Rising along the vast Nieuwe Maas (a tributary of the Rhine), Rotterdam started life as a medieval fishing village. Its importance skyrocketed in the 17th-century Golden Age following the discovery of the maritime trade route to the East and West Indies, and in the 19th century, the Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) canal created a direct link to the North Sea. Today, the port – Europe's largest – is the lifeblood of this vibrant Dutch city and the entire waterfront is packed with attractions, from maritime museums to boat tours, cycleways and superb harbourfront dining, along with visionary new developments.
Waterborne city excursions
Water shapes Rotterdam's cityscape and a boat trip is the ultimate way to get a sense of its maritime past, present and future. Get your sea legs on one of Spido’s fascinating 75-minute harbour tours (2½ hours in July and August that also include the port) from the pier at Leuvehoofd near Rotterdam's iconic cable-stayed bridge, the Erasmusbrug (dubbed de Zwaan, meaning 'The Swan', for its graceful white curvilinear design). Alternatively, take an hour-long amphibious bus/boat ride with Splashtours, catching spectacular views of the city's constantly changing skyline.
In honor of the city’s indespensible seafaring tradition, Maritiem Museum Rotterdam was founded in 1874 and contains a huge collection of ocean vessel artifacts and curiosities. Exhibits include model ships (including Europe's oldest, the Mataró, dating back more than six centuries), precious documents (notably Jan Huygen van Linschoten's 16th-century Portuguese travel journal Itinerario) and interactive displays. You’ll also find regularly updated, engaging temporary exhibitions. It's free to wander the quays; there are interpretative signs in English and Dutch. Also, keep an eye out for the new ‘Offshore Experience’ (www.maritiemmuseum.nl), opening later in 2016.
Get active on the waterfront
Cycling is the quintessential Dutch pastime. Here, the Nieuwe Maasparcours (www.rotterdam.nl/nieuwemaasparcours) trail stretches for 28km in a circuit that covers the entire harbour. It's also a fantastic spot for walking, jogging or inline skating. Pick up a map from Rotterdam Tourist Information (en.rotterdam.info), which has branches in the city centre at Coolsingel and at the city's striking train hub, Rotterdam Centraal Station, or download it directly (PDF).
Water views unfurl from some of Rotterdam's finest restaurants. On the ground floor of the Netherland's largest building (the luminous glass De Rotterdam), internationally influenced restaurant HMB has ring-side seats in front of the Erasmusbrug. Views also extend from De Rotterdam's 7th-floor cocktail bar terrace.
In a former Katendrecht waterfront warehouse, market collective Fenix Food Factory incorporates vendors and artisans selling Dutch cheese, bread and baked goods, locally grown fruit and veggies, Rotterdam-roasted coffee, craft beer and more, along with rotating food trucks. You can dine inside or out on the harbourfront terrace.
Housed in the former Royal Yacht Club is the absorbing Wereldmuseum (‘World Museum’), celebrating multiculturalism, as well as its Michelin-starred namesake restaurant, with glittering water vistas of the historic Veerhaven, where you can see incredible ships (which are often historic themselves).
Across the Veerhaven to the west, you can get a taste of the ocean at swish seafood specialist Zeezout (http://restaurantzeezout.nl/), which crafts contemporary dishes such as swordfish roulleaux with Bloody Mary dressing or yellow tail tuna with wasabi ice cream.
Meanwhile, the British pub aboard Vessel 11 brews its own ale, hosts live gigs (mainly rock) and barbecues and does a great Sunday roast.
Water taxis criss-cross the harbour between a network of some 50 docks, and offer an adrenaline-filled ride (boats are small and low to the water, meaning you'll feel every bump and occasional splash). For an ultra-relaxing punt around the harbour, you can bob about in a HotTug (http://verhuur.hottug.nl/locaties_en.htm) -- an ingenious, Rotterdam-designed hot tub boat while you soak in its steaming wood-fire-heated water (especially atmospheric on a chilly day). Rent it from the fire-engine-red, 1951-built lighthouse vessel (with a working gas light and fog horn) that houses gastropub Vessel 11.
If you're in Rotterdam in early September, don't miss the Wereldhavendagen (World Port Days), when you can tour normally off-limits industrial areas, see nautical displays and catch sea shanties. A highlight is the spin-off de Nacht van de Kaap (‘Night of the Cape’), when festival-goers don retro get-ups such as sailor and pirate outfits in Katendrecht, Rotterdam's former red-light quarter.
Sleeping by (and on) the water
Stunning places for a history-steeped, waterside stay include Pincoffs, a boutique former customs house dating from 1879 with romantic rooms fitted out with up-to-the-minute tech, with a water-taxi stop at the door. Snazzy design hotel Mainport also has its own water-taxi stop and state-of-the-art rooms with themes that recall far-flung locations and Rotterdam's role as a port and a luxuriant 8th-floor spa.
Stroom, in a converted power station near the charmingly preserved neighbourhood of Delfshaven (once the official seaport for the city of Delft, and the departure point for the Pilgrims en route to the New World), also has up-to-the-minute rooms.
If you're looking for sweeping views, it's even possible to stay in one of two suites up inside the landmark 185m-high Euromast observation tower that provides 360-degree panoramas.
And to stay on the water, book into nostalgic transatlantic ocean liner SS Rotterdam, which was built in the city in the late 1950s. Now permanently moored in Katendrecht, its 576 original cabins have been converted to 254 '50s-style hotel rooms. Ship tours – often lead by former employees of the vessel in its star-studded oceanfaring days (listen for stories about guests like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the Dutch Royal Family) are available for guests and non-guests.
The waterfront's most iconic hotel, however, is the art nouveau Hotel New York, the Holland-America passenger-ship line's former HQ, with a water-taxi service, original fittings and timber-panelled suites in the old boardrooms. Even if you're not staying here, stopping by for a meal or a drink is a quintessential Rotterdam experience.
Rotterdam's port, like its adventurous architecture, continues to evolve. Currently covering 12,500 hectares (a total length of 40km) to the west of the modern-day city centre, it serves 30,000 ocean-going vessels, 110,000 inland vessels annually and is staffed by a workforce of 180,000 people. But it's expanding dramatically with the ongoing construction of Maasvlakte 2 (www.maasvlakte2.com), a 2000-hectare, deep water-access artificial island that will double the port's capacity.
Maasvlakte 2's visitor centre FutureLand, runs bus and boat tours (in Dutch, with English information sheets available), allowing you to see the port under construction and the massive cranes loading containers in action. There's a bird's-eye-view cafe here opening to a terrace.
In July and August Spido (www.spido.nl) organises additional 2½-hour extended tours that include the port.
Hoek van Holland
For one final wide-angle look at this colossal port, you might try an excursion to the village-like beachside neighbourhood of Hoek van Holland (‘The Hook of Holland’), found at the rivermouth emptying into the North Sea. The Hook is the gateway for car and passenger ferries to Harwich, England, and is linked to Rotterdam by a 30-minute train ride, which is due to be replaced by the extension of Metro line B in 2017.
Backed by dunes, the sandy shore known as 'Rotterdam Beach' stretches for 3.5km, with cycle paths and walkways. Noorderpier, near the Hook’s southern edge, extends 4.5km out to sea. You can walk out as far as 2km. The beach is often home to seals as well as kitesurfers, beach volleyball players, kayakers, swimmers and sunbathers. Watersports outfits providing lessons and renting gear are located along its length. Whatever your preference, you won’t forget the unique combination of beach fun and busy shipping that this thriving part of Europe celebrates.