(Editor’s note: We just made Rotterdam the No. 1 city for expats on our annual list. So we thought it good timing to post this, which we didn’t really know what to do with otherwise.)
Hey, I love the 16th century as much as the next guy.
I especially love 16th-century Dutch cities … blocks of wonky buildings with the stepped gables like Dordrecht. The fabulous squares, narrow lanes and chic shopping streets in Maastricht. The canal houses in Amsterdam.
But living the past is a little bit of an illusion … like trying to live inside that Vermeer painting, “The Little Street.” For me, there’s something appealing and energizing about the harsh 21st century reality of Rotterdam’s glass and steel reaching to the sky.
Rotterdam got an involuntary make-over after it was destroyed in World War ll. Most of quaint Rotterdam is gone, replaced by the Netherlands’ most modern city. As I’ve written often, going to Rotterdam is like a sneak preview of the future.
Full disclosure: I wrote this post just as an excuse to finally use a lot of images I’d taken with my iPhone. But as I edited them, I saw a city that intrigues me like no other, though Berlin and Düsseldorf come close. There’s a reason all those exotic car ads are shot in Rotterdam … it’s modern, bold and powerful, just like we all imagine ourselves to be.
I resisted for years putting it on our list of best cities for expats for the same reason people don’t write about their secret crush … it’s too personal. And besides … I keep falling in love with European cities (re: my misguided dalliances with Utrecht, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna and Düsseldorf). But we crunched the numbers, and it actually one of the rare cities that’s (sort of) affordable and certifiably overwhelming. But who cares … this is sort of a travel post.
Here’s why I love Rotterdam (at least until I fall in love with some other city):
1 – Rotterdam will change you.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. Your first visit, Rotterdam seems sterile, faintly Chicago-like but, well, ugly. But go again, and it will start to change your aesthetic … change the way you think a European city should look. The crazy Kubus-Paalwoningen tilted houses (at right), the nearby giant Markthal, all out of proportion to everything around it. The sweep of the wide Maas River, again out of scale in this tiny country.
It’s all wrong, sort of the anti-Paris. But it’s all good when you get used to it.
2 – Rotterdam is big.
It’s so big you’ll always be finding something new and you’ll never get bored. The port alone has nine distinct areas, with the largest oil refinery in the world and the Europoort container port goes for about 25 miles from the city to the North Sea.
They’re constantly building on more Rotterdam while you’re exploring, and the city flows seamlessly into the rest of the Randstad megalopolis, population about 8 million. So you’ll never run out stuff to see.
But remember to exit out the correct side of the swoopy Rotterdam Centraal train station.
If you go out the front, that takes you toward the port and most of the shopping areas. Go out the rear, and that takes you into the more residential Blijdorp district, where the aquarium and zoo and other attractions are, along with low-key residential areas. The excitement is along the water.
3 – Carl Sandburg would have loved Rotterdam.
This is one of the last cities in affluent Western Europe where people get their hands dirty. Well, kind of. The Port of Rotterdam is the largest in Europe, and just about everything you buy comes through here from a thousan ports in Europe, Asia, South America and the United States; from your bottle of Jack Daniels to your Toyota (made for the moment in the UK). Along with shipping goes manufacturing, and there’s everything from fuel and auto-related operations to robotics.
But this isn’t exactly a city of the Big Shoulders. It’s more like the city of The Big Brains. Most of the port operations are highly automated, and RDM Kantine, the port-side restaurant where we ate last summer, was full of entrepreneurs and suits from nearby PortXL accelerator, not stevedores.
Come here and you understand and appreciate how global trade really works.
4 – Rotterdam is diverse.
There’s an “ethnic town” just east of the train station … not a China Town like Antwerp. Mostly Chinese, but also Japanese and every other ethnicity on the planet. The most common language you hear on the streets is English because everyone is from somewhere else, and English is the only thing they have in common. Also, Erasmus University Rotterdam brings thousands of foreign students to the city. And this is kind of ironic … recently, we talked with dozens of American exchange students in the shopping districts who’d come to Rotterdam to get out of tourist-infested Amsterdam.
5 – Those Bohemian neighborhoods.
What other city has a Cool District? Which is a district in the centrum dating back to the 13th century and includes shopping and cafes. We think – but aren’t sure – the Cool District includes de Stadsdriehoek, which includes the Markthal and the Kubus-Paalwoningen Cube Houses.
Just behind the Cube Houses is a hidden side street, Andre van Der Louwbrug, that leads to harbor-side cafes. It’s a tiny area, but there you can have a cocktail/beer and look out at the boats and The White House, one of the few surviving Art Nouveau buildings from the 19th century. The White House is reputed to be Europe’s first high-rise.
My favorite coffee shop (the brew, not cannabis) is Heilige Boontjes (Holy Beans) at Eendrachtsplein 3 in a boho area between the central station and the port. There, really friendly kids custom brew your java according to how you like it … weak, medium or strong.
There’s also L’Ouest café in an old pre-war Art Nouveau building at Van Oldenbarneveltstraat 139, and is usually packed. Fenix Food Factory on the water in hipster Katendrecht near De Rotterdam is one of the places getting a lot of buzz and is on our must-visit list.
Finally, Rotterdam still has areas that didn’t get bombed too badly during World War II, including Delftshaven on the river, and looks like tourists think a Dutch city should look.
6 – Rotterdam has food and lots of craft beer.
This is one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. Whatever you want, they got.
Want to get Japanese soul food? There’s Takumi Rotterdam, part of the Takumi Düsseldorf Netherlands chain, the most crowded noodle shop in the city. Close by on West-Kruiskade, we saw Turkish, Thai, Surinamese and an exotic KFC. We hear you can even get Dutch food, but we didn’t see any.
Want to be overwhelmed with choices? Go to the Markthal, the giant market and restaurant cluster on the floor of one of the most distinctive multi-use buildings in the world. The building we always say looks like what would happen if an office building and a blimp hanger had a baby.
If you’re feeling flush, there are at least eight Michelin-starred restaurants.
Complimenting a great foodie scene are craft breweries popping up everywhere
7 – The architecture is unlike any other Dutch city.
The coolest thing about Rotterdam is the juxtaposition of the old and the new. The Centraal Train Station is basically a big wing. You walk outside, and the first thing you see is the ultramodern Delftse Poort complex, two black monoliths like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Unlike other cities such as Amsterdam and Eindhoven, there are hundreds of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. So, you walk down into the residential neighborhoods and you see the modern Rotterdam looming behind the low-rise residential buildings left over from the 18th and 19 centuries that didn’t get bombed into rubble. And by the way, there are green, tree-lined residential neighborhoods.
8 – Water defines Rotterdam.
Unlike Amsterdam, through which canals flow, Rotterdam flows around the vast port and the wide Maas River. So, if you live here, there’s a fair chance you’ll have a river/port view. If you’re just visiting, you can take water taxis, or jump on a tour of the port. But don’t wimp out and only do this in the summer. Go out on the water in the winter to really appreciate what it must have been like to be in Rotterdam during the Golden Age of the merchant princes when talent and capital poured in, and Dutch traders went global.
9 – Check out the startup scene.
Rotterdam has made the news lately with winning startups such as Coolblue, MetrixLab, Housing Anywhere and Travis the Translator, so the innovation scene is cooking here. We covered PortXL’s demo day in 2018 and we saw amazing ideas including Ran Marine and Tow-Botic Systems. It’s worth going by PortXL just to see their offices in the RDM Complex on the Port of Rotterdam, a cavernous building where the Dutch navy once built submarines.
See our post here about our visit last year to their PortXL Shakedown demo day, which featured dozens of very sophisticated shipping-focused startups.
10 – All the other stuff including access to the rest of the Randstad.
One of the characteristics that makes Rotterdam a no-brainer for expats is that it’s so close to so many great cities including, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Delft, Antwerp and Dordrecht just down the Maas.
So, I got that off my chest and can move on to the next city crush. Will it be Hamburg? Geneva? Milan? Who knows … but it will be a long, long time before I get bored with Rotterdam.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.