I had the pleasure of being among the travel writers to submit nominations for Logo online’s TripOut Gay Travel Awards. My thanks to TripOut’s editor, John Polly, for including me on his “first-ever nominating academy.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he’d make of my suggestions—some of which probably went beyond quirky—but my nominations did make the top six (determined by a consensus tally of all the nominating academy members) in five of the eleven categories!
Here’s Logo’s press release: NEW YORK, NY August 19, 2009 – Logo, a unit of Viacom’s MTV Networks, announced today that TripOutGayTravel.com, its comprehensive travel site dedicated to the LGBT traveler and MTV Network’s first stand-alone, travel-focused site, will present its first ever “TripOut Gay Travel Awards.” The awards honor the most stylish, exciting and hottest destinations and services that attract, pamper and market to the LGBT traveler.”
So please have a look at the nominations and vote for your favorites—trust me, it’ll be more fun than a Facebook quiz.
Then, just for fun, I’m posting my complete nominations below:
Best Global Destination(country or city)
BUENOS AIRES With European flair and third world prices, Buenos Aires is the perfect recession getaway. Plenty of gay venues, gay marriage equality, plus good food, fun shopping, plentiful taxis… and cheaper than staying at home!
ISTANBUL A controversial choice I know, but the vibrant capital of this secular Muslim country is the perfect introduction to a largely misunderstood culture. While it’s a treasure trove of history and art, Istanbul is also a modern metropolis. Safe and friendly, it can be both luxurious and cheap, with a surprising diversity of gay venues. Plus, attractive Turkish men (straight) stroll arm in arm.
PARIS Arguably the most beautiful city in the world with great food, the great art, markets, fashion, parks, cafes— Paris is perhaps too obvious. But gay life is accepted and ubiquitous and the new Velib public bike system (one of the many initiatives by Paris’ gay mayor) makes club hopping effortless and fun. No more expensive taxis!
Best U.S. Destination (large or small city)
CALIFORNIA’S HIGHWAY 1 What’s more American than driving? And what drive in America is more fun than the winding, vertiginous, coast hugging Highway One. Leave glamorous Los Angeles and allow plenty of time for stops in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz. After a suitable stay in San Francisco, keep heading north. Be sure to rent a convertible.
ARE YOU KIDDING? My first thought on seeing this category. Flying (with it’s attendant security protocols; the hostile welcome of US immigration and customs; the seats designed for dwarves; and the extra charges for everything) is nothing more than the price we endure to get where we are going.
OK, Less bitchy:
AIR FRANCE/KLM For the unwavering professionalism of the staff, in an era when most airline employees (perhaps justly) seem to hate their jobs. Air France staff, in particular, have proved themselves helpful beyond my expectations time and again. And KLM has those charming souvenir “huisjes” as well as the world’s greatest airport.
EASYJET Yes, it’s a flying bus, but at least it’s cheap, cheap, cheap! Plus the use of smaller airports can take some of the strain off air travel.
FORGET FLYING: THE EUROPEAN HIGH SPEED RAIL NETWORK The expanding network of national and public/private high-speed trains allows travel to an ever increasing number of European destinations. It’s fast, it’s comfortable, it’s fun. That’s two out of three (and sometimes even three out of three) over air travel.
Best Hotel Chain (Collection)
HYATT I usually prefer local hotels over chains, but Hyatt has some great properties—from the luxurious Park Hyatt Buenos Aires to the Boutique Hyatt Madeleine Paris, to the Club floors at larger properties which give the feel and service of a boutique hotel. Count on comfortable, modern décor as opposed to frou-frou, and friendly staff that know when to be unobtrusive and yet are eager to be helpful beyond reason.
EBAB.de OK, it’s not a hotel chain nor even a hotel, but this German-based gay website of rooms-to-let in private apartments is a great option for gay travelers. Staying with friendly locals can save lots of cash, as well as providing personal recommendations on your destination. Great for solo travelers, the site has expanded to include completely private apartment accommodations as well.
Best LGBT Tour Operator
ANDREW BROAN at ALYSON ADVENTURES It’s all about the guide isn’t it? With two decades of travel experience, knowledgeable, unflappable, athletic and multilingual Andrew Broan is a perfect travel guide. A long time tour guide for Alyson Adventures, Andrew is an expert on France, Italy, Morocco, Vietnam, and cycling tours.
Best Annual Destination Party or Event (global)
AMSTERDAM GAY PRIDE Still one of the great gay parties. This three day event never really changes, but it brings together people from all over the world for a non-stop street party. The parade of boats is unique, and attracts not just an LGBT audience but is an event enjoyed by residents young and old, gay and straight, in this most gay-friendly of cities. Plus, it’s free. (First weekend in August)
Best Ultimate Luxury Hotel/Resort (global)
NONE Sad to say, I have not been wined and dined in quite this style. Now accepting invitations.
Best Breakout Destination (global)
CROATIA Croatia hasn’t gone gay all of sudden, but I’m sure it eventually will. In the meanwhile enjoy the relatively undiscovered Dalmatian coast. Croatia has natural beauty, Roman ruins, Italian inflected food, Adriatic beaches, and friendly and helpful natives. Driving is easy on newly built roads, but for the ultimate luxury, hire a yacht and sail the islands.
Sexiest Place on Earth (a destination? a city? an event? a neighborhood?)
LES PAVILLON DES LYS, Amboise What could be sexier than chef Sébastien Bégouin’s eight course prix fix menu in the garden of Les Pavillion des Lys as the spring sun sets behind the Château d’Amboise? It’s three star food at a no star price with a fairy tale setting. Have I confused eating with sex again? Should I mention there are also seven inexpensive but luxurious bedrooms upstairs?
Best Gay Bar in the World!
HUB Tuscany It’s really hard to find. It’s accessible only by car. It’s off a middle-of-nowhere country road between Pisa and Lucca. It’s open only on Saturday nights from October to April. But surprisingly, this is the largest and possibly the most fun club in gay-venue starved Italy. With multiple dance-floors, a huge outdoor area and a naughty men-only room, it’s packed all night long with Italian boys and girls who’ve driven great distances to party all night. As the guidebooks might say “worth a detour.” (www.hub.fm)
AND FINALLY… The Gay+ Award for Achievement in Making our World Gayer! (this goes to a person, or company, or a city; fun in tone, but goes to a truly deserving recipient)
THE AMAZING RACE As a travel-themed reality television program seen by millions, The Amazing Race deserves credit for consistently featuring gay participants and presenting them with respect, equality, and a refreshing lack of exploitation. It’s a show that depicts gays as individuals: a diverse group of partners, family members and friends rather than stereotypes.
Turmoil in the financial markets and a sky-high exchange rate for the dollar against the Euro may have you reconsidering that trip to Europe. A hotel room at 200 Euros is a lot less attractive when it appears on your credit card at 300 dollars or more, and dinner is not so appetizing when you realize the bill may be fifty percent higher when converted into dollars. It can’t be denied that the dollar/euro exchange rate was the worst it’s ever been in 2008, and though it’s impossible to predict the future, 2009 will probably not see much improvement. But before you give up and stay home, let’s consider how you can visit Amsterdam—the self proclaimed “gay capitol of Europe,” and one of worlds most popular destinations for gay and lesbian visitors, without breaking the bank.
Good news and some bad news…
First the bad: Amsterdam will never be as cheap as it once was. Since the introduction of the Euro, prices have steadily risen, and hotel rooms especially, have pretty much doubled in price. Even the locals complain about the increased cost of everything from beer to transportation. Add the poor exchange rate, and it’s even worse for American visitors. The good news is that Amsterdam is still a bargain for a world city, and you can spend far less there than in Paris, London, or even high-priced American destinations such as New York City or Los Angeles. So Google yourself a cheap airfare to Amsterdam’s beautifully organized Schiphol airport and, armed with these money saving tips, prepare for great time…on a budget.
Start saving the minute you arrive
Thanks to a train station smack in the middle of Schiphol airport, getting into Amsterdam (or any other city in the Netherlands) is fast, cheap, and easy. Hit one of the plentiful ATM machines (Geldautomat) — they even have them in the baggage claim area—then buy a train ticket to Amsterdam Centraal and a tram pass (the tourist confusing strippenkaart is currently being phased out in favor of an electronic pass). Avoid taxis if you can—they are among the most expensive in Europe, and frequently get stuck in traffic on the tiny cobbled streets of the city center. And do you need to be told that renting a car, or bringing one into the center of Amsterdam is not only expensive—it’s insane?
Once in the city, you’ll never need a taxi. Amsterdam’s small size makes it ideal for exploring on foot. Should you wish to travel to some of the more interesting areas outside the center, or are just not up to walking, the trams are extensive, frequent and run until about 1 a.m. I used to suggest that every visitor to Amsterdam rent a bicycle. The bicycle is the most common form of transportation in the city, and riding one among the trams, cars, pedestrians, and other bikes, is far less intimidating than it seems, and you can cross the city in minutes— particularly useful when coming home after a late night out. However, with bike rentals now running an average of 10 Euros a day, only rent one if you a really going to use it a lot, or if you are staying outside the central canal ring. Otherwise jsut take one for a day, to explore the Vondelpark, the trendy Eastern docklands, or the hip area of de Pijp.
Tip: when renting a bike, avoid the big rental agencies (MacBike, Yellowbike) with their prominently displayed logos, and look like a native with an unadorned “fiets”. Try the friendly folks at Frédéric Rent a Bike —but most any bicycle shop will also have a few bikes to rent.
Tip: Always buy a tram pass (or strippenkaart, if they are still in use) in advance from newsstands or supermarkets. A single ticket bought onboard is significantly more expensive.
A hotel room is likely to be your biggest single expense in Amsterdam. Fortunately there are a variety of accommodations, as there are a great many small hotels ranging from basic to ultra-luxury. However, the best solution may be to skip the hotel and rent an apartment. You will get more space and privacy for the same price, and if you need two rooms you’ll definitely save money over a hotel. Many well-located apartments can be found in the 100 Euro a night range. The gay online agency EBAB.com offers a number of private apartments in Amsterdam, as well as private rooms (generally under 50 Euros) in the homes of local gays—a great budget option for singles or couples. As the apartments and rooms are owned by gay locals, you can get personal, up-to-date advice and recommendations as well. Another good (non-gay) source of apartment rentals is VRBO.com, offering many more listings.
Amsterdam has quite a few gay male and gay/lesbian hotels (though every hotel is gay friendly!), and all are in the budget to moderate range. Amsterdam’s first gay hotel, The Golden Bear welcomes gay men and women (though the clientele tends to be mostly male) offering both reasonably priced rooms with private baths and bargain rooms with shared facilities. Both the staff and fellow guests tend to be quite convivial. Despite (or perhaps because of) a sign warning that there is a fine for watersports in the bed as well as a fine for smoking in the rooms, the hotel is clean and comfortable, if basic. Located on the Kerkstraat, it’s an easy walk to everything. The Amsistad, across the street is pricier, and Anco, while cheap, is on the chaotic Warmoestraat and caters to a mainly leather crowd. For a complete list of gay hotels (and everything else gay in Amsterdam) pick up the a copy of The Bent Guide—absolutely the best, and most entertaining, gay guide to Amsterdam; it’s published by pinkpoint.org, who also operate a shop and information kiosk adjacent the Homomonument. The guide is available on Amazon.com if not your local bookshop.
OK, you’re on a budget, but you just have to have a touch of luxury and style when you go back to your room. The boutique Hotel Ambassade, in a row of 17th century canal houses in a perfect location on the Herengracht, offers the luxury and service you’d expect in a 5 star hotel at a half to a third of the price—it’s a personal favorite. Stylish and hip, the relatively new Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy is a favorite of artists, designers and fashionistas. Each of the 117 rooms in the fully renovated 19th century building is unique—and the rooms range from one star with shared baths to spacious five star suites. You can live it up in luxury, or stay in a budget room on the down low. Whichever you choose, there’s a lively restaurant, bar and terrace, lending library, and free performances and cultural events on site. Best of all, the hip ambiance is delightfully attitude free, with some of the friendliest and most helpful staff you are likely to find in Amsterdam. It’s a bit outside the center, in the new Eastern Docklands district, and though two tramlines will take you to the city center, you’ll want a bike for late night pub crawls.
Tip: Variety of accommodation does not mean quantity. It is best to book as far in advance as possible, unless you are visiting in the dead of winter. For Queen’s Day (April 30) and Gay Pride (first weekend of August) it is essential.
Eat like locals, eat cheap
Amsterdam, somewhat unfairly, is not generally regarded as a foodie destination. It is, however a city of fine restaurants: Borderwijk, Le Garage, Bond, Christophe, Utrechtsedwarstafel, and a slew of others offer gastronomic delights at corresponding prices. Indulge if you will, but be prepared for the check.
Fortunately, Amsterdam’s reputation for quirkiness means you can have a fine dining experience at a budget price. Would you believe a non-profit restaurant? One of the hottest tickets in town is Restaurant Freud. Operated by a social service agency (and overseen by two restaurateurs) this stylish storefront restaurant near the Westerpark is staffed entirely by persons with psychological difficulties who are transitioning back into the workforce. That said, the service is professional and friendly, the Mediterranean food consistently delicious and any problems are deftly kept behind the scenes by dedicated social workers overseeing the operation. It’s become so popular with locals (their website, unusually for Amsterdam, doesn’t even have an English translation) that reservations are essential. Also recommended is ROC Elements, a beautiful restaurant staffed entirely by culinary students, and offering a four course menu for 25 Euros. Choice is limited to two options per course, and the ambitious preparations can range from outstanding to occasionally mediocre, but the ambiance is great, the service is better than many professionally staffed restaurants, and it’s a bargain for what you get. One caveat: you must arrive by 7:30, with reservations.
Limited menu options are not uncommon in Amsterdam (another local quirk), and restaurants so structured can be a bargain. A favorite is Café Bern, where the thing to order is cheese fondue—it’s delicious, and with a salad and house wine, dinner is about 20 Euros. The best bargain for steak in town may be L’ Entrecote et les Dames— entrecote with pommes frites is all they serve, cooked perfectly to order, sliced, and preceded by a delicious salad of butter lettuce and walnuts. Shockingly, once you’ve cleaned your plate, the waiter passes by with a platter offering you seconds. All this for 22 Euros, plus there’s a choice of reasonably priced wines—they bring a bottle and charge you for only as much as you drink. And in all price ranges, wines are in general a much better value than in the And in all price ranges, wine with any meal is a much better value than in the U.S.
An even better way to save money is to forego a meal and just snack. Most bars offer a range of inexpensive, typically Dutch snacks. Order a beer (or a soft drink, though they’re the same price) and an order of bitterballen (a traditional deep fried mystery snack) or a tosti (a grilled cheese or ham and cheese sandwich.) You’ll be filled up for a few Euros and you can stake out your table for as long as you want to read, write postcards, or people watch. Most brown cafes will have snacks, but a nice option is the modern Spanjer & Van Twist, with outdoor tables lined up along the picturesque Leliegracht.
Self-serve is not really a Dutch concept, but two relatively new cafeteria-style cafes—both with great views—offer an opportunity for an inexpensive lunch or snack. One is on the roof of the Bijenkorf department store on Dam Square, and the other is operated by a department store as well, Vroom & Dressman, but is located on the top floor of the new ultra-modern public library—the Openbare Bibliotheek—next to Centraal Station. For a snack on the run, try a cone of the best frites in Amsterdam, with mayonnaise (or ketchup if you must) at the Vlaams Friethaus. And for a very filling meal for less than five Euros, you can’t beat the Falafel at Moaz, at various locations around the city.
Tip: Make reservations for restaurants. Eat your snacks early. Dining and snacking options are extremely limited after 10pm.
Tip: If you do want to hit the city’s top restaurants, try to come during Restaurant Week—the next one is March 2-8, 2009—where the city’s finest restaurants charge only 25 Euros for a three course dinner. Reservations advised well in advance at restaurntweek.nl.
Tip: Restaurant week is sponsored by diningcity.nl (a kind of Dutch version of opentable.com) an easy way to make reservations online, as well as find information on restaurants.
Tip: Taxes and service are included in the price you see on the menu. It’s nice to leave a small gratuity of about 5% in cash (even when paying by credit card, tip in cash), but this is not required. And note: you will never get your bill until you ask for it.
Nightlife: follow the crowds, follow the bargains
It’s time to celebrate: a night on the town in Amsterdam is likely to cost less than any big city in Europe or the US. Drinks (meaning beer) are cheap, bars don’t have cover charges, and at the few clubs that do, they are minimal. (The exception being the occasional big bash—circuit parties or leather parties or gay pride weekend parties.) Amsterdam boasts a huge number of gay venues—some of the most interesting clubs (Unk, Spellbound, Trash) only happen once a month, once every two months or even more erratically. There are dozens of gay bars that are open every night, though you’re likely to find many of them empty. No matter, everything is close enough that you check them all out. And once you find a crowd—you’re likely to find a drink special as well! One of the most popular is the Sunday “happy hour” from 6 to 8 pm at the Soho bar, where the very happy crowd spills out into the Reguliersdwarstraat. You can find people here most any night too, as well as at the adjacent, and trendier, ARC.
You’ll also usually find a sociable, if older, crowd at the three adjacent bars on the Zeedijk—the long running Queen’s Head, the Barderij, and newcomer De Engel, which has a popular canal-side terrace.
A few other bars deserve mention, particularly the new and quite popular Prik, which has a relaxed and friendly ambiance. The Café t’Leeuwtje is notable as one of the only gay bars to stock a wide range of delicious Belgian Trappist beers; bring a friend though, as they have yet to find much of a following. For women, one of the few Lesbian bars remains the popular Saarein II in the Jordaan.
After midnight, there’s dancing on the Reguliersdwarsrtraat at the Exit, or at the campy (and cover free) Montmartre nearby and a bit later at the men-only Cockring—which features a popular darkroom in addition to two dance floors. If you want cruising without the dancing, the Eagle, the Argos, and the rather shabby Dirty Dicks are all within spitting distance of the Cockring on the narrow Warmoesstraat…but don’t plan on going until well after midnight. Still going strong, the all-volunteer Sunday night queer dance club de Trut offers a fun vibe, the cheapest drinks in the city, and a very young crowd. You have to get here early for a change—the line starts forming at 10 for the 11pm opening.
All bars in Amsterdam are now smoke free—which is definitely giving an advantage to venues with an outdoor area. I’m not sure how people will adapt in the colder months, but my highly subjective observation is that bars are already less crowded. But at least you will save money on laundry.
Tip: Don’t! Bartenders don’t expect it and the Dutch don’t do it. Leave some small change if you really like the bartender. Only Americans leave Euros as tips.
Tip: Drink beer (just ask for a beirtje.) Mixed drinks are expensive and anything more complicated than a gin and tonic is impossible outside the trendiest bars (the ARC comes singularly to mind.) A Dutch happy hour is two drinks for the price of one, so this is the best time to satisfy your desire for strong alcohol should you tire of beer.
Tip: for special events, clubs and happenings and locations, see amsterdam4gays.com (the official city gay website!) and gayamsterdam.com from the publishers of the Amsterdam gay map—which you should pick up at the first gay establishment you enter. Also refer to The Bent Guide—and their online updates at pinkpoint.org.
The Frugal Tourist
Some of the greatest pleasures of Amsterdam are free—or nearly so, and enjoyed by visitors and residents alike. Amsterdam is not a city of monuments, but with its picturesque canals and 17th century brick canal houses the entire city is an attraction that can be explored for free. Walk! Stroll the charming canals, the famous red-light district (still somewhat seedy despite the government encouraged incursion of trendy shops and cafes), and the narrow streets of the Jordaan. Also include a few less touristy spots—like the funky and bustling 19th century quarter known as de Pijp and the ultra modern architecture of the fashionable Eastern Docklands development. Along the way you’ll have numerous opportunities for window shopping—Dutch designers, art galleries, and antique shops are everywhere. And you’ll still find lots of quirky stores selling cast-offs, used books, and oddities at prices that just might entice you to buy. You’ll also find plenty of inexpensive cafes, where for the price of a drink you can linger as long as you want (and sometimes longer, given the city’s notoriously inattentive service) watching the passing parade of people, boats, and bikes. Try peeking (politely) into some of the city’s private gardens, particularly in the Jordaan area, and don’t miss the lovely Beguinehof, a cloistered garden with two churches; it’s just off the bustling Kalverstraat shopping street. If the weather is sunny, do what everyone else will be doing—take a picnic and drinks to the Vondelpark. Gays tend to congregate between the rose garden and the lake.
Make a pilgrimage to the Homomonument, dedicated to gay victims of the holocaust, adjacent the magnificent Westerkerk. You’ll also find the Pink Point kiosk here—a great source of information about all things gay in Amsterdam, and a good spot to load up on tacky gay souvenirs for friends back home. Also stop by the Amsterdam Tourist Office (opposite central station) to load up on free goodies—maps, museum guides, and a wealth of information about Amsterdam’s attractions.
Street markets are an Amsterdam institution. While the daily flea market at the Waterlooplein has been disappointing for years, the Friday book market on the Spui is interesting for everything from cheap English paperbacks to old postcards and prints. Monday mornings bring the “Antique Market” to the Nordermarkt—the fact that there are few real antiques means that some rooting around might net you a few inexpensive doo-dads. The bustling Albert Cuypstraat market is mostly food, clothing and household items; geared towards locals, it’s a good place to pick up any essentials you may need, and a great place to see multi-cultural Amsterdam.
You can spend weeks in Amsterdam’s museums—everything from the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh and the Anne Frank House to the esoterica of the Energy Museum and the Handbag Museum. Museums aren’t cheap though, and admission costs can quickly mount. If you plan to visit three or more museums, it pays to buy a Museum Jaarkaart. Designed for residents, this card will get you into most every museum (The Anne Frank House being the exception) in the country, is valid for one year—and costs just 40 Euros. You can purchase it at any of the bigger museums. If you are in Amsterdam for only three days, and plan to see as much as possible, the I Amsterdam card (available at the tourist office) might be a better option, in that it includes a tram pass and a canal boat ride along with museum entries. It’s 53 Euros though—and if it were good for a week, I’d probably recommend it over the jaarkaart. Card or no, the accompanying website, IAmsterdam.com, is the go to site for up-to-date happenings in the city.
And even if you don’t by the I Amsterdam card, or spend much time visiting museums, do spend the 15 Euros on a canal boat tour. Yes, it’s touristy, the recorded voice narration is tacky, but the view of the city from the water is worth it. Look for a boat with an open deck—the view is much better. Of course, should you manage to make friends with someone who has a private boat…so much the better!
Amsterdam is also a city of theatre and music. There’s opera, the world famous Concert Gebouw for classical and modern music, and the almost as famous Melkweg for rock music as well as the more intimate Paradiso. While Opera tickets or a Madonna concert at the Amsterdam Arena will set you back plenty, there are real bargains to be had. You can find out everything that’s on during your visit—and buy tickets—at the AUB (Amsterdams Uitburo) shop on the Leidseplein. Your best bet—American and British indy bands frequently perform at the Melkweg and Paradiso (both great, intimate venues) at lower than U.S. prices. And even better—tickets to any non sold-out performance in the city can be had for half-price the day of the event at the Half-Price Tickets shop adjacent the AUB.
If you have extra time in Amsterdam, consider leaving the city for a day. The historic cities of Haarlem and Utrecht are less than a half-hour away by train, and Rotterdam and Den Haag, with great museums and architecture can be reached in an hour. The roundtrip day ticket (dagretour) is inexpensive, and the trains are so frequent you don’t even need to look up the schedules (though you can, at ns.nl). Also, your Amsterdam tram ticket is good in any Dutch city, as is the museum jaarkaart.
So why wait? It’s still a great time to visit Amsterdam.
—by Clay Doyle
Clay Doyle, a designer and writer based in Los Angeles, lived in Amsterdam from 1998 to 2003.
Clay Doyle writes about museums in Amsterdam and beyond…including the Holland art cities of Utrecht, Rotterdam and Den Haag…in his first article for Logo online. See the story and a slide show of his photos at
Mention Holland and the names Rembrandt and Van Gogh come instantly to mind; but the Netherlands has been famous as an art center for nearly as long as it has been populated. Dig a little deeper and find impressive collections of Medieval religious art, Golden Age masters such as Vermeer and Steen; the modernism of Mondrian and 20th century Dutch designers plus a dynamic contemporary art seen as represented by artists like the innovative photographer and video artist Anneke Dijkstra. And now, and for the next two years, is an especially rewarding time to explore not only art in Amsterdam, but museums in the nearby cities of Den Haag, Utrecht and Rotterdam—all easily accessible in this compact nation with excellent and train and tram connections.
Amsterdam: extreme makeover—museum edition.
The coming year promises to be especially significant for art lovers as two major museums open and reopen in Amsterdam. Come late spring, St. Petersburg’s famed Hermitage Museum will open a major annex in the Dutch capitol, in a sprawling, historic and magnificently renovated 17th home for the elderly on the Herengracht. With changing exhibitions drawn from the vast Hermitage collection of Old Master and early modernist works, this museum will add additional depth and significant breadth to Amsterdam’s already impressive art collections.
Then, at the end of 2009, the Stedelijk, the country’s major museum for modern and contemporary art, re-opens on the Amsterdam Museumplien. The permanent collection, encompassing 20th century masterpieces representing artists from Moscow to Berlin to Paris to Los Angeles will again be on display. The museums 19th century building is being completely renovated and restored, and new wing (already dubbed by locals as “the bathtub” for obvious visual reasons) will double the museum’s space. Expect serious installations of major contemporary artists—major retrospectives of Mike Kelly and Francis Alÿs have been announced—in its expanded quarters.
But What About the Rijksmuseum?
In every make-over, a few glitches are to be expected. Unfortunately, the biggest glitch affects the Netherlands’s crown jewel, Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. Closed in 2003 for a major restoration and re-imagining that will bring much needed focus, light, and grand public spaces to the historic building, the museum was slated to reopen in 2010. Construction and financial complications have delayed the already lengthy project until at least 2013, so while the end result should prove spectacular (models and plans are on display), don’t expect to see it anytime soon.
What to see now
The good news is that the Rijksmuseum is not (as banners on all sides of the building loudly proclaim) really closed: the most famous works are on exhibit in a previously renovated wing. For the casual visitor, this abbreviated Rijksmuseum may actually be an improvement. The installation is beautifully conceived, hung, and lit, and many of the works look better (and are certainly easier to find) than in the old museum. Presented as tour through the Golden Age of Dutch art, the most significant paintings (Vermeer, Steen, Saenredam), sculpture (Adrian de Vries) and decorative arts, culminating of course in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, are magnificently showcased.
Next door, the Van Gogh museum, having undergone its renovation and expansion in the 1990’s, is fully open and ranks as one of the country’s most visited museums. With the largest collection of Van Gogh in the world (over two hundred of his 900 paintings and almost half of his 1100 drawings—an impressive output for an artist whose career spanned a brief ten years.) No matter how often you visit, there are always surprises in store. The museum also continues to expand its collection of impressionist and salon paintings by Van Gogh’s contemporaries, and mounts very impressive temporary exhibitions.
Two small but significant museums devoted to photography also deserve mention: The Huis Marseilles and FOAM Amsterdam, both in historic canal houses on the Keizersgracht, present constantly changing exhibitions of both vintage and contemporary photographers. And the CoBrA museum (technically in the nearby suburb of Amstelveen),devoted to major works by the mid-century CoBrA group and Dutch contemporaries, also mounts provocative temporary shows—such as a recent international retrospective of gay artists.
Beyond Amsterdam: Art in Depth
Can’t get enough of Van Gogh? The second largest collection of his works is also conveniently enough in the Netherlands. Take a day trip to the Kröller-Müller museum, located in the Netherlands largest national park (the impossible to pronounce Hoge Veluwe.) After you’ve toured the gem of a museum, you can use the free bicycles to explore the nature preserve—this being the Netherlands, the largest national park is conveniently compact. It’s easy enough to do in day by rail and bus from Amsterdam, but should you want to extend your stay, there are convenient and reasonably priced hotels just outside the gate in Oterloo.
Did you love the mini-Rijksmuseum but find yourself craving more? Head to the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, a former miniature Palace in Den Haag with an impressive collection of Golden Age painting. You’ll find Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring (of book and movie fame), allegorical paintings by Rembrandt, genre paintings by Jan Steen, and plenty of those intricately detailed 17th century flower paintings. The free audio tour is excellent.
Or head to picturesque Utrecht, where the Museum Catherijneconvent houses the Netherlands’s largest collection of medieval art, artifacts and manuscripts in an historic converted convent. While there, you can also take a self-guided, and free, tour of Utrecht’s many historic churches and stroll the uniquely picturesque canals. Finally, in Rotterdam, The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen offers another chronological and thematic course (literally, through a grand progression of small rooms in a beautifully restored 1930’s museum) in Dutch art and design from the Medieval—pride of place goes to Pieter Breugel’s Tower of Babel—through the 20th century.
Beyond Amsterdam: Modern and Contemporary
Prefer modern art? 20th century Dutch design? Sometimes startling contemporary installations? The Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag has a bit of everything, but four things stand out. First is the building itself, an outstanding example of 1930s modernism designed by the iconic Dutch architect H. P. Berlage. Next is the worlds largest collection of works by Piet Mondrian, tracing his development from landscape painter to his famous grid paintings, including his last great (and unfinished) work, Victory Boogie Woogie; There is an impressive amount of space devoted to temporary exhibitions, with a focus on Dutch Design and contemporary artists; and finally, the basement is given over to what the museum calls the Wonder Kamers: a non-thematic, non-linear and often interactive presentation of varied works from the museums vast collection that really does defy description.
The Centraal Museum Utrecht is another museum with a comprehensive collection that also puts an emphasis on contemporary installations—mixed with 16th century Utrecht painters and an impressive collection of 20th century design in a varied collection of buildings that even includes a Gothic chapel re-imagined as exhibition space. Don’t miss the building across the courtyard devoted to 20th century Dutch architecture and design.
Rotterdam is the place to see contemporary art and large scale installations by contemporary artists—not unsurprisingly, as Rotterdam is the Netherlands most modern city, a conscious decision made after the bombing of its historic center in 1940. The Kunsthal, an early and yet iconic building by architect Rem Koolhaus is devoted entirely to temporary installations. While it has hosted exhibitions by Dutch impressionist Isaac Isreals and printmaker M.C. Escher, many of the constantly changing installations feature cutting edge artists and themes—2009 will bring, among 25 diverse programs, Culture and Confrontation, featuring international works by Christian Boltanski, Jeff Wall, and a slew of emerging artists. Likewise, the nearby Museum Boijmans van Beuningen has an entire building devoted to changing contemporary exhibitions.
Exhibitions 2008-2010: Holland Museum Cities
So many temporary and changing exhibitions could be confusing, But the cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Den Haag and Rotterdam have put together a nifty program (website included) to promote their combined exhibitions from the end of 2008 through 2010. The Holland Art Cities program is centered around three themes drawing on the strength of Dutch collections: International Influences, Modern and Contemporary Art, and Dutch Masters—and will encompass special exhibitions at ten major museums.
Can I Really Get there from Amsterdam?
Travel between the cities is remarkably easy, as direct trains are frequent and fast, and the tram system is national, so you can use the same tram tickets you bought in Amsterdam in any city in the Netherlands. (The country is currently transitioning from the tourist-confusing strippenkaart tram ticket, to a rechargeable smartcard system). You can easily travel from Amsterdam to Den Haag, for example, in the time it takes to cross central London by tube.
Museums are also national, and museum enthusiasts should buy a forty Euro Museum Jaarkart, which will get you into most museums, saving plenty of money over the separate 10 euro average admission costs (the card, design for locals, is good for an entire year, but can easily pay for itself in few days, and will also let you jump the ticket queue.) Check for museum hours and closing days (usually Monday) though Amsterdam’s major museums are open every day. Also check for late opening days as museums are less crowded in the evenings. Some, like the Van Gogh’s late Friday evenings, even offer special programs and free tours.
Amsterdam: Beyond Art
Amsterdam of course is a city of museums that encompass far more than art and range from the profound to the absurd. The most profound is of course the Anne Frank house—go very early or very late to avoid the crowds. A good companion museum is the Verzetsmuseum, or Resistance Museum, a well presented history of the Netherlands during the WWII occupation. The Amsterdams Historich museum presents an exhaustive history of the city (perhaps too exhaustive) though temporary exhibits, which narrow the focus to such things as the history of prostitution, or homosexuality, can be quite entertaining. There are also house museums, church museums, a botanical garden, an energy museum, tram museum, tulip museum, houseboat museum and most recently a museum of handbags and purses. Make your choices based on your interests, but beware, even stoners have little positive to say about the hemp museum and sex museum.