A Mind-Blowing Cultural Tour of Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a city with a rich history and a vibrant, multi-faceted population. As a cultural hub of the Netherlands, it’s worth exploring over a weekend break. Our 48 hours in the Dutch capital were sun-drenched, enlightening, confronting, and exciting; a city that blew through our expectations.
Despite its village-like charm, reminiscent of smaller European hot-spots like Bruges, Amsterdam boasts an animated arts-and-music scene with much to see and do, even with just a short time in the city. Art runs through Holland’s DNA – from celebrated masters like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, to the contemporary scene.
The Rijksmuseum – situated in a prime position on the Museumplein (Museum Square) – hosts the largest and most important collection of classical Dutch art in the city, and is definitely worth the entry fee (€19 – book online to avoid the queues).
If you don’t have all day to wander among the museum’s nearly one million pieces, the fab Rijksmuseum app guides you through the highlights of the collection. Start in the glorious atrium and pass through the stunning concrete gates, cut with light from the glass ceiling. From here, you’re led upstairs into the great hall with its soaring arches and glorious stained-glass windows dedicated to the arts – painting, architecture and sculpture.
From the great hall, enter the illustrious Gallery of Honour. Showcasing pieces from Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, this corridor is a treasure trove of classical art. The gallery leads you to its focal point – the Night Watch Gallery. Rembrandt’s masterpiece stands proud in its central position – as it should, it’s stunning. The highlights tour bounces you through the rest of the collection – including Van Gogh’s self-portrait, enormous model ships, impressive doll’s houses, and a gorgeous collection of Delft Blue pottery – all with fascinating stories to tell that can be heard through the app.
A highlight among highlights, the 19th century Cuypers Library is the biggest and oldest art history library in the Netherlands. Tucked away in a corner of the building, this reading room is an aesthetic marvel. Four storeys of colourfully-bound books are bathed in a soft glow from the arch windows, joined by the metallic ribbon of the spiral staircase. Well worth a stop for bibliophiles and architecture buffs alike.
Once you’re done inside, step outside and head into the gardens – calm, cultural, and free. Grab a drink from the potting shed and hopefully you’ll be able to snag a seat to soak in the sunshine. Visiting in April, the garden beds were filled with tulips and daffodils, surrounding the various sculptures and framing the water feature. Sit in the garden long enough and you’re sure to see the odd, over-eager tourist drenched by a mistimed jump into the fountain.
Amsterdam unabashedly = bikes. Get in on the action with a ride around the gorgeous Vondelpark. You get to experience the life of an active Amsterdammer experience, where cyclists rule the walkways. On a sunny day, make sure to bring a picnic and find a spot among the sculptures and ponds. Continue your cultural journey through with city with a visit to Picasso’s Figure découpée l’Oiseau (1965). Lay down your bikes and drink it all in.
Within the city canals, an unassuming building at Prinsengracht 263 holds another fascinating cultural icon of Amsterdam – the WWII hiding place of Anne Frank and her family. Entering the museum, you’re introduced to the astounding story of the Frank family and their associates, the Secret Annex, and Anne’s diary, which documented their efforts to hide from the Nazi regime for more than 2 years.
The tour takes you into the Annex itself, providing a visceral look into the fear, resilience, terror, and humanity that surrounds the story of this family, a harrowing representation of the experience of the Jewish population persecuted during the Holocaust. Even without having read The Diary of Anne Frank beforehand, this experience won’t be quickly forgotten. It should be on your list of must-dos during your time in Amsterdam. Tickets must be booked in advance; they’re released online 2 months in advance, and sell out quickly. If you miss the chance to pre-book, a small number of tickets for the day are made available online every day at 9:00 am.
A cultural trip of Amsterdam extends further than the museums, galleries, and music venues – it bleeds into the streets. Celebrated sex tourism, liberal views on cannabis, and a thriving coffee shop culture create a unique opportunity for people-watching on so many levels.
The red-light district De Wallen is a sensory overload – especially on a Saturday night. The experience can be simultaneously confronting and fascinating – making it a cultural experience like no other. The fantastic PIC (Prostitution Information Center) is located in the heart of this district, next to the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Established by a previous sex worker, the centre takes on the task of informing the public about social conditions of women working in the sex industry, and runs tours of the red-light district on Wednesdays, Fridays & Saturdays (5pm).
If the red-light district is a bit too blue for you, Amsterdam still offers a plethora of cultural experiences that we wish we had time to experience during our weekend stay. The illustrious FOAM Photography museum shines from its beautiful canal-side setting. Similarly, the architecturally-striking Eye Filmmuseum showcases the very best of cinematic history from the northern bank of the River IJ. The city’s events calendar may also be a great place to start when planning a trip, with over 3,000 festivals occurring throughout the year.
Amsterdam is a city of delights – cultural, carnal, culinary, creative. This is a city able to accommodate so many remarkable and unique experiences while retaining a distinct sense of identity and flair. A perfect destination for a weekend break, or beyond. Amsterdammers are a damn lucky bunch.