Rotterdam’s rising skyline has become an icon in the world of architecture and tourism; here are Rotterdam’s most intriguing architectural gems.
Besides being voted by Lonely Planet as one of the best cities to travel in 2016, Rotterdam has been hitting headlines for years as the city has regenerated into a hub of innovative and impressive architecture, as well as a centre for gourmet food and trendy cafes.
Its urban regeneration has received much international acclaim, and in 2015 Rotterdam was crowned the best urbanized city in Europe by the Academy of Urbanism. The award is one of five given out annually by the Academy to recognize the best, most enduring and most improved urban environments.
As visitors and architect fans will quickly see, Rotterdam’s urban regeneration deserves your attention.
Rotterdam’s top 10 sites to visit
1. Erasmus Bridge
The Erasmusbrug is arguably the icon of Rotterdam’s skyline connecting the northern and southern banks of the River Maas. It has been the backdrop of many spectacles, such as the start of the 2010 Tour de France, Red Bull Air races and a DJ Tiësto concert, and has provided inspiration for photographers and filmmakers, including the Jackie Chan film Who Am I? Its graceful shape has earned it the nickname ‘The Swan’, inspired by the asymmetrical 139-m high pylon fastened by cables. It was design by Dutch architect Ben van Berkel, and officially opened by Queen Beatrix in 1996.
The Erasmus Bridge links to the up-and-coming Kop van Zuid area, Rotterdam’s old harbour district that has become a trendy location with hip restaurants and bars.
2. Rotterdam Centraal
Stepping out from Rotterdam’s futuristic main train station is the first sign of Rotterdam’s radical break from traditional Dutch architecture. Its towering, angular entrance points in the direction of Rotterdam’s city centre. The spacious entrance hall with its linear, wooden interior sits alongside the station’s original features, such as the train clock and station name. Light pours into the station through transparent walls and a transparent roof over the train tracks, allowing visitors sweeping views of the entire complex and trains entering and leaving the station.
The varied light transmittance is a result of different patterns on the roof’s solar cells, which also make Rotterdam Centraal one of the largest rooftop solar projects in Europe.
This ‘food mecca’ is more than just a shopping and dining market. Markthal‘s towering curvaceous design by Rotterdam-based MVRDV is gracefully incongruous against the rising vertical lines of Rotterdam’s urban centre, standing out for its colourful 11,000sqm ceiling mural that has been coined the Dutch version of the Sistine Chapel. Over the market sit luxury apartments in a horseshoe configuration, with glass panels allowing residents to view the activity of some 100 stalls and 15 restaurants and bars below.
The Markthal also includes the ‘Tijdtrap’, a free exhibition displaying the archaeological finds of mediaeval Rotterdam that were excavated during the building’s construction.
4. De Rotterdam
This ‘vertical city’ has become an iconic example of urban and innovative architecture since its inauguration in 2013. It was awarded the Best Tall Building in Europe by the CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat) and received nominations for the World Architecture Festival award and the Dutch real estate award, FGH. De Rotterdam‘s three linked towers reach nearly 150m high and cover an area roughly the size of a football field. With a construction area of some 160,000sqm, this building designed by Rotterdam agency OMA and Rem Koolhaas, it is the largest building in the Netherlands.
The building name honours the ss Rotterdam steamship from the Holland America Line, which once sailed a regular route from the Wilhelminapier to New York. Restaurants and bars in De Rotterdam offer stunning views along the waterfront with its location on Rotterdam’s Maas River, and clad almost entirely in glass, its transparent façade brings the outside in.
5. Cube Houses
Kubuswoningen are one symbol of Rotterdam’s early strive for innovation and regeneration, designed by architect Piet Blom in the 1970s to give architectural character to an area that was largely destroyed by World War II bombing. Located in the Oude Haven, the most historic section of Rotterdam’s port, the unconventional cubed houses are tilted at 45 degrees atop hexagon-shaped bases. Metaphorically, the houses were designed to represent trees and grouped together to appear as a forest, while on a functional level, elevating the houses on ‘trunks’ maximised public space below and gave views from above. As a response to curious passerbys, one resident opened his house as a ‘show cube’ (Kijk Kubus), which is furnished as a normal house for visitors to experience.
Underneath sit a museum of chess pieces, shops and waterfront cafes, while the larger cubes have been converted into a hostel for those who want to experience an overnight stay.
For a bird’s-eye view of Rotterdam, the observation tower Euromast is one of the most renown buildings in the city. At 185m high, it’s Rotterdam’s tallest building and the highest lookout tower in the Netherlands. Designed by Hugh Maaskant, it was built for the Floriade international horticultural exhibition in 1960 and gave the seaport of Rotterdam a maritime-inspired landmark. In just 30 seconds, you can be whisked up to the observation deck and restaurant facilities for 360 panoramic views. Guests who opt to sleep in the hotel suites at around 100m get the observation deck to themselves at night. For the adventurous, the Euroscope revolving, glass lift takes people to the full height of 185m, or you can choose to abseil or zip-line your way back down.
On a clear day, you might be able to spot towers in Antwerp or The Hague from the very top, as well as Rotterdam’s famous landmarks such as the Erasmus bridge, the port, the Feyenoord stadium and Hotel New York.
7. Hotel New York
Step into Rotterdam’s history at this hotel that inhabits the former head office of the Holland America Line, responsible for transporting thousands of hopeful emigrants to North America. Today the nostalgia is encapsulated in the décor from the cast-iron staircase to the trunks and pictures from past emigrants.
The Hotel New York is a national heritage site in the trendy Kop van Zuid, offering stunning views from its rooftop terrace plus several restaurants and cafés for dining.
8. The Witte Huis
The White House was the Dutch answer to America’s innovative architecture at the time. This 10-story building was designed by architects Gerrit van der Schuijt, Herman van der Schuijt and Willem Molenbroek, influenced by New York’s Art Nouveau style but retaining a traditional touch by using stone instead of steel as the main building material. Completed in 1898, at around 45m high it was an unprecedented height in Europe and considered as Europe’s first high-rise office building.
It was also one of the few buildings to remain intact during war-time air bombing. On the ground floor, visitors can pop in for a coffee at the Grand Café Het Witte Huis.
9. Van Nelle Factory
This former tea, coffee and tobacco factory was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exemplification of early 20th-century industrial architecture. The Van Nelle Factory is a classic example of the Nieuwe Bouwen school of Dutch modernist architecture, designed by Brinkman and Van der Vlugt between 1927 and 1930. The functional design created air, light and space for its workers, and was in use as a tobacco factory until the 1990s.
Today it houses offices and event spaces, although tours are permitted two days per year: on the National Architecture Day in the last weekend in June, and on Open Monument Day in the second weekend of September.
10. Laurenskerk and Stadhuis
Not all of Rotterdam’s impressive architecture is modern. Amid the city’s bold modernity sits Rotterdam’s only example of late Gothic architecture, the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk, originally constructed around the 15th century, and later restored in the 1950s after bomb damage. It originally sat on the banks of the River Rotte, and its location can be classed as the birthplace of Rotterdam. Plans to demolish the building were rejected and the rebuilding of Laurenskerk instead became a symbol of the resilience of Rotterdam’s community. It houses one of the largest organs in the Netherlands, a unique copper choir screen from the 18th century, and bronze doors designed by Italian designer Manzù in 1968. Visitors can browse the permanent exhibition ‘A monument filled with stories’ (Een monument vol verhalen) or climb the tower for views of Rotterdam city.
Rotterdam’s city hall (Stadhuis) is another example of architecture that survived the 1940 bombing raids. Located in Coolsingel, sculptures around the building tell the history of Rotterdam’s history as a world port; spot the portier (doorman) and the fiscus (tax collector), or the stedenmaagd (urban virgin) that sits over the main entrance with the gilded genius met fakkel (spirit with torch). Visitors can see the city hall on a guided tour.
Beyond Rotterdam’s architecture
Rotterdam’s rising city centre is not just about architecture. Combine architecture with world-class art in the striking building of Kunsthal or at the historic Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, one of the oldest in the Netherlands. The Witte de Withstraat, sometimes referred to as Rotterdam’s ‘Axis of Art’, is another point of interest, running from Museumpark to the Maritime Museum and lined with various cultural institutions and boutique shops, plus cafes and restaurants that create a vibrant night-life when the institutions close.
For theatre, the vibrant red Nieuwe Luxor Theatre offers world-class productions, alongside interesting architecture and panoramic views of the River Maas from its rooftop terrace. Creative and jazz lovers should cross De Luchtsingel, the 390-metre-long wooden pedestrian bridge in the city centre, linking the Schieblock, a creative meeting place, with Station Hofplein, the former station building that is now home to a number of restaurants, shops and a jazz club.