk 20 (www.oudeofpelgrimvaderskerk.nl), in which the pilgrims prayed before departure, and where they are remembered in special services every Thanksgiving Day. The church is open irregularly, but at least admission is free. Then peek into antiques stores and galleries, and check on the progress of this historic area’s housing renovations.
The Port of Rotterdam handles more ships and more cargo every year than any other port in Europe -- 37,000 ships and 400 million metric tons of cargo. A dredged channel, the Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) connects Rotterdam with the North Sea and forms a 32km-long (20-mile) deepwater harbor known as Europoort. Holland owes a fair piece of its prosperity to the port, which employs directly 60,000 people. But the port has a dark side, too: Rotterdam is a center for big-time international drug-dealers and gunrunners.
You may think visiting a harbor is boring business on a vacation, but Rotterdam's is one of the most memorable sights in Holland. Container ships, bulk carriers, tankers, sleek greyhounds of the sea, and careworn tramps are waited on by a vast retinue of machines and people. Trucks, trains, and barges, each carrying its little piece of the action, hurry into and out of the hub. You feel dwarfed by the hulking oil tankers and container ships that glide like giant whales into their berths along the miles of docks.
Windmills of Kinderdijk
The sight of windmill sails spinning in the breeze stirs the soul of a true Hollander. Kinderdijk (www.kinderdijk.nl), a tiny community between Rotterdam and Dordrecht, on the south bank of the Lek River, has 19 water-pumping windmills; that means 76 mill sails, each with a 14-yard span, all revolving on a summer day. It's a spectacular sight, and one important enough for Kinderdijk to have been placed on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
By regulating the level of water, Kinderdijk's windmills guarded the fertile polders (reclaimed land) of the Alblasserwaard, which were constantly at risk of returning to the water. The Windmill Exposition Center at Kinderdijk treats its subjects as more than just pretty faces and gives a detailed explanation of windmills' technical characteristics and the part they played in the intricate system of water control. It also looks at the people and the culture that developed on the polders.
The mills operate on Saturday afternoons in July and August 2:30 to 5:30pm; the visitors’ mill is open March to October daily 9am to 5:30pm and November to February 10am to 4:30pm. The most adrenaline-thumping way to get to Kinderdijk from Rotterdam is by RET high-speed catamaran (www.ret.nl), from the dock adjacent to the Erasmusbrug; this goes to the De Schans dock at Ridderkerk for the local ferry across to Kinderdijk. If you’re driving, take N210 east to Krimpen aan de Lek, from where a small car ferry crosses over the Lek River to Kinderdijk.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.