Rotterdam: The city whose ship has come in

Get high on Rotterdam's brave new skyline, maritime heritage and edgy cosmopolitan vibe

Rotterdam is the Netherlands' first industrial city and the world's largest commercial port, straddling the river Maas with a blockbusting skyline of concrete and steel. In the 15th century it gave birth to its most famous humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, and by the 17th century the city had established itself as a flourishing trade city fringed with warehouses and shipyards, from which the Dutch colonists departed for America.

Rotterdam is the Netherlands' first industrial city and the world's largest commercial port, straddling the river Maas with a blockbusting skyline of concrete and steel. In the 15th century it gave birth to its most famous humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, and by the 17th century the city had established itself as a flourishing trade city fringed with warehouses and shipyards, from which the Dutch colonists departed for America.

Bombed out in the Second World War, Rotterdam has now recovered, following decades of reconstruction. The result is a mix of unique, unapologetic architecture and a confident cosmopolitanism, which makes it the edgiest Dutch city.

When to goRotterdam is a vibrant multicultural city and nothing emphasises this more than its wide range of festivals. The International Film Festival is a glamorous antidote to the late-January weather, as well as showcasing leading European and Japanese cinema in the city's many auditoriums. The summer is the time for fiesta proper, as the whole city bursts into perpetual celebration. From the Dunya World Festival in May, to the Metropolis pop event and Caribbean Summer Carnival in July, to the Fast Forward Dance Parade in August, the streets swing to everything from romantic music and drum bands to skateboarding and breakdancing. This year the city also hosts Euro 2000, from 10 June to 2 July.

Getting thereBy air, KLM City Hopper (tel: 020-8750 9002) has regular flights from Heathrow to Rotterdam, and a return costs £60. VLM Flemish Airlines (tel: 020-7476 6677) has flights from London City airport, with returns from £128. By sea, Stena Line ferries (tel: 0990 707 070) depart from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and cost £279 return in the summer for a car with five passengers. By road, Le Shuttle (tel: 0990 353 535) offers a five-day break from £225 return, Folkstone to Calais (then it's the E40 to Ghent and E19 to Rotterdam). By rail, take the Eurostar (tel: 0990 186 186) to Brussels, then change for Rotterdam, for £75 return.

Where to stayHotel New York, Koninginnehoofd 1 (tel: 0031 10 439 0500) is an unmissable and original hotel set in the former head office of the Holland-Amerika Lijn, an ornate turreted edifice which continues to welcome the traveller to the city. There are 72 rooms, all with en suite and communication facilities, a shop and dining-room. The art nouveau flavour has been lovingly maintained, and in the summer, a street fish market is set up on its doorstep. Prices range from £55 to £130 a night.

Home Hotel, Witte de Withstraat 38 (tel: 0031 10 411 2121) is a central, unpretentious hotel, which costs between £35 and £50 per night. All rooms have TV, the more expensive are en suite. No pets are allowed.

For the adventurous, De Clipper offers the chance to spend your holiday on board a boat. It's quite small, with six four-person cabins and two two-person ones, with shared toilet and shower facilities, but it has a great sundeck with an even greater view of the city, and costs only £17 per night with breakfast.

What to see and doFrom the quaint, narrow canal houses of Delftshaven, to the old harbour, to Vaterstaad, where towering blocks line the river, Rotterdam is a city of water. The Maritime Museum offers a trip through the history of Dutch sea travel, from the 17th century to the oil-driven workings of the current port. To see the city from the river Maas and explore the docks, take a trip on a Spido boat.

Rotterdam is proud to be an architectural capital with a twist. Home to a wealth of financial developments designed by the likes of Jahn, Foster and Piano, the city also features buildings by the forerunners of modernism, Koolhaas, Dudok and Oud. The Archicentre offers tours of the city's different architectural styles, while the Netherlands Architecture Institute offers an interesting overview of urban development.

Museum Park contains the Boijmans Museum, renovated to celebrate Rotterdam's year as a European City of Culture with a Hieronymus Bosch exhibition. Also edging the park are the Chabot Museum, in a white art deco villa, and the Natural History and Kunsthal museums. The nearby Witte de Withstraat is the place for shops and galleries (see "Shopping", below).

The new Oceanarium allows visitors to travel from the North Sea to the Caribbean underwater, but if height appeals more than depth, you could ascend the Euromast in De Heuval park to view the city from a pole position.

ShoppingRotterdam offers a great mix of Islamic butchers, Turkish bakeries, Chinese stores and Surinamese grocers. For contemporary galleries and second-hand book shops, head for Witte de Withstraat. For more conventional shopping, there are the Lijnbaan and Beurstraverse, though even these malls are not safe from rotating metal sculptures poised to decapitate the idle browser.

The twice-weekly market is set up in the centre on Binnenrotte every Saturday and Tuesday, and during the summer there's a Sunday market in the Schiedamsedik. Don't miss the faded façade of Fifties department store De Bijenkorf, and check out Chill Out! next door, where there's everything from plastic Buddha money-boxes to PVC tops to a hair salon.

New and second-hand clothes can be tracked down in Sister Moon and Knetter, and the old bonded warehouse on Kop van Zuid has been restored to its former glory as the Konmar World Market. De Groene passage brings shopping back down to earth with a wide range of holistic and organic produce.

Where to eatMost hotels don't include breakfast, so De Unie, Mauritsweg 34 (tel: 10 411 7394), is a great place to come and be fed a late brunch of Dutch specialities. The menu is simple but creative and the bar is open from mid-morning onwards, serving anything from espresso to schnapps. Eggs on toast, goat's cheese salad and tea for two came to £10.

Artusi, Witte de Withstraat 15 (tel: 10 412 1413) is a light and modern Mediterranean restaurant where plastic bucket- chairs sit at ease with cool pine tables and reclaimed-glass chandeliers. A popular joint with the creatives of the city's cultural quarter, the speciality steaks, ranging from rib-eye to tuna, were on the delicious underside of cooked. A three-course meal with wine is around £23 per head.

For the freshest fish, cooked with ingenuity and served with simplicity, head west of the centre to Zee Zout, Westerkade 3016 (tel: 10 436 5049). The space is slim and white, with a large tiled mural of a fish and rich cobalt upholstery. The menu features such delicacies as Zeeland oysters, Amsterdam fat shrimps and an incredible fusion scampi. A three-course meal with wine comes to £30.

NightlifeThe Dutch like cafés, and most shops have one tucked somewhere near the back, but the city also has its fair share of intriguing bar convertions, including the old cruise terminal on Wilhelminakade, which is now Café Rotterdam, and Dudok, off Coolsingel. The landscape of the city is edged with a mixture of graffiti and witty wall sculptures, interrupting the many "brown bars" (drinking) and "coffee shops" (smoking). Without the blatant tourism of Amsterdam, the latter offer up a relaxed skunk high: wander the Nieuwe Binnenweg, and tripped-out hip-hop dances out from coffee shops like Out of Time, de Poel and the Laughing Pope.

Nightime reveals the enchanting lighting which transforms the acres of concrete into something more electric, as tower-blocks ripple with bold neon strips and the Pathé cinema and Schouwbur Plein glow martian-green.

The clubbing scene is in keeping with Rotterdam's eclecticism. Try out the Techpop Japan Lounge, where the Corso auditorium is given the manga-sushi makeover, or head for the MassTheatre, where Bimbo Complex raises Sunday night to a glam trip-through-house affair as the waves of the river lap the dancefloor. Nighttown/Rotown is the place for complete hedonism, with its own website (www.nighttown.nl) so you can check listings before you arrive.

Out of townAmsterdam is only an hour away by train, the Hook of Holland about 30 minutes, and Delft just 10 minutes away. The chocolate-box prettiness of the university town of Leiden is well worth a visit, and only half an hour away by train.

Deals and packagesA three-night weekend break in Rotterdam, staying at the three-star Tulip Inn Hotel, will cost from £286 per person, including accommodation, return travel on Eurostar and breakfast. Transfers are not included, and the price is from £263 per person with return flights out of Heathrow. Contact Travelscene (tel: 020-8427 4445).

Further informationContact the Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1E 6NT (tel: 0906 871 7777; net: www.goholland.com).

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