The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s museum of the Netherlands, is one of the most popular museums in the city. I should know, I went on a weekend in the summertime, a peak period for tourists. Thankfully, we went early enough that we didn’t have to stand in the two-hour long line that had queued up outside by the time we left. My recommendation – get there before 11am, the earlier the better!
Until earlier this year, the Rijksmuseum had been closed for renovations for a decade, so its reopening in April is likely one explanation for the massive crowds clamoring to get in. The other reason is due to what you’ll find inside. Enormous collections of some of the most well-known pieces of Dutch art are housed within the walls of the Rijksmuseum. But a large and diverse collection of Dutch art isn’t the only thing you’ll find inside the Rijksmuseum, as we would find out on the day we visited!
Upon entering the museum, visitors are required to check backpacks and oversized bags in the lobby. Cameras are allowed, however. (I’m always disappointed when they aren’t!) When we asked the ticket handler how much time it would take to see everything inside the museum, she told us it would take seven days. I was a little incredulous until we started looking through the free pamphlet the museum hands out to visitors. The museum is made up of four floors containing art from the 1100’s to present. That is a LOT of art.
Before we set off into the Rijksmuseum, we did what I recommend everyone do, and we sat in the lobby for about ten minutes looking through the pamphlet, deciding what in the museum was most important for us to see. With only two hours to spend inside, it was extremely helpful for us to make a game plan ahead of time, so that when we left the museum, we didn’t leave feeling like we’d missed out on something!
Great Hall + Famous Paintings
We started in the most famous section of the museum, home to works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and countless other recognizable names. These paintings are located on the second floor, accessed by stairs leading to the Great Hall (voorhal). This was, by far, the busiest area of the museum. The main attraction here is one of Rembrandt’s most famous works, the Night Watch, and you’ll find it showcased inside a beautiful, grandiose room. If you can work your way inside, that is.
I have never been one to stand in front of the same painting for half an hour or more, but in this part of the museum you’ll find a lot of people who do. This makes for quite a backlog of people waiting patiently, and sometimes impatiently, to get a decent look at the most famous pieces. (Just another reason to arrive early!) We waited our turn to see the Night Watch and Vermeer’s Milkmaid and then made quick work of the rest of the art galleries on this floor. With unlimited time, it would have been nice to give each piece its due, but after awhile it all starts running together anyway. (If there is a god of art, s/he’s likely cursing me for saying that!)
Also located on the second floor is the library (bibliotheek), recently renovated into a 19th century style reading room and lined floor to ceiling with books and research materials. The reading room is multiple stories high with a winding staircase that is to die for. It’s a bookworm’s dream room for sure!
One of my favorite parts of the museum, again on the second floor, was the sculpture gallery, or in Dutch – the beeldengalery. The sculpture pictured here is titled Frenzy by Artus Quellinus. This statue of a woman pulling out her hair in a fit of madness stood in the garden of Dolhuys, an institution for the mentally ill. (Probably not the most sensitive sculpture they could have displayed there. Yikes!)
After completing our round of the second floor, we went up to the top level, the third floor. (In Europe, floor levels start at 0, or ground floor, instead of 1. I still can’t get used to that.) All of the art on the third floor is from the early 1900’s to present. There is much to see here from paintings to large scale replicas of airplanes, but the piece I enjoyed the most was this collection of facial masks of Nias islanders. They were taken in the early part of the 20th century by anthropologists studying physical features of human races, and they came to embody the ethnic diversity among groups of people. While I might not be able to grasp a full appreciation for all pieces of art, there are others, like this one, that just floor me.
Heading back down to the lower floors, we found ourselves in the special collections gallery on the ground floor. You’ll find anything and everything in these galleries, from ship models to jewelry and clothing to all sorts of Dutch art. I could easily have spent more time in this area than we had to spend. It was so fascinating to see the many different types of things that were on display. That was one thing I loved about the Rijksmuseum. Even if you don’t care for paintings, there is something here that will interest you.
Also on the ground floor is the newly added Asian pavilion where I got a little taste of my past looking over their collection of sculptures and cultural elements from China, India, Japan, and various other Asian countries. One of my favorites was the bronze sculpture above of Shiva in his manifestation as Nataraja, the King of Dancers.
I have a hard time imagining spending seven days touring this place, but I can certainly see why many people recommend you allot an entire day to exploring the Rijksmuseum. With over 8,000 items on display and a newly renovated interior, if I were to recommend just one museum to visit in Amsterdam, this one would be it. (If you’ve got time for two, the Van Gogh Museum is also great!) Admission for adults is a bit pricey at €15, but children under 19 are allowed in for free.
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