If you could camp out in the Rijksmuseum, it would be easy to spend an entire week in Amsterdam without stepping foot outside its hallowed halls. A living monument to the art and history of the Netherlands, the Dutch national museum reportedly houses more than a million artworks and artifacts from the Middle Ages to today. Chief among the collection’s masterpieces are paintings by Dutch Golden Age icons such as Rembrandt and Vermeer.
A week is a lot of time to dedicate to a single attraction, however. That’s why we’ve enlisted the advice of the museum’s head of Asian Art, Menno Fitski, to help travelers make the most of a one-day visit at the Rijksmuseum.
A graduate of Leiden University in the Netherlands, where he studied Japanese Language and Culture, Fitski earned his current title after serving as the museum’s East Asian curator for more than 20 years. Heed his tips and tricks for the ultimate one-day guide to the Rijksmuseum.
Before you go: the #1 piece of advice for visiting the Rijksmuseum
Fitski’s number one piece of advice for visiting the Rijksmuseum is to set an early alarm and beeline for the Gallery of Honour. The museum’s most famous painting, “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt van Rijn, is framed by an arched entryway at the far end of the hall. Yet the entire corridor leading to the Night Watch Gallery is a study in the Dutch Golden Age, featuring masterworks by the most impressive painters of the 17th century. Even the hall itself is a work of art, with a tall domed ceiling and beautifully muraled walls, cast-iron beams showcasing inscriptions for the featured artists, and various coats of arms from across the Netherlands.
Because the Gallery of Honour is the most popular wing in the Rijksmuseum, it’s best to get there right when the museum opens. Not only will this help make your visit as efficient as possible, but it also creates an opportunity to spend some quality time with the Dutch greats, awed by every alcove lining the long corridor and each brushstroke adorning the walls. Says Fitski, “It’s quite special to roam around the Dutch masterpieces with only a few [others].”
The best times to visit
Unlike the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum is rarely inundated with crowds that make navigating the museum a challenge. Not even “The Night Watch” draws an unmanageable queue like you’d expect to see in front of the “Mona Lisa.” Nonetheless, the museum is a major attraction in one of Europe’s most heavily touristed capitals, and you’ll want to plan your visit accordingly.
The busiest time to visit is around noon. For this reason, Fitski recommends saving the lesser trafficked areas, such as the Asian Pavilion and Special Collections, which displays artifacts ranging from garments and armor to instruments and model ships, for midday and touring more popular galleries in the early morning and late afternoon, from around 3:00 PM until closing.
The Rijksmuseum is open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, even on holidays. For an extra special experience, Fitski suggests planning a family outing on Christmas Day. Not only is the museum likely to be emptier then, but that’s also “such a good way to make memories,” he notes.
Visitors can organize tours of the Rijksmuseum two ways: bring their own guide or book one through the museum. Groups of up to 10 people are welcome to come with an expert in tow if said expert registers as an external guide in advance. Those who request a Rijksmuseum guide can choose between various tours, some of which may be themed, such as the current “Pink History” tour that reflects on the history of homosexuality in the Netherlands and its influence on Dutch art through the ages. Most tours are available in either Dutch or English, and the museum also offers guided tours tailored to the visual and hearing impaired.
Where to start your visit
Following Fitski’s advice to begin your visit in the Gallery of Honour and Night Watch Gallery will position you smack in the center of the second floor, which is bookended by the Great Hall and Sculpture Gallery. From there, you can move either clockwise or counterclockwise through the rest of the floor, which features everything from William of Orange Mannerism and William III Delftware to Flemish Influences and French Court Art.
Where you go next depends on your interests and timing. Pop up to the third floor if you’re waiting for a growing crowd to die down. There, you’ll find all things modern, from the works of Karel Appel and fashions of Yves Saint Laurent to the furniture of Gerrit Rietveld and a fighter plane from WWI. Alternately, continue your tour of the classics by working your way down to the first floor, where you’ll find artworks from 1700 to 1900 by famous artists such as Van Gogh and Goya, then end the day touring the Special Collections and Asian Pavilion on the ground floor.
To help make your visit as efficient as possible, Fitski also suggests starting your tour outside of the museum altogether: at home. Using the Rijksmuseum app, visitors can create custom routes based on their interests, from paintings of flowers and food to real-life furniture. Several self-guided tours are already pre-planned for visitors on the app, as well, whether you prefer fun themed routes like portraits and selfies or want a headier, more educational experience exploring topics such as the Rijksmuseum and Slavery from 1500 to 1650 or 1650 to 1960.
Five must-see pieces and why they matter
1. “The Night Watch” by Rembrant van Rijn
By now it’s pretty clear that you can’t visit the Rijksmuseum without seeing Rembrandt’s most famous work. Officially titled “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannick Cocq,” “The Night Watch” depicts Amsterdam’s civic guard taking marching orders from their captain, capturing a group portrait where the subjects are in action. Its significance is threefold: The painting introduced movement to portraiture, it’s massive at roughly 12.5 feet by 15 feet, and it showcases a technique called tenebrism, or dramatic illumination, which emphasizes the contrast between light and dark. In fact, the heavy shading is how the painting came to be known as “The Night Watch” despite being staged in the daytime.
2. “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer is another 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painter whose art has garnered worldwide acclaim. “The Milkmaid” is among his most famous paintings, arguably second only to “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Like many Vermeer works, “The Milkmaid” elegantly captures the simplicity of everyday life, yet this painting notably depicts a working-class woman in contrast to the more affluent subjects Vermeer often painted. Light plays an important role here as well: Aside from a small stream of milk being poured by the milkmaid, the painting is a still life that relies on the perception of sunlight streaming in through the window for extra depth.
Fitski admires the level of detail and texture on display here, from the bread and ceramic on the table to the milkmaid’s clothes and skin, and notes that there are only 34 known Vermeer paintings left in the world. Of those, the Rijksmuseum’s collection contains no fewer than four, which visitors would be remiss to skip on their museum tours.
3. Japanese temple guardians
Of all the works in the Asian Pavilion, Fitski nominated this pair of Japanese temple guardian sculptures as a must-see. “If you think all Japanese art is zen,” says Fitski, “think again.”
Carved from wood, the sculptures were originally created between 1300 and 1400 to stand on either side of a temple entrance and scare off evil spirits. Their size alone is impressive, measuring nearly eight feet tall and roughly four feet wide. In each guardian’s hand is a vajra, or ritual weapon, to symbolically fight ignorance, while their open and shut mouths symbolize knowledge in its entirety by depicting the first and last syllables of the Sanskrit script Siddham. According to the Rijksmuseum, any temple-goer who passed between these guardian sculptures was said to be able to acquire this wisdom.
4. Doll’s house of Petronella Oortman
This dollhouse gives museum-goers a different perspective on the Dutch Golden Age: It captures the lifestyle of the 17th-century Dutch elite not on canvas but in miniature.
This dollhouse is no children’s toy. In fact, the dollhouses of the day weren’t designed for children at all. They were collectibles for wealthy Dutch women, in this case Petronella Oortman. What makes Oortman’s dollhouse so remarkable is its authenticity. Everything was made to scale using the same materials that would have been found in an actual luxury home. The porcelain was sourced from China, craftsmen like glassblowers and silversmiths were hired to furnish the dollhouse, and the frescoes adorning the walls could pass for artworks that would hang in the Rijksmuseum. Even the tortoiseshell cabinet in which the dollhouse sits was painstakingly inlaid with beautiful pewter.
All that work no doubt came with a hefty price tag: According to Fitski, Oortman’s dollhouse is believed to have cost more than an actual luxury Amsterdam canal house.
5. The Rijksmuseum Research Library
Not just the Dutch national museum, the Rijksmuseum is also a research institute that contains the largest collection of art history books in the Netherlands, in addition to being one of the most significant art libraries in the world, with a catalog of approximately 450,000 volumes. European art history is the focal point of the library collection. Mirroring the museum’s collections, the library offers insight into the art of the Netherlands and Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, as well as a variety of works on the history of pan-Asian art. The best part for library lovers? The collection is housed in a beautiful, 19th-century reading room where you could easily spend as much time as you did wandering the museum itself.
Underrated collections to check out
Museum-goers generally plan their visits around masterworks created by icons of the art world. The Rijksmuseum is no exception, yet some of the most fascinating pieces on display were neither crafted by famous hands nor are even considered art; they’re everyday objects that offer insight into Dutch culture and aesthetics in their humblest form.
Though the Special Collections gallery houses the majority of the museum’s miscellaneous artifacts, for Fitski, the museum’s woolen hat collection on the second floor exemplifies the beauty that can be found in the simplicity of historical relics. The collection is made up of centuries-old, individually designed headwear that was once worn by whalers who worked on Spitsbergen, an island located near the North Pole. According to Fitski, the hats may have been hand-crafted by the sailors’ loved ones. “When you see that they are carefully mended,” Fitski says, “you suddenly feel very close to their personal lives of 400 years ago.”
What you didn’t know
The Rijksmuseum is full of surprises. And they’re not limited to the museum’s collections. Alongside priceless works of art, the Rijksmuseum is home to two peregrine falcons, which have a nest in the museum’s bell tower and recently had two new chicks. “If you look up to the sky, you might see them flying around,” says Fitski.
Where the artwork is concerned, Fitski also notes that the Rijksmuseum Gardens puts on a free exhibit every summer that’s worth taking advantage of. This year, the exhibition focuses on the works of Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), an American painter, printmaker, and sculptor who was known for his use of bright colors, linework, minimalism, and hard-edge painting.
When your one-day visit of the Rijksmuseum comes to a close, the museum has one more trick up its sleeve: an on-site restaurant with a Michelin star. The restaurant, Rijks, which is located in the Philips Wing on the ground floor, showcases creativity of a different kind through artfully prepared and plated dishes that combine locally grown produce with international influences that have helped shape Dutch cuisine.