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Rotterdam Travel Guide

Erasmus Bridge and the River Meuse, Rotterdam (photo by Massimo Catarinella - Creative Commons Licence)


Rotterdam (pop. 584,000, with suburbs 1,100,000) is the second largest city in the Netherlands after Amsterdam. The city developed on the banks of the river New Meuse (Nieuwe Maas in Dutch), the main channel in the delta formed by the Rhine and Meuse rivers. The name Rotterdam means "dam on the Rotte", a small tributary river of the New Meuse.

Rotterdam is the busiest and largest port in Europe, and used to to the busiest in the world from 1962 to 2004, until it was overtaken by Shanghai. Its position at the estuary of the Rhine make it profit from most of the sea trade from West Germany. With its 30km-long infrastructure, Rotterdam Harbour is the only port on the Atlantic coast, along with Le Havre, that can accommodate supertankers.

The port activities and job opportunities have transformed Rotterdam into the country's most cosmopolitan city. Just over half of the population is Dutch, while 38% is composed of immigrants from developing countries and 8% from industrialised countries. 55% of the inhabitants earn a low income. Muslims (Turks, Moroccans, Indonesians, etc.) comprise nearly 25% of the city's population.

Rotterdam was the birthplace of the famous humanist and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (1566-1636), after whom was named the homonymous European university student exchange programme.


Townhall of Rotterdam (© Peter van Vuuren |
19th-century architecture, Rotterdam (© Corstiaan van Elzelingen |

Rotterdam was founded in the 1260s in what is now the Hoogstraat ("High Street"). Granted city rights in 1340 by Count William IV of Holland, Rotterdam's geographic position allowed it to become a transshipment centre between Holland, England and Germany.

In 1572, soon after the beginning of the 80-year Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), Rotterdam gave shelter to the Spanish army, who plundered the city. The citizens were quick to join the anti-Spanish rebellion following this event.

By the middle of the 17th century, the city had overtaken Middelburg as the second commercial port of the young Dutch Republic. It was chosen as the seat of one of the six chambers of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or the Dutch East India Company.

The greatest spurt of growth, both in port activity and population, followed the completion of the Nieuwe Waterweg in 1872.

Hitler's troops invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, expecting a quick victory. But after meeting unexpectedly fierce resistance, the Germans finally forced the Dutch army to capitulate on 14 May 1940 by bombing Rotterdam and threatening to bomb other cities. Around 1 square mile (2.6 square kilometres) of the city was almost completely levelled. 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 warehouses and 62 schools were destroyed, leaving about 850 people dead, and 80,000 homeless.

Reconstruction in the 1950's and 1960's



Skyscrapers in downtown Rotterdam (© Clicks /
Skyline of Rotterdam at dusk (© Studio_waleson /
Modern office building, Rotterdam (© Clicks /

Badly damaged by the German Airforce on 14 May 1940, the city centre has lost most of its historical heritage, and is not particularily beautiful. The main reason to visit it is for its modern architecture, its museums, its bustling nightlife, or its impressive harbour.

The 11-storey Witte Huis ("White House") is a New York-style high-rise office building. Built in 1898, it was the tallest office building in Europe at the time of its completion, with a height of 45 metre.

Since then, Rotterdamers have constructed higher, much higher. Dominating the city's skyline, the 185m-tall Euromast is now the best known landmark. It was built between 1958 and 1960, and renovated in 2004. Its postwar concrete structure is not the happiest, but the tower has the merit to host a hotel, restaurant, business centre, and even rooms for wedding receptions or parties at 100m above the ground.

Little remains from the Old Rotterdam. The best preserved parts of town are the so-called Oude Haven ("Old Harbour") and the Delfshaven, which has a reconstructed windmill. Besides that, the 17th-century Schielandshuis is the oldest surviving building in the city.

The city's main art museum is the splendid Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, with a collection ranging from medieval European art to modern art. The museums possess some of the best works by Old Masters like Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Jan Van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Titian,Tintoretto, or Rembrandt, and by more recent artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas or Dali.

The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) owns one of the worldís largest architectural collections. It is is located in a modern building designed by architect Jo Coenen, in the Museumpark. In the same park, the Kunsthal (exhibition hall) is another fine example of modern architecture.

If there is one museum one can expect to find in Europe's biggest port, it is a Maritime Museum.

Other attractions include the Rotterdam Zoo, the Nederlands Fotomuseum, De Dubbelde Palmboom History Museum, the World Museum, and the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art.

Ship in dock in Rotterdam harbour (© jplacetobe |
Heavy industry in the harbour, Rotterdam (© Devy Masselink |


How to get there

Rotterdam is on the E19 motorway (Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris), about 70km south of Amsterdam and 100km north of Antwerp.

The nearest airport is Rotterdam Airport, but daily flights are limited to London and Hamburg. The other flights are mostly holiday destinations in the Alps or the Mediterranean. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, the main international airport in the Netherlands is only 65 km away (about 50 min by train).

There are frequent trains from/to The Hague (25min), Utrecht (40min) or Amsterdam (1h) . The Thalys bullet train links the city to Brussels (1h50) and Paris (3h10min).

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