You know you’ve fallen hard for a city when you start checking out house prices before you even get home.
I’m looking up the cost of two bed flats online within five hours of arriving in Rotterdam – a record even by my fickle standards. A quick search does nothing to dampen my burgeoning passion for the Netherlands’ second city; it turns out €130,000 (£115,000) could net me three bedrooms and a small garden. I haven’t even spent the night and I’m contemplating whether I could feasibly commute to London using the Eurostar’s new direct service, launched earlier this year.
Before my visit, the only people who had any kind of real opinion on Rotterdam (and most had none) told me it would be ugly.
“It was bombed to bits during the war,” a friend said. “It’s not their fault, but it doesn’t stop it being… unfortunate looking.”
And I can see their point, if you were expecting it to look like any other quaintly Dutch canal city. Amsterdam it ain’t. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in my view, Rotterdam is one of the most attractive European cities I’ve visited: bold, innovative, dynamic.
These qualities apply as much to its food as they do to the city’s architecture, which has an outrageously eclectic mix of styles, from traditional 17th century gabled buildings to 1970s cube houses and 21st century masterpieces such as Markthal, a distinctive horseshoe shaped food hall and apartment complex from starchitects MVRDV, completed in 2014.
It’s a place where a good vibe beats a Michelin star – where a chef’s priority is making their food accessible rather than exclusive. This is certainly true of De Jong, an insouciant yet welcoming restaurant housed under one of the repurposed railway arches as part of the trendy Hofbogen development.
Head chef Jim de Jong is barely 30 but has quickly gained a reputation in Rotterdam. His restaurant’s championing of local, fresh produce means menus change frequently – and each is a surprise. Diners pick whether they’d like four, five or six courses, share any dietary requirements and then await their fate.
When we visit, deconstructed minestrone with smoked squid and mussels render us mute with ecstasy up until the last mouthful; Jerusalem artichokes with sunflower seeds and citrus butter, followed by a ratatouille of fresh vegetables and edible flowers, prove that food doesn’t have to be complicated to be insanely good.
Simple is also the order of the day at Kaapse Brouwers. “We don’t want our beer to be pretentious,” Geneviève Vachon, cofounder of the Rotterdam craft brewery, says over drinks. “We want customers to ask our bar staff what they should have, taste it, decide what they like. You don’t need a lot of knowledge to enjoy it.”
Kaapse, started by Vachon and Tsjomme Zijlstra, is in the vanguard of the Netherlands’ burgeoning craft brewing scene. “We’re about five years behind the UK here, so it’s an exciting time to be making beer,” Vachon says as we sip on one of the brewery’s 30 or so libations on tap at Kaapse Maria, its low-key outpost where the lighting is flattering, the drinks are flowing and chefs bring food pairings out to the table themselves.
The brand has just been confirmed as the official beer of Rotterdam film festival and recently started being stocked in supermarkets nationwide. It’s easy to see why – I’m no beer-vangelist, but I’m quickly converted by their Kaapse Harrie, a 6.1 per cent concoction with notes of Szechuan pepper and juniper berries.
The brewery also has an outpost in Fenix Food Factory, a cooperative of entrepreneurs all operating out of an old port warehouse that has rejuvenated the area of Katendrecht to the south. Open since 2014, it could have been plucked straight out of east London, with bare bulbs strung across concrete walls and mismatching squashy chairs strewn between stalls selling everything from colourful Moroccan spices to exotically flavoured stroopwafels – lavender, sea salt and black pepper, anyone?
It’s not the only cool food market in town. The latest addition to the squad, Foodhallen, opened in August 2018 on the ground floor of the eminently Instagrammable Room Mate Bruno hotel on Wilhelminapier. It’s Rotterdam’s very own answer to Lisbon’s popular Time Out market: a cool industrial space with communal seating in the middle and outposts of some of the city’s bestloved restaurants lining the edges.
Visitors can pick and choose – pintxos from one stall, dim sum from another – and wash it all down with an exceptionally reasonably priced wine or beer from the bar. I mix and match grilled octopus on a bed of slow roasted garlic puree and red pepper, and loaded vegan sweet potato fries with guacamole, salsa, black beans and pulled “chicken”, washed down with a crisp glass of white. Stomach ache be damned – it’s all delicious. The vibe switches from casual lunch venue to vibrant bar come the evening, with late opening hours on weekends and DJs on the decks to put punters in the party mood.
New venues are popping up all over the city – up-and-coming brewery/bar Thoms launched in June, the second brewery in the Netherlands to serve its beer unpasteurised and unfiltered onsite. All stainless steel taps and industrial chic aesthetic, it could easily tip over into poncy hipsterville territory – but in true Rotterdam style that hasn’t happened. The owners won’t let it.
“We want this to be the kind of place where friends come to have fun – we don’t want it to be somewhere to be seen,” says Ellen van Zanten who cofounded Thoms with her brother, Arthur.
Dinner is just around the corner at Aji, open since late last year. The brainchild of Michelin-starred chef Mario Ridder, it’s designed to be a more accessible, more affordable version of his other Rotterdam restaurant, Joelia. Mains are priced from €12.50 to €18, while a two course lunch menu costs €25 per person. It’s exceptional value for the quality of the dishes, combined with the quirky, upmarket ambience; old fishing nets hang from the ceiling alongside a large indoor tree, and giant langoustines dominate the wallpaper.
Innovation clearly runs in Rotterdam’s veins. It had to build itself up from the rubble after the Nazis destroyed almost everything, and that spirit of determination and creativity has shaped the city’s outlook as well as its look.
You can see it in Op het Dak, the café overlooking the Netherlands’ first urban rooftop farm, which uses the garden’s fresh vegetables and herbs in its healthy dishes. You can see it in Rottertram, a vintage tram recently converted into a gourmet restaurant that goes on a tour of the city while a four course dinner is served.
Grabbing a final lunch at Ayla, which offers authentic Mediterranean small plates, I can’t help but think that those bombs, while a tragedy, defined Rotterdam’s resilient, dynamic character forever. “There’s this concept of permanent temporality that sums up Rotterdam,” says Kim Heinen, the city’s international press officer. “We are good at saying goodbye to things. We mourn their loss, but we know sometimes things have to be torn down when they’re not fit for purpose – to make way for something new.”
I consider this philosophy as I take a bite of tuna sashimi studded with pomegranate, and burrata paired with succulent yellow tomatoes. If this is what embracing the future tastes like, I’ll have what she’s having.
Eurostar offers direct trains from London St Pancras to Rotterdam from £35 one way.
Room Mate Bruno has doubles from €90, room only.