Due in large part to its art, architecture and overall ambiance, Rotterdam is no longer just a side trip from Amsterdam, but a destination in its own right, as recently confirmed by the New York Times. The travel section named Rotterdam, which is home to Europe’s largest port and the Netherlands’ second largest city, one of its 52 places to go in 2014.

Since it’s only a 30-minute drive or train ride away, it’s an easy day trip for me and I often go to shop, visit a museum or for an evening out. Recently, however, I spent the weekend in Rotterdam as a guest of Love Rotterdam*, which afforded me the opportunity to explore the city at my leisure.

I stayed at the painfully hip and exceedingly cool Mainport Hotel*, which overlooks the port of Rotterdam and plays on that theme throughout the hotel. The hotel’s décor evokes a travel era when the harbor was the starting point for voyages throughout the world, turning each floor into a destination, from Restaurant Down Under on the ground floor to the Asian-inspired Spa Heaven on the top, and Africa, Europe and America in between.

I stayed in a CityXL room and I loved its XL design details; the large room and Africa motif – giraffes and kente cloth patterns – the comfortable king size bed and the spacious bathroom complete with all of the of the moment details like the walk-in shower, whirlpool bath and in-mirror TV.

One of the first things you notice about Rotterdam is the city’s architecture, which is very modern and very different from what you’ll typically find in the rest of the Netherlands. After bombs destroyed its city center during World War II, Rotterdam city officials decided against rebuilding the city in the Old Dutch style and instead ushered in a wave of modern architecture that includes the Erasmus Bridge, Euromast, the Maastoren, Holland’s tallest office building and the famous Cube Houses, a group of square houses designed by architect Piet Bloom in the 1970’s.

Rotterdam also has a number of funky neighborhoods, including Witt de Withkwartie, affectionately known as Witty, an artsy, multicultural neighborhood lined with galleries, boutiques an cafes that stretches from museumpark to the Maritiem Museum.

I walked around this area and visited Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, one of the most important museums in Rotterdam with a diverse collection of art, including works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet and Dali. The museum also has a very pretty garden with sculptures and fountains, and perfect for lounging when the weather is nice.

I took the Spido Harbor Tour, and though a little touristy, it was interesting to get a glimpse of the inner workings and an impression of the enormity of the biggest port in Europe. The 90-minute tour provides commentary in several languages telling the history and development of the port and about some of the companies trading along the route. The boat tour sails under the impressive Erasmus Bridge towards the Willemsbrug and past skyscrapers like “De Rotterdam”(where you can see a very cool reflection of the Erasmus Bridge) and “The Red Apple”, another stunning piece of architecture.

Another “red” thing that caught my eye was an old English lightship, the Light Vessel No. 11, which is now the restaurant Tinto. Tinto is in the Wijnhaven, an area in the center of Rotterdam that suffered a lot of damage during World War II and is now a residential area that is mostly populated by new apartment buildings.

Juxtaposed to these modern buildings is the Regentessbrug, which dates from 1899 and is one of the few things in Wijnhaven that survived WWII.

Characteristics of the “World Port, World City” that is Rotterdam are reflected in the cuisine, with food sourced from fishing and adopted from the Netherlands’ former colonies. Fish is a favorite in the Netherlands, and deep-fried cod, known as Lekkerbek and bite sized chunks of cod called Kibbeling, are some of the ways the Dutch enjoy their fish. And let’s not forget herring. This shiny silver fish which is raw and served with onions and gherkin can be eaten on a bun, but true connoisseurs just tilt their head back, lift the herring in the air and eat it upwards.

Rotterdam also offers ample opportunity to sample culinary traditions of the former Dutch colonies Suriname and Indonesia.  Suriname is a country in South America where the Dutch brought Indonesian and East Indian slaves to work on plantations.  The workers made their native dishes with local ingredients, including the exotic fruits and seafood indigenous to Suriname and which eventually blended with the Surinamese dishes resulting in modern Surinamese cuisine. Make a reservation at Toko94 to enjoy this traditional Surinamese cooking.

Rijsttafel (rice table) is the Dutch interpretation of an Indonesian smorgasbord and usually includes satay, sambal, banana fritters and at the centerpiece is rice. Originated during the Netherlands’ colonial rule of Indonesia, rijsttafel remains a favorite among the Dutch and is even more popular in the Netherlands than in Indonesia.  The stylish Dewi Sri has been a landmark in Rotterdam for more 30 years and is the perfect place to experience a rijsttafel.

If your tastes lean more towards continental European fare, Rodin is a good choice. Named for the artist Auguste Rodin, the restaurant calls to mind a Parisian brasserie and has a spacious interior with references to the artist and his works, and a menu offering classic French cuisine.

Have you ever been to Rotterdam? If not, does it make your list of places to see in 2014?