IT'S STILL A BIG WORLD
Is Rotterdam Europe’s Most Beautiful Modern City?
Too often lost in the shadow of Amsterdam, this Dutch city has more than its share of charms in architecture, history, and, perhaps most surprising, food.
The answer is no—“beautiful” is not an apt word for Rotterdam. But the dozens of people I’ve queried lately for an alternative have failed to muster a better suggestion. Berlin is cool, not beautiful. And the rest of Europe’s grand cities—or the parts we love in Paris, Rome, Vienna, Amsterdam, Krakow, Barcelona, and so on—were built before World War I.
You can’t call cities like Rotterdam or Dresden fortunate for having been nearly bombed off the map during World War II, but the bombing did give peacetime architects and planners virtually a blank slate when it came time to rebuild. Sometimes those builders succeeded and sometimes they didn’t.
So while Rotterdam may not check all the boxes for beauty, it is nevertheless a fascinating place, and for a variety of reasons. My visit left me so thoroughly won over that we’ve made the city the fourth selection for our series on underrated destinations—It’s Still a Big World. Rotterdam deserves the spotlight. It has great architecture, quirky attractions, and most surprisingly, an exciting food scene.
The initial reason for me going to Rotterdam was to check out Eurostar’s relatively new London-Amsterdam service, which will be expanding this summer. I am a fair-weather train fan—I like them when they work for me. For years, the Eurostar has been my go-to travel hack for one simple reason—I hate overnight flights. So for any of my trips to Europe or the Middle East, I’d take United’s daytime flight: 8:25 a.m. takeoff, land in London between 8 and 9 p.m. in London, be asleep by midnight. This avoids a bad night’s sleep on a plane and gets me adjusted to the time change. Then I’d either fly (cheap) to my final destination or, if that destination was Paris, just take the train from central London.
I’ll still defend Amtrak for its seat sizes, but Eurostar outclasses U.S. passenger trains in wifi speed, movie selection, business class lounge (worth springing for separate immigration line alone), and train speed.
So, just a few hours after boarding a train in central London, I arrived in Rotterdam’s sleek new train station. Rested and wide awake, I was ready for my first stop: one of the city’s quirkiest new attractions—the floating farm.
Built privately for 2.5 million euros, it sits—a box and platform of concrete, glass, and steel—on one of Rotterdam’s old dockyards. Engineer Peter van Wingerden and his wife, Minke, aim to close the gap between cities and farmers, and as this is the Netherlands, turn a profit. The farm sits next to a plot of grass where the cows can graze. They will live on top (Albert Boersen, the farmer in charge, says they’ve run tests to make sure the cows aren’t affected by the bobbing waters). A robot will continuously move about the platform, shoveling cow crap into a machine that will turn it into fertilizer to sell to surrounding farms. Inside will be the milk and yogurt processing, which will be open to the public and how the project primarily makes money (and they do plan to sell raw milk). The yogurt will be flavored by fruit grown inside the pontoons holding up the farm using artificial light and other innovations. And while the project is unlikely to please a strain of animal rights activists, it will certainly be a stop for tourists looking for a taste of the future of Dutch ingenuity in the face of issues like space, resources, and Mother Nature.
Then, it was a quick water taxi over to Wilhelminaplein to my hotel, the new and quirky Room Mate Bruno perched in the shadow of Rem Koolhaas’ deconstructed Mies van der Rohe-style tower. The peninsula where the hotel sits was once the headquarters for the Holland-America line, which meant that Rotterdam was the last piece of Europe seen by the thousands of Eastern Europeans emigrating to America. In a sweet irony, just across the historic Erasmusburg Bridge, in one of the few areas of Rotterdam untouched by World War II bombs, sits the church in front of which the Pilgrims supposedly knelt just before departing for America.
On the other side of the peninsula is the neighborhood of Katemdrecht. Once a rough-and-tumble sailors’ den, it was revitalized by artists and today is a lovely stretch of cute restaurants including the fantastic Matroos & Het Meisje, where I had the first installment of my biggest shock of the trip—you can eat fantastically well here. So well, in fact, that when I got to Paris, I found myself wistful for the meals I devoured in Rotterdam.
The next morning, however, I burned off all the previous night’s calories as I tore across the city with my fantastic guide Marly Weemen from Urban Guides, focusing on what Rotterdam is best known for—modern architecture. The two highlights, and really two of the city’s can’t miss attractions, were Huis Sonneveld and the Van Nelle Factory.
A white, rectangular villa just outside the city center, Huis Sonneveld was designed by the Dutch firm of Brinkman & Van der Vlugt for tobacco magnate A.H. Sonneveld in 1932 and 1933. The house is a wondrous time capsule, its rooms decked out in their original and amazing decor (don’t miss the spiral staircase and the original Gispen furniture). The Sonnevelds were very forward-thinking and obsessed with American culture and technology. And so the house itself became almost like a machine, outfitted with every industrial gadget of the time. The bedrooms especially wound up looking like they belonged in a hospital. That is, except for the master bedroom, which Mr. Sonneveld had painted a sort of gel pen copper to resemble an automobile. The house provides a superb window into the opening salvos of the architectural and design battles that would be waged across the next century between the theories of functionalism and the desires of human beings for whimsy and inessential beauty.
The next stop, though, was what I was most excited for. The Van Nelle Factory, which was built by a conglomerate in which Sonneveld was a partner. Dubbed by Le Corbusier “the most beautiful spectacle of the modern era” and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the factory is truly something to behold. So much so, that when gazing at its glass facade, elegant mushroom columns, and the swooping overhead glass bridges, it’s hard to imagine this was built as a factory. In fact, when it was built, workers at first refused to take the stairs because of the floor-to-ceiling glass freaked them out. So they had to put in chicken wire mesh fencing along the stairwell windows so people didn’t think they’d fall through. The factory was commissioned by the youngest partner, Kees van der Leeuw, and also designed by Brinkman & Van der Vlugt. Van der Leeuw was quite the eccentric (he sunbathed naked at his house) and studied psychology with Freud. But, Weemen tells me, he was also one of those civic leaders who ensured that post-World War II Rotterdam would not be rebuilt as it was but instead with modern architecture.
Today the factory is a multi-purpose space, with start-ups, cafes, and event space filling its various floors. As it’s not a museum like the Huis Sonneveld, if you want to do more than just take photos of the exterior, it really is best to hire a guide to get you inside and around (don’t miss the Gispen chrome accents on the stairs in the office building).
I would be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for weird attractions. And there is perhaps nothing weirder in Rotterdam, but also almost nothing as well done, as its Natural History Museum’s collection of animals that have died in freakish circumstances. Its most famous is the duck involved in the “first case of homosexual necrophilia” in… ducks. Long story short, about 20 years ago a duck crashed into a glass wall at the museum and died. But that quick death was not enough. A male mallard duck right next to it decided to, um, take the dead male duck right then and there.
There is also the McFlurry hedgehog (hedgehogs in Holland apparently were dying in large numbers because they would get their heads stuck in the opening of McFlurry cups) or the sparrow shot and killed because it got in the way of a world-record domino display. But for visitors curious enough to venture beyond the opening display of weird wonders, there is also a room devoted to a local teacher obsessed with whales. So obsessed, in fact, that he obtained whale penis leather from the last Dutch whaling ship to go to the South Pole and made himself a briefcase—and his wife a pair of slippers.
That night, I continued my lucky run of great meals at Heroine, a swanky spot with fetching crimson velvet seating. Impossibly chic, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, places like this aren’t supposed to exist in gritty cities.
My final day in the city was spent mostly outside. If you talk to anyone working on behalf of tourism in the Netherlands, one of the things they’ll talk about it how quickly you can get anywhere in the country by train, so won’t you please stay somewhere besides Amsterdam! And while the desperation to get folks out of the zoo that Amsterdam becomes in the peak tourist season is palpable, it’s also based in reality. The trains are convenient. For instance, I just hopped on the metro and took it all the way (by all the way I mean 20-ish minutes) to The Hague to spend my morning gazing at works by Vermeer, Rubens, and Brueghel. (While I’m not a Rubens fan, the paintings in the collection that were a collaboration between Brueghel and Rubens are fabulous.)
Then it was back on the metro to Rotterdam for a final twirl around its modern architecture, focusing on two of its newer additions—the social-media-friendy Cube houses and the belly-of-the-whale Markthal (it’s strange).
But my feasting was not over. For my final dinner, I hopped over to De Joong, one of the city’s best-loved newer spots. All I can say is that if you told me my final taste of Rotterdam would be barley ice cream and that it would be typical of my experience, I’d say the city probably made me barf.
Instead, I surprised even myself and liked it.