According to my Independent colleague Helen Coffey – and most of the travel media, let’s be honest – Rotterdam is having a moment.
Bombed out during the Second World War, the Netherlands’ second city took its blank slate and created eye-popping starchitecture filled with Europe’s coolest companies. Latterly, it opened new restaurants, hotels and breweries. Chuck in a new Eurostar route, which connects London St Pancras with Rotterdam Centraal in just over three hours, and you’ve got the ideal day trip.
There’s a playfulness to Rotterdam and like Europe’s other second cities, it’s half the price. (And no, it’s not anywhere, and it’s definitely not Amsterdam.)
Although this exciting harbour city has more than enough to entertain you for a weekend, it’s also possible to see in just a day. Here’s how to do it.
08.15: Leave St Pancras
The first Rotterdam-bound Eurostar of the day pulls out from the buffers at 8.15am. After whizzing through the Kent and northern France lowlands, we zip through Brussels and into the Netherlands. We’re travelling in Business Premier, so have stocked up with glossy magazines in the St Pancras lounge – which ranks as the best lounge I’ve ever stepped foot in. The coffee! The croissants! The magazines!
12.30: Pull into Rotterdam Centraal
Why are all European stations so much better than British ones? Rotterdam’s central station, designed by a local firm and shaped like a scalene triangle pushed on its side, is as efficient and organised as the city itself. The bonus with travelling on Eurostar is that you are dropped right in the centre of town. No faffing about with airport trains or an expensive taxi here.
The station plaza funnels down to Mauritsweg, a wide boulevard dotted with concept stores (peek into Susan Bijl’s colourful plastic bag shop, popular in Japan) and the modernist yellow and red Die Unie cafe.
12.40: Ogle the Santa Clause sculpture
“Ogle” being the operative word here, as the sculptor behind Santa Clause, American Paul McCarthy, is known for incorporating phallic symbols into his pieces. It’s the first thing that catches the eye on the festive statue in Eendrachtsplein: a slender “pine tree” in Santa’s hand looks like anything but. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to look at anything else.
We laugh, but public art is taken extremely seriously in Rotterdam: phallic Santa is one of more than 1,000 public art pieces in the city.
Cross the busy tramway to Rochussenstraat and you’ll find the city’s first serious artistic hit: Huis Sonneveld, a living museum that was once the high-architecture home of local factory director Albertus Sonneveld. It manages to be both luxurious and functional at the same time: the turquoise-everything bathroom with double sinks is worth lingering over.
Oh, and there’s a Picasso piece at the end of the street, of course.
13.30: Wander Witte de Withstraat
If you want to have a good time, you come to Rotterdam’s Witte de Withstraat – more specifically, make a beeline for speakeasy Café De Witte Aap, instantly recognisable by its colourful monkey mural outside and a regular appearance in the world’s best bar rankings. For something grander, head to the stately NRC cafe, housed in an old newspaper office.
Rather than getting boozed up (it’s only 1.30pm after all), we duck into the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, which houses two floors of contemporary art and sculpture. To avoid the €6 entry fee, visit on Friday from 7pm onwards.
We don’t need to stay, but if we did, we’d be booking into trendy King Kong Hostel with its snappy pavement seating, hammocks and what can only be described as twisty metal art inside.
14.00: Get a watertaxi around the harbour
Rotterdam grew up around the water. Its port, the busiest in Europe no less, gave rise to the city’s growth as an industrial hub, and also provided the canvas for a spectacular post-war building boom.
After zipping out of the Leuvehaven port on a speedy yellow-and-black Spido watertaxi, it’s hard to know where to look: on the Wilhelminapier there’s Rem Koolhaas’ blocky De Rotterdam office block, the slender Montevideo residential tower and the gorgeously art nouveau Hotel New York. The boat occasionally dips into the inner harbour, in which we find the posh Veer Harbour yacht club and the old-school Tropicana swimming club, now styled as a restaurant and a bar.
14.30: Feel dizzy looking at the cube houses
Prepare to feel more than a little dizzy staring up at the banana-yellow, 45-degree-angle cube houses of architect Piet Blom. These high-density units were designed in the 1970s to maximise space inside and below. Today some are available for rent on Airbnb – we make do with a quirky Instagram shot from underneath.
15.00: Snack at the Markthal
Rotterdam has no shortage of impressive architecture, but the slate-grey and glass horseshoe-shaped Markthal perhaps takes the top spot. Inside the 11,000m-sq indoor market is a dreamy, childlike Pixar-style illustration called Hoorn des Overvloeds (Horn of Plenty). Underneath the giant cartoonish fruit, insects and seeds are food and drink stalls plying local snacks. This is the place to snaffle gin and tonic at Obba’s Foodbar, sausage at Monsieur Saucisson and a lot of local Rotterdam cheese…
15.30: Pour yourself a beer at Thoms Brewery
Rotterdam has been quietly establishing itself a reputation as a craft beer hub. The Thoms Stadsbrouwerij brewery has a 42m wooden bar (Rotterdam’s longest, so no need to feel guilty about propping yourself up on it) and individual tables with pour-it-yourself taps. Bar snacks include the Dutch must-eat beef ragu bitterballen (best described as round croquettes) and squeaky cubes of Rotterdam cheese.
16.30: Early dinner at FG Food Labs
OK, so it’s a very early dinner. But we’ve only got the day, and Rotterdam’s foodie scene is criminally underrated. Buried underneath a railway arch not far from Rotterdam Centraal, this one Michelin-starred restaurant (confusingly, there’s a more formal two Michelin-starred place next door) serves delicious French-South American fusion plates. The half-Dutch, half-Aruban chef, who worked with Heston Blumenthal, favours the same bonkers combinations: chocolate with caviar, pigeon with cherry and almonds. The only problem is you’ll have to inhale it to get back to the station in time.
17.58: Train back to Brussels
While the outbound train to Rotterdam is direct, the return leg involves a Thales train and a switch in Brussels to the Eurostar, although plans are afoot to make the link direct.
21.33: Return to London St Pancras
The only problem with just a day trip is that I feel we’ve only scratched the surface of this fascinating second city. I’m already planning a return – but over a weekend this time.
One-way fares to Rotterdam from £35 with Eurostar (eurostar.com). Trains run from London to Amsterdam (via Rotterdam) twice daily.
For more information about visiting Rotterdam, visit en.rotterdam.info.
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