48 Hours In: Rotterdam

The stylish port city celebrates its cultural side this  autumn with two major art exhibitions ranging from Van Eyck to Picasso, says Laura Holt

Click here for 48 Hours In... Rotterdam map

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

Rotterdam is a city that pulses with modern panache. Blitzed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, it has since emerged as a bold testament to post-war regeneration, with strange and striking architectural feats and cutting-edge cultural institutions.

This month, the city shows off its standing with two new exhibitions in the Museumpark. From tomorrow, the Kunsthal (1) (00 31 10 44 00 301; kunsthal.nl) celebrates its 20th year with Avant-Gardes, a major autumn show displaying a cache of contrarians from Picasso and Mondrian to Lucian Freud (until 20 January).

Then, next Saturday, the focus shifts to medieval masters in The Road to Van Eyck at the Museum Boijmans (2) (00 31 10 44 19 400; boijmans.nl), which explores the work of 15th-century Dutch and Flemish painters (until 10 February).

The tourist office (3) at Coolsingel 195 (00 31 10 790 0140; rotterdam.info) sells a Museumpark ticket for €27.50 – exactly what you would pay for entry to the Kunsthal (1) and Boijmans (2), with free access to three other museums.

Touch down

Only CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com) flies to Rotterdam, from London City. Until, that is, 9 December when British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) starts flying from Heathrow.

Before you leave the airport, buy a Rotterdam Welcome Card (€13.50 for 48 hours) from the information desk. It gives free public transport and discounts to attractions and will save you the €2.50 bus fare to Centraal station (4) on the No 33, which departs four times an hour, taking 20 minutes (ret.nl).

By ship, Stena Line (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk) sails from Harwich to Hook of Holland, with an easy rail connection to Centraal station (4). P&O (0871 664 2121; poferries.com) sails from Hull to Rotterdam Europoort, with a bus link taking 30 minutes.

Get your bearings

The Meuse River rises in France, bubbles through Belgium, courses into the Netherlands – where it becomes the Nieuwe Maas – and bisects Rotterdam before spouting out into the North Sea.

This maritime artery defines the city, with the galleries, shopping precincts and parks falling to the north, and the docklands – where renovated warehouses hide hotels, bars and nightclubs – skirting the southern bank.

Two bridges span the divide: the asymmetrical arch of Erasmusbrug (5) and the crimson curve of the Willemsbrug (6). Water taxis also skim between the shores (00 31 10 403 03 03; watertaxirotterdam.nl ) from €2.90.

Check in

The Suite Hotel Pincoffs (7) at Stieltjesstraat 34 (00 31 10 29 74 500; hotelpincoffs.nl) has huge, double-height rooms that stare down at the wharves, with artwork by Dutch designers and furniture fashioned from recycled materials. Suites from €125, room only.

Stroom (8) at Lloydstraat 1 (00 31 10 221 40 60; stroomrotterdam.nl) offers 21 spacious studios in an old electricity plant, with a bar that draws a local crowd. Doubles from €75, room only.

For a quirky budget option, Stayokay (9) at Overblaak 85 (00 31 10 436 57 63; stayokay.com) is set within a row of raised "cube houses" designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom. Dorms from €20, doubles €54.50, B&B.

Day One

Take a hike

The best of modern and maritime Rotterdam meets in the wharves to the west of Erasmusbrug (5). Start on the Wilhelmina Pier, where you'll spot the Hotel New York (10) at Koninginnenhoofd 1 (00 31 10 439 05 00; hotelnewyork.nl). This landmark building once served as the main office of the Holland America Line, which whisked European emigrants off to North America until the late Seventies. It's now a hip hotel with a downstairs barbershop and an industrial dockside restaurant.

Stroll past the Las Palmas complex (11). These disused shipping workshops were in danger of demolition before Benthem Crouwel architects developed them into a thriving cultural space. Inside, you'll find the Netherlands Fotomuseum (00 31 10 203 0405; nederlandsfotomuseum.nl; €9; closed Mon), with the largest collection of Dutch photographers in the country.

Continue to the red wraparound façade of the Luxor Theater (12) (00 31 10 484 3333; luxortheater.nl), beyond which Erasmusbrug (5) reaches out across the Nieuwe Maas. Amble across and aim north to reach the artsy avenue of Witte de Withstraat (wittedewith.nl).

Lunch on the run

The busy street-side tables of Bazar (13) flow on to the pavements at No 16 (00 31 10 206 5151; bazarrotterdam.nl). A reflection of the city's multicultural make-up, it serves up a mix of Algerian pancakes (€4.50), Tunisian fish soup (€5), Persian lamb (€11.90) and delicious Dutch beers (€3.50) .

Window shopping

Rotterdam earns its place in retail history with Lijnbaan, Europe's first purpose-built pedestrian shopping street, built in 1953. But these days it shows its age, especially in contrast with the Witte de Withstraat and its northern extension, Schilderstraat – both of which brim with boutiques.

Here, you'll find interiors outlets as Haring Design (14) at Schilderstraat 34a (00 31 10 4131461; haringdesign.nl), paintings and photography in Ecce (15) at Witte de Withstraat 17a (00 31 10 413 9770; galerie-ecce.nl), and vintage fashion at Sluijter & Meijer (16) Witte de Withstraat 48a (00 31 10 413 7728; sluijterenmeijer.nl).

An aperitif

Midway down, the Nieuw Rotterdam Café (17) at No 63 (00 31 10 4144188; nieuwrotterdamscafe.nl) is a red-brick restaurant, bar and music venue with moody pictures of Tom Waits, Dylan and Cobain on the walls. Wine by the glass, €3.50.

Dining with the locals

For a five-star culinary feast, the restaurant inside the Las Palmas complex (12) (00 31 10 23 45 122; hermandenblijker.nl) is not to be missed. Dutch television chef Herman den Blijker triumphs with a fish-focused menu of oysters (€16.95), seafood platters (€47.50) and the odd slab of Black Angus (€26.95).

Alternatively, Rodin (18) is a classy French brasserie at Schilderstraat 20a (00 31 10 413 01 43; rodinrotterdam.nl) that serves treats such as guinea fowl from €15-€20.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The city skyline is scant on steeples (blame it on the bombs.) But one notable exception is the Laurenskerk (19) at Grotekerkplein 27 (00 31 10 413 1494; laurenskerkrotterdam.nl).

Completed in 1525 as an austere paean to the simple shipping community it served, it was later stripped of sculptures during the Reformation, damaged but not defeated during the German aerial attack of 1940 and painstakingly restored after the Second World War. Today, it endures as the only remnant of medieval Rotterdam, with Sunday services at 9am, 10.30am and 5pm.

Out to brunch

Look for the red neon sign of the Bagel Bakery (20) on Schilderstraat 57a (00 31 10 412 1560), where you'll find a small slice of New York. It serves frothy coffees, creamy milkshakes and every kind of bagel bun stuffed with fillings such as goat's cheese, walnut and red onion for between €5-€6.

Cultural afternoon

Prolific architect Rem Koolhaas is the man behind the new De Rotterdam building (21), a "vertical city" that's rising on the Wilhelmina Pier. But you'll have to wait until 2013 to admire it (derotterdam.nl).

Until then, take in the Kunsthal (1), a striking structure crafted by Koolhaas in 1992. Its autumn show this year is Avant-Gardes, a display of 150 works by artists who broke the mould, from French surrealist Marcel Duchamp to Rotterdam-born abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

Walk across the Museumpark to reach the Museum Boijmans (2). It's taken three years to collate The Road to Van Eyck. This collection of fragile medieval paintings will be crowned by two key pieces: the Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert or Jan Van Eyck (art historians still can't agree which of the brothers painted it); and The Embalming of Christ, an intricate triptych which predates the Van Eycks by a decade. Both museums are closed on Mondays and open Sunday between 11am to 5pm.

Walk in the park

Take a stroll around the park with no name – simply known as Het (Dutch for "the") Park. It's a pretty plot of gentle waterways, weeping willows and bushy trees that, over the next month, will burn bright with the colours of autumn.

It's also home to the Euromast (22), the highest tower in the Netherlands. You can take a lift up to a viewing platform at 95m, stay in a hotel at 112m or assail the full height on the Euroscoop ride to 185m (00 31 10 436 48 11; euromast.nl; €9.25). The view from the top will make a fitting end to your weekend.

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