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Rugged reputation: why Rotterdam is one of the must sees of 2014

Foto ANP/Sash Alexander

Rotterdam is one of the must sees of 2014, The New York Times and the Rough Guide say. BBC correspondent Anna Holligan visited the city for NRC and she totally agrees. Go see Rotterdam.

Door Anna Holligan

There were cries of confusion and consternation among some of my Dutch friends when the New York Times and Rough Guide recognised Rotterdam as one of the world’s ‘must see’ destinations for 2014.

How could these respected publications rank Rotterdam above more traditionally celebrated cities such as Leiden or Amsterdam? A couple of cynical bloggers suggested the poll rating was a PR stunt; featuring less familiar locations purely to generate ‘clicks’ and ‘shares’.

But to dismiss Rotterdam would be to miss out on one of the most vibrant, culturally diverse and constantly evolving metropolises in the low lands.

‘The most modern skyline in the country’

As a foreign correspondent stationed in The Hague, a city that celebrates order and convention, chaotic Rotterdam is a revelation. Perhaps because it feels like familiar territory. I moved to The Hague from Hackney in East London. The area is home to the infamous ‘murder mile’ notorious for gang violence. Today Hackney is experiencing a renaissance – much like Rotterdam. Fashion studios are springing up inside previously forgotten premises, young bespectacled professionals with beards and bikes hang around pop-up shops, dreadlocked kids with mics entertain intrigued Sunday shoppers.

Foto ANP/Sash Alexander

Rotterdam has the shabby chic streets reminiscent of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. The same graffiitied cafes, artists occupying abandoned dock buildings and unpredictable, dynamic atmosphere. Parks might not be as world renowned as Vondel but this means you can find a place to sit in Summer and cycle without dodging tourists in Autumn. As an infrequent visitor in all of these recently rediscovered spaces you are confronted by the unexpected or unconventional.

As the New York Times notes, ‘Post-World War II reconstruction has changed the face of one of Europe’s largest ports, where striking, cubed architecture gives shape to the most modern skyline in the country.’

Less pretence and pressure

In some areas it looks as though ten architects were given simultaneous planning permission and all began building with little regard for continuity. But the fact this kind of unconventional construction can coexist is part of the charm. And offers a metaphorical insight into the cultural composition of the Netherlands second city.

The relatively large Antillian, Surinam and Moroccan population is reflected in the shops and restaurants scattered around the city. There is an indulgence in diversity here that, in my experience doesn’t exist to the same extent anywhere else in the country. Rotterdam is considered by some to be a poor relation. It does not attempt to compete with the allure of Amsterdam, or try to tempt tourists away from the pretty cobbled streets of Leiden. Rotterdamers seem happy to let Haarlem steal the historians’ spotlight. Perhaps partly because of this relaxed attitude, it feels as though there is less pretence or pressure to conform inside this ever-changing cityscape.

Foto ANP/Sash Alexander

In selecting Rotterdam above the more predictable favourites, the NYT and Rough Guide broke convention in terms of what we should be celebrating.

Of course Rotterdam has the traditional tourist attractions and museums. With the Rijksmuseum and recently renovated Mauritshaus offering strong competition for the culturally driven day-trippers, Rotterdam biggest tourism draws lie outside.

‘Cube houses’

When you drive over the spectacular Erasmus Bridge or ‘De Swan’, the sun’s rays shimmering between the asymmetric buildings, the scale and originality is awe-inspiring and surely one of Rotterdam’s most distinctive sights. And the modern developments are still in the making. Look at the massive new Rem Koolhaas-building on the other side: De Rotterdam. Or the new Markhal, the basilica-like indoor market/apartment building/piece of art, designed by MVRDV’s Winy Maas.

Foto Robin Utrecht

Architecture does not come much more unconventional than Piet Blom’s ‘cube houses’. They are the type of structures you might expect to find in an architectural design exhibition. In Rotterdam they are residential homes, balancing almost haphazardly across the road. Some of them have been bought out by a hostel chain; offering the budget conscious traveller a chance to spend a night inside one Rotterdam’s most photographed structures. These cube houses are symbolic of a city that does not show off about what it has to offer, it and lets visitors decide which features deserve their attention.

Rugged reputation

My favourite place to stay is the New York Hotel. Rooms feature up-cycled furniture; battered chests become tables, dislocated lift doors separate the bedroom from the harlequin styled designs in the bathroom. The whole building is a tribute to Rotterdam’s glorious sea-faring past. And the views across the Mass are worth waking up for.

One sight stands above the rest. The Euromast tower opened in 1960. At 185 meters tall, it’s the Netherlands highest building open to the public. Take the lift to the bar for a birds-eye view. On our last visit, my boyfriend (now husband) and I spent hours looking out over the glistening cityscape. Rotterdam viewed from this height inspires and offers a new perspective on the world and your place in it.

With it’s rugged reputation and unconventional character, Rotterdam appeals to the rebellious romantic.

One of the most rewarding tourism experiences is taking the road less travelled. This may explain why the travel guides chose Rotterdam as their Dutch city of 2014.

But don’t take my word for it. Go and (re) discover for yourself what makes Rotterdam so remarkable.