It’s a rooftop tour that gives visitors with a good head for heights a thrilling bird’s eye view over Dutch Manhattan. In no time I’m in the heart of urban Rotterdam, exploring a rooftop garden complete with beehives, chickens pecking about, and beds of vegetables and herbs. It’s a pretty extraordinary sight, one that says much about the green-fingered Dutch and their imaginative use of precious space.
Rotterdam’s skyline was born out of the mass destruction of its historic city centre, including many gabled buildings similar to those in Amsterdam, during World War II German bombardments.
On May 14, 1940, devastating bombings that reduced much of the port city to rubble are said to have occurred only because the Luftwaffe missed an order to turn back, destroying most of Rotterdam. Some 850 people died and around 80,000 were made homeless.
When the remains of damaged buildings were demolished, only a fraction of the historic city centre remained standing.
After the war ended, the port city spent decades rebuilding with cutting-edge, imaginative architecture. As the destruction of Ukraine’s magnificent old buildings, squares and monuments continues, Rotterdam has shown how a city can eventually rise from the ashes to make its mark again.
The Netherlands’ commercial powerhouse and the world’s biggest port has more modern high-rise rooftops than any other Dutch city. Rotterdam is famous for its innovative ‘cube houses’, which resemble yellow and white dice plonked on their sides. Just in case you wonder what it must be like to live in such a strange structure, there’s a museum on-site to visit.
Nearby, another landmark known as ‘Het Potlood’ (the pencil) — a pointy topped apartment building — hugs the skyline, while Markthal, the largest indoor market in the country, looks like a giant metal and glass Swiss roll.
As with other capitals and second cities (think Dublin versus Cork), there has always been a keen rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Football duels between Amsterdam’s Ajax and Feyenoord of Rotterdam are the stuff of legend.
Luckily, the stag party circuit appears to have escaped Rotterdam. The city hosts world-class events, including the Rotterdam Marathon, North Sea Jazz Festival, and a big film festival among other annual events. And once you get your bearings using the efficient metro and tram network, Rotterdam is very easy to get around.
Remember too that you’ll pay less. Everything from accommodation to restaurants, and concerts to bike hire are cheaper than in the Dutch capital. If you want to meet real Dutch people and not be ripped off then Rotterdam’s hip bars and clubs are the real deal. I know this having lived in the Netherlands a few decades back.
‘Queen of the Rooftops’ (as she’s known locally) Esther Wienese gives her sky-high tours in the city centre at locations not normally open or accessible.
As Esther says: “People visit cities but fail to look up enough”. Her book about Rotterdam rooftops has helped to turn her “obsession with this city’s amazing high-rise panoramic views” into a thriving tourist attraction.
“I looked down and saw all those empty roof spaces, and I thought…they’re empty, doing nothing — they could be gardens, chill-out spaces for office workers, recreational and meeting points for retirees — the possibilities were endless.” That dream is now slowly becoming a municipal reality.
We explore the urban rooftop farm close to Rotterdam’s spanking new central railway station. The farm hosts educational visits from school children, harvest festivals, tastings and horticultural courses. The garden also supplies the nearby restaurant (ophetdak.com) that overlooks it with fresh produce.
No visit to Rotterdam is complete without a stroll along the quayside near the Maritime Museum, where water-taxis cross the harbour, passing houseboats and working barges.
We take ourselves out across the water to the south bank of the Maas, and our water taxi captain throws up a bit of wash to give passengers an adrenaline rush as we fly beneath the huge Erasmus Bridge.
Our endpoint is the historic Hotel New York (hotelnewyork.com), an imposing former transit point for the famous Holland America Line. Passengers disembark close to the hotel, whose restaurant terrace commands super views, and serves a choice menu. The Dutch shrimps (garnalen) and freshly caught fish are especially good.
Rotterdam’s multicultural roots have sprouted lots of ethnic eating spots. One of the best and most reasonably priced Chinese restaurants is (an insider tip) Tai Wu, where we seem to be the only non-oriental guests — always a good sign. At Heroine (restaurantheroine.nl) we enjoy another highly-recommended dining experience — an outstanding five-course menu for only €58. The renowned restaurant is housed in a post-war startup factory called Het Industriegebouw, in the heart of Rotterdam.
Those wishing to escape city life can breathe in the sea air at Hook van Holland, outside the city, which has a decent stretch of strand and dunes, big North Sea waves, hip beach clubs, and a boulevard whose pavilions serve fresh fish and the famous Dutch ‘poffertjes’ mini pancakes.
For biking bliss, pedal past windmills, farms and pristine gardens along country canals. Choose from cycling routes as far as historic Delfshaven, from where the Pilgrim Fathers departed for the new world, or board a waterbus, following Discover Rotterdam’s other cycling routes.
Rotterdam deserves to be put on more of our Dutch travel wishlists. So if you have been to Amsterdam and loved the vibe — bicycles, canals, windmills, cheese, manageably small foaming glasses of lager — Rotterdam, on the mighty Maas river and but a stone’s throw from the cookie-cutter gabled towns and canals of the surrounding countryside, won’t disappoint.
ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS See rotterdam.info ■ Stay at the boutique Supernova Hotel from €99 (supernovahotel.nl) and The Slaak Hotel, a former newspaper office with retro rooms, from €144 (theslaakrotterdam.nl). ■ To book a rooftop tour, and many others, go to insiderotterdam.com. ■ Entry to the Maritime Museum costs €16 per adult/€12 per child (maritiemmuseum.nl).