For a city known for its canals, cheeses and clogs, museums should definitely be on the list for any visitor to Amsterdam. It seems like there’s a museum every 10 steps or so and the Dutch penchant for display (read between the lines, please) seems to come into full force with a museum about almost everything. We’re talking museums about cheese, tulips, canals, bags, diamonds, beer, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
With 75 museums packed around the city, I’ve selected 5 all-time favourites that are definitely worth setting time aside for.
1.Van Gogh Museum
I don’t know about you but I always prefer museums that are smaller and that have a specific subject matter or artist being featured. I’ve been to all the biggies and gorgeous as they are, somehow I always walk out feeling dazed and at the end of the day, not really sure what I had learnt.
With focused museums though, you can engage more deeply with the subject matter or artist so you do walk out feeling like you have really absorbed something. That’s how I felt with the Van Gogh museum. By no means is this a small museum, it has two buildings to it. The Main Building hosts the Permanent collection where you can see all his classics like Sunflowers, The Bedroom, The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossom and his iconic self-portraits.
You’ll also learn about his life, his strong relationship with his brother, his artistic influences, his darker days when he cut off a part of his ear and when he eventually checked himself into an asylum and in the end, shot himself and died. It was really sad to see the demise of such a talented genius and to also learn that he wasn’t just born with talent, he actually practiced and worked on his skills with great dedication.
The other building, the Exhibition Wing, hosts various exhibitions throughout the year. I was so fortunate that the time I visited (Nov 2015) the special exhibition was about Edvard Munch and Van Gogh (25 Sept 15 – 17 Jan 16) – two emotionally-charged artists whose works reflect the intensity of that expression. The exhibition features the parallels between both of these artists, showcasing some of their finest works side by side so that you can do your own compare and contrast exercise. And yes, I saw The Scream too, so that was a treat indeed! We weren’t allowed photos, but I got this beauty a few days later, when I visited during Amsterdam’s annual Museum Night (see my post on Museum Night 2015).
Note: Starry Night Over the Rhone is not normally at the Van Gogh museum, but it was being shown as part of the special exhibition, so I was really lucky to have caught that.
Tip: The museum sees long queues, I’ve learnt and experienced myself that going around 2pm after lunch, for whatever reason, sees shorter queues.
The mother of all Amsterdam museums – the Rijksmuseum. Despite being a biggie, I found this to be a very well-organised museum that gives you a historical perspective of Europe (the Low Countries in particular) via the eyes of Art. Especially when you’re going through the 17th C (1600-1700) floor (2nd floor) which most people would say is the most interesting floor in the museum. The other floors bring you through all the way from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century.
The blockbuster painting in this museum, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, has its own gallery – the Night Watch Gallery. As you walk towards the huge painting (which I learnt was actually cut down as it couldn’t get past the doors of the Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715), you’re actually passing through the Gallery of Honour, which features other Dutch Old Master classics like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and The Love Letter. Just like for most of the other masterpieces on show, there are placards that clearly explain the nuances of each painting, so you can really learn more, and not just sigh with amazement at the masterful usage of light and shadows that Rembrandt has become known for.
After you’ve had your fill of the Dutch classics, you can admire other collections like the Delftware and intricately gorgeous dollhouses, ship models and weapons. Jan Willem Pieneman’s The Battle of Waterloo is located on the 1st floor in the 19th Century collection.
Tip: Go early and allocate about 3 hours, don’t do it chronologically, start immediately with the 2nd floor Dutch Masters before museum-fatigue hits you. Have lunch nearby and head on to Van Gogh museum which is in the same vicinity around 2pm.
3. Anne Frank House
I’ll be honest with you. I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was really young and it all seemed really foreign to me and I didn’t quite appreciate the coming-of-age tale and the eventual horror the people faced. I revisited the story before going to Amsterdam, and obviously now, as an adult, I am better able to understand what the people were going through.
Visiting Anne Frank House, the actual annex where the family stayed, was therefore that much more intense and poignant. I can’t quite get over how the family’s glimmer of hope when the Allied forces invaded Normandy and liberated Northern France came down to nothing when they were discovered just a couple of months later and sent off to the concentration camp. For over two years they lived in fear and made do with what they had, and it all came down to this. Only the dad, Otto Frank, survived and he is the one who published Anne Frank’s works.
The museum has a fixed route for you to follow, taking you right up past the bookcase that hid the entrance to the upper floors of the annex, where you will see how the family lived and also get a glimpse of the famous red-checked diary. Photography is not allowed though.
Tip: If you’re there and it’s really crowded, don’t be bothered by it. Don’t rush your visit – although the rooms are left unfurnished, take a few moments to imagine how they lived in the key central dining room area, Anne’s bedroom, where her desk would have been and so on. As it’s a fixed route, it’s not going to be so easy to backtrack, so take your time.
Also, the museum is so popular, it’s absolutely necessary to buy your tickets way in advance online.
4. Jewish Cultural Quarter
Comprising the Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue and Hollandsche Schouwburg (National Holocaust Memorial), the quarter is an interesting place to spend at least half a day at. We made it to the Jewish Historical Museum rather late in the afternoon, and before you knew it, had spent about 2 hours there, so we barely had time for the Portuguese Synagogue and didn’t make it to the Memorial. Quite a shame as the one ticket gives you access to all 3 sights.
We started off our visit on the ground floor of the Jewish Historical Museum – a good place to start to get an overview of the Jewish religion and culture. If you don’t know the difference between Shabbat and Yom Kippur or just want to understand more about the various traditions, the museum has excellent multimedia platforms to watch, listen and learn.
The other floors are chronologically split into 2 sections – from the 1600-1900s and 1900s and beyond. You’ll learn about where the early Jews came from, what their lives were like in Amsterdam and so on. The war plays a key role in the organisation of information for the 1900s and beyond section – split into before, during and after the war. Gripping and saddening accounts of how almost 75% of the Jews in Amsterdam were deported and eventually died are shown via multimedia recordings, and eventually moving into the present where once again, there is a vibrant Jewish community in Amsterdam.
I didn’t expect that I would have enjoyed my visit as much as I did, but the thing that really sets this museum apart is the collection of real-life stories and present-day narratives of Jews in Amsterdam, which really does give you better understanding of the fabric of Dutch society in a very personal manner.
Tip: Set aside around 3 hours, the one ticket you buy gives you access to all 3 sights.
5. Museum Het Rembrandthuis
Although some may deride it for being a refurbished mock-up of where Rembrandt stayed (and therefore not as authentic), this is the actual house where Rembrandt lived in between 1639 and 1658. He bought this house for a princely sum and around the time that he was commissioned to paint his biggest masterpiece, The Night Watch. Even though he could have afforded to pay up the house, he went into debt and this eventually led to his financial demise, where the house was auctioned off and he had to move out. As you would probably learn, one of the world’s greatest artists to have ever lived eventually died a pauper.
Before you start the tour proper, spend some time watching the video about Rembrandt and some of his key works to truly get an understanding of his genius. After the video (it’s a little lengthy but I enjoyed it), walk around the house, his studio where you can just imagine the curly-haired master painting away, his bedroom, sitting room, kitchen etc and just get a glimpse of life during the Golden Age.
At certain times of the day, there are free etching workshops that showcase how the artist mastered the technique of etching in the 17th century.
Tip: I’d recommend a visit to Rembrandt house before a visit to the Rijksmuseum as the video gives you good insights into some of his famous artworks displayed at Rijksmuseum.