“Amsterdam, just without the tourists”, as one popular saying about Rotterdam goes. If true, it is also an Amsterdam where the historic buildings have been replaced by a futuristic city-scape. In truth, Rotterdam doesn’t feel anything like its more illustrious counterpart, Amsterdam’s narrow streets replaced by light-filled open spaces dotted with public art and modern skyscrapers.
Rotterdam is unofficially known as the ‘City of Architects’ and they’ve certainly been busy. It is also a green city, boasting more parks than any other in the Netherlands, which makes walking around a pleasure.
A stroll around Rotterdam will, likely-as-not, bring you to the waterfront and the Nieuwe Maas river, which dominates the city’s history and continues to play a major role in daily life. Rotterdam’s story, like so much of the Netherlands, is intimately (and literally) linked to water. The building of a dam on the Rotte River towards the end of the 13th Century gave birth to Rotterdam; it developed into a fishing village in the 14th Century, but grew until it became the world’s busiest port in the 20th Century.
Rotterdam remains one of the largest ports in the world, and is still the biggest and busiest in Europe, with a whopping 440,000 tons of cargo, or approximately 12 million of those ubiquitous metal containers, passing through every year. Not that you’d guess it while admiring the tranquil scene from one the restaurants on the former wharfs overlooking the Oudehaven (Old Port).
Even though most of Rotterdam’s historic buildings were flattened between 1940 and 1945 – some 30,000 buildings were destroyed – down by the old docks its possible to get a sense of the 800 years of history that have flowed through the city. Even then, Oudehaven rubs shoulders with the modern and the innovative. Just behind the port lies the Blaak district, home to towering modernity and the pioneering Structuralism of architect Piet Blom’s Cube Houses. The old and the new seem to get along just fine.
Leaving Oudehaven behind, you can trace more of Rotterdam’s maritime history along a series of inner harbours and connecting canals between the city’s two famous bridges, Willemsbrug and Erasmusbrug. It is hard to imagine now, but this entire area was little more than a wasteland in 1945. Only the Witte Huis (Whitehouse) office building remained standing amidst the rubble. Somehow that seems fitting, the Witte Huis was Europe’s first skyscraper.
The Nieuwe Maas river is still plied by thousands of boats every year. If you want to see what the city looks like from the river, there are water taxis shuttling back and forth from one bank to the other, or to outlying suburbs and towns. Its worth the effort to see the city from the river, after all its the way most people have arrived here for hundreds of years.