Plenty to see While Waiting for the Bulbfields to Beckon

Amsterdam is much more than art museums and canals, as Brian Ogle found out recently

Tulips, art museums, canals, and art masterpieces – the archetypal images of Amsterdam, a perennial city break favourite from the UK and Ireland Springtime is a particularly popular time to visit, but if you want to see the famous Keukenhof bulbfields plan the dates of your trip carefully, and certainly better than I did. I presumed that by the second week in March there would be tulips aplenty and the early varieties at least would be on show.

However, the tulip blooms at Lisse, the bulb region about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam, are only on show for just eight weeks each year in accordance with the national flowering season and don’t open to the public until March 21. So the fields should be a splash of eye-catching colour now and for the next few weeks or so… The Keukenhof boasts a staggering seven million blooms planted across the 32 hectare park, and along with several indoor pavilions, hosts more than 20 flower shows between opening and closing on May 19.

You can buy your Keukenhof tickets, including coach from the city centre, in advance at Flower lovers will also enjoy the world’s biggest flower auction at in Alsmeer, just 15 kilometres outside Amsterdam. It is open Monday to Friday and begins at 7.00 in the morning so you will have to get up early to see and experience the colours, scents and the Dutch style of auctioning. Unfortunately, not only did I miss the chance of seeing the bulbs at Keukenhof, but the Dutch weather was as bad as that I left behind at Belfast City Airport, temperatures of only plus four or so, bitingly cold sometimes gale force winds and huge torrential hail and thunderstorms – not the sort of thing to encourage any sort of spring flowers to flourish, so I made do with a visit to Amsterdam’s city centre Flower Market.

The tarpaulins were flapping wildly in the wind but prospects of being blown into the nearby canal didn’t seem to unduly worry the stall holders who were doing a roaring trade, with everything including Amarylis to the most exotic plants imaginable being carted off in bags, boxes and indeed mailed to addresses everywhere on the globe. Flowers are certainly one of Holland and Amsterdam’s big attractions but for many people, its great art museums are the first stop on their visits – just think of the amazing Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh, and the Stedelijk Museum with its vast collection of modern and contemporary art, not to mention Rembrandt’s own dwelling house close to the city centre. But the popularity of art and Amsterdam has its drawbacks and indeed some concerns for the local tourist agencies. The queues are getting longer and longer, and it’s wise to take advice on the best time to visit, as waits at the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseums in particular can be a trial and eat away into your valuable time on a short city break. Special exhibitions are even more difficult to access and book out quickly.

You can never book too soon however for the popular and visitor limited Anne Frank Museum, a 10-minute stroll from Dam Square. However, it can only be booked online and you are given a specific time slot for your visit. Only the Bible has a bigger worldwide readership thumbprint than The Diaries of Anne Frank, written by the young Jewish girl at the house at Prinsengracht 263 as she lived in hiding with her family and some friends for more than two years during World War II. It is a sobering and must-see building which is now converted into a museum, detailing the persecution of the Jews during the War, as well as discrimination in general. Tragically, when the tide of the war was turning, the Frank family’s hiding place was betrayed. They were all were deported to various camps and only Otto Frank survived the war. It was he who was responsible for publishing Anne’s Diary which became a bestseller worldwide.

The rooms at the Anne Frank House still portray the atmosphere of the period spent in hiding. Historical documents, photographs, film images and original objects that belonged to those in hiding and those who assisted them help illustrate the events that took place. Anne’s original diary and other notebooks are also on display. The Anne Frank House has also released a mobile app that encourages you to take to the streets and learn about wartime Amsterdam. The vast numbers of tourists thronging the city centre’s major attractions, and indeed the city’s network of canals, have now led to the tourist authorities adopting a deliberate policy of promoting other more lesser known attractions and districts of Amsterdam.The idea is to broaden the perception of Amsterdam’s diversity to manage the huge visitor traffic and avoid overcrowding and indeed shorten the queues at the big museums.

Certainly well worth a visit and easily accessible from Dam Square by number 14 tram is Artis Amsterdam Royal Zoo, with 900 species of animals one of the oldest zoos in Europe, and a firm family favourite whatever time of year. The zoo does great work with endangered species but for me it will be remembered as the first time I had came up close and personal with the formidable and ferocious Komodo Dragon from Indonesia. Another highlight was the aquarium, one part of which showed the underwater fish life of Amsterdam’s canals, with carp and bream looking very much at home swimming through rusty bicycle spokes and old tyres. Located next door is Micropia, the Museum of Microbes, while facing the entrance to Artis is the Resistance Museum which takes you back to the city under the Nazi occupation. The zoo and indeed the nearby Hortus Botanical Gardens are in the Plantage district of the city, a green and leafy suburb which offers the opportunity for relaxing strolls by waterside terraces punctuated with a coffee stop or two and a Dutch pancake along the way.

It is indeed a pleasant and laidback part of Amsterdam not only to live in but also to enjoy and relax as a visitor – and of course a pleasant change from the crowds of Dam Square and the top tourist sites.. I hadn’t been in Amsterdam in more than 20 years but one thing I couldn’t help noticing – the city was much cleaner and greener than I remembered, but on the downside it is now up there with some of the more pricey European city break destinations, but you can make a big saving if you purchase the iamsterdam card.


KLM flies to Amsterdam from Belfast via its multi-award winning hub, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. KLM operates a daily flight between Belfast City Airport and Amsterdam, with return economy fares starting from £88.02 including taxes and charges. Passengers can book online at or by calling reservations on Ph: +44 20 76600293.

Book online to beat museum queues… says Rita McKeivor

For many visitors to Amsterdam a visit to the world famous Rijksmuseum is an absolute must. This year, to commemorate 350 years since the death of the Dutch painter Rembrandt, the museum has a special exhibition where every Rembrandt in the museum is on display. This is the biggest collection of Rembrandt’s work in the world and covers a range of examples of his work ranging from lithographs to drawings and paintings.

The exhibition is very popular so pre-booking is advised. If however, you are not able to see the special exhibition there’s much to absorb and admire in the main museum collections. The star attraction on Level 2 at the end of a long gallery is ‘Night Watch’ by Rembrandt, and no one could fail to be impressed by the scale, the light and the presence of this magnificent work. The Rijksmuseum is not just about Rembrandt though – there are several galleries of Dutch painters including Vermeer and Van Gogh, special collections of Delftware, jewels and many more arts and crafts.

It would be quite easy to spend a whole day in the Rijksmuseum and not see all that you wanted to, so my advice would be to look at the catalogue, pick out what you want to see most, go and see them and then take your time strolling through the beautiful galleries.

NB: It’s important to book online before you go to avoid queues. One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Amsterdam this spring was that I had read reviews about a new exhibition in The Van Gogh Museum. The exhibition explored the common ground in the paintings of the Dutch painter Van Gogh and one of the world’s greatest living artists, Britain’s David Hockney. The Van Gogh Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Amsterdam, housing all the well known Dutch artists’ paintings.

The addition of the work of Hockney and how he was inspired by Van Gogh to look at the beauty of nature is very clear to see. The influence of the old Dutch master was particularly apparent in the landscapes of Yorkshire that Hockney painted day after day and it was interesting to see how Hockney painted his own versions of some of some of Van Gogh’s compositions. When the two artists are displayed together it is remarkable to see the similarities of style, use of colour and paint. An exhibition not to be missed…. But once again book online to avoid queues.