Words: Jamie Wareham
As we pull into Rotterdam, a Eurostar staff member says to us, “I hope you’ve brought your umbrella.” We didn’t. But a little rain was never going to dampen my enthusiasm for exploring the Eurovision host city with my boyfriend as it gets ready for the camp cocktail of mad music and gaggles of gays flocking in for Europe’s legendary music event.
It’s a little unfair to compare Rotterdam to Manchester, but with the combination of modern architecture – it had to completely rebuild itself after being flattened in the Second World War – and canals, it’s not far off. And indeed, the locals would appreciate that comparison.
But Rotterdam tops its UK counterpart with a thriving fusion cuisine scene and impressive architectural landmarks. Plus, if that doesn’t do it for you, Amsterdam is only a 40-minute train ride away.
When we arrive at four-star boutique hotel Room Mate Bruno, we’re greeted by the artwork of the homoerotic dockworker ‘Bruno’. So far, so good.
Locals say you go to Amsterdam for its history, The Hague for its beauty and Rotterdam for work – so when it becomes clear we are planning to stay for more than five nights, the hotel staff literally double-checks that this is indeed right.
Room Mate Bruno Hotel
Decorated with a combination of pictures of the port’s original buildings and a sci-fi, Martian landscape, Room Mate Bruno’s rooms Rhythm of Rotterdam are spacious, comfortable and, to my pleasure, feature a generous bath perfect for soaking in.
Fortunately for us, our “work brief” entails finding out if this town is ready for the gayest event in the world, so after dropping off our bags, we head straight out in search of dinner and cocktails.
The tapas restaurant Ayla doesn’t disappoint, and if we hadn’t stuffed ourselves with the chef’s tasting menu, we would have popped into Bram Ladage, the town’s top chips and mayo shop just next door.
Feeling giggly (and a little snuggly) on the way back to the hotel, my boyfriend and I check, as we often do when travelling, if this is a city where we can hold hands in the street.
We quickly get our first hint that Rotterdam is ready and willing to welcome Eurovision queers when we pass multiple rainbow crossings on the main drag.
Rotterdam's infamous 'Buttplug Gnome'
By the time we reach the rainbow-coloured bars covering the entire ceiling of Rotterdam Centraal’s Metro, our hands are safely clasped together. As if that isn’t enough, Rotterdam is home to a sculpture that’s supposed to comment on the consumerism of Christmas, but is known to everyone here as the ‘Buttplug Gnome’ statue – undeniably pretty gay, too.
Although this Dutch city might not have the concentration of bars that Manchester’s Canal Street does, when we arrive at the Ferry bar to meet LGBTQ group Gay Rotterdam for a drink, we discover that every week until Eurovision they are playing songs from
the festival all night long. All scream “Hard Pop, Hallelujah!” with us!
Even though I consider myself a Eurovision super-fan, this status starts to look a bit shaky when Gunnar from Student Pride NL, who is hosting a fundraiser for the group during Eurovision, puts my knowledge of the festival to shame — a reminder that Europe takes it much more seriously than we do.
After drinks at Strano, De Regenboog (The Rainbow) and a stumble by Café KeerWeer (where you have to enter round the back – so homo), we are more than happy to give the nightlife our camp stamp of approval.
Rotterdam's Markthal boats Europe's largest piece of art
After a few days in Rotterdam, we jump on the Metro to Schiedam – also known as ‘Little Amsterdam’. It’s the town where the term ‘Dutch Courage’ originated and used to be home to more than 350 windmills grain for making Jenever, the original gin, at the peak of its popularity. Blessed with sunshine the next day, we see the city as the locals do – by bike.
On the Bike and Bite tour we learn that the closest thing to a traditional Dutch dish is boiled onions, carrots, potatoes and pork all mushed up into one big goop. Just as I’m starting to doubt this tour, we arrive at the Markthal, a stunning horseshoe-shaped food hall, covered by Europe’s biggest piece of art, the ‘Horn of Plenty’. The detail is incredible, with as many pixels as an entire Pixar movie.
Inside, we try some deliciously salty raw herring, Rotterdamsche Oude cheese and a local Kaapse Maria beer. This area, the Binnenrotte, was set to be the original location of the Eurovision Village during the canceled 2020 festival, and is also close to the iconic Rotterdam yellow Cube houses and Luchtsingel Bridge.
Rotterdam's Cube houses are an architectural gem
The rest of the week, we’re blown away by the burgeoning food scene. The lack of traditional Dutch food has brought experimental fusion cuisine from all over the world – from Caribbean Coco to bohemian Dodo, there’s plenty of choice. We treat ourselves to lunch at FG, a two Michelin-star restaurant that serves breakfast for just €35 to break free of the Michelin Guide’s restrictions.
If you need a break from eating or soaking up the nightlife, Rotterdam is home to adult playgrounds with a Shoreditch vibe. Try indoor boules in Mooie Boules or play retro video games in Poing (beat my score of 47M points on the Jurassic Park Pinball machine!).
But if you’re a Eurovision junkie hoping for some hardcore partying, you won’t be disappointed by The Netherlands’ second city.