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 largest seaport 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 seems to continue to this day, if the countless construction sites across the city are anything to go by. This constant buzz of energy and expansion make 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 1920's 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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Dutch, 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 ATM's throughout Rotterdam, particularly in the downtown shopping districts. For up-to-the-minute conversions, check www.xe.com.
Watch Out For
Nearly all of Rotterdam's museums are closed on Mondays.
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.
Besides a few vendors offering local handcrafts and souvenirs, there's not too much to see inside the main cruise terminal (www.cruiseportrotterdam). However, the new home of 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, there's a taxi stand at the corner of Verlengde Willemsbrug and Boompjes -- or you can 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 10-262-0496.
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. Tickets can usually be purchased onboard, but it may be cheaper to purchase a strip of tickets ahead of time from a railway station, post office or news agent. 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. You can rent one at the Cycle Shop Central Station (Stationsplein 1, +31 10-412-6220) or Rotterdam ByCycle (+31 10-465-2228, www.rotterdambycycle.nl).
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 pre-paid "chip card," available in stores all over the city. Some ticket machines also take credit cards. For more information, visit www.vvv.rotterdam.nl/uk/bereikbaarheid/Parking.asp.
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, +31 10-441-9400, Tuesday - Sunday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) has an eclectic collection of art from the Middle Ages to the present day, with an emphasis on the Old Masters. Tip: Entrance is free on Wednesdays. The Kunsthal (Museumpark, +31 10-440-0300, Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sundays and public holidays, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) hosts about 25 visiting exhibitions a year on everything from Leonardo da Vinci to lingerie.
The most impressive sight at the Natural History Museum (Westzeedijk 345, +31 10-436-4222, Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sundays and public holidays, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) is a 49-ft. 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 Netherlands Architecture Institute (Museumpark 25, +31 10-440-1200, Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sundays and public holidays, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) offers information and visiting exhibitions on Dutch architecture in a striking contemporary building.
For a dizzying bird's-eye view of the city and its harbor, head to Rotterdam's tallest building: the 610-ft. Euromast (Parkhaven 20, +31 10-436-4811, April - September: daily 9:30 a.m. - 11 p.m., October - March: daily 10 a.m. - 11 p.m.). 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 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.
The 15th-century Sint Laurenskirk (Grotekerkplein 27, 10-413-1494, Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.) 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.
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. You can learn about Rotterdam's history at the Dubbelde Palmboom Museum and pay a visit to the Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim's Father Church), 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 Donner (Lijnbaan 150, +31 10-41-2070) with its 10 floors of books, CD's, DVD's 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, +31 10-414-2285, March - December: daily 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., January - February: Saturday - Sunday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.), 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 -- (Leuvehaven 50-72, +31 10-404-8072, Tuesday - Friday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday - Sunday and public holidays, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.). 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.
The 17th-century mansion known as Het Schielandshuis (Korte Hoogstraat 31, +31 10-217-6767, Tuesday - Friday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday - Sunday and public holidays, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) houses a wealth of exhibits on the history of Rotterdam. Beautifully furnished period rooms, vintage maps and clothing from centuries past are the main attractions.
Rotterdam's zoo, known as Diergaarde Blijdorp (Abraham van Stolkweg, +31 10-443-1495, summer: daily, 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., winter: Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday and school holidays, 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.), 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.
From stark landscapes to intimate portraits, the collection at the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Las Palmas building, Wilhelminakade, +31 10-233-1696, Tuesday - Sunday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) showcases a century of unique Dutch photography. Following a closure of several months, the museum reopened in April 2007 in a new, larger space in the Las Palmas building near the main cruise terminal on Wilhelminakade.
Leave modernity behind with a day trip 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 1600's, 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 (Westerkade 20, +31 10-436-0263, Monday - Friday, noon - 2 p.m.), 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.
Coopvaert (Blaak 776, +31 10-280-0303, from 7:30 a.m.) is relatively new to Rotterdam's restaurant scene, but its French/Dutch cuisine is already making a splash. Some of the more popular dishes include a tartaar of mackerel appetizer and venison marinated in white wine and orange juice. There's a lengthy wine list, and prices are quite reasonable for the excellent quality of the food.
't Fust (Stadhuisplein 21, +31 10-412-9841, from 10 a.m.) is a friendly bar and restaurant located downtown within sight of Rotterdam's 1920's Stadhuis (state house). A generally young crowd gathers to nosh on seafood, steaks and other pub fare; the spare ribs are a perennial favorite. On sunny days, sit outside and watch the locals strolling by.
The innovative French dishes at Parkheuvel (Heuvellaan 21, +31 10-436-0766, Monday - Friday, noon - 2:30 p.m.) 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. The menu has changed a bit since new chef Erik van Loo took the reins in May 2006, but the quality and service have remained.
For informal dining in Delfshaven, try Stadsbrouwerij de Pelgrim (Aelbrechtskolk 12, +31 10-477-1189, from noon), 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.
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 and the innovative Erasmus Bridge. 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.) Four hours.
Best for Art Lovers: Pay a visit to The Hague and its exquisite art museum, the Mauritshuis. Once a palace, the museum is now home to one of the world's most impressive examples of Dutch art -- including more than a dozen works by Rembrandt and Vermeer's famous "Girl with a Pearl Earring." After the museum, you'll have some free time for shopping and exploring The Hague. Four hours.
Staying in Touch
The easyInternetcafe at 16-18 Stadhuisplein offers Internet access for about 2 euros an hour.
For More Information
On the Web: www.rotterdam.info.uk
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--by Sarah Schlichter, Associate Editor for Cruise Critic's sister site, IndependentTraveler.com.