Sometimes it’s better to have a focus for a visit, perhaps even a mission – whether it’s art, museums, famous sights, or architecture – and Amsterdam has them all.
I was lucky enough to spend a few days there this spring – on Saga’s special interest holiday, Amsterdam and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. How much art you take in is optional – the host’s excellent talks give you valuable pointers to the treasures that await you, then it’s up to you. You simply have three days to explore a city, with a floating home and delicious dinners to return to each evening. Almost too good to be true, except that it was.
I set off on the first day just after 8am, equipped with a complimentary museum card (providing pre-paid admission to some 400 museums in the Netherlands, including 32 in Amsterdam), a simple map and lots of enthusiasm. My mission was simple – to explore some of Amsterdam’s smaller museums. Musing on this I stepped into the cobbled road, narrowly escaping being mown down amidst a ringing of bells as a sea of bicycles flew by! And so the day began. I walked, and got lost, and visited museums, and walked and explored until 6pm that evening. It was the most energising of experiences. Why?
A city crisscrossed with canals immediately acquires a unique charm of its own particularly in the early morning light. As I made my way along the canal sides, cats watched from windows, children travelled to nursery perched in little travelling ‘boxes’ on the front of parents’ bicycles, workers in sleek basement studios started the day. Already I had a glimpse of life here.
Although heading for the small museums, I could not come to Amsterdam without briefly visiting the famous Rijksmuseum. It took nearly two hours to get there as I padded past the Nieuwe Kerk, the Royal Palace in Dam Square and Rembrandtplein, weaving through the streets, getting lost and stopping to admire views and buildings. On arrival I queued, only to find my card meant I didn’t need to. It’s also worth remembering that if you want to see the Rijks, go early because it is very busy. Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch was hard to get close to, but other masterpieces lay round every corner. If you like early things, don’t forget to go to the basement galleries where you’ll find a relatively uncrowded world of medieval and renaissance treasures.
Then it was off again, but this time looking for the Museum Van Loon. This elegant 17th century canal house was first occupied by Rembrandt’s pupil, Ferdinand Bol, but ultimately became the home of the Van Loon family, whose ancestors co-founded the Dutch East India Company. Step inside and you are transported to a world of 18th century elegance, awash with light and an oasis of calm. The house is on several floors, the elegant dining room with its period furnishings racking up a list of notable guests and still let out for functions. The drawing room and bedrooms are equally charming, but perhaps the biggest surprise was the garden. Accessed via the period kitchen, you step into the formal garden through a door bearing the painted notice ‘Please do not let the cat in’! Trimmed box hedges, roses, a seat in the sun and a café housed in the Palladian-style coach house await you. The Van Loon is not the only small museum to have transformed its garden into a café either and these havens are certainly one of Amsterdam’s ‘secrets’. With your museum card providing free access (although not free coffee!), they are the perfect place to pause during a busy day.
Bags, beautiful bags
The next museum on my list was the Willet-Holyhuysen. Bequeathed to the city in 1895 by an American of the same name, this imposing canal house acts as a showcase for a fascinating collection of decorative arts. Then it was on to the Museum of Bags and Purses with its collection of over 5,000 items. A journey through the galleries of this beautifully laid out and informative museum revealed something of interest for everyone, with bags from the 16th century alongside 18th century ‘pockets’, leather work, bead work and contemporary ‘designer’ bags including Chanel’s famous quilted bag.
During the holiday there was the chance to go to Haarlem, so I went. Needless to say there was a museum there too – the oldest in the Netherlands in fact. There is not enough room here to wax lyrical about the delights of Haarlem – you must go and see for yourself – but the Teylers Museum is how some may feel museums should be. Handwritten labels, an air of learning, collections ranging from scientific instruments to fossils, all contained in a glorious 18th century building with a modern extension, garden and, of course, a café! Then it was back to Amsterdam as my search continued.
A glimpse into 1940s Holland
Where to next? Although an art lover, I demurred initially about going to the Van Gogh Museum. Its popularity and queues were daunting and it was a ‘big’ museum, but after another early-morning trek through the city I went and can only describe what lay inside as ‘awesome’. Contained in a state-of-the art building and chronicling Van Gogh’s life through his work, it is both inspiring and moving. But again, get there early if you don’t want to queue! Afterwards, it was on to the Dutch Resistance Museum. As you walk through the simulated streets and exhibitions of this museum one cannot fail to be deeply touched. This is a museum that takes some time to get through, but it’s worth it.
A Bible Museum, but not as you’d know it
Learning about a city’s history can be very beneficial and so a trip to the Amsterdam Museum seemed appropriate. Tucked away yet in the heart of the city, I wandered through the informative exhibitions tracing the story and history of Amsterdam. A visit to Rembrandt’s House and a walk round the flea market later, it was on to the next museum, but I never actually got there. En route, I found myself outside the Bible Museum. Not one that had been on my list, but on the spur of the moment went in. This eclectic museum, housed in two magnificent 17th-century canal-side houses known as the Cromhouthuizen, was a highlight. Exploring the building revealed a stunning painted ceiling by Jacob de Wit, an impressive collection of early paintings and expansive reception rooms used to house temporary exhibitions – which at the time of my visit included a thought-provoking photographic exhibition entitled ‘I believe I am Gay’ featuring outstanding portraits of sitters from all faiths. Climb up the beautiful staircase and you come to a small room with its collection of silver-bound bibles. Climb again and you enter an exhibition of models, Egyptian antiquities including a Sarcophagus, archaeological finds and an illuminated book of hours. Afterwards, the museum café and garden with its water features and peaceful spaces provided the perfect end to the day.
Sadly I never made it to the Hermitage Amsterdam, or the Jewish Historical Museum, or the Press Museum or the Tropenmuseum, or the Museum Our Lord in the Attic. But what I did see convinced me that while the big names may have it all, these smaller museums have something else, equally as good. When it comes to the museums of Amsterdam, small is definitely beautiful.