Lifestyle & Culture

Rotterdam: Leaving behind quaint Holland for a sneak preview of the future


The Netherlands comes in two flavors – the past, and the future.

Amsterdam, Den Haag and Utrecht … yeah, they’re beautiful, with quaint old buildings and canals.

But expats know that if you want a preview of the future, you have to visit Eindhoven and Rotterdam. Especially Rotterdam, where exotic car marques such as Maserati like to film their commercials against the background of stark glass, chrome and steel … aggressive and robust architecture amplifying power and exclusivity.

Both cities got a push into modernity courtesy of the German Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps, which took turns bombing both into rubble during World War II. Fun fact: Surrounded German forces fought on in Rotterdam even after the official end of the war, the last to surrender in Europe.

We just went there, and I have to agree with the Germans. Rotterdam is worth holding onto.


Like Eindhoven, Rotterdam is not – compared to Amsterdam – a beautiful or romantic city. To expats like us who’ve been here awhile, Rotterdam is the real Netherlands, the antidote to that image of wooden shoe-shod Dutchmen stacking balls of gouda cheese. The real Netherlands is per-square-mile the most industrialized country on Earth, with huge oil refineries, natural gas wells, factories and an industrialized farm sector that makes it the No. 2 food exporter. In the world.

The giant port of Rotterdam is unapologetically and unsentimentally about business (it’s the largest port in Europe) and about being in the here and now. But it’s cool, so cool it has a Cool District, though I’ll be damned if I could figure out exactly where it was.

The only way I can see to do Rotterdam justice is with a hybrid post, both a travel post and a compendium about the dramatic impact Rotterdam is making on the world.

Though there are still alluring corners from antiquity, the Rotterdam worth seeing is completely modern.



Markthal Rotterdam: It’s the one place in Rotterdam you have to see to believe. This giant multi-use structure designed around a huge food hall looks like what would happen if an airplane hanger and an office building had a baby. It’s interesting on multiple levels.

Opened in 2014, the futuristic design won architects Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries global approbation. The floor of the Markthal itself is totally functional, colorful and fun … your favorite neighborhood farmers’ market times 10, and all under roof with a good deal of polish and Dutch design.

My wife Cheryl pointed out that one of the most visually arresting aspects of the Markthal is the giant photo collage, the enormous, riotously colorful graphic that decorates the arched interior. If you look carefully, you see the photos are of all the fruits, meats, vegetables, grains and flowers that temp visitors. Stunning ….

What surprised us was the food prices don’t seem to be inflated at the cafes and restaurants. We’ll have a post later just about the Markthal, it’s that cool. And our teenage daughter Lale is lobbying to go back. We could have spent the whole afternoon here.

Within walking distance of the Markthal and the Oude Haven district are shopping, cafes and a lot of very Rotterdamesque architecture. In my opinion, all the talk about Swedish and Danish design is a little overblown. If you want to see bold and wildly whimsical, you have to come to Rotterdam.


• A short walk from the Markthal are the Cube Houses, designed by architect Piet Blom. My first reaction was, “I really want to see what these things look like inside.” Alas, people actually live in these apartments, where it appears you’d be walking on the walls, so you just can’t barge in. Fortunately, through the magic of Google, I found this interior shot at left. VERY cool.

• Just behind the Cube Houses is a side street, Andre Van Der Louwbrug, that leads to harbor-side cafes. It’s a tiny little area, but there you can have a cocktail/beer and look out at the boats and The White House (above), one of the few surviving Art Nouveau buildings from the 19th century. The White House is reputed to be Europe’s first high-rise.

The Port of Rotterdam. It’s 20 miles of the busiest shipping lane and loading and unloading operations in the world. Maybe not the place for a vacation. But you can take cool tours. Which is on our list of must-dos.

De Rotterdam. This is Rem Koolhaus’ masterpiece; three seemingly randomly sliced up buildings that form a vertical city. (I always wonder if Koolhaus was inspired by one of Picasso’s cubist paintings.)

Its size – it’s the biggest building in the Netherlands – and its dominant position on the Maas River in the center of the city makes De Rotterdam the most recognizable contemporary commercial/residential building in the Netherlands. (See the video below.)

Legend has it that Koolhaus spent a lot of time thinking about how people would see the De Rotterdam and came to the conclusion it would most often be viewed as people drove past in cars amid several other radical buildings around it.

So he came up with a design that seems to change in relation to where you are when you’re looking at it. Those darn Dutch ….

Witte de Withstraat is the city’s bohemian street, and it too is an easy walk from the Markthal. Witte de Withstraat is a relaxed collection of art galleries, restaurants and cafes, good for taking a break.

Okay, that’s enough of playing tourist.

Let’s look at the way Rotterdam is changing how we think about cities:

• One of the best pieces that explains Rotterdam is New York Times Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman’s post “The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas. The World Is Watching.” In it, Kimmelman documents the Dutch ingenuity that will protect Rotterdam long after Manhattan is under water.

From the post:

In the Netherlands, scholarly articles about changes to the Arctic ice cap make front-page headlines. Long before climate change deniers began to campaign against science in the United States, Dutch engineers were preparing for apocalyptic, once-every-10,000-years storms. “For us, climate change is beyond ideology,” said Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb.

In the post, Kimmelman reports how the Dutch are out in historic Dutch style, marketing their engineering and flood-control expertise to a world where rising sea level and climate change are suddenly an existential threat.

Never more relevant considering where Houston is, at the moment … under water.

Dezeen and dozens of other design magazines have anointed Rotterdam “the city of the future.” And the best may be yet to come.

The Dezeen post notes that Rotterdam-based architect Duzan Doepel wants to design  a huge circular wind turbine that doubles as an apartment block and hotel on Rotterdam’s waterfront.

• Again in the great Dutch tradition, the city of Rotterdam is cashing in on its new reputation for cutting-edge architecture. That arbiter of extravagant living, Architectural Digest, has a new post urging lovers of delicious design to hop a plane to Rotterdam.

From “Why the Netherlands – Beyond Amsterdam – is the Perfect Fall Destination for Design Lovers”:

Thanks to exciting new architecture (think floating houses) and openings, the Netherlands’ second largest city and Europe’s largest port is garnering a lot of attention (hop on an hour-long train from Amsterdam). Curated by Sculpture International Rotterdam, public art activations like the Westersingel Sculpture Route and art installations are becoming the norm in this design-forward city. 

This is one of the many underrated European cities – Rotterdam, Strasbourg, Basel and Brussels – that only expats really get a chance to understand and to master.

I tend to fall in love with all Dutch cities on first visit. I really didn’t with Rotterdam. It’s a bit sterile compared to post card Holland. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Den Haag or the languid ambiance of Utrecht. It’s way too sprawling and spread out to walk comfortably.

But as we were leaving, we drove across the famous Erasmus Bridge and I looked down the river toward the more industrial end of the port and realized this is the Netherland’s New York. Big and tough and exciting.  A place you’ll never get in one visit.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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