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Visit the city of the future today

A rendering of the world’s first floating farm, located in Rotterdam’s Merwehaven harbour.

In Rotterdam, Matthew Hague learns that the world's first floating farm is just one of the city's many modern wonders

There are certain charms that North Americans hope for when visiting a Western European town or city: café-lined squares, gingerbread buildings, cobblestoned streets that twist and turn in every direction.

Arriving in Rotterdam, then, can be unsatisfying, at least at first. Glass-and-steel skyscrapers shoot up from wide, razor-straight, car-filled boulevards. On the surface, everything looks distressingly familiar.

The seeming charmlessness of the place was, for a long time, why tourists to the Netherlands skipped Rotterdam. More people preferred the exuberance of Amsterdam or the stateliness of The Hague to the efficient, if bland, port city.

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Recently, though, Rotterdam has been producing exhilarating works of contemporary architecture – quirky, cool and colourful train stations, food markets and bridges that not only stand out today, but point to an optimistic tomorrow. This zeal for the contemporary helped boost visits to Rotterdam by almost 25 per cent between 2015 and 2016 alone. The figure will likely rise as Rotterdam continues to unveil its inspiring infrastructure for the future, including a floating cow farm, an island park made of plastic and the world's coolest warehouse (seriously).

Rotterdam's history stretches back more than a millennium, but the place was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. A single day of bombing erased nearly 30,000 buildings. Instead of re-creating the past (only a dozen or so historic landmarks remain), Rotterdam decided to adopt modernity.

At first, that meant modernity by way of Cleveland. But more recently, the city's open attitude to contemporary architecture has cultivated many top designers, including the architectural aptronym Rem Koolhaas, who designed Rotterdam's new City Hall to look like a pixelated cloud, and West 8, a landscape studio that has not only helped reinvent its own town, but also designed the "wave decks" that ripple across Toronto's waterfront.

The results are evident as soon as one arrives in Rotterdam. The central station, opened in 2014, replaces something that was too small, too cramped and had all the grace of a 1950s government office. Now, the platforms are topped with an airy glass-and-steel canopy that filters light as through a forest of geometrically perfect trees. The concourse is topped by a dynamic roof that swoops overhead like an eagle's wing in mid-flap.

Market Hall, a massive food market in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is often referred to as the city’s Sistine Chapel, with its giant mosaic of fruits, vegetables, fish and flowers.

As daring as the train station's ceilings are, they don't compare to the Market Hall, a massive food market designed by architecture firm MVRDV. The ceiling, often called Rotterdam's Sistine Chapel, is decorated with 4,000 aluminum panels that together create a giant mosaic of fruits, vegetables, fish and flowers.

The building, which cost nearly €180-million ($270.8-million), was partly funded by an innovative formula. The city wanted to extend and cover an existing outdoor market, but didn't want to pay for it. So it worked with a developer who offset the financing by incorporating both condos and offices into the arc of the roof. Subtly placed windows, punched through the mosaic, provide residents with views into the market so they can eye the local delicacies ( gouda, krokets and stroopwafels, say) that they might go down and buy later.

The new Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge, designed by local architecture firm ZUS, was also built with an innovative financing model – crowdfunding. The sinuous structure branches off in different directions to reconnect three neighbourhoods once rent apart by industrial infrastructure, namely train tracks and giant roads. The walls of the bridge, painted a vibrant, highlighter yellow, are lined with 8,000-plus names – a thank you to the many donors who backed the project.

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Each yellow, wooden board on the Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge has the name of someone who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign.

The bridge connects with Schiekade 189, a converted factory now filled with startups as well as Op Het Dak, a locavore restaurant with a devotion to freshness so strong that much of the produce is grown on an adjacent rooftop.

Producing food locally is something the city is trying to do more of. This summer, Beladon, a sustainable-development company, is opening the world's first floating farm. Located in Rotterdam's Merwehaven harbour, it will house 40 cows producing milk, yogurt and cheese. "With a growing population covering our farmland in concrete, we asked ourselves, how can we find space on a crowded planet?" Beladon's CEO Peter van Wingerden says.

Rotterdam's waterways, long a source of the city's economic strength, seemed like a good place to start. The farm will be connected by multiple bridges, to make ferrying the livestock (and their waste) easier. It will also have milking and manure-collecting robots that van Wingerden says will help the farming process both on and off the water.

Near the farm, on the Nieuwe Maas river, will be another floating structure: Recycled Park. Designed by architect Ramon Knoester, a series of interlocking, plant-covered islands made of salvaged waste hopes to address two problems: provide more green space to the residents of the growing city and find a purpose for the ubiquitous plastics that are being dumped every year. "There is so much plastic being dumped into the water," Knoester says. "We will be able to walk on it spring 2018," he says, when the park opens.

Rendering of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

If the Recycled Park shows how Rotterdam makes the most of overlooked objects and spaces, so does the Art Depot. Set to open in 2018, it's essentially a warehouse for all the city's art that it doesn't have room to display at its Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. But instead of hiding all the paintings and sculptures away in a dank, hidden facility (the way it currently does), the Art Depot, designed by the Market Hall's MVRDV, puts the collection on view, albeit in an uncurated, intentionally cluttered way. Rather than spare rooms with a few paintings per wall, crowded, storage-cum-cabinets and racks will allow people to easily search through the archives. Plus, the urn-shaped, mirror-clad building, topped with a garden and restaurant, will be much more inviting than the typical storage locker.

"As far as we know, this is the first facility of its kind," project architect Sanne van der Burgh says. "So we are curious to see what kind of precedent this sets." It's a sentiment that can be carried over to the whole city.

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If you go

KLM flies direct from Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, about a 30-minute train ride from Rotterdam. World Business Class passengers get a preview of Dutch design on board: The cutlery and china are made by Amsterdam's Marcel Wanders, and the airline provides a miniature Delft house, each a replica of a real residence, as a memento; klm.com.

WHERE TO EAT

Op Het Dak proves that Dutch cuisine has evolved far beyond frites and mayo. Salads, made from greens harvested from a rooftop garden, burst with fresh flavours; ophetdak.com.

Aloha Bar is a tropical-kitsch restaurant overlooking the Maas River (it used to be a swimming complex, with the dining room set in a converted pool). The "feed me menu" is a good choice for hungry travellers: Your server sets the menu and brings out dishes until you are too hungry to go on; alohabar.nl/en.

By Jarmusch is a North American-style diner (all-day breakfast, non-stop coffee) recently opened by Canadian Ruben Venema; byjarmusch.nl.

WHERE TO STAY

The nhow Hotel epitomizes Rotterdam's bold approach to architecture. Designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas, it's a modern, glass-and-steel tower remixed with contemporary twists; nhow-rotterdam.com.

The writer was a guest of the Netherlands Board of Tourism (holland.com). It did not review or approve this article.

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