Amsterdam is canals, of course, and tulips and bicycles and tall gabled houses. It’s the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum of fine art that has reopened this year after extensive renovation. But it is also the site of less known attractions - many of them free - that no visitor should miss.
In 2010, UNESCO named Amsterdam’s canals a World Heritage site. At the Museum Het Grachtenhuis, an imposing 17th-century canal house at Herengracht 286, the history of the city’s canal building is recounted in displays of interest to young and old. Visitors can plan their own canal route through the city in an interactive display. There are models of canal houses and details of their construction on millions of piles sunk to support them on the soggy peat beneath. www.herenhuis.nl
Not far away, at Herengracht 605, the Willet-Holthuysen Museum shows off the 17th-century Golden Age wealth of Amsterdam. In 1895, Louise Willet-Holthuysen willed her house to the city on condition that it be used as a museum bearing the family name, and that it display the ceramics, glass and art she had collected with her husband. This Rococo-decorated house shows how a patrician family in Amsterdam’s heyday lived. The table in the grand dining room is exquisitely set with 17th, 18th and 19th-century china. The walls of its Blue Room are covered with blue Utrecht velvet. Its backyard formal French garden is a restful place to pause on a sunny day. www.willetholthuysen.nl
And at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40, there’s a Baroque church tucked away in the attic. In the 17th-century, following the Reformation, when the practice of Catholicism was forbidden in Holland, wealthy tradesman Jan Hartman bought four adjoining houses, combined them and secretly had a church constructed inside. It is evocatively called Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, Our Lord in the Attic. www.opsolder.nl
Another museum for visitors who are religiously inclined is the Bijbels Museum at Herengracht 368. This Bible Museum had its beginnings in the mid-19th century when an Amsterdam clergyman had a reproduction of the Israelites’ Ark of the Covenant constructed and a maquette of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem made. Today, in addition to these original items, more than 1,000 Bibles are on display. In the garden outside, Biblical plants grow. www.bijbelsmuseum.nl
The Tassen Museum Hendrikje - the largest museum of bags and purses in the world - opened in 2007 at Herengracht 573 in a building originally constructed for the mayor of Amsterdam in 1664.The museum grew out of a private collection and today there are more than 4,000 purses and handbags. There are bead bags and satin bags, tortoise shell and ivory bags, bags that French bridegrooms gave to their brides to symbolize their worldly wealth centuries ago. There are souvenir bags displaying castles and town halls and spas. There’s a bag that is actually a working telephone. There are celluloid and plastic bags, bags shaped like cars and ships and houses in this captivating collection. www.tassenmuseum.nl
The visitor to Amsterdam, of course, must have a place to stay, and there are many of these as charming and unusual as the lesser known museums.
There’s the 58-room Ambassade, for example, at Herengracht 341. It’s 10 charming 17th-century canal houses put together and furnished with some original, some reproduction 17th-century furniture. Original art decorates its walls. There’s a cozy library to read in evenings, with many books autographed by their authors and a high-ceilinged sunny breakfast room in which to welcome the day. .Since it’s made up of many houses joined together, one must, however, be adept at finding one’s way along the halls. But the staff couldn’t be more helpful. www.ambassade-hotel.nl
Or there’s the 67-room boutique Hotel Notting Hill at Westeinde 26 that opened in 2011 in a former employment office. It has both a historic and a modern, homey feeling. In its Brasserie Londen, fish and chips and curries are ever-popular, in keeping with its English name, but there is international fare as well. www.hotelnottinghill.nl/en/
On a grand scale is the Conservatorium Hotel Amsterdam, a design hotel at Vanbaerlestraat 27 with 129 rooms and suites. It is near the Concertgebouw and across from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Its beginning was as the National Savings Bank and a beehive (bees store up honey, after all) decorates its front door. Later it became the Conservatorium Music School. It would be hard to recognize either of its forebears, however, in this grand, modern edifice with its high-ceilinged, large-windowed rooms, its many restaurants, its courtyard, a spa and a swimming pool. www.conservatoriumhotel.com