After a 10-year refurbishment, Amsterdam's museum has reopened greater and grander than ever, writes Nick Trend.
It has been a decade-long wait, but the restoration of Amsterdam's great Rijksmuseum of art and culture is finally complete. Home to some of the greatest and most famous works of Dutch art - from Vermeer's tiny, highly focused study The Milkmaid, to Rembrandt's epic portrait, The Night Watch, the collection is enormous. It spans more than 8000 paintings and objets d'art in more than 100 rooms and galleries.
It's easy to be daunted by cultural overload, so here is my advice on how to avoid the crowds and make the best of a visit.
Why is it there?
Like most of continental Europe's great museums, the Rijksmuseum has at its core a Royal collection. These 200 paintings and artefacts were first displayed publicly in a national museum of culture situated in the Hague in 1800.
The collection was moved to Amsterdam eight years later and steadily expanded through donations and acquisitions, so that a new building was commissioned from the architect Pierre Cuypers. It opened in 1885, and it is this spectacular neo-Gothic "cathedral" of culture that has been so meticulously restored and controversially expanded, with its new basement galleries now installed below the water table.
What does it contain?
The great highlights are the works from the Golden Age of Dutch art from about 1620 to 1680; the collection of paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen and de Hooch is rivalled only by the Mauritshuis in the Hague (which is currently closed for restoration). The other great age of Flemish art - the 14th to 16th centuries - is not so well represented, though there are beautiful works in those galleries.
The collection is not limited to paintings, however. Most of them have been set in the context of other arts and crafts - from luxury furniture with brilliant trompe l'oeil inlays to Delftware and porcelain, three extraordinary 17th-century dolls' houses (for adults, not children), and even the finds from a Dutch ship that was stranded on a Russian island in 1596, including the crew's leather shoes, tools, wooden buckets and musical instruments.
It's rather a shame, perhaps, that the most famous paintings have been removed from this context into their own Gallery of Honour - especially as so many of them depict the interiors evoked in the adjacent galleries.
Finding your bearings
The museum is laid out over four floors, labelled from zero to three. However, the numerical ordering of the rooms does not reflect the chronological progression of the collection.
If you like to see things in the order in which they were made, you must start in the basement (the main entrance atrium is on this level, too) with the Middle Ages (rooms 0.1-0.6), then go up to the 17th-century rooms on the first floor (2.0-2.28), then down a floor and diagonally across the building and work your way around the ground floor through the 18th and 19th centuries (1.1-1.18).
Finally, if you want to see the (very limited) 20th-century collections, then you need to go up to the two top-floor galleries, which are accessed from the first floor. All clear?
Practically speaking, it is easier to use the first floor as your reference point: it connects the four corners of the museum and is the easiest way to move between the collections. At its heart is the Gallery of Honour, which focuses on The Night Watch and also holds most of the collection's famous paintings.
The new Asia Pavilion, which is an entirely separate structure from the main museum and holds a substantial collection from China, Indonesia, Japan, India, Thailand and Vietnam, is accessed by a passage from one corner of the entrance foyer.
Getting in This European spring and summer promises to be extremely busy. As well as the tourists, many Dutch people will doubtless want to rediscover their national museum. The quietest times - especially in the Gallery of Honour - are likely to be weekdays, first thing in the morning (from 9am), or the last two hours (3pm-5pm). Winter will obviously be quieter, too.
Just how much of a problem the queues for admission and pressure on the "highlights galleries" will be remains to be seen, but you can buy tickets online in advance at rijksmuseum.nl. They are not restricted to a particular day or time, so once you have the ticket you can decide when to go when you arrive in Amsterdam. It's worth noting that on May 1, the Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl), just across the park from the Rijksmuseum, also reopens after restoration.
Touring the collection
Guided tours are available daily in English on three themes - collection highlights, Golden Age, and the Rijksmuseum building - for €5 ($6) a person (on top of the entrance charge). Booking and full details are online.
There will also be a free app and a multimedia tour (€5), but neither was available for me to try. The catalogue has also yet to be published in English. Free high-speed wi-fi is available.
How much? Admission is a steep €15, making it one of the most expensive museums I can think of (the Louvre costs €11). Under-18s are free, but there is no concession for over-65s and, extraordinarily, none for students either.
Hours Open 365 days a year from 9am to 5pm.
Refreshments There is one main cafeteria in the entrance atrium - a good place to have a break if you are suffering from cultural overload.
More information See rijksmuseum.nl.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Amsterdam for about $2185 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Amsterdam (7hr 20min); see emirates.com. This fare allows you to fly via an Asian city and back from another European city. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for an accumulative stay of up to 90 days in a six-month period.
Staying there Canal House Hotel rooms with breakfast from €195 a night; see www.canalhouse.nl.
RIJKSMUSEUM: 10 UNMISSABLE ART WORKS
Anthonius Mor, Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham, c1560-65
Mor depicts the famous English merchant with his wife alongside in a companion portrait — it's brilliant realism that seems to leap off the gallery wall.
Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, c1608
About 40 years after Bruegel's famous winter scenes, Avercamp picked up the baton. This is one of his earliest and most successful — chock full of character and incident.
Rembrandt, Early Self Portrait, 1629
He was 22 and fascinated by contrasts between light and shade, and the way the subject appears to engage with the viewer.
Franz Hals, Wedding Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, c1622
This is all about wealth and status (note the sumptuous house in the background) but also an expansive and relaxed account of a couple at ease in their own skins.
Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642
Rembrandt's largest, most complex, most energised and most famous painting is the centrepiece of the museum.
Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c1660
Vermeer's only depiction of life "below stairs": a bare room with a basket, foot-warmer, bread and milk — the maid focused on the slight twist of movement in the thin stream pouring from the earthenware jug.
Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Women Beside a Linen Cupboard, 1663
A moment of virtuous domestic harmony, built on subtle contrasts between childhood and adulthood, work and play, painting and sculpture, and the interior and exterior worlds.
Jan Steen, The Merry Family, 1668
Steen's scenes of alcohol-fuelled merriment, underpinned with warnings about the dangers of profligacy, were as much a part of the Dutch Golden Age as Vermeer's dreamy girls and Rembrandt's formal portraits.
Jan Willem Pieneman, The Battle of Waterloo, 1824
The epic, if somewhat sanitised, canvas depicts the turning point of the battle, the moment Wellington, bathed in a shaft of sunlight, hears that the Prussians are coming. The future King William II, "Hero of Waterloo", lies wounded on a stretcher.
Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887
Van Gogh's new interest in colour and dramatic brushwork is clear in this work, which was painted in Paris after his first exposure to impressionism.