Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
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If Holland's past lives on in Amsterdam's fabled canals and historic row houses, its future can be found in the gleaming skyscrapers and office towers of Rotterdam. Following a devastating bomb raid in World War II that almost completely leveled the city, Rotterdam has risen from its own ashes to become the one of the largest seaports in the world -- and the driving force behind the Dutch economy. A local joke captures this city's unique role within the Netherlands: "Rotterdam earns the money, The Hague distributes it and Amsterdam spends it."
You can feel that sense of energy and industry as soon as your ship pulls into Rotterdam's vast deep-water harbor, which is almost a city unto itself. Little tugboats steam briskly past heavily laden river barges, while freighters unload cargo crates into stacks that stretch like buildings from the docks toward the sky. The north and south banks of the river, both lined with high-rises, are linked by the dramatic spans of two cable bridges -- including the asymmetrical Erasmus bridge, a city landmark.
Rotterdam was founded in 1340, but you'd never know it by looking at today's modern skyline. Centuries of history were wiped out by Nazi bombs in May 1940. Afterwards, the rebuilding of Rotterdam was embraced with a vengeance -- and continues to this day, with new buildings popping up every year. This constant buzz of energy and expansion makes Rotterdam one of the most dynamic places to visit on any European itinerary.
For the first-time visitor, it can be jarring to see steel and cement instead of canals and cobblestones. But what Rotterdam lacks in historic charm it makes up for in cutting-edge architecture, world-class museums and sunny sidewalk terraces perfect for enjoying a Dutch beer or two. And the past isn't entirely forgotten; look closely enough and you'll unearth a few remnants of the city's history, like a 1920s statehouse, a 15th-century church and a 400-year-old statue of Erasmus -- a ghost from the past who seems to smile benevolently upon Rotterdam's bright future.
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The Netherlands is known for its Gouda cheese and wooden shoes. Either (or both) makes a great souvenir.
Dutch is the official language, though many locals speak at least a little English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro. There are banks and ATMs throughout Rotterdam, particularly in the downtown shopping districts. For current conversions, check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Where You're Docked
Most ships dock at the main cruise terminal on Wilhelminakade, across the Erasmus Bridge from the city center. Smaller ships dock closer to downtown along Boompjes, between the Erasmus and Willems bridges. However, with the larger number of riverboats plying the waterways, boats can often be moored further down the Maas past the Willems Bridge.
Besides a few vendors offering local handicrafts and souvenirs, there's not too much to see inside the main cruise terminal. However, the Nederlands Fotomuseum is within easy walking distance in the Las Palmas building on Wilhelminakade. You can also walk to the top of the Erasmus Bridge for a view of the Rotterdam skyline and the activities in the city's busy port. Major downtown attractions are about 30 minutes away on foot; alternatives include taxis, water taxis, buses and the Metro.
From the smaller dock at Boompjes, you're only about a 20-minute walk from downtown. There's not much near the dock besides a few waterfront restaurants.
On Foot: It will take at least 30 minutes to get from the main cruise terminal to the city center, but once you're there, many of Rotterdam's attractions are within walking distance of each other.
By Taxi: Both regular taxis and water taxis are available just outside the cruise terminal. For those passengers disembarking at the smaller dock, ask someone at your ship's reception desk to call a cab for you. You'll find taxi stands in busy locations throughout the city, particularly near Metro stations. You can also call the Rotterdam Taxi Centre at +31 10-462-6060.
By Public Transportation: A regular shuttle bus service takes passengers from the main cruise terminal into downtown Rotterdam. The Wilhelminaplein Metro station is also within walking distance of the cruise terminal.
Trams, buses and subway trains operate throughout the city. An OV chip card is required to ride Rotterdam's public transport and can be purchased at sales booths, ticket machines, information kiosks in metro stations, post offices and a handful of other locations. Options include an unlimited one-day ticket, travel pass for one or two hours, and a travel pass for two for one hour. The same ticket is valid on buses, trams and trains.
By Bike: Rotterdam is a bike-friendly city, with special lanes for cyclists on most streets. As in all of the Netherlands you can rent a bike at the central train station; just look for the Fietsenstalling sign.
By Car: We don't recommend renting a car; you can easily see the sights in town on foot or by using public transportation, and efficient train service is available to nearby towns like Delft and Ghent. However, if you do choose to rent a car, Avis, Budget and Europcar have downtown rental locations.
Note: If you're planning on parking on the street in Rotterdam, be aware that the meters don't take cash. Instead, you must pay with a prepaid "chip card," available in stores all over the city. Some ticket machines also take credit cards.
Watch Out For
Nearly all of Rotterdam's museums are closed on Mondays.
Four of Rotterdam's most intriguing museums are clustered within a few blocks of each other amid the gardens of Museum Park. The Boijmans van Beuningen Museum (Museumpark 18-20; open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-441-9475) has an eclectic collection of art from the Middle Ages to the present day, with an emphasis on the Old Masters. The Kunsthal (Museumpark; open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays and public holidays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-440-0300) hosts about 25 visiting exhibitions a year on everything from Leonardo da Vinci to lingerie.
The most impressive sight at the small Natural History Museum (Westzeedijk 345; open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-436-4222) is a 49-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, which sits on display among a wide-ranging collection of fossils, butterflies and other wonders of the natural world. The Het Nieuwe Instituut (Museumpark 25; open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays and public holidays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-440-1200) offers information and visiting exhibitions on Dutch design and architecture in a striking contemporary building.
For a dizzying bird's-eye view of the city and its harbor, head to one of Rotterdam's tallest buildings: the 607-foot Euromast. An elevator whisks you up to a windy outdoor viewing platform, from which you can see as far as Antwerp and The Hague on a clear day. Thrill-seekers can go abseiling (rappelling) down the side of the tower, while the less adventurous can sit back and watch their efforts through the windows of the tower's restaurant. (Parkhaven 20; open daily April to September, 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily October to March, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; +31 10-436-4811)
The 15th-century Sint Laurenskirk is the only building from the Middle Ages left in Rotterdam, though it had to be partially rebuilt after the World War II bombing. Its relatively plain interior is distinguished by one of Europe's largest organs. Don't miss the 400-year-old statue of Erasmus on the square in front of the church. (Grotekerkplein 27; open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 10-411-6494)
Tucked away into the southwestern corner of Rotterdam is a tiny slice of old Holland, where you can get a glimpse of what the city would have looked like before it was leveled in World War II. Guarding the entrance to this little area, known as Delfshaven, is a traditional wooden windmill; beyond it runs a narrow canal lined with antique shops and cafes that have been reconstructed to look like the historic buildings that once stood here. Pay a visit to the Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim's Father Church, open Friday and Saturday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.), which is said to have sheltered the English pilgrims before they departed for Southampton to board the Mayflower.
Note: Delfshaven is a 30- to 40-minute walk from the city center along rather rundown streets. A quicker and more pleasant option is to take the #4 tram.
As the birthplace of the modern mall, Rotterdam offers a wealth of opportunities for shoppers. Bibliophiles should make a beeline for Polare (Lijnbaan 150; +31 10-413-2070) with its 10 floors of books, CDs, DVDs and sheet music. (There are plenty of English-language options.) The city's most famous department store is De Bijenkorf (Coolsingel 105), a beehive-shaped building offering designer clothing and upscale household goods. You'll find Dutch and international chain stores in the pedestrian-only shopping areas along the Lijnbaan and the Beurstraverse, while the best antique stores are along the waterfront in Delfshaven.
Many visitors do a double take at their first sight of the Blaaske Bos (Blaaske forest), a row of colorful, cube-shaped houses tilted precariously on their sides and supported by concrete pillars. Designed in 1984 by architect Piet Bloom, the houses are meant to represent trees. Most of the houses are currently inhabited, but curious visitors can tour the Kijk-Kubus (Overblaak 70; open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-414-2285), or Show Cube, to see what life is like inside.
Been There, Done That
Want to learn more about the workings of Rotterdam's enormous harbor? You can take a peek behind the scenes at the Havenmuseum or Harbor Museum. At this "working museum" you can check out historic ships, watch cranes hoist cargo and learn what it's like to work along the docks. Admission is free on Sundays. (Leuvehaven 50-72; open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-404-8072)
Rotterdam's zoo, known as Diergaarde Blijdorp, sees 1.5 million visitors a year. In addition to the usual animal suspects like lions, zebras, giraffes, rhinos and snakes, the zoo also boasts a large aquarium. (Blijdorplaan 8, 3041; open daily in summer, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily in winter, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 900-1857)
From stark landscapes to intimate portraits, the collection at the Nederlands Fotomuseum showcases a century of unique Dutch photography. The museum is located in the Las Palmas building near the main cruise terminal on Wilhelminakade. (Wilhelminakade; open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; +31 10-203-0405)
Leave modernity behind with a daytrip to Delft, just a 15-minute train ride away. With its scenic canals and row houses, Old Delft looks almost like a miniature Amsterdam. The painter Johannes Vermeer lived and worked here in the 1600s, and today you can stand in the same place (at the south end of Oude Delft canal) where he painted his famous "View of Delft." The city's other claim to fame is Delftware, delicate blue and white porcelain dishes that are still made in De Porceleyn Fles, a factory south of the city center.
With so many ships docking in Rotterdam from all around the world, it's no surprise that there's such a diverse range of dining options here, from French to Indonesian. (For better or worse, this panoply also includes a surprisingly large number of McDonald's restaurants.) For a happy medium between fine dining and fast food, try one of the city's many pubs, where you can while away a sunny afternoon at an outdoor terrace, local brew in hand.
Rotterdam's best Indonesian cuisine is on the menu at the elegant Dewi Sri, located along the waterfront a few blocks from the Euromast. This is a great option for vegetarians, who can enjoy options like vegetable salad topped with a peanut sauce, and fried tofu and bean sprouts in a spicy sauce. There are also plenty of delicious beef- and pork-based dishes. (Westerkade 20; open Monday to Friday, noon to 10 p.m.; +31 10-436-0263)
Located a few blocks from Museum Park, where most of the city's main museums are located, is the Nieuw Rotterdam Cafe, or NR Cafe, a perfect spot to stop for lunch after touring the Boijmans van Beuningen Art Museum or Kunsthal. A large menu, both for lunch and dinner, is reasonably priced and features everything from pastries, soups and salads to sandwiches and pasta. (Witte de Withstraat 63, open from 10:00 a.m. daily except for Sundays from 11:00 a.m.; +31 10 414-4188)
The innovative French dishes at Parkheuvel have long made it one of Rotterdam's most celebrated restaurants. You can't beat its convenient location in Museum Park, or the scenic view of the Maas River from its outdoor terrace. (Heuvellaan 21; open Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; +31 10-436-0530)
For informal dining in Delfshaven, try Stadsbrouwerij de Pelgrim, a working brewery where you can toast your trip with a delicious local beer. The food is a little pricey for pub fare, but it's worth it for the lovely view of the Delfshaven canal from the outdoor terrace. (Aelbrechtskolk 12; open daily from noon; +31 10-477-1189)
Staying in Touch
Free Wi-Fi is available in Rotterdam Centraal. Just connect to the Rotterdam Draadloos Wi-Fi network for access. The centrally located Rotterdam.info tourist office also offers free Wi-Fi.
Best for First-Timers: Gain an appreciation of Rotterdam's groundbreaking architecture with a bus tour of the city's most distinctive buildings. Highlights include the cube houses of the Blaaske Bos, the Art Deco-style Hotel New York, the innovative Erasmus Bridge and a walking tour of Delfshaven. Running time for the tour is two and a half hours.
Best for Foodies: Take a walking tour through the 13th-century town of Gouda, home to the world-famous cheese. The tour includes a visit to the medieval St. John's Church and a stop at Holland's only triangular square, along with some free time for shopping in the old town. (Don't forget to pick up some cheese.) This tour runs four hours.
Best for Classic Netherlands: There are few images more Dutch than a sea of windmills, and no town has more of them than World Heritage site Kinderdijk, with its 19 scenic mills. First up on the tour is a quick presentation in the Kinderdijk Theatre. Then explore the windmills, take a tour of the interior of a working mill and talk to a real miller. The tour also includes a tour through the scenic Delfshaven borough of Rotterdam. This tour runs four hours.
For More Information
On the Web: Rotterdam Info
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Independent Traveler Forums: Europe Travel Guide
--By Sarah Schlichter, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Dori Saltzman, News Editor