“Most Americans go to Amsterdam. Why are you visiting Rotterdam?”
This question was posed to us by a nice young man, a native Rotterdammer sitting next to us on the train from London, and he had a valid point. If you’d asked us a few weeks ago what we knew about Rotterdam, we would have said, “Not much.”
I couldn’t have told you what country it was in or where it was located on a map. Based on the sound of its name, I guessed that it might be in Germany, or maybe in one of the Nordic countries. I never would’ve gotten the correct answer because, sadly, I didn’t know much about the Netherlands either.
The truth is, we chose to travel to Rotterdam because we found a good hotel deal, and because for us, all of Europe is new and exciting, so anywhere we go will be more interesting than home. Simple as that. But now that we’ve spent a week in Rotterdam, it’s apparent that we should’ve paid better attention in our world geography classes, because it’s a great city, in a fascinating little country, and we’re grateful that we had the opportunity to learn more about it.
- First of all, let’s establish some geographical facts. Rotterdam is in the Netherlands, which, FYI, is what people typically call Holland, except Holland is actually an area within the country of the Netherlands. To make matters a little more confusing, the people of Netherlands are known as the Dutch. The predominant language is Nederlands (also called Dutch), but many people speak English as it is a requirement in school.
- With a population of around 600,000, Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands, with the capitol city of Amsterdam being the largest. Rotterdam is divided into north and south sections by a beautiful river called the Nieuwe Maas. It is a major harbor city; in fact, the port of Rotterdam is the largest in Europe, and until recently it was the busiest port in the world. It’s been an important European port for over 500 years.
- Rotterdam has excellent infrastructure, including subway and tram systems as well as a national & international train station, the Rotterdam Centraal. It’s also the most bike-friendly city we’ve ever seen, with integrated bike paths that are separate from the road. People use bikes like crazy in this town, and it’s a popular way for tourists to see the sites. Rotterdam is also very walkable, especially in the city center, where we stayed.
- Rotterdam’s a vibrant town that describes itself as “young” and “fresh,” and this is true. We felt a nice energy as we explored the town; the streets were filled with people, young and old, walking and bicycling all over the city or sitting at outdoor cafes. It’s also known for its summer festivals and street markets, and it has an enormous, permanent indoor market, Markthal (Market Hall), filled with food stalls. An immense, colorful mural covers the walls and ceiling of this arch-shaped building.
- Rotterdam is different from most European cities in that it has few relics from the past, and there’s a reason for that: the entire city center was destroyed on May 14, 1940, in the Rotterdam Blitz, Germany’s aerial bombardment during the invasion of the Netherlands. Almost 900 people were killed, and what buildings weren’t destroyed in the bombing were engulfed by the fire that raged for days after, rendering an estimated 85,000 homeless. Up until that point, the Netherlands had refused to surrender to the Germans, but the destruction of the city convinced the Dutch to capitulate, and they surrendered soon after. (Here is a link to what the city looked like after the bombing. And here is another). Only a few buildings remained standing in the city center. The building that is now town hall was one of them:
The church of St. Laurenskirk, built between 1449-1525, was the only Gothic structure to survive:
The city was settled in 1270, so that’s a lot of history, culture, and identity to wipe out in a single day, and yet the residents began rebuilding almost immediately, creating what is now a unique city known for its modern architecture and its numerous skyscrapers, some of the tallest in Europe. Modern art can be found all over the city, and it has several renowned museums.
Rotterdam has been described as “the old city with a new heart.” It hasn’t forgotten its past; it just doesn’t want to be defined by it. It has successfully reinvented itself as a fun, modern city with many things to offer, making it the perfect complement to its more famous neighbor, Amsterdam.