A12ft tall topless woman was not what I expected to see as I rounded the corner of Witte de Withstraat, Rotterdam's hippest shopping street. But there she was, her lime-green head thrown back in wild abandon. A little further along the road, James Dean gazed down at me, brooding in black and white. Competing with him for my attention was a multi-coloured unicorn, and a seemingly abandoned Rodin bronze. Was I going mad? No, I didn't think so but, had I been, Rotterdam would have been a very good venue for it.
Wander around the city centre and you will find murals, contemporary art installations and jaw-droppingly odd constructions cropping up with the same frequency as branches of Starbucks in every other European city. Add to this an edgy film festival and the ultra-hip Art Rotterdam modern art festival, and what do you have? A once-unpopular city that is undergoing a dramatic renaissance.
You won't, in fact, spot a single outpost of the aforementioned American coffee chain. Rotterdam is one of the few places to have resisted the incursion of identikit coffee shops: its cafes are as offbeat as the rest of the city. So, with all this conceptual art making my brain (and neck) ache, and a mid-afternoon slump approaching, I set off in search of refreshment with high hopes. As artists and the laid-back cafe culture go hand in hand, I don't have far to go.
Five minutes later I'm sitting under a disco ball, digging into a massive slice of appletaart with cream, and wondering why the walls of the Rowtown cafe, on Rotterdam's Oude B, are lined with photos of English pop stars. A girl with bright blue shoes sitting at the next table leans over and enlightens me: "That's the Wall of Fame. The Kooks, Franz Ferdinand... they all played here just before they got really big."
That's not terribly surprising. Rotterdam is on the live gig circuit for British indie bands whose grand-sounding "European tours" usually included these tiny cafes. Then the Beautiful South had to go and spoil it all in the 1990s by immortalising the city in an annoying song about the boredom of touring.
The burgeoning art movement, on the other hand, hasn't got the same connotations. Art is everywhere in Rotterdam - you don't even need to set foot inside a gallery to appreciate it. Local artists are encouraged to paint murals all over the city centre, and some of the curious results would put Banksy to shame. While the city's residents barely bat an eyelid at the elaborate designs, tourists -myself included - are entranced.
I need only raise my eyes from the walls to the sky to witness another example of Rotterdam's innovative design culture. Flattened by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, the city has none of the grand plazas and picturesque squares that characterise its European counterparts. In fact, the few pre-war buildings that did survive are now thoroughly overshadowed by the "experimental" architecture dominating the city's higgledy-piggledy skyline. The dull glass and steel of London's Canary Wharf, this is not.
If Salvador Dali had been a town planner, Rotterdam would be the result: odd constructions are all over the place, and some areas are downright surreal.
Overblaak Street, just five minutes from the city's central station, falls into this category. Many of its residents live in Piet Blom's famous Cube houses. Designed in the 1980s, these bright yellow box-shaped buildings are propped up on hexagonal pylons, and tipped towards the road at a dizzying 45-degree angle. One of the cubes is open to the public, and attracts a constant stream of visitors, keen to see how residents manage to live without gluing their furniture to the floor. As if the cube houses weren't strange enough, they are flanked by an office block called the Pencil due to its exaggerated tall, thin shape, and the Bin Lid, an underground station fashioned into a giant disc shape. This city is bohemian - make no mistake about it.
Rotterdam does have plenty to offer art lovers of a more traditional bent, however. Walking just 10 minutes south of the city centre, I entered the gates of the manicured Museum Park, which contains the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen - the only gallery in the Netherlands to house paintings by the Van Eyck brothers, Titian, Bosch, Bruegel the Elder, Dali and Magritte. The collections are brilliant, and running alongside the park is the Westersingel canal, whose banks are dotted with works from the city's impressive International Sculpture Collection. While Rodin's magnificent bronze torso looks a little surreal plonked next toadesertedwalkway,surrounded by pigeons rather than people, it's a rare treat to be able to appreciate it without jostling for position. Like many of Rotter-dam's art experiences, it's an underrated pleasure.
Indeed, it seems that while the Beautiful South might have dismissed the Netherlands' second city as just "anywhere", Rotterdam actually looks set to carve out a distinctive niche for itself as the new art capital of Europe.
HOW TO GET THERE
VLM Airlines (0870 666 5050; flyvlm.com) flies from London City and Manchester airports to Rotterdam from £125 return.
Art Rotterdam (art rotterdam.nl). Rotterdam Tourism (00 31 010 205 1500; rotterdam.info).