As a young man, Rembrandt was reluctant to travel outside his native Holland. All the important pictures were already there, he argued. So why leave?
In Amsterdam, the city where he made and lost his fortune as a painter in the 1600s, you can see his point. The “Venice of the North” is a town with a museum for everything. There’s an institution each for tulips, tattoos, cats and Dutch cheese; there’s one for sex and another for fluorescent rocks.
The heavy-hitters occupy Museumplein, just off the city’s Vondelpark. In the summertime, locals and tourists alike ride their bikes through the arches of the Rijksmuseum toward the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum and the Concertgebouw. Sometimes they stop to take in the Dutch light, that hazy muse of artists from Vermeer to van Gogh.
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Rijksmuseum: Make like van Gogh in his student days and head to the crown jewel of Museumplein, the Rijksmuseum. Inside the immense Gallery of Honor, linger in front of Frans Hals ’s “The Merry Drinker” (1628-30), Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (circa 1660) and Rembrandt’s moving “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul” (1661). Don’t miss the star of the room, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” (1642), which occupies a wall unto itself. €17.50 ($20); 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; Museumstraat 1, rijksmuseum.nl
Van Gogh Museum: Van Gogh only lived in Amsterdam briefly, but the city remains home to the bulk of his oeuvre. Trace his brief career (he was an artist for just 10 years) through floors organized chronologically. Stop upstairs for a look at his delicate “Almond Blossoms,” painted in 1890, just after his first breakdown, as a gift for his newborn nephew—who later became the founder of the museum. €17; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, Friday until 10 p.m.; Museumplein 6, vangoghmuseum.nl
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: Right next door, you’ll find the brightly lighted Stedelijk, the city’s home for modern and contemporary art and design. See the birth of Dadaism in works by Kurt Schwitters and Paul Citroen, and step inside Edward Kienholz ’s funky installation “The Beanery,” from 1965, in which life-size sculptures of men and women with clocks as heads drink at a dive bar. Turn the corner for a tipple of your own at the museum’s minimalist cafe. €15; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, Friday until 10 p.m.; Museumplein 10, stedelijk.nl
The Canal Homes
In 1960, Anne Frank ’s father, Otto, helped open the Anne Frank House museum in the 17th-century canal house where he and his family spent over two years in hiding. Solemn and austere, the building still houses the original bookshelf that hid the entrance to the secret annex. Don’t miss Anne’s red-and-white checkered diary and her notes for a proposed novel. Book ahead to avoid long lines. €9; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily April-October, with shorter hours in the off-season, online bookings only until 3:30 p.m.; Prinsengracht 263-267, annefrank.org
When Rembrandt bought his mansion here in 1639, he was riding high on a commission for “The Night Watch.” Years later, when he went bankrupt, creditors took an exhaustive inventory of his home. This catalog forms the backbone of the Rembrandt House Museum, a detailed re-creation, down to the box-bed where he slept and the kitchen where he fought with his mistress. (€13; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Jodenbreestraat 4, rembrandthuis.nl ) Stick around for a biertje, or small beer, at Café de Sluyswacht, the narrow, leaning pub across the street, built in 1695.
Peek inside one of Amsterdam’s grandest canal houses at the Museum Van Loon , home to the family of Willem van Loon, co-founder of the Dutch East India Company, where opulent touches like velvet wallpaper and taxidermied peacocks seem surprisingly appropriate. Exit through the kitchen to reach the garden and an impossibly grand coach house for tea and pastries. €9; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; Keizersgracht 672, museumvanloon.nl
Shake off the 17th century at Foam, one of Europe’s leading museums for photography, featuring a rotating roster of big names. €10; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, Thurs.-Fri. until 9 p.m.; Keizersgracht 609, foam.org
OT301, just off Vondelpark, was an abandoned film academy before squatters—now owners—reclaimed the space in 1999 as a venue for concerts, exhibitions and other cultural events. Overtoom 301, ot301.nl
Catch a film at nearby Lab111, and stay for a drink at the cafe, housed in a former medical lab. Arie Biemondstraat 111, lab111.nl
For more cinematic views, take the ferry outside Central Station to the Stanley Kubrick-esque EYE Filmmuseum, at the edge of the river IJ. Take in an exhibition or a classic film from its 40,000-title archive (both €10), or simply enjoy the view from its restaurant. IJpromenade 1, eyefilm.nl
For stranger fare, make your way to the tiny Electric Ladyland, which bills itself as “the first museum of fluorescent art.” Visitors are invited to take part in a “participatory” fluorescent environment and observe glowing rocks and fluorescent art from the 1940s and ’50s. €5; 1-6 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; Tweede Leliedwarsstraat 5HS, electric-lady-land.com
Have a Drink With…
Rembrandt at In de Waag. In the 17th century, this bar and restaurant was a guildhall in which Rembrandt and other members of the Guild of St. Luke congregated—and likely imbibed. It was also an anatomical theater, where corpses were publicly dissected, as in Rembrandt’s 1632 “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” Nieuwmarkt 4, indewaag.nl
The Staff Pick
Nienke Bakker, curator of van Gogh paintings, Van Gogh Museum: “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds” (1890) by van Gogh. “It’s a late painting. He made it just a few weeks before he died, and it’s extremely powerful. He was in the north of France at Auvers-sur-Oise, a little village near Paris. It’s the nature where he spent the last two months of his life. It’s not the ‘Sunflowers,’ it’s not the ‘Almond Blossoms’—it’s not as well-known as that. But in the brush stroke and the very strong colors, it’s completely Vincent.”
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO AMSTERDAM