Like fans at a rock concert, a friend and I recently stood elbow-to-elbow with throngs of fellow art lovers at the Rijksmuseum, trying to catch glimpses of masterpieces by those 17th-century superstars, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Extensive renovations, slated for completion in 2010, have greatly limited gallery space but not attendance, which hit 1.2 million last year. We took refuge under a shady oak tree in nearby Vondelpark, maps spread out, searching for a more relaxed way to experience the city's art. Happily, we discovered a collection of smaller venues whose ambience inspires rather than overwhelms. Here are our favorites:
De Nieuwe Kerk
After a fire gutted De Nieuwe Kerk (Dutch for "New Church") in 1645, it was restored to its former grandeur with a towering carved wood pulpit, striking stained-glass windows, and a cherub-adorned pipe organ, the largest in the Netherlands. William I chose De Nieuwe Kerk for his investiture in 1815, and his successors have all done the same, establishing De Nieuwe Kerk as the country's Westminster Abbey.
Its ceremonial importance and splendid interior create a memorable gallery for art exhibits. In late July, "Seven Centuries Black" will explores the multitude of black characters in Flemish and Dutch paintings, from angels and ordinary people to kings and queens. Among the noteworthy paintings in this exhibit will be Rembrandt's "The Baptism of the Eunuch" and Jan Mostaert's "Portrait of an African Man" (www.nieuwekerk.nl).
The Jewish Historical Museum
Before World War II, Amsterdam's small but thriving Jewish community worshipped at a complex of 17th- and 18th-century synagogues. During World War II, three-quarters of Dutch Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. It wasn't until the 1980s that the four looted synagogues were restored, connected, and reopened. Today the Great Synagogue, dating from 1671, provides a moving setting for galleries highlighting the culture, religion, and history of Dutch Jewry from 1600 to 1900.
The adjacent New Synagogue, built in 1752, is home to a permanent exhibit of Dutch Jewry from 1900 to the present. Among the museum's gems are its beautifully preserved 13th-century prayer book and gold- and silver-embroidered velvet torah mantles commissioned by the city's Portuguese Jews, who were involved in the textile trade (www.jhm.nl).
Rembrandt House Museum
In 1639, the same year Rembrandt received a prestigious commission for his iconic Night Watch, the artist splurged on a two-story gabled house with a fashionable Amsterdam address. Until his lavish lifestyle led him to declare bankruptcy 20 years later, Rembrandt lived and worked here.
Today, the Rembrandt House Museum has been restored and decorated with art and furniture from its famous owner's day. Rembrandt's presence can be felt throughout the house, especially in his upstairs studio, where light streams through a north-facing window onto a large easel.
Rembrandt was one of the world's greatest etchers, creating prints from copper plates on a wooden press. In a new wing, the museum rotates its nearly complete collection of Rembrandt's 290 etchings (www.rembrandthuis.nl).
Privacy-seeking celebrities stay at the cloistered Grand Amsterdam. That tradition dates back 500 years when A-listers like William of Orange and Maria de'Medici were guests at the convent turned royal palace.
The Council Chamber where Queen Beatrix held her civil wedding ceremony in 1966 features painted and carved wood panels and a massive table carved with animals representing the four points of a compass. Weddings are still performed in the exquisite marriage chamber, commissioned by city officials in 1925.
Artist Chris Lebeau depicted a couple's courtship and wedding in Jugendstil murals and luminous red-, purple-, and lime stained-glass windows.
At the entrance to the hotel's cafe hangs the postwar mural "Asking Children," by Karel Appel. The 1949 work, depicting children begging for food, caused such a controversy when it was hung in front of the then town hall's canteen that the city hid it for a decade (www.thegrand.nl).
Foam Photography Museum and Huis Marseille
Old and new contrast dramatically at a pair of 17th-century canal houses along Keizersgracht canal. Behind the elegant facades of the Foam Photography Museum and Huis Marseille are the striking contemporary photographs of established artists and emerging talent.
A short stroll down Keizersgracht, Huis Marseille hosts a retrospective by well-known Dutch photographer Edwin Zwakman (through May 25). With images of suburbs and Dutch panoramas, Zwakman appears to be working in the tradition of conventional documentary photography. In fact, his photographs are actually of scale models reconstructed in his studio. In photos of cities including Shanghai and Beijing, China; and Tehran, Iran; German photographer Hans Scholten aims his camera at new mushrooming neighborhoods devoid of urban planning (www.huismarseille.nl).
Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery
In 1640, Johan Maurits, governor general of the Dutch colony in Brazil, hired the architecture team of Pieter Post and Jacob van Campen to design a mansion in the poshest neighborhood of The Hague. Today the handsome Dutch classicist residence houses the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, with a small but unsurpassed collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings by Vermeer (including the "Girl with a Pearl Earring"), Rembrandt, Jan Steen, and Frans Hals. This intimate gallery makes you feel as if you've entered a private collection. That's exactly how the oldest part of the collection came to be – a result of passionate collecting by Willem V, Prince of Orange-Nassau. When Prince Willem fled to England during the French invasion of 1795, Napoleon took the paintings back to Paris, where they were hung in the Louvre.
Two decades later, the collection was returned to The Hague and donated by Willem V's son, King William I, to the Dutch state. In 1820, the government bought the Mauritshuis to display what became known as the Royal Cabinet of Paintings.
In addition to its splendid collection, the Mauritshuis presents exhibits like "Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age," which showcases the new genre of cityscapes created by powerful burghers who commissioned paintings to celebrate their towns. Highlights will include Vermeer's meticulously detailed "View of Delft" and Jacob van Ruisdael's "View of Haarlem" (www.mauritshuis.nl).
The Royal Palace, The Hague
In 1536, Emperor Charles V ordered linden trees planted along Lange Voorhout, a stately L-shaped avenue lined with the residences of court nobility and government officials. Today, many of the avenue's elegant 18th-century buildings house embassies. One of the buildings is home to a permanent museum dedicated to the work of Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. "Escher in the Palace" includes a good sampling of M.C. Escher's lithographs, woodcuts, engravings, drawings, and sketches. Visitors step into Escher's fantastic world in a virtual reality exhibit on the palace's top floor. Through September there's also a special exhibit on optical illusions (www.escherinhetpaleis.nl).
• For information about travel to Amsterdam, see www.us.holland.com.