Where to See the Best Art in Amsterdam

The Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk and the Van Gogh Museum are arguably the city's most famous cultural institutions, but there's so much more to see.

A tree-lined canal in Amsterdam
One of the city’s famous canals. Nick Hilden

Amsterdam is an almost bafflingly charming city. On one hand, its tourist hordes often swell to such a terrible degree that it seems like it should be impossible to enjoy its abundant delights. On the other, it’s Amsterdam, and what with the scenic canals, delightful food and drink, well-organized infrastructure, supreme walkability, efficient metro, scattershot street art and plentitude of bicycles—let’s just say there’s a vibe. A Dutch vibe. Even in the 21st Century, Amsterdam feels like walking through a Vermeer.

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Speaking of which, just south of Amsterdam’s central spiderweb of canals is a neighborhood called Museumkwartier at the heart of which is the Museumplein—a grassy public square surrounded by (as you may have surmised) the city’s largest and best-known museums. This convenient cluster of cultural offerings makes it easy to experience the city’s most renowned artworks, but while it will and should take up much of your time and focus, there are exciting art opportunities beyond this aptly named plaza that are well worth the extra effort necessary to reach them.

For our purposes, we’ll start at the city’s main core of museums, then work our way further out from there, eventually taking a train an hour south to the Hague. Too many visitors to Amsterdam neglect a jaunt to Den Haag, but in doing so they miss not only some incredible art but also the laid-back repose of the smaller, more tranquil city—a restful place aside from the busy capital.

The exterior of a museum with a statue of two people out front
The Rijksmuseum. Nick Hilden

Without a doubt, Amsterdam’s most famed art museums are the Rijksmuseum (classic art), the Stedelijk (modern art) and the Van Gogh Museum (self-evident).

The Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands, and in its looming palatial quarters, it certainly looks the part. Here you’ll find some of the most renowned artworks the country has ever produced. The standouts are arguably the two grand Rembrandt masterpieces The Night Watch and The Sampling Officials as well as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, but these are just the most illustrious of the vast collection of masterworks from the Dutch Golden Age. The building itself is also a marvel, and the garden surrounding it is a colorful, peaceful place to take a break from the bustle of the city.

The exterior of a museum on a beautiful day
The Van Gogh Museum. Nick Hilden

The Van Gogh Museum is predictably impressive but, also predictably, booked solid pretty much all the time, so it’s best to reserve a ticket well in advance. Many of the works here are essential viewing as far as any complete art education is concerned: The Potato Eaters, The Sower, The Bedroom, The Yellow House, Sunflowers… you get the picture.

SEE ALSO: Observer’s Guide to 2024’s Must-Visit June Art Fairs

The Stedelijk tends to be a fraction as crowded as the first two because people don’t know what they’re missing. The permanent collection is astounding—Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, Jackson Pollock, El Anatsui, Koons, Chagall, Toorop, Picasso, Mondrian, and so on and so on. And its visiting exhibitions tend to be audaciously avant-garde and profound in subject matter.

Tucked between the museums Van Gogh and Stedelijk is the smaller Moco, which despite its more diminutive stature is packed with great modern art that leans toward pop. Basquiat, Kusama, Warhol, Banksy, Koons, Stik, Icy & Sot—it’s a staggering quantity of great art per square inch.

A crowd of people take selfies with a mirror on a ceiling
Inside Moco. Nick Hilden

After checking off these essentials, I suggest wandering the city in search of the many murals that are continually growing in number thanks to the city’s thriving street art scene. You can find an explosion of street art in the NDSM Wharf—an old industrial area that’s been revitalized into an arts and culture district. While you’re there pop down the street to the sustainability projects of De Ceuvel and Schoonschip. The former is a park and cafe where the city provides space for a variety of cleantech projects and eco-experimentation. The latter is an experimental cooperative of houseboats that is supposedly the most sustainable floating neighborhood in Europe. All of this provides a good look at what makes Amsterdam one of the most creatively sustainable cities in the world.

A Banksy at Moco. Nick Hilden

Depending on how extensive or cursory your exploration of the aforementioned happens to be, plan on all of this taking between two and four days. I recommend you also schedule an extra day for the Hague, but before I explain why, let’s take a quick look at where you should stay while in Amsterdam.

For the artistically inclined there are three excellent options when it comes to where to stay in Amsterdam. The W Amsterdam is a dazzlingly modern labyrinth of a hotel located directly in the center of the city. Strange art and décor elements abound, its outstanding spa is located in an old bank vault, and the whole place has a generally exuberant atmosphere. For a more historic aesthetic, book the Hotel Pulitzer. Built into an interconnected series of over two dozen canal houses from the 17th and 18th Centuries with art and antiques all over, it has a classically elegant attitude. And if you’re in it for all-out luxury, look no further than Hotel De L’Europe. It’s pure upscale, old-Europe sophistication, and I absolutely recommend booking one of the fantastic double balcony suites overlooking the canal.

A high window view of a old timey European city
The view from Hotel De L’Europe. Nick Hilden

Once you’ve had your fill of Amsterdam, take an eighty-minute train ride south to the Hague. Here—besides the pleasant town itself—you’ve come for two things in particular.

First is the Mauritshuis, which houses the Royal Cabinet of Paintings. The focus is on works from the Dutch Golden Age—the obligatory Rembrandts, Rubens, van Dycks, and so on—but the show-stealer is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The most singular art experience of the whole trip, in my opinion, is Escher in Het Paleis—a museum dedicated to the truly one-of-a-kind artist M.C. Escher. The collection presents a fantastic dive into his unique aesthetic, spanning his tessellations, impossible architecture, reflective imagery, and general obsession with the infinite. For me, the spotlight piece is Metamorphosis II, which portrays an unbroken ring of ever-evolving patterns and serves as the perfect summation of Escher’s remarkable vision.

Must see: a museum devoted to works by Escher. Nick Hilden

On weekends, a lively art and antique market pops up in the park in front of the museum, and at the end of this park is voco The Hague—an eclectically decorated if opulently appointed hotel that imparts a sort of epicurean feeling throughout. Its central location is perfect for exploring the city—as there is a tram stop basically at its front door.

And one last thing to add to your itinerary: Gastronomia Lusso, an Italian café located a block north of the Escher. It’s a simple place—coffee and small bites—but their sandwiches are little works of art for your tastebuds.

Where to See the Best Art in Amsterdam