How did it happen? Amsterdam is that rare city that hasn't been molested by real estate developers. There's no pell-mell loony growth. The city probably has more historic houses than any city in Europe. At least, 5,000 are gabled and protected by landmarks.
Amsterdam is a great strolling city where it's hard to get lost now that bi-lingual greeters are stationed on major street corners. Bikers are ubiquitous. Riders don't wear helmets, but they do obey the traffic signals, typical of a city where protocol and politeness count. Keep your schedule low key and never skip the chance for a café stop and the Dutch specialty, appelgebak (apple cake) and koffe verkeerd (Dutch-style milky coffee).
The newest museum in town is an Hermitage annex, which opens June 20 in a monumental 17th-century building that was once a nursing home. The debut exhibition, Russian Court Life, on view through January 31, 2010, depicts the pomp and circumstance of tsarist daily life. Set in the 19th century, a time when the royal court was at its most lavish and impressive, this show is huge with about 1800 exotic items borrowed from the St. Petersburg Hermitage.
One of the city's oldest museums, a so-called "hidden church," is in the Red Light District where you still see women in windows at night. The church is hidden as it was planned that way. In 1578, Amsterdam had its own velvet revolution protesting the harsh policies of Spanish King Philip II. The Protestants rebelled in a Calvinist coup and Catholic churches were closed and abandoned. The Calvinists had a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude and some Catholic churches were sequestered away, hiding in attics, probably with the authorities' knowledge.
The last remaining hidden church is housed in a 1664 rich merchant's house where you can still see how he impressed his clients in an opulent parlor. But well-hidden from visitors is a rickety staircase leading to a top- floor Catholic church with a beautiful altarpiece, an organ, and a chaplain's room with a cupboard bed. Mass may have been outlawed after what is commonly referred to as the 1578 "Alteration" when Catholics were forbidden to practice their religion in public, but this hidden church attracted the faithful and is still used on occasion.
The Stedelijk (scheduled to reopen Spring 2010), the Rijksmuseum, and the Van Gogh (above), are "the big three," Dutch museums, all on the beaten track. But take a breather from the tried and true, and check out the Amsterdam Historical Museum. A visit here will give you some idea of how the city grew since its founding in 1250. A small gem is the birds-eye view of the city painted in 1538 where you can see several recognizable landmarks.
What's amazing is how much hasn't changed, how much has been preserved and cared for, in fact cherished. The Dutch have a proud history and you sense it most acutely in this museum. Add to that some terrific old master paintings from before 1800 in a special show that will run until August 9. The standout is Rembrandt's 1656 "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deyman."
Another option on the road less traveled is the charmer, the Museum of Bags and Purses (above) — it may sound like a loser, but it's worthwhile if only for the 1664 building, two impressive period rooms, and a collection of some 3,500 bags, purses, and suitcases. The diverse collection features everything form 17th-century alms purses to Jugenstil and Art Deco evening clutches as well as all the usual suspects — Hermes, Fendi, Gucci and many more.
For up-to-the-minute city guides crammed with useful stuff, check out The Rough Guide to Amsterdam and the DK Eyewitness Travel Amsterdam.
SIDE TRIP TO LEIDEN
About an hour from Amsterdam by bus or train is the tiniest and one of the most fascinating museums in the Netherlands, the mini-three room Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. In fact, it is so small that if you plan to visit in a group with more than ten people, you had best write to the director, Dr. Jeremy Bangs (firstname.lastname@example.org) in advance. Bangs, an American scholar who has lived in Leiden for more than 30 years, is the founder and director of the museum which he established in a 14th-century house and annex next door.
The house, lit only by candlelight and faint sunlight as it passes through heavy leaded glass windows, features a 16th-century cupboard, toys, buckles, cooking utensils, and furniture of the period.
What is most enthralling are the books and maps the Pilgrims amassed in Leiden around 1610 before their epic 1620 journey on the Mayflower. According to Bangs, the Pilgrims (Calvinist dissenters from the Anglican Church) fled religious persecution in England and requested permission to live in Leiden, a town in great need of foreign workers. Almost half the population had died from starvation and epidemics in the Spanish siege of the city in 1574 and weavers were needed for the city's cloth industry. The Pilgrims left Leiden almost a dozen years later as they feared both war and assimilation. Their formative years in the Netherlands at a time when the Dutch were the most tolerant nation in Europe, became the source for many legal and social precedents in the New World.