by Nate Cairney
(right) Rotterdam, Netherlands, skyline with harbor. A major logistic and economic centre, Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port with a population of currently 633,471 inhabitants.
Upon arriving in Rotterdam, the last thing I expected was to feel like I had just stepped into a spaceship. But after entering one of the city’s famous yellow Cube Houses, there was no denying it: I may as well have been on a mission to Mars. Odd angles surrounded me. Open space soared upward and outward. From somewhere upstairs, near where the cube’s walls converged in a sharp point, shouts of joy erupted from our children. They had reached the house’s apex. And it sounded like the view was something special.
The Cube Houses, which were designed and built in the 1970s to resemble an avant garde urban forest, are just one of the fantastic architectural elements that define Rotterdam. The city is home to the Netherlands’ second largest population, Europe’s busiest port, and is arguably one of the most interesting cities on the continent. Beautiful bridges, including the blazing red Willems bridge and the white swan-shaped Erasmus bridge, span the Maas River and are wonderfully illuminated at night. Skyscrapers jut upward at odd angles and give the city’s skyline an eclectic character. The famous Markthall – which lies directly across from the Cube Houses, is a massive glass and steel rainbow-shaped wonder that contains a variety of shops, eateries, and kiosks. Visitors can find art etched into buildings, sketched on murals, tattooed onto locals, and hanging from shopfronts and museums. Rotterdam is a feast for the soul.
The city is also, in many ways, a metaphor for rebirth. Rotterdam didn’t always look like this. Until the spring of 1940, in fact, it was much like any other northern European city, filled with brick buildings, tidy thoroughfares, narrow city streets, and bustling docks. But at the beginning of World War II, when the Dutch government didn’t surrender as quickly as invading German forces demanded, Rotterdam was made an example. The Luftwaffe bombed the city center into near nothingness. The Netherlands formally surrendered the next day.
After World War II, the people of Rotterdam had a blank slate with which to work. From this bleak beginning, they fashioned brilliance as the decades passed. The results today are remarkable: Rotterdam stands as a testament to diversity, creativity, diligence, energy, and possibility.
Even with the emphasis on art and architecture, the city has a humble feel and is very walkable. Restaurants, bars, and cafes can be found along pedestrian plazas and in unique pockets of the city. Rotterdam offers great public transport, friendly locals, and a relative scarcity of history-hunting tourists (for obvious reasons). These elements make it easy to relax and enjoy the serendipitous moments that come with wandering the streets.
And if you have a chance to stay inside one of the Cube Houses, I highly recommend it. When night falls and you find yourself at the top of an angled roof overlooking a glittering city, you’ll feel as though you’ve just been launched into orbit, too.
(right) Oude Delft canal and leaning tower of Gothic Protestant Oude Kerk church at night, Delft, Netherlands.
If you’re spending a few days in Rotterdam, consider a day trip to Delft. Home to Jan Vermeer, famous pottery, solid restaurants, and lovely canals, Delft is an archetypal classic Dutch village that serves as a fine stylistic and cultural contrast to Rotterdam. Plus, it is easily accessible by train from Rotterdam. Make sure you look out for local cyclists, though. They’re everywhere, and they’re faster than you think.