10 things that are unique about Rotterdam

I moved to Rotterdam to start my master’s at Erasmus University a few years ago. As I am coming closer to ending my journey here (bar a few submissions), I cannot help but try to remember all the things I found unique about Rotterdam. 

As soon as I lugged my suitcases off the train from Schiphol and made my way to the trams, I could sense this would be the beginning of an arduous adventure in this Dutch city.

As I got on the tram, the attendant must’ve noticed my bags and my look of fascination as I was taking in the sights of the city, and picked up a conversation with me.

He got so excited when I told him that this was my first day and I was here to stay awhile. With fervour and enthusiasm, he pointed out the amazing street art, the buildings, and gave me a bit of history along the way.

Rotterdam is unlike any other Dutch city. Image: Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

Like all Rotterdammers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, he started with the history of the bombing (more on that below), sort of trying to explain why the city looks and feels so different from other Dutch cities. He swore by the city’s eclectic nature and the good city vibes.

As time went on, I did not find a place I liked to call home, but I did feel fortunate to have had the experience of living in this Dutch city. If I could do my journey all over again, I would not have picked any other city — because it is truly like no other European city I’ve been to. So without further ado, here are ten unique things about Rotterdam!

1. The red lights around Rotterdam

red lights around rotterdam
One unique thing about Rotterdam are these red lights that you find everywhere. Image: Michela Simoncini/Flickr

When you’re walking around, you rarely ever look down on the street unless you have something stuck underneath your shoe or if you want to avoid eye contact with strangers.

But when you’re walking around the city of Rotterdam, if you happen to look down, you might be able to find a small red light with flames on it. There are 400 of these spread across the city and are used to mark the line of where the city was bombed during WWII.

2. Rotterdam is the birthplace of the Kapsalon

kapsalon
Did you know that Rotterdam was the birthplace of the Kapsalon? Image: Amin/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

So why are the names of Kapsalon — the fast food — and your local hairdressing salon, called the same? A product of Rotterdammer diversity, the popular dish was invented by — you guessed it — a hairdresser.

It combines Nathaniël Gomes’s, a Cape Verdian hairdresser, favourite ingredients into one disposable metal takeaway container. It has a layer of patat (or friets?), topped with a whole lot of shoarma meat, melted Gouda cheese, and finished off with some salad, garlic sauce, and sambal.

The hairdresser frequented a kebab shop in Delfshaven, El Aviva, and asked for this to be made for him. Other people started taking notice and they wanted to jump on the calorie wagon as well. It quickly grew in popularity and can now be found in almost every snack bar and kebab shop in the Netherlands and Belgium.

3. Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in Rotterdam

Napoleon and his wife stayed in the Schileandshuis in Rotterdam in 1811. Image: F.Eveleens/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

In September 1811, Napoleon Bonaparte visited the Kingdom of Holland. Not the Netherlands, but that was what the French client state of the French Empire in the Netherlands was called back then.

His plan was to control every seaport so that he could go to war with England. During his visit to strategise, he, of course, landed up in Rotterdam with his wife in the Schielandshuis.

4. Erasmus of Rotterdam

Image: Hans Holbein/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The scholarships and the university (yes, the university is different from the Erasmus+ program) get their name from Desiderius Erasmus or Erasmus of Rotterdam — a Dutch philosopher, humanist, and a former Catholic Priest.

He is said to be one of the greatest philosophers of the Northern Renaissance and the first person ever to edit the New Testament. He was born in Rotterdam in 1466 but lived there very briefly. He moved around Europe teaching, lecturing, and collaborating with the thinkers of his time.

5. Rotterdam has the largest port in Europe

Rotterdam harbour at night. Image: Quistnix/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0

Rotterdam is popularly known to a lot of people outside of the city as the largest port in Europe. As port cities go, it has a well-equipped and connected port where it has a long-standing history of maritime activities.

There’s even an open and free-for-all part of the Maritime Museum where you can go into old boats and explore how it looks from the inside. All these boats are docked at the Oude Haven (Old Harbour), which is also a nice place to get a beer and gaze at the Willemsbrug by the water.

6. Rotterdam is home to 174 nationalities

Rotterdam is home to a lot of different ethnicities with only 50% of the populous being Dutch. It attracts a large international and expat community as it is the base for large multinationals and world-renowned universities like Erasmus University, Willem de Kooning Academy, and Codarts.

It has its own China Town at West-Kruiskade, restaurants which offer cuisines from all around the world, festivals dedicated to its growing international populace, and ease with integration as almost everyone speaks English.

7. The modern architecture of Rotterdam

This is just one example of Rotterdam’s unique architecture. Image: Ben Kerckx/Pixabay

Is an article about unique things about Rotterdam complete without a mention of its architecture? Post-WWII, this city had to start rebuilding from almost nothing.

This means that outside of the historical Delfshaven, you won’t find a lot of buildings that are quintessentially Dutch. Instead, you’ll find unique cube houses, colourful buildings, and modern architecture adorning the city.

8. It’s the only city in the Netherlands to have a skyline

Image: Mlefter/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

With its modern architecture comes the title of being the only city in the Netherlands to have an actual skyline. It is home to 352 high-rises, the tallest (in the Netherlands and the Benelux) being the Maastoren at 165 metres.

You will find a lot of these skyscrapers along the river Maas in the Kop van Zuid district. It’s also called the ‘Manhatten on the Maas’ because of all these high-rises constantly coming up. The skyline of Rotterdam is certainly a sight to behold!

9. Het Witte Huis was once the tallest skyscraper in Europe

het witte huis rotterdam
The first skyscraper in Europe. Image: Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Did you know that Rotterdam had the tallest building in Europe in 1897? It’s the office building of Het Witte Huis. You wouldn’t know if you looked at it today, though.

Just over 43 metres high with 10 floors, this building built in the Art Nouveau style has seen a lot of people come and go from the city of Rotterdam. You can see this also from the Oude Haven or walk by it and admire its architecture from up close.

10. Rotterdam’s Markthal has the largest artwork in the world

Markthal is not just a place to go for great food. It’s also a place to admire incredible artwork. Image: Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

The Markthal of Rotterdam is an iconic piece of architecture for the city of Rotterdam. It’s dome-shaped with offices and apartments in the building itself, and shops and stores on the inside of the dome.

But the most interesting bit of trivia about the Markthal in Rotterdam is that its roof has the largest piece of art in the world. It’s the brainchild of Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam and is a whopping 11,000 metres squared and is also known as the Sistine Chapel of Rotterdam!

You will see fruits, flowers, and insects on the inside of the building which is home to many restaurants, grocery stores, and bars. Some of the stores give out free samples, so walk around and try the best cheeses, stroopwafels, olives, fruit salads, and more!


There you have it: 10 things that are unique about Rotterdam! There are a lot more things you can do in Rotterdam (for free or otherwise). It also has a lot of hidden places, nature spots, and day trips around Rotterdam that are just waiting to be explored!

Do you have any favourite spots? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Mlefter/Creative Commons/CC3.0
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2019 and was fully updated in July 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Kavana Desaihttps://medium.com/@kavanadesai
Coping with the aftermath of her 3-year stint in the Netherlands, Kavana is a writer, content creator and editor for DutchReview. Hailing from India, she frequently blogs about the Netherlands, being Indian in the Netherlands, and everything in between. She envisions herself to one day be the youngest person to win that Nobel Prize for Literature (she is also not very humble but welcomes only constructive criticism). In the meantime, she fills her days with writing for DutchReview, writing her master's thesis on art theft, and writing fiction that will hopefully see the light of day soon.

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