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Wieki Somers's "Merry-go-round Coat Rack," which adds flair at Rotterdam's Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, won top prize at the Dutch Design Awards in 2009. (Photograph by Elian Somers)

The Design Capital of the Netherlands

After being nearly wiped off the map by the Luftwaffe in World War II, Rotterdam bounced back with a creative confidence few European cities can match.

You see it in the Erasmus Bridge, which looks like a giant modernist swan, and in Piet Blom’s iconic cube houses—you can visit Number 70, but the rest remain occupied low-cost homes.

That innovative spirit also reveals itself in the alien-looking Shipping and Transport College, best seen from a water taxi as you speed along the Nieuwe Maas tributary.

Other beloved old buildings enjoy a new lease on life, such as the Hotel New York, once headquarters of the Holland America Line. Its neighbors include Norman Foster’s glistening World Port Center.

In one of Rotterdam’s oldest districts, find the new Westelijk Handelsterrein, a glass-roofed arcade with some of the finest galleries, shops, and bars in the city. The Boijmans Museum here collects a treasure trove of contemporary art and design.

As the sun begins to set, take a walk across the Erasmus Bridge toward Renzo Piano’s KPN Telecom Office Tower and see it spring to life—its facade animated by a grid of 896 24-volt lights dancing in glittering patterns. Like Blom’s skewed houses, this exemplifies Rotterdam design at its best—bold, dazzling, and with a crackling sense of humor.

Tip: Save the date for the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, which opens May 2016 in the Rem Koolhaas-designed Kunsthal.

Also try: Copenhagen, Denmark, with its wealth of noteworthy modern buildings

This piece first appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.