Camping, gigs, jacuzzi and parties in lofty heights. Rotterdam’s annual Rooftop Days Festival invites us to discover this harbour town and architectural gem from a brand-new perspective: the city’s rooftops.

When the band starts to play, the sun slowly sets, bathing the sky in a milky, rosy-grey light. Jazz-infused country blues drips from speakers reaching high into the sky, while clarinet and guitar sounds brighten the summer’s night and inspire people to dance. Around the corner, there’s a small, improvised bar – a mere 53 metres above street level.

Signpost on a camping site
Did you ever camp on a rooftop?

“Take the elevator to the 16th floor, then one more flight of stairs and you’re on the roof,” Lieve Hertog greets the assembled gig-goers. She’s one of the location managers who – together with their teams – (literally) take Rotterdam’s city life to a new level as part of the three-day Rotterdam Rooftop Days 2018 festival. Usually, rooftop access at the “De Hoge Wiek” student dorm is restricted to residents only, but today anyone attending the so-called dakendagen (“rooftop days”) is welcome to enjoy the breath-taking 360° view of the River Maas and nearby harbour.

Band playing on a rooftop in front of the skyline of Rotterdam
The Woody Pines play the perfect soundtrack…

Rotterdam’s roofs play host to concerts, camping and more

This weekend, a total of 52 buildings at the heart of Rotterdam open up their roofs to almost 20,000 visitors. According to Lieve, the festival is “uitverkocht” – sold out – for the first time since its debut in the summer of 2015. Ron, who attends the rooftop gig with his wife Karla, is not surprised by the event’s growing popularity. After all, it’s not every day that you get to enjoy a blues band high above the city. “My wife felt like she was 16 again,” he grins. Brian, guitarist of US band Woody Pines who play here as part of their European tour, would also like to play rooftops more often. “The air is much fresher up here; it’s not as hot and sweaty as a club.”

Band playing
… for mild summer evenings.

Meanwhile, at the other end of town, helpers are setting up tents for the night. 150 visitors have been camping at the so-called Dakpark – Europe’s biggest rooftop park 9 metres above the ground – since last night. Equipped with sleeping bags and camping stoves, they’re spending the weekend enjoying campfires, badminton and bedtime stories – right in the centre of town. There’s even a small jacuzzi and a few rabbits hopping around the tents.

“It always feels a bit surreal,” adds Jasper who’s taken his family for the third time. “Your municipal park suddenly becomes a campsite.”

Woman and man talking
Ron and Karla are thrilled by the concept and the atmosphere of the festival.

This weekend, roofs all across Rotterdam host all kinds of events, from concerts and parties to readings, workshops, yoga classes and art projects. The idea behind it all? Rotterdam has an incredible amount of unused roof space – 14.5 square kilometres or almost 2,000 football pitches – that is usually disregarded or undervalued. The Rooftop Festival wants to inspire people to make better use of these airy spaces and show residents how roofs can contribute to healthy, lively and future-oriented urban living.

How to turn rooftops into social spaces

“We already have the space, so why not use it?” self-confessed Rotterdam enthusiasts Patrick, Joep and Rick agree. “Rotterdam is a city under construction, full of potential. You’re always wondering what will happen next.” Standing on top of the 42workplaces co-working office, they point out all the new skyscrapers built within the past two decades – making up more than half of the existing cityscape. The reason: Unlike other Dutch cities, architects in Rotterdam were given completely free reign to redesign the city after World War II.

Doing handicrafts
Visitors are invited to become creative themselves.

Even today, few limits restrict creativity and experimentation. In turn, these are not restricted to new construction. The festival highlights how residents can use existing places in a much more sustainable way. Think playgrounds, lavender gardens, beehives or apple trees – the options seem endless, once you start looking.

Child playing with a self-made racetrack
In child’s hand: the mobility of tomorrow.

At the same time, putting on a festival scattered across more than 50 roofs can be tricky, according to organising team member Jimme Moller. How do you supply 150 people on a rooftop campsite with water and electricity? How do you make sure everything – and everyone – is safe? What about the threat of thunderstorms? Every year, the hosts face these questions and many more, forced to tackle demanding challenges. After all, each rooftop is different and comes with its own issues and idiosyncrasies.

Mellow festival vibes are guaranteed in airy heigths.

A barrier here, a delayed official permit there … and what about that metal strut? It takes buckets of creativity, patience and effort to make all the participating rooftops safe and accessible. But once you’ve achieved this, says Jimme, the payoff is more than worth it: incomparable views, unforgettable experiences and community spirit wherever you look. Even the trademark Dutch drizzle that descends on Rotterdam on Friday night can’t dilute the mood. Equipped with umbrellas, the rooftop campers simply don swimwear and take a dip in the jacuzzi to warm up.

Brand new perspectives – (re)discover your city as a tourist

Wherever you look, there’s people populating the city’s rooftops. “You feel like a tourist in your own city,” adds Roy whose touch of claustrophobia made him take the stairs all the way up. He takes a deep breath. From the exertion? “No, it just feels good to escape the city’s bustle for a bit and to observe all the chattering and buzz from a distance.”

Great perspectives from above: Rotterdam is like a bridge between old and new.

Here, on top of the former Central Post office building at Rotterdam’s central station, you have an excellent view of the entire city. There’s well-known landmarks like the Erasmus Bridge or the Markthal, but also plenty of new discoveries you don’t normally get to see. “It’s fascinating,” Ron concludes. “You think you know your city, but it feels completely different when you get to see it from above.”

For more information, click here.