Rotterdam - a whistle stop tour

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Most people head straight to Amsterdam when they visit the Netherlands but the country’s second largest city is also well worth a visit.

From culture to futuristic architecture, iconic windmills to chic neighbourhoods, the Netherlands' second largest conurbation is a vibrant, picturesque city that’s every bit as deserving of a visit as its number one rival Amsterdam.

Rotterdam is built on both banks of the Nieuwe Maas, the tidal southern arm of the Rhine, where it's joined by the River Rotte. The city dates back to medieval times and was fairly prosperous by the 13th century when a dam was built to separate the Rotte from the Nieuwe Maas - hence the city's name. 

A popular destination for its many fine museums and ingenious architecture, today it's also increasingly known for its vibrant culture and friendly people. It's also the world's largest port, being home to the enormous Europoort facility - often called the Gateway to Europe - through which huge quantities of freight passes on its way to and from the continent. 

Here are six things you might want to schedule into any visit to the area.

1. The Market Hall

Having been razed to the ground by WWII bombers, Rotterdam is a veritable cornocopia of modern, postmodern and contemporary building, including the colourful, vast Market Hall (above), an architecturally exciting combination of retail, leisure, living and parking, fully integrated and with a Sistine chapel-like design of supersized fruit and vegetables which arches across the ceiling.

During the day it's a busy food market, by night the Hall simply becomes an enormous, covered, well lit public space (and if you look carefully you might see that little window in the avocado suddenly open and a human being peep out....

2. Its waterways

If you’re looking for quaint canals, picturesque ancient bridges and gabled Renaissance houses, you might be better off heading to Amsterdam. But there are still many olde worlde type areas In Rotterdam to walk around, holding hands, if that's your thing. 

Perhaps more exciting though would be to take a boat tour - numerous of which are available from various locations around Rotterdam, and take in Rotterdam's massive port, which takes up half the city's total area of 247 square kilometres.

As well as a myriad massive ships, you'll see mile after mile of quays and storage facilities built to service the world's busiest port. One of the most popular excursions begins at Maeslantkering near Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland) and includes a close-up look at the city's massive surge barrier.   

What's going to be really exciting is a major new development in the canal opposite the Market Hall, slated to open in May 2017. Back in 2014 Rotterdam project planners unveiled plans to build a water-purifying wave pool with a barrelling 5ft, 14-second wave, on the Steigergracht Canal, close to the city’s retail centre.

Dubbed RiF010 the site is designed to create a surfing, kayaking and rafting hotspot at the very heart of Rotterdam. The project has green as well as leisure benefits because the artificial wave will also generate electricity and provide power to the site. It's thought the wave making process will also naturally purify the canal water, however plans to open last year were shelved and the opening date was pushed back.

The site will also offer a terrace for spectators, a beach house with food and drink, changing rooms and shower facilities. Visitors will be able to rent canoes and boats for use elsewhere on the canal.

If the project does open next year it will further regenerate Rotterdam, drawing in legions of water sports fans and curious tourists. But if you're thinking of jumping in, don't forget your wetsuit - Rotterdam isn't one of the warmest European cities around...

3. Windmills

One of the most visited places in the Netherlands thanks to its 19 perfectly preserved 18th-century windmills (each has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the beautiful village of Kinderdijk ("children's dyke"), which is a short drive east of Rotterdam. The village takes its name from a legend that describes a baby's cradle being stranded here during the St. Elizabeth's Day flood of 1421. The structures were built along the River Noord between 1722 and 1761 and today comprise the largest surviving concentration of windmills in the country.  

To acknowledge their cultural importance the Netherlands celebrates with National Mill Day - an annual festival that sees 950 wind and watermills open their doors to visitors, usually in May, so this is a good time of year to visit. 

 4. The Architecture

Rottterdam was almost completely destroyed by German air attacks in 1940, and the dynamic post-war rebuild of the central part of the city included modernist high rises, residential districts and shopping areas, making it one of the most modern - and architecturally interesting - cities in Europe.

The city's famous Cube Houses (Kubuswoningen) with their unique cube-shaped upper storeys were designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom, and are usually included in of the numerous walking tours of the city.

Blom designed the cube houses in 1984, tilting the cube of a conventional house 45 degrees and resting it upon a hexagon-shaped pylon. His concept was based on a kind of village within a main city, where each house represents a tree, and all the houses together, a forest.

As residents are disturbed so often by curious passers-by, one owner decided to open a "show cube", which is furnished as a normal house, and now makes a living offering tours to visitors. The Kijk-Kubus museum residence is open to the public every day from 11am-5pm and as well as being open for curious visitors to explore, has information about the design and history of the buildings.

Another architectural gem in Rotterdam is the White House (Witte Huis), a spectacular ten-story Art Nouveau structure which was built back in 1898 and is now a National Heritage Site. As you can imagine the views from the rooftop are superb.

For those interested in learning more about the architecture of the city (and architecture in general) then the Netherlands Architecture Institute is worth a visit. The museum outlines the development of various architectural movements over the decades. Included in the entry fee to the museum is a visit to Sonneveld House (right) - one of the best-preserved houses in the Dutch Functionalist style.

The villa was designed in 1933 by architecture firm Brinkman and Van der Vlugt for Albertus Sonneveld, a director of the Van Nelle Factory. The architects designed a concept in which the architecture, interior and furnishings were perfectly coordinated and reinforced each other. Light and spacious, the house has numerous balconies and views of the surrounding gardens.


5. Erasmus Bridge

Much of the architecture in Rotterdam is inspired by the city's waterside setting, and one of the city's most famous landmarks is the graceful Erasmus Bridge (named after Rotterdam's most celebrated citizen, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus, born here in 1467) which is spectacularly illuminated after sunset, making evening river tours a fun affair.

The bridge across the river New Meuse cost 165 million euros to construct, and has a 140-metre-high asymmetrical pale blue pylon with a prominent horizontal base, earning the bridge its nickname "The Swan" soon after it was opened in 1996.

The bridge became a symbol of Rotterdam's regeneration and is a source of inspiration for photographers, filmmakers, advertisers, and even poets. A prettier picture than an aerial photograph of the bridge with people on it is hard to find.

6. The Hague

If you fancy a day trip away from Rotterdam, The Hague is just a short drive away, and public transport is very good too. 

The Hague is the seat of government and therefore a visit to "Het Binnenhof" with its historical government buildings should not be missed. Pass by the pretty pond "Hofvijver" on your way to 16th century Palace Noordeinde.  The Hague is also known for the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice, which is open to the public with regular guided tours.

Also take some time to visit the Mauritshuis, home to the best of Dutch Golden Age painting, and admire Vermeer's iconic Girl With The Pearl Earring, alongside masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and other Dutch masters.