Amsterdam Museums Review
I have a 50-year relationship with Amsterdam. I first visited with my family in 1966. Later, after college, I lived on the Pieter DeHoochstraat, near the Rijksmuseum for two years in the 1980s. I’ve been going back almost every year since. I’ve been to all of the museums graded in this article many times; I’ve been to the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh probably 15 times each. That’s probably more than most people who grew up in Amsterdam! So, if you disagree with my expressed opinions, that’s fine. Please post your reasons why, as I love to spark a healthy debate about something I am very passionate about: Amsterdam! Ik hou van Amsterdam. [I’ve also been trying to learn how to speak Dutch for 40 years and – trust me – I still stumble and crash like a broken fiets, but that’s another story!]. So without further ado; here’s my Amsterdam Museums Review!
This is the big Grandfather of all Dutch museums! And rightfully so. Enormous, endless and stunning, you’ll be clonked on the head with iconic art every time you turn a corner or enter one of the 80+ rooms. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Steen and plenty of other Dutch Masters fill the joint. While the lines can be awful, which almost takes my rating down to a B, the beauty of the art is too amazing not to give it the highest possible rating. There’s nowhere in the world where you can study Rembrandt’s iconic “Nightwatch” and then spot Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” a few steps away. Magical! Beat the crowds by going late in the day, not early, or else you’ll be in line with a thousand tourists with selfie sticks. If you can, skip the average cafeteria inside, but enjoy the excellent gift shop which can ship merchandise back home or pack posters in tubes with typical Dutch efficiency. The Rijksmuseum: recently named the #2 museum in the world, after Paris’ Louvre. Be proud, Netherlands! You did good. A+!
The Van Gogh Museum
I’m so tempted to give this great museum an A+ also, but have to take off a point for the horribly claustrophobic crowds and insane ticket scheme. Millions of tourists are jammed in like ants in an artistic anthill. Listen, I’ve been going to this museum since it opened in the 1970s, and back then it was definitely an A+. But now it’s gotten ridiculously crowded, and even seeing the incredible art of this troubled Dutch genius is hard to do because of the tourists swarming and elbowing you out of the way to see “The Bedroom” and “Wheatfield With Crows.” Add to the mix an aggressive security staff who bully patrons and scream “No photos!” every 5 minutes and that takes an edge off the enjoyment of this ever-expanding museum. But then there is the art . . . Just gorgeous. Such a complicated mind and so sad his struggles with mental illness. The gift shop is nice, but there are two larger gift shops out on Museumplein between the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum which offer the same cool merchandise and posters but without all the hassle. Add in the exorbitant entrance fee and the extremely complex ticket buying procedures and, sadly, I have to downgrade this wonderful place from an A+ to an A. Warning: buy your tickets on-line and do not even try to get in by standing on line at the box office. Because of its popularity, the Van Gogh Museum can be completely sold out for weeks, especially in the summer! Back in the 1980s, you could literally walk up to the box office and buy a ticket and enter, but now that’s impossible. Plan ahead, because this is one of Amsterdam’s top sights . . . and worth it. A very respectable A-.
The Stedelijk Museum
Listen, this large museum is literally next door to the Van Gogh Museum and no one goes there. Huh? It’s a really good museum, but maybe people don’t appreciate modern art as much as either the neighboring Dutch Masters on display in the Rijksmuseum or the Impressionist works of Van Gogh. The Stedelijk offers post-1945 experimental and conceptual arts by modern artists like Picasso, Chagall, Cezanne and the Dutch master of this genre, Mondrian. You’ll recognize Mondrian’s blocky colorful squares right away. But, honestly, some of the stuff on display, especially the visiting collections, is really dumb and might feature a toilet or a pile of trash as “art.” Nevertheless, the Stedelijk gets high marks for spaciousness, friendly staff always willing to offer directions, a nice little café for a coffee or a Heineken pils and a fabulous gift shop and bookstore. Also taking into account the relative emptiness of the museum, I have to bump up the grade for this museum, particularly for how uncrowded it is, compared to the extremely crowded Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum nearby. B+.
Coster Diamonds and House of Bols
Please, please avoid both of these obvious sales- oriented tourist traps right in the vicinity of the Museumplein. It’s hard to imagine how these awful places attract tourists but they endure year after year. Skip these two unless you are interested in a total sales pitch for either diamonds or Dutch gin [called jenever]. Coster sells diamonds. Bols is a major Dutch distillery which makes jenever. Let me clarify: everyone loves diamonds, and I can’t recommend jenever more highly. Ah, the stuff is great! It’s a very powerful, yet deceptively smooth tasting liquor which is usually enjoyed in shot glass portions backed with a glass of cold beer. The Dutch call that a kopstoot or “head knocker” and for good reason! Jenever is awesome, that’s the good news. The bad news is the House of Bols. This “museum” tricks you into thinking it’s a tour with a tasting session at the end, similar in concept to the Heineken Experience across town, but it’s a really lame, self-guided walk through of what is essentially just a big advertisement or marketing ploy for Bols liquors. Then they let you order a drink with Bols products from an ordinary looking bar at the end of the “tour.” Boring. And expensive. You’d be much better off just going to any one of a million corner cafes in Amsterdam and asking the friendly bartender for a jenever drink! Hey, Leisdeplein is within walking distance! And Coster Diamonds is the same: a winding, claustrophobic meander through a diamond “museum” which is really a disguised salesroom with overpriced diamond jewelry for sale. Don’t get duped into paying an entrance fee for either of these awful tourist traps! You have been warned. F –
The Anne Frank Museum
Ah, I wish I could give this important tiny museum an A+ but I just can’t. Just about everyone knows the tragic story of young Jewish Anne Frank who hid from the Nazis in a secret attic room with her family and a few other desperate people during World War II. It’s one of the great enduring stories of hope, and youthful optimism in the midst of horror and despair. Yes, it’s an important story which is relevant now and forever. But, honestly, I’ve rarely seen this place when 2000 tourists weren’t on line for admission. It’s a crowd flow problem; it’s a tiny canal-side townhouse jammed with hundreds of people, fighting up and down microscopic stairways and squeezing through doorways. If you can manage to gain entrance when the crowds are not massive, then you can enjoy the experience to the fullest. I recommend going later in the afternoon and praying the line is short – I’ve seen the line literally go around the block! I last went during a snowy day in January and it was fairly empty. So, while the museum is almost a pilgrimage for some, you’d better plan ahead as cramped is an insufficient word to describe the conditions inside. It has a very average café and tiny bookstore inside, which don’t raise my grade much either. B+
The Verzetsmuseum/Dutch Resistance Museum
On of the most unknown among our Amsterdam museums review is actually an incredible place! OK, while literally thousands of tourists will line up at the Anne Frank Museum, this little undiscovered gem of a museum is always completely empty. Why? The Verzetsmuseum tells the story of how Amsterdam survived an occupation by Nazi forces for years during World War II. In a word: it’s fascinating. This museum tells this complex story in comprehensive, stark and clear fashion, and it’s quite a story. How the Dutch responded to this foreign occupation and brutal oppression makes each visitor question how they would have responded to such stressful influences. Resist and risk the worst? Comply against your conscience and survive? Collaborate with the enemy as a means to improve your chances? Such a dilemma. This fascinating museum covers it all and more. Located over by the Jewish Historical Museum, near the Plantage district of Amsterdam, it’s not exactly on the main tourist trail, but very easily found and only a few stops on the tram line or a short walk with a good map or GPS. The nearby Jewish Historical Museum is OK, and tells some of the War story too, but their main focus is on the longtime history of the Jews in Amsterdam. As a city of religious tolerance, Jewish people flocked to Amsterdam for centuries, where Jewish life prospered and thrived for a very long time. Then, during the Nazi regime of the 1940s, the Jewish community was systematically deprived of their rights, liberty, and eventually their lives. OK, I understand the subject matter of these museums is somewhat somber, and people don’t come to gezellig Amsterdam to get depressed, but I highly recommend taking an afternoon to learn a bit about this complex part of Amsterdam’s history before going off to get drunk or smoke weed and act stupid visiting the Red Light District! A+
The Heineken Experience
Oh, Man. Where to begin? I first came to this old brewery-turned-amusement-park-ride in 1966 when I was just a kid. It was fabulous. A cool tour of the brewery showed us how beer was made from scratch. Huge smelly vats of brown liquid, like beery swimming pools. An intoxicating lovely scent, like baking bread, permeated the funky old brewery. Then, the ultimate capper: all the delicious cold beer you could drink for free! And even cheese and bread slices too! My, oh my, how the years have changed this once regal place. Now, it’s just pretty embarrassing. Nothing more than a completely unabashed tourist trap, now it’s basically a gigantic advertisement for the Heineken corporation, a huge gift shop with tacky T-shirts and junky trinkets, and, literally, a dumb ride where you “become” the beer. I mean, really? So stupid. You know it’s a tourist trap by the many large busses waiting outside. The only reason I didn’t give this place a resounding F is that, hey, it’s Heineken, and you now get 3 quick glasses of the golden stuff, and, yes, it IS the best beer in the world! And, also, if you pay attention, you might just learn how beer is made. But, damn, this place used to be so good and now it’s just a commercial disguised as one of Amsterdam’s “sights.” Sigh. C-
Enjoyed our Amsterdam Museums Review? Part II will cover: NEMO, Sheepvaart Maritime Museum, Amsterdam Historical Museum, Rembrandt’s House, Begijnhof, Willet-Holthuysen Museum, Tropen Museum, Tassenmuseum, Royal Palace and the Sex and Hash Museums.