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Things to do in Amsterdam

14 September 2018

Think of Amsterdam and you probably think of canals, bicycles, the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank’s house, maybe even the red light district… There’s lots to see and do, but ‘doing’ a city can be a time-consuming business!

Westerkerk Church on the Amstel River, Amsterdam
Westerkerk Church on the Amstel River, Amsterdam

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 one spring – it was almost too good to be true.

Mission impossible

I set off on the first day just after 8am, equipped with a 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. 

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.

But first…

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 cafe 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.

Q I find Amsterdam pricey enough as it is. How will I be affected by the city’s new tourist taxes?

A Amsterdam’s city council is not only raising the tourist tax (or city tax as it’s known officially) on city-centre accommodation from 5% to 6% of the hotel bill for 2018, but is proposing an additional flat ‘per night’ fee – anything up to €10 has been suggested.

It’s mainly to curb budget travellers who, the city reckons, don’t contribute enough to the local coffers. However, the tax drops to 4% if you opt to stay in accommodation that is on the outskirts. Amsterdam has already cut a deal with Airbnb on the number of days a property can be let for during a year.

Will these measures help to cut down the 17 million visitors a year? You wouldn’t like to bet a slice of Edam on it!

Extract taken from Saga Magazine, December 2017. For more travel tips,  subscribe to the magazine today!

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 I had 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.

Set sail on a wonderful river cruise through the Belgian and Dutch waterways. Find out more here

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.