Rotterdam’s Rebirth: From Ashes to Awesome

There’s a reason the Netherlands is one of Europe’s premier travel destinations. Its elegant, townhouse-lined canals, bike-filled streets, and windmill-dotted landscape give visitors a view of low-country life that’s been preserved for centuries. But there’s one large Dutch city that doesn’t fit this mold at all: Rotterdam. 

Once a tiny 13th-century fishing village, Rotterdam today is the Netherlands’ most modern city and Northern Europe’s center for contemporary design and architecture. How did this happen? In a word – war.

Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe, so it’s ironic that the asset that made it successful was the very thing that led to its destruction. In the early days of WWII, the Nazis were looking for quick ways to gain strategic ground, and they found Rotterdam and its busy port an easy target. In an intense, 15-minute bomber blitz, the city center was bombarded. And what the Luftwaffe started, the fires finished. The city’s cultural and architectural center was entirely devastated. 

At the end of the war, when the slow process of rebuilding began, in this country known for its quaint, historic villages and centuries-old architecture, city officials decided to look forward instead of back and make a bold statement with cutting-edge modernism that survives in Rotterdam’s skyline today.

If you had a clean slate what would you choose? Holland has no shortage of historical architecture, so when forced to make a change, why not make it a big one? 

A job in city government must certainly be a labor of love that’s frequently unappreciated. And even though the city’s rebirth took decades, the city managers deserve credit for helping to make Rotterdam what it is today: modern, vibrant, and unlike any other city in the Netherlands. And this history is preserved in its incredible architecture. 

Good Health, 

James & Terri

Photo Credits: 1. Angèle AF  2. Richard Andhika  3. Micheile Henderson 4. Thomas Bormans  5. Mlefter  9. Victor Garcia  10.  Martin Falbisoner 11. Robert Hertel 14. Simone Hutsch   15. Adrien Milcent 

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

42 thoughts

    1. Thanks for the link Jo. Debbie’s photography is impressive as is the award. Aren’t these Cube Houses wonderful. Built in the 80s, they were ahead of their time, but they fit right in today. Interestingly, the placard called the development a “forest of urban treetops.” And a Happy Easter to you as well. ~James

    1. Gilda, we love Amsterdam, and in fact, all the other historic towns and villages of the Netherlands. But if you want a change, Rotterdam is worth a stop. It’s an easy train ride from AMS Central and makes a really nice daytrip. Happy Easter. ~James

  1. What wonderful photos! I love the header collage. How did you DO that?

    My husband and I went to Europe for our honeymoon 45 years ago, and spent a week in the Netherlands. Rotterdam was beautiful even back then. I remember having dinner in a restaurant in a tower that rotated (a novelty 45 years ago), allowing us to look down over the entire city and port.

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Shelley, in my corporate years I traveled to the Netherlands routinely on business. At the time I assumed Rotterdam was just another grubby port city, and never visited. Boy was I wrong! It’s certainly worth a stop today.

      Also, it’s funny you mention a revolving restaurant. At about the time you were rotating in Rotterdam, we moved to Dallas, TX and the Hyatt Regency (ultra-modern at the time) had a revolving restaurant. It was quite the experience for a couple of young rookies. ~James

    1. I like the classic Dutch buildings as well Leslie, but Rotterdam is a nice change of pace. There were parts of Germany that were totally destroyed in the war that have since rebuilt in the old style, which is also attractive. ~James

  2. I love the look of those houses but I would hate to live in one. Imagine carrying everything up those awkward stairs. We visited a couple of years ago and were told that young people loved them.

    1. Anne, I totally agree. As is frequently the case, architects go more for visual impact instead of practicality. As I remember, the stairs from the ground level were steep, and apparently there was 3 floors of living space – very cool looking though.

      Didn’t you just love the Market Hall across the plaza from the Cube Houses? I love Dutch markets and particularly ones that are so bright and colorful … and of course enclosed, warm, and dry. ~James

      1. Yes I loved the market hall. One of the cube houses has been opened as a show house so you can clamber around inside. The rooms are a strange shape.

    1. Anabel, the last time we visited the Netherlands we stayed in Delft as well. It was the off-season and we were able to get a cozy room in a tiny hotel overlooking one of the small canals. Delft is actually a good central location for visiting that part of the country on the trains. It also has some wonderful little restaurants and the market is fun as well. ~James

  3. James,

    Love the photos and commentary in your post and replies to others’ comments about Rotterdam. It hadn’t been on our wish list of places to discover on our next trip to The Netherlands but it certainly IS now!

    1. Annie, Rotterdam makes a great day trip, and as I say in the post, it’s very different from the rest of the Netherlands. Also, if you’re down in this area and haven’t been to the Hague be sure and visit there as well. As you probably know, it’s the seat of government so it has a long and interesting history. The wonderful thing about the Netherlands is just about anywhere, and everywhere, is easily accessible by train. ~James

    1. Rusha, port cities had a bad rep for decades (e.g. Bilbao), most of which have long since modernized and cleaned up their act. As it happened, Rotterdam had the motivation forced on them earlier than most, and they ran with it. ~James

  4. I had the pleasure of visiting Amsterdam for a few a few days when my daughter & I ventured to South Africa a few years back. We both loved the city & hope to return to the Netherlands at some point to explore further. Looks like I need to add Rotterdam to my itinerary.💛

    1. Lynn, in my corporate days I routinely traveled to the Netherlands on business so I know it pretty well. The Dutch people are kind, welcoming, and amazingly accepting of foreign travelers and their foibles. And for these and so many other reasons, if anyone asks for advice on where to visit in Europe, I always recommend starting in Amsterdam and the Netherlands.

      I’m happy that you had a chance to visit, and I’m sure a Mother/Daughter trip was good fun. It’s a great stopover on the way to Africa. I envy your trip to South Africa. We were literally days from departure for a month-long trip to South Africa when Covid blew up. ~James

      1. Oh James, I hope you have the chance to visit South Africa in the future. It is truly an amazing destination. Not sure what your original plans were but if you are hoping to go on a safari, I would highly recommend Shamwari. It is smaller than Kruger but in my opinion, a much more intimate experience. They are very conscious of the environment & so respectful of the animals who reside on the property.

      2. Lynn, it’s still on our list, but with all the uncertainties it won’t happen for a while. We had planned a trip through Brazil with a hop to South Africa and return through Europe. Because of pandemic closures, non-refundable airfares and the bankruptcy of the S. American airline, we managed to lose $5,000 worth of airline tix … double ouch. So, needless to say, we’re still smarting from that loss. Anyway, we’ll get there eventually. ~James

  5. We’ve been in and out of Amsterdam a few times, James and Terri, and really enjoyed it. We’ll be back in July, depending on Covid. Looks like Rotterdam would be well worth a side trip. (Actually, we will be doing a Rhine River Cruise that was supposed to take place last year.) Peggy was a high school exchange student in the Netherlands back in the 60s, so she is particularly fond of the country. Really enjoyed the photos you selected. –Curt

    1. Curt, if you have some time a quick train trip from Amsterdam to Rotterdam would be worth your time; if for nothing else, to get a good look at the Dutch countryside. I’m not surprised that Peggy fell in love with the Netherlands, it’s not hard to do. In the past I traveled there frequently on business, but Terri and I rented an apartment in Amsterdam for 3 months so we had lots of time to explore the country. It was wonderful and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

      I hope you can work out your trip. As you know, even with vaccinations, things are still far from normal, especially in Europe. Take care. ~James

      1. We have done a little train travel in the Netherlands, James. Peggy’s host family was in Zealand Province. Peggy says she likes Rotterdam a lot.
        We aren’t optimistic about traveling to Europe this summer. We may just have to spend more time exploring the Northwest. Darn. 🙂 –Curt

  6. The photograph from after the bombing is so stark and decimated and heartbreaking with the people walking the streets. It’s incredible seeing that compared to the current skyline and modern architecture. I love the optimism and creativity infused into how they rebuilt the city. Hope you’re both doing well!

    1. Kelly, this photo really struck me as well. We’ve all had hardships and incredible disruptions to our lives with the pandemic for the past year, but a photo like this reminds me what a horrific experience WWII must have been for all of Europe. I’m not sure that many of us living today can truly appreciate what the war meant, but I suspect that more of us have an appreciation. ~James

    1. That photo after the bombing and clean up is quite telling. It must have been depressing and heartbreaking for the residents to see and go through. But, the city has rallied in a big way and are to be commended. ~James

  7. It should not be a surprise to arrive here and say “Well I had no idea!” Although we have not had the pleasure of visiting Rotterdam, I’ve often wondered why the architecture is so different than Amsterdam. A sad destruction but a bold movement forward.

    1. Sue, when looking around Rotterdam there’s certainly nothing that would indicate its history of near total destruction, which is why I found it so interesting. Many places in Europe had a considerable rebuilding task after the war, but Rotterdam’s focus on the modern seems unique. ~James

  8. how i wish to be there too i think i would enjoy being there seeing those beautiful places in person

    1. Thanks for the comment Jenny and for dropping by the blog. Rotterdam is definitely one of those places that must be seen in person. The pictures just don’t do it justice. ~James

    1. Laura you’re perceptive that the cube houses are better to look at than live in. They’re unique and the complex is very photogenic, but the rooms inside have some very odd angles and it would take some adjustments to live there.

      I’ve always loved photographing interesting angles and surfaces in modern architecture, and Rotterdam has lots of these. ~James

  9. I never considered including Rotterdam as one of the places in the Netherlands I want to visit when I go there one day — until I learned about its modern architecture. It looks like there’s always something interesting or inspiring about the contemporary structures in the city which makes it very appealing.

    1. Bama, everyone visits the Netherlands for its history, food, and of course historic architecture, and none of this should be missed. But if modern architecture is an interest, Rotterdam should also be on your list. I can also tell from your blog that experiencing the local culture and people is important so you’ll be delighted with the Dutch. They’re friendly, helpful, and welcoming which will make your trip so much easier and more rewarding. ~James

    1. Rebecca, I’m sure it didn’t seem like it at the time, but it’s the classic “Lemons to Lemonade” tale. I can’t imagine how traumatic it must have been in Europe at the time. ~James

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