Rotterdam is a real amusement park for fans of architecture and urbanism. Here you can find constructions of all possible shapes some of which seem to come from the future. And this is not for some kind of design exhibition. All these buildings are suitable for living, entertainment and work. It is amazing how it all looks so harmoniously in one place.
It is worth saying that this has not always been the case. In the past, Rotterdam looked like a typical Dutch city, with picturesque little houses along the waterways. It was 13 minutes during the Second World War that forever changed the face of the city.
In this article we will talk about the faith of the port city of Rotterdam, its development in the 20th century, and we'll zoom in on the four most spectacular architectural projects in the city.
May 14, 1940, at 13:28h. An ominous sound filled the city of Rotterdam. Luftwaffe planes suddenly filled up the sky over the city, on their mission of conducting a deadly air raid. The Dutch had no chance of stopping them – their air force was limited, and the few defence systems were concentrated in The Hague for the protection of government buildings.
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.
Fires burned for several days after the bombing – in some areas almost a month. The glow above the city was visible from neighbouring cities. Ashes fell from the sky in all the surroundings – right up to the city of Gouda, located thirty kilometres from Rotterdam. Older Rotterdam residents still remember this phenomenon as “black snow”.
After the German bombing, British troops started a counterattack from the air, but this did not help Rotterdam. It became a city with a torn heart.
Only a few edifices in the very centre survived the air raid, most notably the City Hall and the adjacent post office, the Church of Saint Lawrence, the Schielandshuis and the White House – the very first skyscraper in Europe. All precious buildings and worth a visit, but if you really want to feel the spirit of the old town, have a walk through the Scheepvaartkwartier and Historic Delfshaven. Without doubt, these are the most charming historical areas of Rotterdam – locate them easily with our Streetwise map of Rotterdam.
In Rotterdam, the authorities decided not to restore the old centre after the bombings – as they did for instance in Dresden – but to build a new city. This means that, over the past 80 years, Rotterdam has gained a lot of experience with constructing new buildings. It needs to be said, that not all construction projects were as successful as in recent years. Early after the bombings there was such a high demand for housing, that speed often prevailed over a refined design. Practice makes perfect?
The two most scenic ways of entering Rotterdam is either on a cruise ship, entering via the largest port of Europe, or simply by train at Rotterdam Central Station. The station is located in the centre of Rotterdam and forms an excellent starting point for exploring the city.
If you arrive by train, you'll get the opportunity to contemplate one of the most unusual creations in the city, Rotterdam Centraal. The call to renovate the old station from 1957 was based on the simple reason of increasing passenger traffic. By 2007, the station served 110,000 people daily, and by 2025 this number can already be 320,000. The small train station obviously needed an upgrade, and by March 2014 the new railway hub was opened. It follows the design of a cooperative of architects – amongst others Benthem Crouwel Architekten, known for reconstructing the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Some elements of the old station remained, such as the station clock and the inscription on the facade.
Rotterdam Centraal is a delightful modern building, spacious from the inside and gently lit. All over the bright roof are solar panels installed, which help saving expensive European electricity. The most fascinating part of the design is undoubtedly the front of the roof, fully clad with stainless steel and pointing towards the heart of Rotterdam. Its remarkable design has already given rise to an abundance of nicknames – is it a shark's fin, or perhaps a shark's mouth?
Among locals Rotterdam Centraal is most commonly known as 'Station Kapsalon', referring to the metal tray in which the typical Rotterdam snack Kapsalon is being served. Kapsalon is a local snack, consisting of fries, shawarma, cheese, some vegetables and garlic sauce – all together in one tray. The snack is a calorie bomb, but absolutely tasty!
Guided by the pointed roof of Rotterdam Centraal, we continue our way into the heart of Rotterdam. Soon we will walk into one of the coolest markets in Europe, the Markthal. The splendid design was made by architects of MVRDV, and offers not only the first indoor market of the Netherlands, but also apartments, shops, restaurants, a supermarket and an underground parking.
The Markthal opened in 2014 as one of the biggest architectural innovations in Rotterdam of recent years. Luxurious apartments are draped over the food market in a horseshoe configuration. Stepping inside the Markthal, means that you will be covered by a colourful 11,000 m2 ceiling of 4,000 metal panels, depicting strongly enlarged berries, vegetables, fish, seeds and flowers. This panel is known as the Horn of Plenty, but many even dare to call it the Rotterdam Sistine Chapel. And why not, this is a real fresco for the glory of food!
Interesting to know for history lovers, during the lengthy construction of the Markthal, seven meters below street level, workers discovered valuable medieval artefacts and houses dating back to the 10th century. The archaeological finds are now permanently on display in De Tijdtrap, an exhibition located inside the Markthal. By going down the escalators of De Tijdtrap you will dive into the past of Rotterdam, with every floor corresponding to a specific period in the history of the city. The exhibition of De Tijdtrap is open every day, and free of charge. Have a look at the official website for further visitor info.
On the banks of the Nieuwe Maas River stands another fascinating construction, the Erasmus Bridge – probably the most iconic sight of Rotterdam. It is the third-largest cable bridge in the world opened in 1996, according to the design of Ben van Berkel. With the arrival of the Erasmus Bridge, traffic across the Nieuwe Maas improved drastically. The 35-metre wide bridge allows for all kinds of traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists. Crossing the 800-metre long bridge can be windy, but you are sure to find some of the best views over the modern Rotterdam.
The main feature of the Erasmus Bridge is a banked pylon, 139 meters in height. This bulky and at the same time elegant asymmetric design is a great decoration for the city. Because of this particularly shaped pylon, the bridge is nicknamed De Zwaan – that is, “the swan”. Resembling a swan on a bright sunny day, in the evening lights the Erasmus Bridge looks more like a futuristic musical instrument, with its 40 illuminated cables being the strings.
Next to the Erasmus Bridge stands another rather remarkable construction. An ensemble of three adjacent towers called De Rotterdam, represents the largest building in the city. Today this once abandoned territory is experiencing a real boom, and the triad of skyscrapers is conceived as the main symbol of such a revival.
The three rectangular blocks with a height of 150 meters grow playfully out of another horizontal block. The separate segments are shifted relative to each other, eventually forming giant towers. The ledges appearing in between the segments form the architectural highlight of the edifice. Thanks to this constructive decision, the complex looks very different from various points of view, and is said to be in constant movement.
This masterpiece by the famous architect Rem Koolhaas appeared here in 2013, to further enrich the skyline of Rotterdam. It was named after the ship that transported emigrants from Holland to the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries. The building was meant to become a vertical city, offering apartments, a hotel, offices and shops. Probably most relevant for you as a visitor, is the terrace on the 7th floor, from where you can get even better views over the city.
Rotterdam is a city of ambition, a platform for architectural experiments, like Dubai or Doha, but built with a more delicate taste and sophisticated imagination. It is an increasingly convenient place to live, study, or work. Life here is very practical and functional.
If you want to learn more about the groundbreaking architectural projects of Rotterdam, be sure to check out our city guide, where a separate section is devoted to the greatest modern architecture of Rotterdam.
The development of architectural marvels in Rotterdam certainly hasn't come to a hold, with new projects already appearing on the horizon. You can get an overview of the architectural projects ahead by visiting a free exhibition of the tourist office called Rotterdam Discovery – find the tourist office directly behind the Schielandshuis.
In case you will only have limited time to explore Rotterdam, we recommend checking out our article Fall in love with Rotterdam in two hours. In that article we guide you around the greatest places of Rotterdam during a two-hour walk. The walk starts and ends at Rotterdam Central Station, and will also pass the marvellous architecture as covered above.
And if you have a little more time, that's absolutely perfect, as you may be able to have a break at one of the amazing places suggested during our walk. Like having a coffee in the Witte de Withstraat, sunbathing at Hotel New York, or a glass of wine at the Meent. But beware, as there is a chance that you fall in love with Rotterdam.