Amsterdam is known for its heavy-hitters of art history – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh – and in recent years the city's major institutions have stepped up to the historical mark with a glut of major refurbishments that bring its Golden Age and modernist treasures to the masses in a way that has surpassed all expectations.
Spend a weekend tripping between the institutions of the Museumplein and you'll know exactly what we mean. The Rijksmuseum alone delivers an unparalleled journey through 800 years of Dutch art and history, from the Middle Ages to the present day, conveyed via a four-floor extravaganza of 8,000 examples of painting, drawing, photography, jewellery, and fashion.
Visitors might be less familiar with Amsterdam's present-day art stars, as promoted by the likes of Foam, the city's premier photography museum. Contemporary snappers Rineke Dijkstra, Erwin Olaf and Anton Corbijn may not exactly be global household names, but they rank high on the art charts, and Dutch architects, including Rotterdam-born Rem Koolhaas and Amsterdammer Herman Hertzberger, have made a not-insignificant mark on 20th- and 21st century architecture.
Amsterdam is also an exciting design destination, and product designers including Marcel Wanders, Richard Hutten and Tejo Remy, acolytes of design universe Droog, all hail from The Dam. Look out for examples of their work in the newly-extended Stedelijk Museum of modern art and design. At the same time, the creativity-inducing atmosphere in the city has lured many an expat (among them UK artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen) to set up canalside studios.
The best places to see art in Amsterdam
Designed by PJH Cuypers and opened in 1885, the Rijksmuseum holds the country's largest collection of art and artefacts, including 40 Rembrandts and four Vermeers. After a decade-long closure, it's currently basking in the favourable response to a multimillion Euro facelift at the capable hands of Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz. The collection was started when William V began to acquire pieces just for the hell of it, and has been growing ever since: it includes Dutch paintings from the 15th century until 1900, as well as decorative and Asian art, which has its own newly-build pavilion. But the biggest draw is the collection of Golden Age jewels such as Rembrandt's Night Watch and Vermeer's Kitchen Maid and Woman Reading a Letter, plus a selection from the likes of Frans Hals, Jacob de Wit and Ferdinand Bol. There's also be a wealth of decorative arts on display, including 17th-century furniture and intricate silver and porcelain, 17th- and early 18th-century dolls' houses, plus furnishings to give a glimpse of how the interiors of canal houses looked. Eighteenth- and 19th-century paintings, art objects from Asia, statues, lacquer work, paintings, ceramics, jewellery, weaponry and the textile and costume collection are also visible; the accessible garden, filled with Golden Age gateways and architectural fragments on the west side, is an oasis of rest once you've had your fill.
This excellent photography museum, located in a renovated canal house, holds regular exhibitions of works by shutter-button maestros like August Sander as well as advertising from local agency KesselsKramer, and shows covering local themes such as Amsterdam crime scene photos (plus universal themes like Kate Moss). They also organise talks and events for the photographically obsessed.
As well as the bright colours of his palette, Vincent van Gogh is known throughout the world for his productivity, and that's reflected in the 200 paintings and 500 drawings that form part of the permanent exhibition here. In addition to this collection, there are also examples of his Japanese prints and works by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec that add perspective to Van Gogh's own artistic efforts. After a major and impressive refurbishment, the enlarged Rietveld building remains the home base for the permanent collection, while the new wing by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa is usually the home to temporary exhibitions that focus on Van Gogh's contemporaries and his influence on other artists. These shows are assembled from both the museum's own extensive archives and private collections. Do yourself a favour and get there early in the morning, though: the queues in the afternoon can get frustratingly long, and the gallery unbearably busy. And it's worth noting that Friday evenings often feature lectures, concerts and films.
Housed since 1987 in four former synagogues in the old Jewish quarter, the Jewish Historical Museum is full of religious items, photographs and paintings detailing the rich history of Jews and Judaism in the Netherlands throughout the centuries. A recent revamping has created more warmth and a sense of the personal in its permanent displays, which concentrate on religious practice and Dutch Jewish culture; among the exhibits is the painted autobiography of artist Charlotte Salomon, killed at Auschwitz at the age of 26. An excellent children's wing crams interactive exhibits on aspects of Jewish culture (including a nice one on music) into its space. The temporary shows explore various aspects of Jewish culture, while the Jonas Daniël Meijerplein site, with its Dock Worker statue commemorating the February Strike of 1941 in protest against Jewish deportations, is right across the street, beside the Portuguese Synagogue.
Rembrandt bought this house in 1639 for ƒ13,000 (around €6,000), a massive sum at the time. Indeed, the pressure of the mortgage payments eventually got to the free-spending artist, who went bankrupt in 1656 and was forced to move to a smaller house (Rozengracht 184). When he was declared bankrupt, clerks inventoried the house room by room; it's these records that provided the renovators with clues as to what the house looked like in Rembrandt's time. You can't help but admire the skill and effort with which craftsmen have tried to re-create the house, along with the antiquities, objets d'art (Rembrandt was a compulsive collector) and 17th-century furniture. However, the presentation is, on the whole, dry and unengaging. Nagging at you all the time is the knowledge that this isn't really Rembrandt's house, but rather a mock-up of it - which lends an unreal air that is only relieved when guest artists are allowed to use the studio. There's also a remarkable collection of Rembrandt's etchings, which show him at his most experimental, but if it's his paintings you're after, make for the Rijksmuseum.
The Stedelijk Museum, with its incredibe bath-shaped extension, is Amsterdam's go-to institution for modern and contemporary art, with an extraordinary pre-war collection that includes works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, plus a collection of paintings and drawings by Malevich. Post-1945 artists represented include De Kooning, Newman, Ryman, Judd, Stella, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Nauman, Middleton, Dibbets, Kiefer, Polke, Merz and Kounellis.
A note to all those historical museums around the world that struggle to present their exhibits in an engaging fashion: head here to see how it's done. Amsterdam's Historical Museum is a gem: illuminating, interesting and entertaining. It starts with the very buildings in which it's housed: a lovely, labyrinthine collection of 17th-century constructions built on the site of a 1414 convent. You can enter it down Sint Luciensteeg, just off Kalverstraat, or off Spui, walking past the Begijnhof and then through the grand Civic Guard Gallery, a small covered street hung with huge 16th- and 17th-century group portraits of wealthy burghers. And it continues with the museum's first exhibit, a computer-generated map of the area showing how Amsterdam has grown (and shrunk) throughout the last 800 years or so. It then takes a chronological trip through Amsterdam's past, using archaeological finds (love those 700-year-old shoes), works of art and some far quirkier displays: tone-deaf masochists may care to play the carillon in the galleried room 10A, while lesbian barflies will want to pay homage to Bet van Beeren, late owner of celebrated Het Mandje. Amsterdam has a rich history, and this wonderful museum does it justice.
Formerly the Filmmuseum, this is the most important centre for cinematography in the Netherlands, specialising in major retrospectives and edgier contemporary fare. There's a permanent exhibition space, as well as free-to-access education area, with 'EYE'pod screening booths. The amazing cybershark-type building dominates the northern waterfront and is worth the free ferry ride in itself.
Artists such as Karel Appel, Eugene Brands and Corneille were once regarded as little more than eccentric troublemakers; they've now been absorbed into the canon. This museum provides a sympathetic environment in which to trace the development of one of the most influential Dutch artistic movements of the 20th century. They've also now started having exhibitions of more modern artists to attract more visitors.