I moved to Rotterdam to start my master’s at Erasmus University a few years ago. As I come closer to ending my journey here (bar a few submissions), I can’t help but remember all the things I found unique about Rotterdam.
As soon as I lugged my suitcases off the train from Schiphol Airport 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, and the buildings, and gave me a bit of history along the way.
Like all Rotterdammers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, he started with the history of the bombing, sort of trying to explain why the city looks and feels so different from other Dutch cities. He swore by Rotterdam’s eclectic nature and good city vibes.
As time went on, I wasn’t able to find a place I liked to call home, but I did feel fortunate to have had the experience of living in Rotterdam.
If I could do my journey all over again, I wouldn’t pick any other city — because it is truly like no other European place I’ve ever been to. So without further ado, here are ten unique things about Rotterdam!
1. The red lights around Rotterdam
When you’re walking around, you rarely ever look down at the street’s path 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
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 Cape Verdian hairdresser, Nathaniël Gomes’s, favourite ingredients into one disposable metal takeaway container. It has a layer of patat (or frietjes?), 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
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, ended up in Rotterdam with his wife in the Schielandshuis.
4. Erasmus is a Rotterdam native!
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 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 is famously known to many people outside of the city as the place where the largest port in Europe resides. As port cities go, it has a well-equipped and connected port with 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. These boats are docked at the Oude Haven (Old Harbour), a nice place to get a biertje and gaze at the Willemsbrug by the water.
6. Rotterdam is home to 174 nationalities
Rotterdam is home to many different ethnicities, with only 50% of the populous being Dutch. It attracts a huge international 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. Rotterdam is filled with modern and surreal architecture
Is an article about unique things about Rotterdam complete without mentioning 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
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 many 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
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 ten floors, this building built in the Art Nouveau style has seen many 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
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 inside the building, home to many restaurants, grocery stores, and bars. Some stores give out free samples, so walk around and try the best cheeses, stroopwafels, olives, fruit salads, and more!
There are many more unique things about Rotterdam that are just waiting to be discovered. But besides that, Rotterdam is also bursting with hidden places, nature spots, and day trips you can take around the city!
Do you have any favourite spots? Let us know in the comments below! 👇
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2019, and was fully updated in October 2022 for your reading pleasure.