An archetypal Amsterdam canal scene
Over the past 15 years, Amsterdam has transformed its reputation from a party town into a top European cultural destination. Following decade-long refurbishments of the historic Rijksmuseum and the contemporary Stedelijk Museum, along with the expansion of the Van Gogh Museum, its central museum square - long the beating heart of the city - is stronger than ever.
Other jewels such as the sprawling Amsterdam Hermitage on the Amstel (with glorious Old Master paintings on loan from the State Hermitage in St Petersburg), the ever-popular Anne Frank House as well as smaller gems such as the Rembrandt House (Rembrandthuis) and a cathedral in a canal-house attic mean that there’s much more to do in Amsterdam now than most people can accomplish in a single visit. Here are our top picks:
AMSTERDAM’S TOP MUSEUMS
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1657–1658, Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt
Begin with the highlights in the Gallery of Honour and its masterpieces: Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, 1657–1658 and The Little Street, 1657–1658, down the hall from Rembrandt’s spectacular The Jewish Bride, 1665–1669 and deeply complex The Night Watch, 1642, but make sure you wind your way into the smaller gallery spaces for wonderful Averkamp skating scenes in room 2.6 and youthful Rembrandt portraits in room 2.8. The Rijksmuseum is also well-known for strong holdings of Delft Blauw and Meissen porcelain, dramatic 17th-century marine paintings and naval architecture models.
Hidden Gem: Don't miss the library! Nestled into the Golden Age galleries, the upper level of the Rijksmuseum's beautiful study library can be accessed by anyone - whether or not you intend to sit for a reading. Plus, the balcony features some superb displays of coins and medals; perfect for numismatics and history buffs.
Insider Tip: On sunny days, the gardens of the Rijksmuseum are a must-see. While most visitors access the building through the main entrance, we advise exploring the side gardens through the western gate, where neoclassical sculptures appear from perfectly manicured flowerbeds. The gardens are particularly nice this time of year, when the tulips are in full bloom. For a snack or light lunch, the garden café is also an easy grab-and-go option.
Installation view at the Van Gogh Museum, Courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), Photo: Jan Kees Steenman
Van Gogh Museum
Vincent van Gogh masterpieces such as Sunflowers, 1889, Almond Blossom, 1890, and The Bedroom, 1888, can be found in this museum, the world’s largest permanent collection of works by the Impressionist master. Approximately 300 original pieces by van Gogh make the collection a must-visit; plus, with regular rotation of the permanent collection, its a museum worth returning to on your second or third visit to the Netherlands. Founded on the collection of Vincent and his brother Theo, the museum is the central authority on all things to do with the artist. Temporary exhibitions are just as stellar because the institution has the clout to borrow from almost any international institution.
Insider Tip: Arrive early! As one of the most popular and highly photographed collections in Amsterdam, aim to beat the crowds and arrive 15 minutes before opening time, or plan your visit during the quieter lunchtime hour.
Barbara Kruger, Installation view at Stedelijk Base, 2017, Courtesy of the Stedelijk BASE. © Pictoright Amsterdam, Photo: Gert-Jan Van Rooij
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
The modern and contemporary art museum covers art and design from 1880 to the present and is a must-see for northern European art movements like De Stijl, CoBrA and Zero. Stedelijk Base, the newly revamped permanent collection displays designed by architect Rem Koolhaas and designer Federico Martelli, bring fine art icons from the trove into a dynamic conversation with design pieces of the same era.
Insider Tip: The shop at the Stedelijk is a great place to pick up original reminders of your visit to Amsterdam. With cutting edge design objects by local artists and a range of unique publications, it's a nice way to bookend your visit to the museum. The shop is open to the public all day on the ground level of the museum.
The movable bookcase that conceals the entrance to the secret annex in the Anne Frank House, © Anne Frank House, Photo: Cris Toala Olivares
Anne Frank House Museum
Book your tickets online to avoid the meandering queue outside the building where the famous Second World War diarist Anne Frank and her family lived with others in hiding in the secret annex behind the bookcase. It has been recently updated to give visitors more historical context, and the lobby will also be expanded soon.
The Art Room at the Rembrandt House Museum, Courtesy of the Rembrandt House Museum, Photo: Kees Hageman
Rembrandt bought this 1606 mansion at the height of his artistic success and ran a prolific studio here with pupils and apprentices until he went bankrupt in 1656. It has been meticulously reconstructed, with pigment-making and print-making demonstrations, and contains the largest collection anywhere of Rembrandt’s etchings, as well as paintings that inspired him.
Insider Tip: If you're traveling during 2019, this museum must be on your short list. 2019 will make the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt van Rijn and Rembrandthuis is preparing for the event with a meticulously crafted exhibition and public program schedule. Our favorite? A walking tour of Amsterdam that will explore not only the house and studio but also dozens of lesser-known areas of importance for the artist and his community throughout 'the Dam'.
An interior view of the Hermitage Museum, Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, Photo: Jørgen Koopmanschap
A little bit of Russian opulence on the Amstel River, this Dutch outpost of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg regularly receives masterworks on loan from the mothership for exquisite exhibitions. It is also home to the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age, an ongoing showcase of monumental group portraits of Amsterdam’s most successful citizens, and the Outsider Art Museum.
An interior view of The Jewish Historical Museum, Courtesy of The Jewish Historical Museum,Photo: Liselore Kamping
Jewish Historical Museum & Portuguese Synagogue
Thoughtful, illuminating exhibitions of modern and contemporary art by the likes of Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall are the main draw to this museum, situated in a complex of four former synagogues. The larger display is centered on the history of Jewish life in the Netherlands, decimated in the Second World War.
Hidden Gem: Don't miss the stunning candelabra-lit 17th-century Portuguese synagogue next door.
Cobra Museum of Modern Art
Artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam came together in the late 1940s and early 1950s to create a short-lived but influential post-war art movement called CoBrA that relied on a bold chromatic palette and “primitive” or child-like forms. This museum, about 30 minutes by bus from central Amsterdam, is devoted to the artists and those they influenced.
The attic church at Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic), Courtesy of the Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder, Photo: Arjan Bronkhorst
Our Lord in the Attic Museum (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder)
When Catholics were barred from practicing their religion in public in the Netherlands in the 17th century, they took their cathedrals indoors, into the tiny attic spaces of cramped canal houses. This extraordinary example is one of the very few that have survived.
Sculpture gallery with works by Hepworth, Marini and Zadkine, Courtesy of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Photo: Walter Herfst
One of the world’s most important private art collections, amassed in the early 20th century by Helene Kröller-Müller, and one of Europe’s largest sculpture gardens, the Kröller-Müller Museum lies about an hour’s drive outside of Amsterdam in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, near Otterlo. It contains the second-largest Van Gogh collection (after the Van Gogh Museum) and works by many other late 19th- and early 20th-century masters such as Monet, Léger, Mondrian, Seurat and Picasso.
BEYOND MUSEUMS: OUR RECOMMENDATIONS
Some of the dishes at Envy, featuring tapas-style amuses-bouches
WHERE TO EAT
The art of food is the aim here, both on the plate and on the palate. There are no traditional starters, but lots of tapas-style amuses-bouches and shareable treats on a tasting menu served with carefully selected wine pairings.
1016 HL Amsterdam
This four-year-old local favourite offers what it says on the tin – mussels and gin – but with all kinds of flair. Gin cocktails are mixed with artisanal tonics and ginger beers and surprising ingredients like jalapeño peppers and rhubarb; mussels come with unusual sauces like spicy coconut curry and Surinamese peanut sauce. There are also other dishes like whole roasted sea bass and pulpo – and you can take home the gin mayonnaise.
1014 DC Amsterdam
A wine cafe with a French bistro kitchen, in a cosy, amber-lit space. Enjoy cheese and charcuterie board with a great selection of wines, or stay on for an indulgent dinner of organic and seasonal ingredients.
1015 DD Amsterdam
Pulitzer's Bar, a perfect place for a quiet conversation, Courtesy of the Pulitzer Amsterdam
WHERE TO DRINK
A swanky bar that is part of the complex of 17th- and 18th-century canal houses that make up the Pulitzer Hotel in the centre of the city’s watery canal belt. Classic cocktails are a throwback to an Art Deco era; intimate spaces and a fireplace make a perfect setting for quiet conversation.
One of the rare high-end cocktail bars in Amsterdam, with a fondness for James Bond-inspired tipples and bites, Vesper is known for its innovative combinations of flavours, colours and scents. For example, “Roots & Cultcha” is a concoction of Juuri rye spirit with ruby port and cherry basil Cultcha Kombucha, paired with rosemary sausage.
1013 JM, Amsterdam
A suite at the Lloyd Hotel, where each room is designed by a different designer or artist, Courtesy of the Lloyd Hotel, Photo: Suzan Baars
WHERE TO SLEEP
Each room in this hotel in the (somewhat far-flung) Eastern district of the city is designed by a different artist or designer, making it a favourite among art and architecture aficionados. One room might have a piano, another a swing, another a giant bed that sleeps seven.
Oostelijke Handelskade 34
1019 BN Amsterdam
Literati and art lovers visiting Amsterdam tend to book at the Ambassade because of the cosy charm of the canal-side suites, central location, collection of original CoBrA art and lovely library.
1016 AZ Amsterdam
Museum Sqaure in Amsterdam, with the Rijksmuseum in the background, © Dreamstime.com, Photo: Dennisvdwater
Amsterdammers bike everywhere – the manageable size of the city and the flat landscape make it easy. Renting a bike during your stay to cycle around the city (some hotels include them) will help you get into the city’s rhythm and feel like a local. Almost everything in the centre is accessible within 15 minutes on a bike. That said, the local tram system is very easy to use as well. You can buy short-ride cards on board or save money by buying an OV-chipkaart at train stations, supermarkets and some news stands (€7.50, refundable). Taxi services can be dodgy, especially at Centraal station: call TCA, +31 (0)20 777 7777, for the most reliable company in town, or use Uber, which is very active in Amsterdam.
Try to get on a boat when you’re in town. It will give you a different perspective on the city, especially when the weather is fair. But avoid the large canal tour boats, and instead book a chic boat with a captain for a night cruise from a company such as Private Boat Amsterdam or sail yourself with an open-top boat through Mokumboat.