Rotterdam: Make this Dutch city your port of call

Almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, this coastal location is now awash with contemporary architecture and forward-thinking designers. Stuart Forster pays a visit ahead of the annual art festival

'This used to be a drug hotspot, ruled at night by gangs," says my guide, as we stand admiring the arched façade of Rotterdam's Markthal, the market hall and residential building opened by Queen Maxima at the beginning of October.

For a decade now, this part of the Netherlands' second-largest city (and one of the world's busiest ports) has been going through change. Last night I was out photographing the once notorious streets around the Laurens Church, Rotterdam's only medieval building to survive the aerial bombardment of the Second World War, with no trouble whatsoever – evidence of why residents regard the Markthal (00 31 30 2346 464; markthalrotterdam.nl) as an icon of regeneration and positive urban change.

The hall's curved ceiling bears the biggest artwork in the country, Arno Coenen's Horn of Plenty. The colourful, computer-generated work is printed on more than 4,000 panels, each 1.5 metres square, depicting fruit and vegetables tumbling from a sunlit sky with cauliflower clouds.

More contemporary art will be on show this month. From 5-8 February the 16th edition of Art Rotterdam (00 31 10 7420 258; artrotterdam.com) sees studios open their doors, fairs being held, and pop-up shows at venues in the Museum Quarter, on the riverside Wilhelmina Pier and at the Van Nelle Factory (00 31 10 750 4000; vannellefabriek.com).

Tea, coffee, and tobacco were once packaged behind the glass and steel façade of Van Nelle, which opened in 1932 and was last year named the country's 10th Unesco World Heritage site. Architectural experts will be guiding tours through the this cleverly designed Functionalist edifice for the duration of Art Rotterdam and a team from two-Michelin-starred restaurant Fred (00 31 10 2120 110; restaurantfred.nl) will be preparing dishes at an on-site pop-up restaurant.

This is a city that's long been renowned for innovative architecture. Locals, a tad contentiously, claim the 43m-tall Witte Huis, completed in 1898, is Europe's first skyscraper. The white-clad high-rise overlooks the Oude Haven, the old harbour, a minute's walk from Piet Blom's cube houses (00 31 10 4142 285; kubuswoning.nl). These 1980s-built structures, said to symbolise trees, provide living space within striking angled cubes mounted on columns.

The shiny new Centraal station, which opened last year, is connected to northern districts via the Luchtsingel, a 390-metre long, wooden pedestrian bridge. The yellow structure was partially crowd-funded, with people donating €25 (£19) per plank. It's already in use but – fittingly, perhaps – won't be opened officially until 20 June, Rotterdam's Day of Architecture.

UNPACK

Shelves bearing Delft porcelain await you in the vestibule of the modern citizenM Rotterdam (00 31 10 8108 100; citizenm.com), near to the Oude Haven and Blaak station. Up in the first-floor lobby you can check in using the computerised system, leaf through dozens of glossy design and photography books, or order food and drink at the bar.

The compact rooms of this attractively priced design hotel feature shower cubicles and king-size beds, accessible from just one side, so it's cosy if you share. The complimentary films on demand and mood lighting, controlled via tablets, are nice touches. Doubles from €71 (£53).

THINK LOCAL

Take a stroll along Westersingel Sculpture Route, on the canal running between the museum quarter and Chinatown, and view the 17 permanently exhibited works by internationally renowned artists including Auguste Rodin and Umberto Mastroianni.

Cycling is a popular means of getting about, and you can hire bicycles from Rijwielshop Rotterdam CS (00 31 10 4126 220; czwaan.nl) at the central station. A cycle tunnel runs below the River Meuse and routes allow you to follow the waterfront or explore the greenery of Zuider Park. You can also view the city's key architectural sights by following the 10km route, marked with "Rondje Rotterdam" signs.

EAT

Chef François Geurds gets creative with dishes including pork belly and Japanese okonomiyaki at FG Food Labs (00 31 10 4250 520; fgfoodlabs.nl; Thursday to Monday), which was awarded a Michelin star last autumn. A viaduct arch provides the wood-clad interior of this smart yet informal restaurant with a tunnel-like appearance. Tasting menus of between four and six courses are served, along with a complimentary cocktail.

Bazar (0031 10 2065 151; bazarrotterdam.com) remains a popular dining venue with locals. This long-established restaurant, in which dozens of colourful Arabian-style lamps hang, serves a menu of inexpensive Middle Eastern and North African cuisine.

DRINK

Strolling along Witte de Withstraat, a focal point for nightlife, allows you to dip in and out of whichever café-bar takes your fancy. Ballroom (00 31 10 3412 029; ballroomrotterdam.nl), named after its meatballs rather than its dance scene, is the place to head if you like G&Ts and a hip vibe. The drinks menu features 52 different gins.

For beer aficionados the chic, industrial-rustic Bokaal (00 31 10 7200 898; bokaalrotterdam.nl) is a new hotspot, featuring a vast terrace with wooden benches. Draught and bottled beers are served along with a range of booze-absorbing cheese and meat platters.

SPEND

Rotterdam prides itself on its innovative designers, many of whom are graduates of the city's Willem de Kooning Academy. For locally designed products head to Groos (00 31 10 4145 816; groosrotterdam.nl), a concept store with minimalist decor and wares ranging from packaged soups to clothing, artwork and ornaments.

From Wednesday to Saturday pop into Olga Korstanje's studio-store (00 31 6 2878 5761; olgakorstanje.com), where elegant leather bags and accessories are crafted.

If you're after a bottle of Dutch courage, browse the shelves of Barrelproof (00 31 10 4136 022; barrelproofboutique.com), a stylish off-licence that refers to itself as "the world's smallest cocktail boutique".

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DON'T MISS

The Nederlands Fotomuseum (00 31 10 2030 405; nederlandsfotomuseum.nl) stands within a converted former warehouse on the recently regenerated Wilhemina Pier, providing an overview of Dutch and international photography and hosting several exhibitions in parallel.

In "The Darkroom", an interactive exhibition running until the end of next year, you activate the narratives by placing paper into developing trays. "Rotterdam in the Picture" runs until 17 May, giving photographic insights into the past 175 years of the city's history. Collages by John Stezaker and an exhibition of photojournalistic works, selected by guest curator Vincent Mentzel, are also being shown at present.

GETTING THERE

Rotterdam airport has frequent links from London City on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and CityJet (0871 405 2020; cityjet.com). BA also flies from Heathrow. Bus 33 runs from the airport to the city centre in 22 minutes.

Flights from a much wider range of airports across the UK serve Amsterdam Schiphol, from which there are fast and frequent trains reaching Rotterdam Centraal in 27 minutes.

MORE INFORMATION

en.rotterdam.info

holland.com

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