Four centuries after the Golden Age, a period of prosperity and artistic achievement that transformed Amsterdam from a fishing village into a wealthy hub of international trade, this delightful city is in the middle of a new renaissance. Amsterdam is built on a manageable scale; walking and biking along the famous canals are ideal ways to view the 17th-century gabled merchants’ houses, as well as to visit the many flower markets, cafés and secondhand bookstores. Glass-topped boat trips and (if the winter gets cold enough) ice skating along the waterways offer other perspectives, especially at night, when many of the city’s bridges are illuminated.
Three of the world’s greatest museums are found on the Museumplein, a grassy open space in Amsterdam-Zuid (Amsterdam South). The Rijksmuseum has a superb collection of Rembrandts, Vermeers, Halses and Steens. Highlights of the museum include Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul” and “The Night Watch.” The much-loved Van Gogh Museum contains 200 paintings and 400 drawings, the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work. Major works found here include “Sunflowers,” “Bedroom in Arles” and “Wheatfield With Crows” (thought by some to be Van Gogh’s last painting). Another remarkable venue is the Stedelijk Museum, which contains an outstanding collection of contemporary art and design. It features virtually the entire pantheon of modernist greats, including artists such as Kandinsky, Chagall, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Malevich, Pollock, Warhol, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns and Lichtenstein. And within the old center, Russia’s most famous museum has opened a branch, the Hermitage Amsterdam, which hosts notable temporary exhibitions.
Holland is a major cheese producer, and not long ago a Dutch cheese, Vermeer, won first prize at the prestigious World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin. Gouda and Edam are well-known, but the country produces a variety of other excellent cheeses, including Bleu de Wolvega (a soft, spicy Frisian blue), Reypenaer V.S.O.P. (an aged Gouda), commissiekaas (a mature Edam colored with carotene) and Boeren-Leidse met sleutels (a cumin-spiced cheese from the Leiden area). Look for them in restaurants or track them down at De Kaaskamer van Amsterdam, the best cheese shop in the city.
The Netherlands makes its own delicious version of gin called jenever. I recommend stopping at the thoroughly charming distillery-owned pub Proeflokaal A. van Wees for a tasting, perhaps accompanied by some wild boar bitterballen (croquettes).
A Magical Garden
Located 23 miles southwest of Amsterdam, the Keukenhof garden was formally established in 1949 by an association of Dutch bulb growers. Each year 7 million bulbs — including tulips, daffodils and hyacinths — are planted in the 79-acre garden. You can check the progress of the seasonal flowerings on the garden’s website. (The garden is open from late March to early May. Mid-April is usually the most spectacular time.)