From a cycle tour leader to a bartender at a brown cafe, the people behind classic Amsterdam experiences share the lesser-known places that they love, far from the tourist crowds.
Pieter Roelofs, curator at the Rijksmuseum
The day job: It’s a busy afternoon in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. At one end of the vaulted hall, visitors gather around a large painting. On its canvas, another crowd is amassing: a patrol of guardsmen readying their arms, their vigilant faces peering out of the shadows. The picture is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and it’s the centrepiece of the museum, newly re-opened after a decade of renovation.
‘The building was conceived around this picture, the national icon at the high altar of the cathedral for the arts,’ explains Pieter Roelofs as he surveys the room. As curator of 17th-century Dutch painting, he is responsible for 3,500 works, the core of a collection spanning 800 years. ‘As an art lover interested in the Dutch Golden Age, this is the best place in the whole world to work,’ he says. Nearly half the rooms here bear the fruits of this period, when the Dutch republic ruled the waves and dominated global trade, its new bourgeois pouring wealth into the arts.
‘Imagine, there were 1½ million people here in the 17th century, and they must have created between six and 10 million paintings,’ says Pieter. ‘All in this tiny piece of land next to the sea.’
And what they created was revolutionary. ‘Art emerged where everything was worth depicting – even a girl standing in the corner of a kitchen pouring milk in a bowl,’ he says. ‘This way of making the everyday into something transcendent – it’s wonderful.’
The day off: When not at the Rijksmuseum, one of Roelof’s favourite places to visit is the Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, which throws a window on to history through one object in particular: the bag. The 4,000 or so in the museum form the largest collection in the world and include 500-year-old leather pouches, embroidered purses for carrying love letters, and even a cat-shaped handbag belonging to Hillary Clinton. The museum is almost an accident – its owner, Hendrikje Ivo, started collecting bags as a hobby – but Pieter thinks its collection is worthy of the Rijksmuseum. Naturally, he is drawn to the 17th-century bags, embellished with materials like pearls and silver. ‘They show how wealthy these people were in that short time span – it’s not without reason that we call it the Golden Age.’
A few streets away, the house of one prosperous family is preserved intact as the Museum Van Loon. Its rooms chronicle centuries of accumulated grandeur alongside decadent quirks like hidden libraries and false doors, installed when symmetry was all the rage. Outside, visitors are privy to the greenery often hidden behind the city’s façades, and can sip tea in formal gardens blossoming with roses. ‘You get the feeling of walking back in time,’ says Pieter. ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Amsterdam – we show all these high-quality artworks, but then you walk outside, and the canal band still looks like it did 400 years ago, and this house still gives you a glimpse into the past.’
Amsterdam’s rich heritage is only part of its cultural clout. ‘It’s not just an open-air museum – there’s so much more going on,’ explains Pieter. One place that’s fast become a fixture of his leisure time is the Westergasfabriek, a derelict gasworks on the edge of town that now hosts music, film, theatre and art. On a warm evening, people stream into a music festival, the thump of a bass line drifting over from a colossal gas cylinder; others sit with pizzas and pints outside the weathered buildings that house restaurants and galleries. The surrounding park is full of art, from the giant table and chairs where locals laze, to the canvases getting a spray paint from blue-caped students. Pieter clearly approves. ‘It’s great how one of the most polluted areas in Amsterdam has been transformed into its new cultural heart.’