Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fun and culture in Amsterdam

Amsterdam fun!
With canal houses resembling gingerbread cookies piped with white icing, Amsterdam charms with history.
And with more museums per square kilometer than any place else on earth, it would be easy to imagine the city as a vast open-air museum of Holland's Golden Age.  But the spirit of adventure, tolerance and freedom that built Amsterdam still lives and on a recent visit I was reminded of just how fresh and fun this city is.
View from Grachtenhuis Museum.
Flying over cobblestones on big rattling bikes, slurping cocktails under the stars on the back deck of a canal cruiser - exploring a UNESCO World Heritage Site has never been this exuberant.
Amsterdammers enjoy their city, spending much of their time outdoors on bicycles and boats, socializing in sidewalk cafes.  Visitors who alternate museum stops with a stroll through Vondel Park, a poke through an antique market, a stop for pancakes stuffed with apples or crusted with good Dutch cheese, are sifting in layers of pleasure not found on most historical or cultural itineraries.
Vintage finds.
Not that Amsterdam's museums are dry going - far from it.  If your heart has ever sunk upon being faced with acres of crucifixions and other religious scenes (and even with an art history degree, mine has), never fear here.   Art of Holland's Golden Age (think 17th century) was not commissioned by churches but by prosperous citizens.  Its subject matter - serene interiors, landscapes with windmills or comic skating scenes, portraits alive with personality and sumptuous costume - can be understood and appreciated by just about everybody at any age.
Museum shop, Van Gogh Museum.
4.5 million people come to Amsterdam each year, many to see the Rijksmuseum (the Netherlands' top tourism attraction holds several of Rembrandt's most important works including The Night Watch) and the Van Gogh Museum, to name just two of the city's top draws.
Adding to the already-rich offerings are the current multimillion-dollar refurbishment of established museums and the opening of new ones.  As part of Visit Holland's recent press group, I had the opportunity to sneak a peek at Het Grachtenhuis Museum (an elegant canal house with intriguing links to the American Revolution), the Scheepvaart (or National Maritime) Museum (seeming much like a ship itself with its light-filled, whitewashed rooms and scent of fresh-sawn oak beams), and the Amsterdam Historical Museum's fascinating new exhibition entitled Amsterdam DNA.  Another highlight was Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, a jewel-box collection of 4,000 bags and purses housed in a mansion on the Herengracht canal.
Afterwards, on my own for a few days, I explored the city on foot and by tram, revisiting old haunts and finding new favorites.  April is one of the best times in the year to visit Europe and the Netherlands.  From carpets of crocuses to babies on bikes, Holland is happiness, especially in spring.
Cafe Americain, American Hotel.
Crocuses in Vondel Park.

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