After a second extended city break in Amsterdam, Liz and her husband are keen to share tips they picked up along the way to help others.
It has been claimed that the Netherlands has more museums per square mile than any other country in the world. With more than 75 museums in Amsterdam, travelers are spoilt for choice when deciding which ones to visit.
Amsterdam has much to offer in interesting outdoor sights and activities. But to get a flavor of the city and learn a little about its history and culture, as well as explore interesting topical collections, museums have a big part to play. They also offer a great option for those days when wet or cold weather disrupts outdoor activities.
The museums fall into three sections. The first 3 feature regularly in the top 3 of Amsterdam's museums. We visited the middle 4 on our last visit. The last 3 are on our future 'to do' list.
- Van Gogh Museum
- Anne Frank House
- Verzets Resistance Museum
- Van Loon Museum
- Canal Museum
- Scheepvaart Museum
- Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder
- Amsterdam Museum
- Bible Museum
Tips for Museum Visits will be given towards the end of the article.
Are You a Museums Person?
For art lovers, the Rijksmuseum, translated as 'State Museum', is a must-see attraction in Amsterdam. It is top of most sight-seeing lists. The Neo-Renaissance building, designed by P.J.H. Cuypers (responsible also for the design of Centraal Station), was opened in 1885. It is the focal point of the Museum Quarter and it stands at the end of Museumplein with an attractive water feature in front of it.
The Rijksmuseum charts 800 years of Dutch history (1200-2000) through around 8000 works of art. These represent a small fraction of over a million pieces held in the collection. Many visitors flock here to see Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' painting, as well as works by the Dutch masters: Vermeer, Van Dyck, Jan Steen, and Frans Hals. Paintings are displayed along with sculptures, historical objects, and applied arts.
The history of the Rijksmuseum goes back to 1800 when the Nationale Kunstgallerij (National Art Gallery) first opened. It moved around several locations before finally ending up in its present building, which underwent a 10-year renovation project from 2003 to 2013.
For many years the large 'I amsterdam' statue, part of a successful marketing campaign for the city, was a photographic attraction for tourists. But, in late 2018, this was removed. There is a version at Schiphol Airport and others pop up at locations around the city.
2. Van Gogh Museum
Vincent Van Gogh's life was relatively short (1853-1890). He was just starting to be acclaimed for his work when he took his own life. His art dealer brother, Theo ensured that his works were preserved for future generations by gathering this collection of 200 paintings, 500 drawings, and around 850 letters.
Van Gogh is now acknowledged as a top 19th Century artist. He is sadly remembered by many as the painter who, during his battles with mental illness, cut off a part of his left ear. Visitors flock to the Van Gogh Museum on the northwest side of Museum Plein to view well-known works of his, such as "Sunflowers", "Self Portrait as an Artist" and "The Potato Eaters".
The Van Gogh Museum opened in 1973 to house the biggest collection of Van Gogh's work in the world. The building is based on a design by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1965), with a new wing added in 1999, designed by Kisho Kurokawa. There are also works by contemporary artists displayed here, as well as temporary exhibitions.
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3. Anne Frank House
I first recall coming across the story of Anne Frank, as a child, in a children's magazine TV show. The harrowing and true tale of a young Jewish girl caught up in the horror of the World War 2 Nazi invasion of Amsterdam, gave me one of my first insights into this horrific period of history. I went on to read her diary, written while she and her family were in hiding with others in a small, secret annex in the offices of her father's business in 1942.
The family hid for over 2 years until their betrayal in 1944. Sadly, Anne died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, aged 15. Only her father, Otto Frank survived. Anne's diary was found and handed to Otto on his release from Auschwitz. "The Diary of Anne Frank" was published and became a best-seller.
The Anne Frank foundation took over the building on Prinsengracht, in 1957. Since then it has become a popular tourist attraction, with visitors coming from all over the world to see where the family hid. Arriving early in the morning used to ensure entry, but it is now necessary to book online as far ahead as possible.
To walk through the business premises and Otto Frank's office, into the hiding place, via the revolving bookcase is a somber and moving experience. The rooms in the annex have been left empty, as they were when the Nazis cleared them, but there are film star pin-ups and markings on the walls.
Documents relating to the family and Anne's diary are displayed as well as details of what became of the occupants of the rooms.
As we slowly followed other visitors around this museum, there was a hushed silence. Hardly anyone spoke and those that did whispered, in awe of the surroundings. It was a shock to come outside into the light and noise of the canalside setting and it took a while to readjust. The memory of that visit will always remain with us.
4. Verzets Resistance Museum
We had hoped to visit the Verzets Resistance Museum on our first trip to Amsterdam but ran out of time. It was therefore top of the list for our next visit to the city. Located on Kerklaan in the Plantage area of Amsterdam, this museum, off the main tourist trail, took a little finding. The building, named Plancius after the previous building on the site, dates from 1875. It was used by the Jewish choral society until it was sold in 1913 and was used as a garage until the Verzets Museum moved here in 1999.
The museum gives an insight into life in the Netherlands during the 5 years of German occupation from May 1940. An audio guide, included in the admission cost, takes visitors through the permanent exhibition 'The Netherlands in World War II'. Visitors are immersed in the real-life stories of Dutch people through their personal accounts, memorabilia, interactive displays, and photographs.
There is also a section on the former Dutch colony of the Duch East Indies, which explores the suffering there at the hands of the Japanese army.
There is an excellent children's section in the museum aimed at the 9+ age group. Focussing on four children, Eva, Henk, Jan, and Nelly, children are encouraged to learn about their experiences during the occupation. Each has a house on a square for children to explore, learning about each child as they do so. We were very impressed and learned a lot from this area of the museum.
We had gone expecting to learn mainly about armed resistance to the German occupiers. We saw a much broader picture of what life was like in the Netherlands during the occupation. A wide spectrum of the community is represented in the museum from collaborators, Dutch people trying to co-exist with the occupiers, the persecuted Jewish community to the active resistance fighters, and all those in between. We came away with a very keen sense of the hardship suffered by the Jews, and the fate of so many who were deported to the concentration camps.
5. Van Loon Museum
Have you ever wondered what lies behind the facade of a grand canal house? Since 1973 the Van Loon family have opened the doors of their house at 672 Keizersgracht, restored back to the style of the 1750s. Members of the family still live on the upper floors.
The house was built in 1672 and redecorated in 1752. It was purchased by the Van Loons, a prestigious Amsterdam family, as a wedding present in 1884.
The museum houses a collection of family portraits dating back to the 1600s as well as many items of period furniture and interesting artwork.
Outside, the garden has been restored according to a print from the 17th Century. The Van Loon coaches are displayed in the coach house, where there is also a small cafe.
A visit to the Van Loon Museum is an opportunity to step back in time to 18th Century Amsterdam. There were few other visitors and we were able to wander around the rooms at our own pace on a wet September day.
6. Canal Museum
Amsterdam's canals and gabled houses are a tourist magnet and a key characteristic of the city. But, have you ever wondered how Amsterdam developed from a small fishing village on a marsh at the mouth of the Amstel river into the thriving city with its intricate network of canals and gabled houses that we see today?
The Canal Museum traces the history of Amsterdam from its early beginnings and charts its development through a series of models, films, and 3D animation. The multimedia presentations help visitors appreciate what great engineering feats the construction of the canal ring and the gabled houses were in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
The Canal Museum is in the upper rooms of Het Grachtenhuis, located on Herengracht. The house dates back to the 17th Century. Once the home of bankers and merchants, the ground floor has been restored back to how it might have looked in the 18th Century, with original wall paintings.
We came away from the Canal Museum with an enhanced appreciation of the work and innovation that went into the construction of the canal network.
7. Scheepvaart Museum
The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam was not on our original itinerary. We were so taken with the view of the museum from the roof of NEMO (the science museum) and the ships moored by it at the end of Oosterdok that we read up on the museum and decided to visit.
The museum is housed in the former main arsenal (storehouse) of the Amsterdam Admiralty, dating back to 1656. The central open courtyard is topped by an interesting glass roof with markings reminiscent of a compass rose and old nautical charts.
The entrance is on the south of the building. Head through the North wing to the dock area, where you will find the replica of the 18th Century 'Amsterdam', the largest cargo ship used by the Dutch East India Company on the trade routes to Asia. Visitors can board the ship and step back in history as they explore the displays.
Also moored alongside the jetty is the steamship and ice breaker 'Christiaan Brunings', dating from 1900. Nearby, visitors can view the royal barge in its boathouse. This ornate rowing vessel was completed for William 1 in 1818. There is interesting footage of its use by Dutch monarchs on state occasions.
The museum's main displays are on the first and second floors of the East and West wings. Here you can see a dazzling array of models from small sailing ships to larger vessels from different eras of maritime history. Paintings by Dutch masters give graphic illustrations of old sea battles and ships from the past.
There are also displays of navigational aids and atlases through the ages, as well as photo albums of travelers' experiences and ship decorations. Discover 'The Tale of the Whale' which charts the changing attitudes 'from monster to protected mammal'.
Interactive displays, an array of temporary exhibitions, as well as areas designed to engage younger visitors offer something for everyone.
I wondered how our journey through Dutch maritime history would be. I thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Scheepvaart Museum and would not hesitate to recommend it.
8. Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder
A good sightseeing destination for me is one where you never exhaust the possibilities. One which always leaves you with more on your list to visit on your next trip. So it was for us with Amsterdam.
Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder's location, on Voorburgwal in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, between St Nicholas Basilica and Oude Kerk, is a little off the main tourist route. Its name roughly translates as 'Our Lord in the Attic'. This refers to a secret Catholic church, hidden in the upper floors of the 17th Century canal house, extended into the attics of two houses behind.
Amsterdam officially became Protestant in 1578, during the Alteration, when a Protestant city government replaced the Catholic one. After this, many hidden churches were built in the city for those who wanted to continue to worship as Catholics.
Jan Hartman, a Catholic merchant had the house built for him in 1661. A museum since 1888, 'Our Lord in the Attic' has been restored to its 17th Century state with religious artifacts, paintings, and church silver. Visitors can also visit other rooms in the house restored to their original state. The church ceased to be used as a place of worship after the nearby St. Nicholas Basilica was opened.
Since our return from Amsterdam, a friend has highly recommended Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder. We hope to visit next time we are in the city.
9. Amsterdam Museum
As its name suggests, the Amsterdam Museum, located on the Kalverstraat in the Nieuwe Zijde area, offers visitors an overview of the city's history. Originally a convent converted to an orphanage for many years (1580-1960), the city museum has been here since 1975.
The museum is home to an extensive collection of artifacts and displays about the history of the city. Highlights of the museum are 'Amsterdam DNA', an interactive hour-long overview of the history of Amsterdam, and 'The Little Orphanage', aimed at giving children ( age 4-12) an insight into orphanage life.
Temporary exhibitions are also a feature of the Amsterdam museum. The museum has an interesting digital exhibition 'Corona in the City', where it is gathering contributions from the public to chart and show the effect of COVID-19 on the city.
The museum prides itself on having a freely accessible gallery, which is home to portraits of the Civic Guard from the 16th and 17th Centuries. Contemporary portraits of Amsterdam citizens and celebrities hang on the opposite wall. The gallery is dominated by a giant wooden statue of Goliath, dating from the 17th Century.
We did not have time to do justice to the whole museum, so we walked through the Civic Guard Gallery. Earlier that day, our young guide on a boat trip had spoken highly of a popular mayor of the city, Eberhard van der Laan. His term in office was cut short and he sadly died, after resigning due to ill health. We were interested to find his portrait in the gallery.
Amsterdam Museum is on the list for our next visit to Amsterdam.
10. Bible Museum
After a packed itinerary on a drizzly day, the Bible Museum was the fourth museum on our list. But, during a break in the clouds, we were distracted and persuaded to take a boat trip. By the time we returned, the museum was closed. So it was put on our list for the next visit to Amsterdam.
The Bible Museum was located on the top floors of the Cromhuithous on Herengracht. Reverend Leendert Schouten opened his private collection of biblical artifacts to the public in 1860. In 1975 the collection was moved to this location. The oldest Bible in the Netherlands, the Delft Bible (1477) could be found here as well as many other old bibles, a copy of the Dead Sea Scroll, and religious objects. There were archaeological discoveries from Egypt as well as models of Jewish temples. The displays focused on the historical background of Bible stories.
The Cromhouthuis itself was worthy of note. The twin house was lived in by the wealthy Cromhout family for almost 200 hundred years from 1660. It was built in the classical style. The architect, Philip Vingboons is credited with creating the 'neck gable', which can be seen on the top of the Cromhouthuis. The family were great art collectors and the lower rooms were preserved to give an insight into their lifestyle.
Nothing Stays the Same
Since our visit to Amsterdam, there have been major changes. The Bible Museum moved out of the building in March 2020. Based in Amsterdam, the organization is now running a series of temporary exhibitions throughout the Netherlands, focused on its mission to provide 'insight into the Bible’s influence on Western culture in the past and present, contributing in this way to our society and the role that religions play'.
The Amsterdam Museum took over the organization of Cromhouthuis in 2017. Urban Restoration (Stadsherstel Amsterdam) bought the building in March 2020 and the Amsterdam Museum ceased its programming there on 1st June. The purchase agreement stipulated that the living area of the building (the lower floors including a large drawing room with antechamber, garden rooms, old kitchens, and garden) will remain within the public domain. So, who knows what the future holds for this historic building.