A Tale of Two Dutch Cities: Amsterdam & Rotterdam

Since the 14th century, when both Amsterdam and Rotterdam earned official city status, rivalry between the Netherlands’ two largest towns has incited fun, humor and even a little venom. Some claim money is made in Rotterdam, kept in Den Haag and spent in Amsterdam. In Holland’s freewheeling capital, you might hear, “Amsterdam has it,” while residents of Europe’s largest port counter, “Rotterdam doesn’t need it.”

A Golden Age Legacy

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Tilting at odd angles, with ornate gables and gargoyles, Amsterdam’s canal mansions were once inhabited by wealthy 17th-century merchants.

Since the rebellious ’60s, when hippies lounged around Dam Square and smoked weed in Vondelpark, Amsterdam has been a magnet for tourists. Some come for the infamous sex, drugs ‘n’ rock & roll scene. Others are drawn by world-class museums, historical landmarks and a setting that recalls Holland’s 17th-century Golden Age. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Amsterdam’s iconic canal belt testifies to a past when the Dutch ruled the world’s spice trade and Old Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer dominated the art world.

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Rotterdam’s post-war skyline is defined by high-rises on two sides of the Maas River.

In the post-war era, travelers have largely ignored Rotterdam, a city flattened by German bombs, with an industrial, working-class vibe that emanates from its port. But times are changing. In the years after World War II, sleek high-rises rose on opposite sides of the Maas River, earning the evolving vertical city a new nickname: Manhattan on the Maas. In 2007, Rotterdam distinguished itself as a “City of Architecture” by highlighting 40 landmarks with purple floodlights. When both The New York Times and Rough Guides included it among “Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2014,” a town long overlooked by tourists gained new appeal.

While I’ll always be partial to Amsterdam, the Dutch city that lured me from sunny Southern California to Holland’s soggy shores, here are some insights I gleaned about one of my neighboring cities on a weekend press trip sponsored by Rotterdam Partners.

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Back to The Future

Visually, Amsterdam and Rotterdam are strikingly different. While the former was mercifully unscathed by German air raids in 1940, the port and medieval center of its southern neighbor were destroyed during World War II. When Rotterdam’s canals became toxic rivers, they were covered with highways, resulting in a distinctly un-Dutch city with an infrastructure as conducive to motorized vehicles as to bikes and horse carriages.

In the post-war decades, Rotterdam literally rose from the ashes, inspired by the vision of a modern American metropolis. Angular skyscrapers replaced centuries-old Gothic structures, creating a skyline similar to those found in Boston and Seattle. While Amsterdam returns you to the Netherlands’ 17th-century Golden Age, a trip to Rotterdam feels like going back to the future.

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With a skyline similar to Boston’s or Seattle’s, Rotterdam is a distinctly un-Dutch city.

Port to Port

Thanks to its excellent accessibility for sea-going vessels and a distribution system encompassing rail, roads and rivers, Rotterdam boasts Europe’s largest port. Comparatively, Amsterdam handles just 25% of its neighbor’s shipping commerce and ranks #5 among top European ports. Rather than compete, the Port of Amsterdam now aims to partner with a neighbor that continues to bolster its reputation as the “Gateway to Europe.”

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For the best views of Rotterdam’s port, skyline and the surrounding metropolis, head for Euromast, an observation tower built for the first Floriade International Flower Exhibition in 1960. Stretching 185 meters into the sky, with an observation platform and upscale brasserie at 96 meters, the tower is Rotterdam’s highest structure, rising 85 meters taller than Amsterdam’s 22-story A’dam Toren. Along with 360-degree city panoramas, vistas encompass Antwerp, Moerdijk and The Hague on clear days.

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You can whiz up in a high-speed elevator that reaches 100 meters in just 30 seconds. Better yet, take the stairs that wind to the top of this member of the World Federation of Great Towers, all the while gawking at sweeping views of Rotterdam and abseilers with no apparent fear of heights, rope sliding down the building.

Bridging Past and Future

Amsterdam’s tapestry of canals necessitates bridges. Among the 1,200+ that criss-cross the grachtengordel (canal ring), the most recognizable is the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), a white drawbridge that appeared in the James Bond blockbuster Diamonds Are Forever. According to legend, the original was built by two skinny sisters living on opposite sides of the Amstel River who needed an easy way to visit each other. Others maintain its width inspired the name, as it was once so skinny two pedestrians could barely pass each other.

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According to legend, a kiss on Amsterdam’s Skinny Bridge will insure everlasting love.

Rebuilt in 1934, the Skinny Bridge still recalls Amsterdam’s Golden Age heyday, while Rotterdam’s most important icon frames a futuristic city. From almost everywhere, the Erasmus Bridge, also known as “The Swan,” appears on the horizon.

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Opened by Queen Beatrix in 1996, the structure rises dramatically over the Mass River, connecting north and south Rotterdam in a graceful, triangular arc. At 139 meters, it’s the Netherlands’ tallest bridge and the site for fireworks after major city events. The bridge was named after Desiderius Erasmus, aka Erasmus of Rotterdam, a prominent Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest and social critic.

An Asymmetrical Village

Rotterdam’s apocalyptic post-war landscape provided a blank canvas that became a fertile playground for architects over the last half-century. When ’70s politician Hans Mentink called for “architecture with some life in it,” Piet Blom responded with his playful Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses), an urban forest comprised of yellow cube-houses that seem to tumble above a busy highway.

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Piet Blom’s Cube Houses form a jagged urban roof in a yellow, manufactured forest.

Developed as an innovative solution to building homes above a pedestrian bridge, Blom based his design on the concept of an asymmetrical village within a city, with an “urban roof” comprised of housetops representing trees in a yellow, manufactured forest. Tilting at 45-degree angles, the 38 cube homes plus two super cubes perch on hexagonal pillars above a main road near Rotterdam’s Blaak tram and metro stop.

Inside a model cube home, you can see how innovative architecture calls for creative interior design. Accessed via typically narrow Dutch staircases, the three-level homes offer great views but nary a straight wall. With their angled sides and ceilings, only 25% of a 100-square-meter interior is usable.

Architectural Whimsy

Adjacent to the Cube Houses, Blom’s Pencil Tower juts into the sky like a sharpened writing tool. Next to the hexagonal tower stands Rotterdam’s Central Library, an architectural curiosity shaped like a cube minus one corner, sprouting yellow ribbons of air-conditioning pipes that have inspired critical comparisons to Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Built in 1977, the cascading glass facade features six floors on declining levels. Inside, 400,000 books, including the largest collection of Erasmus’ works, are shelved in an open setting.

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Rotterdam’s architectural mishmash includes the Central Library, sprouting yellow pipes, and Blom’s Pencil Tower and Cube Houses perched above a highway.

The Pencil Tower is framed by the most surreal addition to the architectural montage that has replaced Rotterdam’s pre-war medieval center: Markthal (Market Hall), a radical new landmark designed by MVRDV, an innovative Dutch firm known for quirky architectural solutions. Shaped like an airplane hanger with flared flanks, the €175 million indoor food court is capped with a dome of posh apartments. It debuted in October 2014—the same month as De Hallen, a retail and entertainment center with an indoor food court in Amsterdam’s Oud-West.

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A 230-unit apartment block arches over Markthal, a foodie Nirvana that’s been called the Sistine Chapel of Rotterdam.

Unlike the capital’s collection of food stalls and businesses housed in a transformed tram depo, Markthal is a newly constructed foodie Nirvana with a ceiling mural described as “the Big Bang of Fruit” by its creator, Arno Coenen.

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Arno Coenen’s “Horn of Plenty” was reproduced on the Markthal’s ceiling with digital 3D  techniques requiring servers also used by Pixar Studios.

Entering the psychedelic tunnel of what’s been called a Sistine Chapel of produce, you might think you’re hallucinating in a wonderland where grapes as big as bowling balls and broccoli stalks as tall as trees tumble from the sky. Everything from Dutch cheeses to Moroccan spices, organic meat and fresh fish is on offer—priced higher than similar fare at the neighboring Saturday street-fair, but marketed with more flair. A nightly son et lumiere production showcases the super-sized produce of Coenen’s “Horn of Plenty.”

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Sustainable Cities

Amsterdam has long been a forerunner in paving the way for a zero-waste, circular economy. With innovative projects like De Ceuvel, a clean-tech playground set on a former shipyard in Noord, and InStock, a food rescue mission that recycles less-than-perfect produce from local markets, its ongoing focus is on creating a greener, more sustainable city. Listed at #11 on ARCADIS’ 2016 Sustainable Cities Index, Amsterdam outranks Rotterdam at #19.

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But Rotterdam is catching up. By promoting sustainable architecture and green industries, it aims to become the world’s most sustainable port city. Evidence that it’s succeeding abounds at Recycled Park, where plastic waste is retrieved on the south side of the Nieuwe Maas River before it reaches the North Sea. The retrieved waste is recycled into floating platforms that maximize space in a city bound by water while also providing surfaces for plants to grow and marine life to thrive. Adjacent to the project, an otherworldly Floating Pavilion is used for meetings and events.

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Equally out-of-this-world is a Floating Farm in Europe’s largest harbor. Slated for completion by late 2017, the self-sustaining dairy platform will help Rotterdammers reconnect with their food while providing a happy place for 40 milk-producing cows. With a floating meadow shaded by trees, a milking robot cows can visit at will, and a roof that retracts to expose the sky, it’s designed as a bovine paradise that will yield 1,200 liters of milk daily for local consumers.

If floating cows and waste retrieval systems aren’t enough to launch Rotterdam into the sustainable future, the city also will be the first in the world to build roads using plastic waste rescued from the sea. While removing waste from the ocean and giving it new life as polymer blocks, the Plastic Road will keep millions of tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere during from asphalt production and laying, paving the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future.

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