The Netherlands has plenty of cities with beautiful historical architecture, most notably Amsterdam or Utrecht. Cities with a historical core, made up of lovely canals and historical Dutch houses. Those are the sights easy to fall in love with.
But there's another star on the horizon, a star that has been rising since the devastating bombing of WWII. Once also this city from 1340 had a typical Dutch historical core. But history had different plans with Rotterdam, which centre needed to be rebuilt after the war, paving the way for new projects and innovative architecture.
Welcome dear guest in the city that is booming all day, every day. Come back in two years, and you will find a different Rotterdam, likely even nicer. It has been going like this for the past decades, with new projects taking off continuously, further adorning a city that needed to be rebuilt from the ground up after WWII. Share in this wonderful feeling of growth and have a walk in my city, Rotterdam.
Our walk shows you the various faces of Rotterdam, including the most spectacular modern architecture, preserved historical parts dating back as far as the 15th century, and the hip and fancy side of the city. The goal is very simple, to make you fall in love with me, with Rotterdam. We will start at the Central Station, and will walk in a circle of about two hours, also passing the Nieuwe Maas river for breathtaking views.
The ample square where we find ourselves at the moment, right in front of the railway station, compactly shows the growth this city has been experiencing over time. It started here with the Groothandelsgebouw on the right side of the station, followed by the 151-metre skyscraper Delftse Poort, directly left of the station – built in 1991 as the tallest building in the Netherlands. Those efforts have been followed up by the 131-metre Millennium Tower right in front of the station, designed by the architect of the CN Tower in Toronto. The skyscrapers here can be considered slightly conventional though, and are not yet the best examples of the modern architecture Rotterdam got famous for.
Just look back – only this time – at the Central Station of Rotterdam, which is one of the magnificent projects of recent years, completed in 2014. The stylish roof, which is fully clad with stainless steel, points towards the heart of the city. Many things can be seen in the remarkable design, is it a shark's fin or perhaps a shark's mouth? The actual nickname came to be 'Station Kapsalon', referring to the metal tray in which the typical Rotterdam snack Kapsalon is served.
Although the tip of the roof of the central station is pointing slightly in a different direction, the best way to go when leaving the station is simply straight ahead, towards the Westersingel.
Rotterdam is a bit different indeed, not what you'd expect from a typical Dutch city with a lovely historical core. This has to do with its odd history. Although the city goes back to even the 13th century, it basically needed to be rebuilt from 1940 on. In less than a quarter of an hour, the historical Rotterdam was flattened by 90 German Heinkel bombers in an attempt to let the Netherlands surrender to Nazi Germany. If the country had still refused to surrender, more Dutch cities would have followed the devastating example of Rotterdam.
Some parts of the city centre stayed free from bombs, like the Westersingel, where we are walking now. The houses aside this green and very walkable canal date back to the 19th century. An extra reason to walk the Westersingel is a sculpture trail that leads you all the way to the historical Scheepvaartkwartier. Amongst the 17 sculptures that can be found standing freely in the open air, are works by great artists such as Auguste Rodin and Pablo Picasso.
Trust me, and walk the streets of Rotterdam with me. If you don't want to see Rotterdam in its full glory, then make a left here and head for the Witte de Withstraat, a street of Rotterdam that can take your heart without any further introduction. It is a place with some of the finest bars, and during this time of the year also plenty of pretty terraces for a rest.
By keep walking straight on from the Westersingel, you will end up in the most romantic and charming quarter of the city, the Scheepvaartkwartier. Around a lovely little harbor called the Veerhaven, you will find greenery, rest and plenty of nice cafés and restaurants. For even more rest and greenery, make a right towards the Parklaan, a lane with impressive 19th century mansions that recall Rotterdam's rich shipping history. At the end of the Parklaan, you will find The Park, the oldest park of Rotterdam and home to the Euromast observation tower.
Walking up further towards the waterside of this historical part of Rotterdam, will open up a magnificent view over the modern city, with architectural masterpieces dominated by the Erasmus Bridge and De Rotterdam. For a closer look at this world-class architecture, let's cross the Erasmus Bridge, as the bridge is perfect for walking.
The Erasmus Bridge is an 802-metre long suspension bridge, which has become iconic for Rotterdam. The architectural jewel is based on a 139-metre steel pylon, which is secured by 40 cables. With the arrival of the Erasmus Bridge in 1996, traffic across the Nieuwe Maas improved drastically. Crossing the bridge can be windy, but you are sure to find some of the best views over the modern Rotterdam and the river.
The largest building across the river, is also one of the most beautiful. By means of a gigantic composition of three linked towers of nearly 150 meters tall, De Rotterdam was meant to become a 'vertical city'. This masterpiece by the famous architect Rem Koolhaas appeared here in 2013, to further enrich the skyline of Rotterdam. With apartments, a hotel, offices and shops, De Rotterdam is on its way to become that vertical city. Most relevant for you as a visitor now, is the terrace on the 7th floor, from where you can get even better views over the city.
This modern part across the river is one of the best examples of the developing city of Rotterdam. Innovative buildings have been popping up here over the past decades, giving this once forgotten land a new future.
One remarkable historical building remained standing amidst the modern architecture, Hotel New York. Before this Art Nouveau building started serving as a hotel and restaurant, it was known as the headquarters of the company that shipped Europeans to America. Over time, Rotterdam has switched emigrants for immigrants, with the largest groups settling here, south of the river.
Walking back in the direction of the Erasmus Bridge, you might remember seeing another modern bridge crossing the Nieuwe Maas river, the red Willems Bridge. That's the bridge we are headed for now, with the Maas Tower being the first sight on our way. This slender 165-metre tall building, which uses 22 shades of grey to color its facade from the bottom to the top, has been the tallest building in the Netherlands since 2009.
While passing this skyscraper on the right side, soon another impressive sight will appear on the horizon, an industrial monument called De Hef Bridge. De Hef is a former railway bridge that became redundant in 1993, after the construction of a new railway tunnel through the centre of Rotterdam. By lifting up the middle part, De Hef allowed ships to pass the waterway. It was constructed in 1927, as the first bridge of this kind in West-Europe. What is left nowadays, is an industrial and picturesque iron monument, which only remained here after protests by locals.
Moving towards the foot of the Willems Bridge, another architectural masterpiece can be seen on the other side of the canal. A box-like structure of 4 stories tall, 130 meters long and 33 meters wide can be seen placed atop a historical factory from 1891. The entire steel construction of this office building was assembled on a distance, and then transported to its current position, 25 meters above the ground. This building, known as 'The Bridge', serves as the Dutch headquarters of the consumer goods multinational Unilever.
Now let's move on to a real bridge, the Willems Bridge. It was here that the first fixed connection between north and south Rotterdam appeared in the 19th century. It was also here, that the Germans were stopped in their invasion of the Netherlands early May 1940. After courageous fighting of Dutch marines here, the mission of the Germans got delayed, and the order for the devastating bombing of 14 May 1940 was made. Despite the heroic history, the former Willems Bridge needed to be replaced by this version, a cable-stayed red bridge which appeared here in 1981.
Reaching the end of the 318-metre Willems Bridge, a remarkable historical white house can be seen standing amidst modern architecture. This Art Nouveau creation called 'The White House' belonged to the few buildings which survived the German bombing of Rotterdam. For a long period this 43-metre building from 1898, was the tallest office building in Europe. Curious visitors were allowed to visit the rooftop by elevator for a view over Rotterdam – which was quite an innovative happening at the time.
The very best is kept for last. Walking inland after leaving the Willems Bridge, soon you will see another architectural masterpiece appearing, the Market Hall.
The Market Hall can be considered the biggest architectural innovation in Rotterdam over the past years. It is not just the marketplace itself that looks splendid, resting under a ceiling that is adorned with an 11,000 m2 artwork called the Horn of Plenty – it depicts strongly enlarged fruits, vegetables, seeds, fish, flowers and insects. It is inside that colorful ceiling where you can find the apartments, draped over the food market in a horseshoe configuration.
Unlike regular markets, the Market Hall is predominantly filled with little restaurants and fancy food stands. The Market Hall can be visited every day.
The Market Hall is located on a large pedestrian square, called the Binnenrotte. On Tuesdays and Saturdays you will find here the largest open-air market of Rotterdam, offering fresh food, flowers and also some flea.
Over the past years the Binnenrotte has developed into a comfortable walking area, with more greenery. Walking further along this pedestrian square, you will come to see a large Gothic church on your left-hand side. The 16th century Church of Saint Lawrence is the only remnant of the medieval city of Rotterdam. If you still have some energy left, walk up the 300 stairs of the tower for a magnificent view over the city – the tower can be accessed on Wednesdays and Saturdays from March till October. Otherwise let's head for the Meent, a stone's throw away from the Church of Saint Lawrence.
After walking the streets of Rotterdam for two hours, having seen innovative modern architecture and some historical pearls, maybe the time has come for a (romantic) drink? For having a drink or a bite, we have luckily just arrived at one of the best places in Rotterdam, the Meent. The Meent is a street that has been improving greatly over the past decades, to develop into one of the hotspots of Rotterdam when it comes to bars and shopping. It will not be hard finding a nice place for a drink on the Meent, especially not if you check the layer Bar & Café area on our Streetwise map of Rotterdam in order to see the bar area.
Whatever further plans you have, at the moment you find yourself in the very centre of Rotterdam, at just 15 minutes walking from the central station, our starting point.
In this article you've come to see the prettiest sights of Rotterdam, a combination of world-class architecture and traditional Dutch style.
If you want to learn more about the places we've visited, or if you want to spice up your walking tour with strolling the trendiest shopping streets, relaxing on the sunniest terraces, having a drink in the nicest bar streets of Rotterdam, or simply visit one of its best museums, have a look at our Streetwise map of Rotterdam.