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On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank was given a red plaid diary for her 13th birthday. Two weeks later her family went into hiding from the Nazis in a 500-square-foot space that Anne called the Secret Annex and that opened to the public in 1960 as Anne Frank House. Situated in a 17th-century canal house, Anne Frank House takes you into the tiny rooms where the four Franks lived under the radar for two years with four other Jews before being sent to concentration camps. In addition to salvaged documents from the Secret Annex, the museum displays materials concerning persecution and discrimination and an exhibition on the life and times of Anne Frank, including the most widely read red plaid diary the world has ever known.
Before he became an artist at the ripe old age of 27, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a teacher, bookseller, student and preacher. With 200 paintings and 400 drawings, the Van Gogh Museum houses the largest collection of work by the art world's most celebrated late bloomer, the man who sought a new way of expressing life’s emotions through art. With such iconic paintings as The Potato Eaters, The Bedroom and Irises plus works by such contemporaries as Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, the museum explores the life and work of one of the Netherlands’s most important artists.
Works by Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrant van Rijn take center stage at the Rijksmuseum, the national museum dedicated to art and history. The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s largest and most famous canvas, commands its own gallery. And Vermeer's luminous The Milkmaid shares space with other notable Flemish paintings depicting everyday life. Reopened in full in 2013 following a 10-year renovation, the Rijksmuseum’s sprawling home is a masterful marriage of Pierre Cuypers's iconic building from 1885 and a thoughtful Antonio Cruz/Antonio Ortiz addition, as arresting and important as the collection it holds. And that collection is massive: one million pieces spanning the years 1200 to 2000, embracing paintings, sculpture, furniture, fashion, ceramics, glass and weapons, and ship models. A highlight is the Netherlands’s only museum collection of Asian art, much of it created for export and housed in its own pavilion.
The largest park in Amsterdam, Vondelpark is an urban retreat built in 1865 with lakes, sports fields, children’s playgrounds and tree-lined quiet spots for relaxing, people watching and communing with nature. A statue of the 17th-century poet Joost van den Vondel inspired the name, more lyrical than Nieuwe Park, the park’s original moniker. Vondel's statue, perched atop a base by Rijksmusuem architect Pierre Cuypers, remains a highlight, along with the exuberant domed 19th-century Pavilion and the Blauue Theehuis (Blue Teahouse), a circular refreshments building from 1937. In the summer, free concerts at Vondelpark Openluchttheater, an open-air theater, fill the air.
Aptly named, Het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House Museum) takes you inside the 17th Century townhouse where the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn lived in style for nearly 20 years. He arrived in 1639 at the height of his success, commissioned to paint The Night Watch. Years passed, he failed to pay the mortgage, and in 1658 he was forced out, moving to a small rented house he occupied until his death in 1669. In 1906, the city of Amsterdam bought the house Rembrandt lost, and the museum was born. Following an extensive revamp in 1999, the house you see looks much as Rembrandt would have known it, with a large open fireplace and curtained box bed, handsomely carved.
No one knows if the name was inspired by jardin, the French word for garden or the Holy Land’s River Jordan, but The Jordaan today is a stylish, upscale Amsterdam neighborhood—a far cry from its 17th Century origins as a modest working-class area (Rembrandt is buried in a pauper’s grave at Westerkerk, Dutch for West Church). A feast of small, beautifully restored 17th Century houses, the neighborhood stands to the west of the main canals, not far from the Dam. Stroll the narrow streets lined with art galleries, boutiques, pubs and historic houses, where stone tablets identify the original owner’s occupation with a carved image—be it a pig for a butcher or a pair of scissors for a tailor.
Artis Royal Zoo — or Natura Artis Magistra to use its full Latin name — houses 900 species of animals, but the zoo is only the beginning. Opened in 1838 for members only, Artis encompasses an aquarium, planetarium and arboretum and boasts some of Amsterdam’s most exquisite historic buildings (Wolf House, which predates the zoo, was once an inn). The aquarium embraces a tropical coral reef, Amazonian rain forest and an authentic Amsterdam canal. Twice a day the Butterfly Pavilion releases newbie butterflies fresh from the cocoon. And lions, lemurs, giraffes, elephants, giant tortoises and penguins are a few of the wild beasts prowling the grounds.
Opened in 2014, Amsterdam’s newest museum is all about the tiniest forms of life that can’t be seen with the naked eye. But minuscule doesn’t mean insignificant, and Micropia, the world’s first museum of micro-organisms, informs, surprises and entertains with colorful imagery and stunning statistics (every person houses 100,000 billion microbes!) that come alive on screens, under microscopes and in 3-D viewers. Among the show-stopping exhibitions: a body scan that lets you view the 3 lbs. of microbes living on and in your body (they keep you healthy) and a Kiss-o-Meter that shows how many microbes are transferred in a kiss (the short answer: a lot).
Hailing from the 13th century, Dam Square is Amsterdam’s town square, a cobbled rectangle in the city’s historic district, jam-packed day and night with locals and tourists. Ringed with restaurants, boutiques and cafes, the square bustles. Where once a dam stood, attractions abound: the towering National Monument pillar in memory of Dutch World War II soldiers and the Dutch Resistance, the 15th-century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), Madame Tussauds Amsterdam, the Bijenkorf department store and the grand 17th-century Royal Palace, still in use for state events.
Europe’s largest public library, the 301,000-square-foot Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam, aka Central Library, rises ten stories high in Amsterdam’s Oosterdokseiland district, an area known for cutting-edge Dutch architecture. Housed in Jo Coenen’s ecologically savvy building are a theater, radio station, exhibition space and a modest self-serve restaurant whose outdoor terrace offers panoramic views of the city. Reading material abounds, naturally. A children’s reading room encompasses the first floor, with volumes on literature, comics, travel, history, art, music, nature, philosophy and more as you ascend.
World War II and the turbulent years of Nazi occupation from May 1940 to May 1945 come to life at the Verzetsmusuem, the Dutch Resistance Museum. In a historic 1876 building near Artis Royal Zoo, visitors experience this grim period of strikes, food shortages, persecution of the city’s Jewish population, collaboration with Nazis and the rise of the Resistance Movement through photographs, posters, film, memorabilia and sounds, from music to gunfire. The Resistance Junior Museum for ages nine and up imparts true stories of children who lived through the occupation.
Culture doesn’t get more concentrated (or convenient) than this. Museumplein (aka Museum Square), is a grassy, tree-shaded expanse situated behind Amsterdam’s Big Three museums: the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Van Gogh Museum. Concertgebouw, a 19th Century concert hall known for its splendid acoustics and free lunchtime classical concerts, stands nearby, ramping up the area’s culture cred. Laid out for the World Exhibition of 1883, the square became Museumplein when the Rijkmuseum was built in 1885. Its current incarnation encompasses an underground supermarket, skateboard ramp, children’s playground, picnic areas and a pool that becomes an ice skating rink in winter.
Everyday more than 250,000 people pass through Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, the city’s largest rail station. The smart ones take a moment to look at the building’s Gothic Roman Revival facade from 1889, a magnificent brick structure with twin turrets. If the sprawling building seems to bear a more-than-passing resemblance to the Rijksmuseum, it’s because both were designed by the prolific 19th Century Dutch architect, Pierre Cuypers.
The adventure begins with the building, a curved, copper-green Renzo Piano creation from 1997 that declares this isn’t your grandfather’s science museum. And Science Center NEMO isn’t. With five floors of hands-on science exhibitions, the participatory center buzzes with opportunities for discovery and experimentation, from creating your own dam by conducting water through a mill to exploring a room designed to test your spatial awareness.
Opened in 1888, Amsterdam’s second oldest museum is something of a surprise. Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic) is a 17th Century canal house that hid a clandestine Roman Catholic church on its top three floors in the 1660s, a period when religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church were forbidden to worship publicly. In addition to the church, confessional and chapel, the museum offers a look at prosperous bourgeois life in 17th Century Amsterdam with furnished rooms, including a front room, hall and kitchen.
As befits what was once the world’s premiere trading nation, Amsterdam’s National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) boasts one of the largest maritime collections in the world. The largest historic item is the building itself, a sprawling storehouse for the Dutch Admiralty designed in 1656 by Daniel Stalpaert and used by the Dutch Navy until it became a museum in 1973. Highlights include an exploration of the whaling industry, a spectacular assemblage of 17th Century maps and atlases, and a full-size replica of the Amsterdam, a 16th Century ship that sailed between the Netherlands and the East Indies. Visit at night, and watch LED lights twinkle like stars in the new glass roof above the courtyard, renovated in 2012.
The name is the real deal. A branch of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam presents changing exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and more, organized by Russia’s celebrated art museum. In 2009, the five-year-old satellite museum moved into the Amstelhof, a Classical 17th Century building used for centuries as a retirement home. Why bring the Hermitage to Amsterdam? Peter the Great apparently enjoyed visiting the city, and the Dutch helped construct the city bearing his name, using their knowledge of building on swampy land.
Shortly after Heineken moved to larger digs in 1988, the original brick brewery built in 1867 opened for tours, showcasing the early home of Holland’s world famous pilsner. In 2008, the historic building was renovated, and the Heineken Experience was born with self-guided tours through four levels of all things Heineken — historical artifacts, interactive exhibitions, tastings and flashing video screens showing a continuous parade of international Heineken commercials. Of particular interest are the enormous white-tile brewing rooms with rows of gigantic copper kettles. The gold medal awarded at the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris is pretty impressive, too.
Founded in 1926, the Amsterdam Museum tells the story of the 1,000-year-old trading city known for entrepreneurship, free-thinking and its special relationship with water. History permeates every inch of the museum, including the walls of the labyrinthine buildings that contain it: the former City Orphanage built during the 15th and 16th centuries. The orphanage warrants its own exhibition, complete with dining rooms, classrooms and a primitive toilet. Look for noteworthy artworks like Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deijman and urban treasures, like the famed Snotnose barrel organ, pocked with Nazi bullets from a May 1945 liberation celebration in Dam Square that turned into a bloodbath.
The world’s largest collection of historic handbags, purses and suitcases started small—with a leather handbag from 1820 adorned with tortoise panels. Spotting it in an English village, Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo snapped it up and discovered a calling. When their collection of bags from the Middle Ages to the present reached 3,000, they turned two rooms of their house into the Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (aka, Museum of Bags and Purses) in 1996. Over 5,000 pieces strong, the museum currently resides in an elegant canal house built for a 17th Century mayor of Amsterdam. Besides icons like the Hérmes Kelly bag and Chanel’s 2.55, the collection embraces money pouches designed to disappear in voluminous skirts, delicate 18th Century reticules and man bags, including a 16th Century goatskin bag embellished with elegant buttons.
De Negen Straatjes refers to nine postcard-perfect streets near Dam Square, lined with shops and cafés. An official shopping district since the mid 1990s, Nine Streets offers clothing, jewelry, accessories, gifts, design objects, rugs and more, many locally designed and sold by independent shopkeepers. Strolling the narrow streets lined with low buildings, many from the 17th Century, is part of the fun.
One of Amsterdam’s three main canals, Herengracht is known as Patrician’s Canal—a moniker inspired by the 17th Century residents who lived in the fashionable mansions that flank it, particularly along the part known as the Golden Bend. Still swanky, the canal boasts some of Amsterdam’s most prestigious, eye-catching real estate: from No. 81, a magnificent 1590 manse with stepped gables, to Bartolotti House at No. 172, the palatial digs of a successful 17th Century silk merchant and banker.
Most palaces are built for royalty but Amsterdam’s Royal Palace on Dam Square has a different story. Constructed in 1655 as Amsterdam’s Town Hall, Jacob van Campen’s magnificent municipal building celebrated the city’s influence and prosperity in the Dutch Golden Age. Royalty arrived in 1808, when Louis Napoleon, anointed King of Holland by his brother the Emperor Napoleon, moved in, filling the place with stylish Empire furniture that’s still on view. William I and the House of Orange took over next, in 1813. No longer a royal residence, the Royal Palace today hosts state functions, including royal weddings and coronations, and is open to the public when nothing official is happening.
One of Europe’s leading ethnographic museums, Tropenmuseum houses a splendid collection of objects from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, New Guinea, India, Southeast Asia and Africa as well as musical instruments. Each region boasts its own gallery in the museum’s airy 1924 building, distinguished by a magnificent Great Hall surrounded by three floors of galleries. Deep collections of Indonesian puppets and masks are a highlight.
What lies unseen beneath the skin is on full view in Body Worlds: The Happiness Project, an anatomical exhibition of over 200 bodies and body parts seen in cities around the world in recent years. On permanent view in Amsterdam since 2012, Body Worlds aims to tell the story of our bodies and is peopled by real human bodies, preserved through a process invented by German anatomist Gunther von Hagen, the exhibition’s creator, that replaces body fluids with reactive polymers like silicone rubber.
Opened in 1971, Madame Tussauds Amsterdam was the first branch of the celebrated waxworks built outside England. Dead-ringers for the usual suspects from the worlds of film, industry, politics and pop culture are on view — Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga, George Clooney and Justin Bieber, for starters. But since this is Amsterdam, look for Dutch notables like beer czar Freddy Heineken and fashion model Doutzen Kroes in the mix. Former Dutch Prime Minister Jan Pieter Balkenende communes silently with Barak Obama and Angela Merkel. And Rembrandt time travels to join Salvador Dali and Picasso.