Worldwide: 48 hours in ... Rotterdam

Don't be misled by its steel-and-concrete veneer. Sharon Gethings uncovers a cultured heart to The Netherland's second city

Why go now?

The Rotterdam International Film Festival (27 Jan to 7 Feb) may not have the glamour of Cannes or Venice, but it does have an excellent selection of movies. The main programme has more than 100 films around the theme "Dark Sensibilities", inspired by the seemier side of life. There are also new films from up-and-coming directors fighting for one of the VPRO Tiger Awards, and numerous themed sidebars, including Exploding Cinema: Melting Media, which explores the cutting-edge of cinema and the convergence of visual technologies. Oh - and unlike Cannes, you won't have to sell your grandmother to get a ticket. Programme and ticket information is available from the Schouwburg Theatre at 25 Schouwburgplein (00 31 1089 09000).

Beam down

KLM (0990 074 074) flies from London City and Heathrow, and British Airways (0345 222111) flies from Gatwick to Zestienhoven airport, three miles from the city. KLM has an offer of pounds 78.90. It takes about 20 minutes to get to central Rotterdam from the airport; a cab will cost around 60 guilders (pounds 18), but a number of buses go directly to Centraal Station for only 4 guilders (pounds 1.20).

Get your bearings

Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, lies on a cobweb of rivers and waterways where the Rhine and Maas flow out to sea. In 1940, the Germans obliterated the city centre with bombs, returning to destroy the port in 1944. The subsequent rebuilding programme produced the Europoort, which has helped Rotterdam become the biggest port in the world in terms of the amount of goods handled. Wartime destruction also means that this is one of the most modern cities in Europe, with an abundance of glass and concrete that alienates many visitors. But there are treasures to be found.

First stop should be the VVV (tourist office) at 67 Coolsingel (00 31 900 403 4065) for free tram, bus and underground maps, plus a city brochure which includes a street map. Just 10 minutes from the VVV is Centraal Station, the main rail terminus and hub of the tram and metro system; heading south to the river from the station - and running parallel to Coolsingel - is Westersingel. Most of your time will be spent near or to the east of this main artery, and it is a useful reference point in a confusing latticework of streets.

Watch out for ...

Redevelopment around the Oudehaven dock area has introduced some fun bars and cafes, but many side streets still harbour drug dealers and prostitutes. It's a good idea to stick to the central area.

Check in

The Wilgenhof hotel, 92-94 Heemraadssingel (00 31 1047 62526), has comfortable doubles from 140 guilders a night; and near the Boymans Museum, the Breitner hotel, 23 Breitner-straat (00 31 1043 60262), has double rooms from 170 guilders a night. For a little more luxury after that late-night, post- screening party, try the Hilton, 10 Weena (00 31 1071 08000), with junior suites from 630 guilders a night.

Take a ride

A catastrophic flood in 1953 in the southern Netherlands led to one of the largest engineering schemes of modern times: the Delta Project and the Delta Expo, which are designed to prevent floods recurring. It is easily accessible from Rotterdam, and definitely worth a few hours' visit - take the metro to Spijkenisse, and then the No 104 bus towards Vlissingen.

Take a hike

A number of Rotterdam's architectural curiosities are in handy strolling distance of each other. At the south end of Coolsingel you'll find the Schielandshuis, 31 Korte Hoogstraat (00 31 1021 76767); once the home of the Dykes Administration, this restored 17th-century building now houses the city's Historical Museum. Continue south to Churchillplein, then turn left onto The Blaak, which will take you to a housing block designed by the architect Piet Blom: the Kijk-Kubus or Cube Houses, so-called because of the tilted cube shapes that form their upper storeys. Some of the houses are open to visitors (3.50 guilders), revealing specially designed furniture. Just south of the Blaak, on Wijnhaven, you can glimpse the Witte Huis (White House), at 150ft the first high-rise building in Europe, constructed in 1900.

Now head back to Churchill-plein along the Blaak, then south along Leuvehaven, the site of Rotterdam's first dock. Here you'll see a massive sculpture by the Russian Ossip Zadkine, his 1953 "The Destroyed City", which captures the city's anguish after the wartime bombing. If you're planning an evening Spido cruise around the harbour, you're now a short walk from the departure point.

Lunch on the run

There are lots of fast-food outlets and cheap cafes along the streets of the Lijnbaan shopping centre, but for a tasty sandwich (around 4.50 guilders) try Het Boke, 72 Witte de Withstraat (00 31 1021 40433), or Het Bammetje 65a Nieuwe Binnenweg (00 31 1022 50188).

Cultural afternoon

No visit to Rotterdam is complete without a trip to the Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum, 18-20 Mathenesserlaan (00 31 1044 19445) - one of the best museums in the Netherlands. It's a 15-minute walk from Centraal Station, but you can also hop on tram No 5 or head for the Een-drachtsplein metro. The 7.50-guilder entrance fee will deliver you into numerous rooms containing a breath-taking selection of sculptures, applied and decorative art, and pictures by the likes of van Eyck, Brueghel, Titian, Monet, Magritte, etc.

Nearby, at 25 Museumpark, is Jo Coenen's deconstructivist Netherlands Architectural Institute (00 31 1044 01200); in addition to permanent collections covering Dutch architecture since 1800, it's currently hosting a major show devoted to South African urban planning, "blanc Architecture, Apartheid and After".

An aperitif

After exploring the wonders of the Boymans Museum, replenish energy for the evening ahead with a drink at the buzzing Nighttown Cafe (00 31 1043 61210). Its central location - 28 Westkruiskade - is handy for most of the main festival screening theatres.

Demure dinner

Head south across the Nieuwe Maas river to Cafe Rotterdam, 699 Wilhelminakade (00 31 1029 08442). This converted dockside shed offers an impressive view of Rotterdam's skyline at night, as well as delicious main courses such as salmon fillet with coriander, for around 35 guilders.

Sunday morning: church

Although German bombs caused heavy damage, the side walls and tower of the 15th-century Grote Kerk, also known as St Laurenskerk, in Grote Kerkplein, survived. Some have called the restoration of this Gothic edifice clumsy, but the inside is beautifully light and airy. A 1622 bronze statue of Rotterdam's famous son, the Renaissance theologian Erasmus, stands outside.

Bracing brunch

A great place for a leisurely lunch is Westerpaviljoen, 136 Nieuwe Binnenweg (00 31 1043 62645). A warming cheese soup costs only 6.50 guilders, while a fried codfish dish will set you back 24.50 guilders. When it's not too cold, the large terrace of this cafe offers excellent people-watching, as it overlooks a busy intersection.

A walk in the park

Rotterdam isn't the greenest of cities, but if you need respite from the concrete and steel, head for the southwest of the centre, where you will find an attractive oasis with lawns and small lakes on the south side of Westzeedijk. There are two opportunities for enjoying great views over the port here: from the cafe above the riverfront road Parkkade to the south of the park, and from either of the two restaurants the 607ft- high Euromast tower (14.50-guilder entrance fee) to the west.

The icing on the cake

Wrap up warmly and sit back on one of the Spido cruises (00 31 1041 35400), moored next to the Willemsplein at the southern end of Coolsingel/ Schiedamsedijk (tram No 5 or Leuvehaven metro). Your boat will chug through the myriad wharfs, docks and silos that make up this enormous port; for an extra kick, take an evening cruise, when the illuminated architecture will make you feel as though you're exploring some weird kind of space station. The 75-minute tours run four times a day during winter and cost from 16 guilders.

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