Holland's second city comes first for dazzling architecture, cultural diversity and maritime history, says Ben Ross

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Forget the football: today the sporting spotlight falls on Rotterdam as it hosts the prologue for the Tour de France ( tourdefrancerotterdam.nl ), with the teams crossing the Erasmusbrug (1) and Willemsbrug (2) as part of a 9km circuit of the city.

The Tour's Grand Départ from Rotterdam is held tomorrow, so it won't be a relaxing city break for the competitors. However, visitors with more time on their hands can get a flavour of the race at the interactive Tour Experience, which runs until 29 August at the Kunsthal (3) at Westzeedijk 341 (10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday; Sundays from 11am; €10). And this Friday the North Sea Jazz Festival ( northseajazz.com ; day tickets €88) arrives – a three-day celebration, with performances from blues to bebop.

Touch down

Transavia (0906 680 0065; transavia.com ) flies twice daily (once a day at weekends) from Gatwick to Rotterdam The Hague airport, 8km north-west of Rotterdam city centre, from £94 return. CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet. com) flies frequently from London City.

The Rotterdam Welcome Card (€12 for two days) provides free public transport and discounts to attractions; buy one from the airport information desk to save the €2.50 bus fare into the city. Bus 33 departs four times an hour to Centraal Station (4), taking 20 minutes. (The station itself is being demolished; follow the temporary yellow signs to orientate yourself.)

P&O Ferries (0871 664 2121; poferries.com ) sails from Hull to Rotterdam Europoort; Stena Line (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk ) sails from Harwich to Hook of Holland, west of Rotterdam.

Get your bearings

Rotterdam, divided by the Nieuwe Maas river that flows east to west, is a maritime marvel: the busiest port in Europe. Oddly, though, you scarcely notice. Most commercial activity has slid towards the coast, leaving fresh business and residential districts to occupy Rotterdam's regenerated wharfs and quaysides. Indeed, regeneration is the city's watchword: levelled by German air-raids during the Second World War, it has spent the last half century rebuilding and remodelling. The city bristles with modern architecture and is user-friendly, with excellent public transport and water taxis that connect the north and south shores (00 31 10 403 03 03; watertaxirotterdam.nl ; fares from €2.90).

Check in

Rotterdam was the last stop on European soil for many emigrants to America; the Hotel New York (5) at Koninginnenhoofd 1 (00 31 10 439 05 00; hotelnewyork.nl ) occupies the old Holland-America Line HQ. Doubles with breakfast from €140.

Nearby Pincoffs (6) at Stieltjesstraat 34 (00 31 10 297 45 00; hotelpincoffs.nl ) is a boutique jewel set in the old customs house. Doubles from €165 including breakfast.

More central is A Small Hotel (7) at Witte De Withstraat 94c (00 31 10 414 03 03; asmallhotel.nl ): a townhouse with six rooms, it offers apartment-style stays. Doubles from €125, excluding breakfast.

Hostel ROOM (8), in an art deco building at Van Vollenhovenstraat 62 (00 31 10 282 72 77; roomrotterdam.nl ), has dorm beds from €18.50 including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the Rotterdam tourist office (9) at Coolsingel 195-197 (00 31 900 403 40 65; rotterdam.info ) with an overview of the city using its interactive 3D model. Then cross Westblaak and pass the Maritime Museum (10), which features a series of vessels at anchor on the waters of Leuvenhaven.

Turn right down Schilderstraat onto Witte de Withstraat, one of Rotterdam's prettiest streets, lined with galleries, bars and boutiques. At the junction with Westersingel lies the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (11) at Museumpark 19-20 (00 31 10 441 94 00; boijmans.nl ). Its impressive collection runs from the Dutch masters to Van Gogh and more modern works: visitors can currently view the painstaking restoration of a vast Dali canvas in one of the galleries. Open 11-5pm daily except Monday; €10, free on Wednesdays.

Westersingel feels typically Dutch, with canal-like ponds running down its centre. A sculpture trail runs its length from Centraal Station (4) to Veerhaven, a pretty harbour area. Here, from the corner of Willemskade you'll have a view of the Erasmusbrug (1), nicknamed "The Swan" by locals.

Window shopping

Rotterdam earns its place in the annals of retail experiences with Lijnbaan (12): Europe's first purpose-built pedestrian-only shopping street, built in 1953. These days it forms part of the Lijnbaan Kwartier, the city's main shopping area.

For chic shopping, you're better off on Witte de Withstraat, where options include Marlies Dekkers (13) at number 2 (00 31 10 280 91 84; marliesdekkers.com ). This fêted local designer's lingerie range recently adorned Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City 2.

Lunch on the run

One set of posh pants later, head down the road to Hotel & Wereldeethuis Bazar at number 16 (00 31 10 206 51 51; bazarrotterdam.com ). This North African-themed restaurant reflects Rotterdam's multicultural make-up (the majority of residents were born abroad). The Tunisian fish soup costs €4.95; lamb kebab with yoghurt sauce is €11.90. Double rooms in the equally exotic hotel above cost from €80 including breakfast.

A walk in the park

Take a stroll in Het Park, a pretty green space with formal gardens, ponds and a couple of peaceful cafés. At the south-east corner is the Maastunnel, designed for road traffic, which runs under the river. Pedestrians and cyclists have their own dedicated tunnel next to it, and from the opposite shore the views back over to the city are impressive.

Take a view

Het Park is dominated by the 185m-high Euromast (14) (00 31 10 436 48 11; euromast.nl ; 9.30am-11pm daily; €8.90), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year; from the top (reached via the "Europscope" rotating lift) the views are spectacular. There's also a smart high-rise restaurant, and even two hotel rooms at 112m, while the fearless can abseil or zip-wire back down to the ground for €45 at weekends: pre-book at abseilen.nl .

An aperitif

Back in 1898, things were less lofty. The 45m-high, 11-storey Witte Huis (15) at Wijnhaven 3 was Europe's first skyscraper, and still provides a focal point for the Oude Haven (Old Harbour) area. A beer with a view of what used to be the high life costs €2.40 at Kade 4 (16) at Spaansekade 4 (00 31 10 270 90 01; kade4.nl ), one of several waterside bars.

Dining with the locals

Head along to a restored warehouse known as Westelijk Handelsterrein (17) at Van Vollenhovenstraat 15. Inside, ramps lead to two storeys of elegant galleries and restaurants. You're spoilt for dining options, but try Restaurant Smaak (00 31 10 436 22 94; restaurantsmaak.nl ), which serves beautifully presented international cuisine. The three-course "Surprise Menu" costs €35.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Photographs of Rotterdam after the German bombing of 1940 reveal the austere Laurens church tower (18) as virtually the only substantial edifice in the city centre to survive the onslaught. The church has since been rebuilt, and services are held at 10.30am on Sundays.

Take a ride

Sunday, when the streets are quiet, is the ideal day to see this most cycle-friendly of cities via your own Tour de Rotterdam. Fietspoint bike hire (00 31 10 412 62 20) at Conradstraat 18 is inside the vast Groothandelsgebouw (19) near Centraal Station; bikes from €6.50 per day. It is open from 4.55am on Monday to 1.50am the following Monday, with brief closures from 2.25-4.55am on Tuesdays and Wednesday.

Out to brunch

Dudok (20), a café-brasserie at Meent 88 (00 31 10 433 31 02; dudok.nl ), is named after the Dutch modernist architect who designed the light-filled building it occupies. You can dine discretely or at a communal table; panini cost from €6.20; apple pie – the signature dish – is €3.40.

Alternatively, take a ferry (€2.50 one-way; €4 day ticket; spido.nl ) from Willemsplein (21) to the one-time flagship of the Holland-America line, the SS Rotterdam (22). The biggest passenger liner built in the Netherlands has now been restored and opened earlier this year as a museum – and a hotel (00 31 10 297 3097; opderotterdam.nl ), which offers brunch each Sunday from noon to 4pm.

Cultural afternoon

The Rotterdam (22) is one of three new attractions that provide very different perspectives on the city. For an insight into Rotterdam's maritime heritage, take a tour of the ship (€12.50; 9am-6.30pm daily) with an audio guide. The public spaces and restaurants recall the glamour of cruising in the 1950s, with original fixtures and fittings, and you can also visit the old engine room. (If you are tempted to stay longer, stylish double cabins cost from €99 including breakfast.)

Meanwhile, the Wereldmuseum (23) at Willemskade 25 (00 31 10 270 71 72; wereldmuseum.nl ; 10am-8pm daily except Monday, free) reopened at the end of last year after extensive renovations. The gracious waterfront building reveals Rotterdam's global outlook, via an intriguing exhibition of cultural artefacts from Tibet, Japan, Africa and America.

Finally, a playful side: new to the city is SplashTours (00 31 10 436 94 91; splashtours.nl ). After a tour of local landmarks (with English commentary upon request), this modified bus takes to the waters of the Nieuwe Maas itself, much to the amusement of passers-by. The 75-minute trips cost €19.50 per person and leave from outside the Maritime Museum (10).

The icing on the cake

Perhaps the most peculiar buildings in a city where architectural innovation is commonplace are the Cube Houses (24), created by Architect Piet Blom in 1984. There's a "show-cube" (00 31 10 414 22 85; kubuswoning.nl ), where you can discover what it's like to live in one (11am-5pm daily, €2.50), or you can sleep in one of the larger cubes at the StayOkay Rotterdam hostel (00 31 10 436 57 63; stayokay.com), with beds from €20.

If you crave something more traditional, walk to nearby Blaak metro station (25) and travel five stops west to Delfshaven (26). Here a windmill presides over an enclave of historic buildings, canals and waterways: a slice of old Holland, just minutes from its modern incarnation.