Rotterdam may have its share of attractive canals, charming terraced houses and – just 15km away – towering windmills dating back to the 18th-century. But this port city also has an appetite for the new, from avant-garde architecture to boundary-pushing art. It’s always been pioneering. Its Art Nouveau Witte Huis high-rise building was the first in Europe; its pedestrian shopping street Lijnbaan was revolutionary when it opened in 1953. Rotterdam has become a playground for leading architects, and harbours lofty ambitions to become the world’s most sustainable city before 2025. Get to know this forward-thinking gem with our three-day guide to its most visionary sights.
Wander south to the Kop van Zuid peninsula, with its gleaming high-rises and ingenious floating forest. Afterwards, it’s half an hour’s stroll back to the city centre, for lunch at the Markthal, then a visit to the iconic Cube Houses.
Head across the Erasmus Bridge to Rijnhaven harbour, where you’ll find this pioneering park. Between the Luxor Theatre and a cluster of floating pavilions, 20 Dutch elms gently bob on the waves. They’re planted in brightly painted sea buoys with freshwater reserves, and seem to be thriving after several years afloat. It’s a surreal but strangely relaxing sight – and an excellent photo op.
On the other side of the peninsula, there’s no missing this ‘vertical city’, which soars above the old brick-built warehouses. Designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas, its audacious, aluminium-clad towers are stacked like children’s building blocks. Behind its shape-shifting façade, there are offices, flats and eateries, including the Nhow hotel’s show-stopping seventh-floor bar.
Designed by Dutch architects MVRDV, the city’s space-age food market is playful yet practical. It’s set in a ten-storey arch, stacked with sleek apartments, and protected from the elements by glass-and-steel façades. Inside, the vibrant, mural-painted roof stretches like a psychedelic Sistine Chapel over street-food kiosks selling everything from sushi to stroopwafels.
The now-iconic Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses) are an optical illusion come to life, built in the 1980s by architect Piet Blom. Clustered by the Oude Haven and painted a cheery sunshine-yellow, they’re a series of cube-shaped houses, tilted at unlikely angles. One – the Kijk-Kubus – is now a small museum, where you can marvel at the angular living space and dizzying perspectives.
Things are changing fast in Rotterdam Nord, thanks to a transformative aerial walkway. Head there via another bold addition to the city – the strikingly modern city hall, by architect Rem Koolhaas.
This 15-storey, multi-purpose city hall was dreamt up by OMA, Rem Koolhaas’s boundary-testing architecture firm. Designed as a ‘floating cloud of glass and steel’, it’s a ghost-like addition to the skyline, artfully blending in with the buildings that surround it. Head inside to admire the soaring, steel-framed atrium, then check out Museum Rotterdam’s changing exhibitions.
Built thanks to a crowdfunding campaign (each plank bears a donor’s name), this bright yellow aerial walkway has proved a runaway hit. It connects up-and-coming Rotterdam Noord with the city centre, bypassing a tangle of roads and railway tracks. The result? All kinds of new addresses have sprung up in the neighbourhood, from the family-friendly Pompenburg Park to Hofbogen’s hip boutiques.
After exploring the Luchtsingel, relax at laid-back Op Het Dak – a rooftop farm and eatery with stellar city views. From vegan shepherd’s pie to dill-spiked gravadlax, the menu’s short and seasonal, featuring fresh-picked salads and herbs from the organic garden. Bag a table on the suntrap terrace and linger over gin and tonics. Just be warned: it closes at 5pm.
It’s time to head west – 15 minutes by bike from the centre, or a half-hour ride on the bus. It’s worth it to see the iconic Van Nelle factory, along with the city’s pioneering floating farm.
This 1920s tobacco factory is now UNESCO-listed, thanks to its pared-back lines and imposing glass-and-steel façade. Even when it was built, it was hailed as a masterpiece: Le Corbusier declared it ‘the most beautiful spectacle of the modern age’. The Chabot Museum runs guided tours every weekend, which include a handy shuttle bus from the city-centre Museumpark.
Welcome to the world’s first floating dairy farm. Designed to reduce food miles, it’s an eco-friendly affair, with solar panels and a rainwater-collecting roof. Unlikely as it sounds, it seems to be working: around 30 cows live in the barn, with access to a field on dry land. See for yourself – and taste the milk – at the weekly visiting sessions (11am–4pm, Thursday to Saturday).