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Rotterdam: Exploring Amsterdam’s ‘hipster sister’

People who live in Rotterdam have an interesting way of explaining the differences between themselves and their two neighbours. “Amsterdam spends the money; The Hague saves the money; and Rotterdam earns the money.”

What Kim, Rotterdam resident and my guide for the day, was illustrating over a coffee on a crisp, sunny, morning is that Rotterdam is where things are happening, where hotels and businesses are not only opening but thriving and where people in the city are actively making it a better and smarter place to live.

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Luchtsingel footbridge

Take, for example, Luchtsingel. The north and the south of the city used to be divided by a busy highway that was surrounded by bellowing grey concrete walls. The public wanted a more attractive connection between the two sides of the city and one where children could play and feel safe. A proposal was put forward for a footbridge, which was deemed too expensive by the council.

What followed was a crowdfunded campaign to raise money for the bridge that would be designed by local architects and give a significant face lift to the area. Residents and local businesses all poured their money in and the bridge was built. Made from 17,000 planks of wood, each piece has a contributors name carved into it. And, the design is resounding. The bright yellow walkway takes pedestrians over the traffic onto one of the best known streets in Rotterdam, Coolsingel, which is where my day of exploring began.

Our first stop was Schieblock, an office tower that once posed an intimidating shadow over the area before the
footbridge and newly planted trees lit the place up. The outside is run down but its location at the foot of Coolsingel, an area I am told is like “that Shoreditch place in London”, has seen a number of start-ups and tech companies move in, transforming its interior into a modern working environment. We hopped into the lift, slid the shutters behind us and rose to the top floor as I wondered when Shoreditch gained international status.

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Schieblock, Rotterdam’s highest rooftop garden

We exited and climbed a flight of stairs onto the rooftop where I could see almost all of Rotterdam. The towering World Trade Centre building reflected the sunlight onto the Rhine River, which is hurdled by a number of impressive bridges and on a clear day, and at a squint, the spikes of the The Hague skyline can be spotted on the horizon.

Walking around the corner I realised why we paid Schieblock a visit as my eyes were taken off the city and onto row after row of thick and tall greenery. This happened to be Rotterdam’s largest rooftop garden. Growing from dozens of beds of soil were plants and vegetables, some stretching well into the sky, while others were quietly attended to at their gardener’s feet. The wall I leant on was part of an extension, no bigger than a small cafe, with large windows that let the morning’s sun pour in. The space can fit roughly 20 people or less for small meetings, lunches or even drinks receptions while the sun sets, creating a perfect space for delegates to unearth one of Rotterdam’s best hidden gems.

We dropped back down to ground level and made our way up the Coolsingel and through the city centre where the city’s mixed and sometimes peculiar design really comes to life.

During World War II, large parts of Rotterdam were completely flattened, meaning much of the city had to be rebuilt. This came at an interesting time as the Industrial Revolution meant new resources and materials were at the city’s disposal, which became a cradle for the new Dutch Modernism movement and its most esteemed architects. This gave Rotterdam a head start when it came to Europe’s urban renewal in the 70’s and De Rotterdam, the stunning Markthal, and the new Rotterdam Centraal station are examples of how the city has continued to lead the way in this century, as well.

After crossing the enormous Erasmus Bridge, I gawped at the enormous De Rotterdam, the largest building in the Netherlands, and perhaps the most bizarre. De Rotterdam is three disjointed towers that look like giant rectangular building blocks have clumsily been dropped on top of one another. They hover perilously over the edge and it seems like a strong gust of wind could topple the entire thing into the Rhine River.

De Rotterdam and the Rhine River

De Rotterdam and the Rhine River

Inside one of the towers is the 278-room nhow Rotterdam hotel, which includes selection of meeting rooms and an outdoor terrace perched 30m above the water. Art and architecture have combined to make this not only one of the city’s coolest hangout spots, but one of the trendiest hotels to spend a night or two in. And, it has competition.

The nearby 72-room Hotel New York is a bustling boutique, which sits inside the former head office of Holland America Line where thousands of emigrants once left for North America. It also happens to serve some of the best seafood in the city. The Inntel Hotels Rotterdam Centre looks across the river at the nhow and inside is one of the most breathtaking event spaces in the city where a two-storey meeting room leans over the river from the top floor. The nhow hosts pop ups throughout the year, showcasing urban art, fashion and photography all done at the hands of local talent.

The tour ended on board the SS Rotterdam, an iconic 1950s transatlantic ocean liner that saw Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald perform on its stage on a number of occasions during its heyday. Since anchoring permanently, it has been reinvented as a 250-room hotel, with conference facilities for up to 500. Aside from several necessary renovations – and a much needed paint job after former American owners decided to pain the ship jet black, the SS Rotterdam still emits that feeling of grandeur and amongst the city’s many modern and boutique venues, it offers an inviting blast to the past.

Our scrumptious lunch of chicken and vegetables (and chips and mayonaise, because of course) was enjoyed on the ship’s Lido Terrace and we toasted Rotterdam’s rare sunshine, although the deck’s shallow pool will have to be enjoyed another time.