An Art Lovers’ Guide: How to get off the beaten track in Amsterdam

Historian Janina Ramirez eschews coffees houses and Van Gogh in her BBC4 documentary about the Dutch capital

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When I was asked to travel to Amsterdam with Alastair Sooke for An Art Lovers’ Guide (Monday 1 May, BBC4), I thought I understood the city: stag dos and liberal attitudes to drugs and sex for those in search of liberal excess, Rembrandt and Anne Frank for the discerning tourist.

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But on my first proper exploration of the capital of the Netherlands I was completely won over. It is not the dichotomy between liberal and conservative I had expected, but instead a heady meld of centuries of changing attitudes to trade, international relationships, cultural and ideological exploration. It won my heart.


Oude Kerk

As a medievalist, I was fascinated by this iconic building. The only building that remains as Rembrandt would have seen it, Oude Kerk boasts the largest medieval wooden vaulted rood in Europe. Portholes in the attic give an eerie view down to the church below. Beautiful carved misericords lie concealed in the east end, with comical and confusing depictions of medieval life in Amsterdam.

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The Prostitution Information Centre

What surprises most visitors to Amsterdam is how close the area of legalised prostitution is to the city’s major religious building, the Oude Kirk. Yet this juxtaposition is in many ways an expression of how the people of Amsterdam have always applied pragmatic realism throughout their city. The Prostitution Information Centre is an essential resource for understanding Amsterdam’s complex relationship with the sex industry.

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Janina Ramirez (left) with Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker who set up the Prostitution Information Centre

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What had been a rundown shipping area, lamenting the passing of Amsterdam’s great command of the waves, has become a vibrant and challenging artistic community. Here you will find radical artists blending old traditions with new technology. It’s an exciting and living testament to the important role art has always played in this city’s identity.

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Canal house gables

One of the defining features of Amsterdam’s architecture is its modest-looking terraced houses, each of which displays its own unique gable. To read these gables is to understand the chronology and intentions of this complex city. It lacks palaces, cathedrals and public architecture declaring power. But in its place are middle-class homes, the making of our modern world. Whether a gable is Stepped, or Raised Neck, tells you how old it is, and what public message the owners wanted to project.

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Janina Ramirez and co-presenter Alastair Sooke navigate the canals of Amsterdam

Rijksmuseum

This well known art repository is besieged by visitors, but I recommend you visit an area that few tourists frequent. Head to Room 220 and explore the world of 18-century Amsterdam in miniature. The dolls houses in this room exemplify the world of Vemeer, with intimate interiors that conjure up how the people of Amsterdam lived in the lush, vertical, socially extraordinary buildings that have come to characterise the city.

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An Art Lovers’ Guide starts 1 May on BBC4 at 9pm


Radio Times Travel holidays 

Amsterdam and the Dutch Flower Parade, three nights from £275pp. Combine a visit to the oldest flower parade in Europe with a full day exploring the canals, museums, bustling bars and cafes of Amsterdam. See the unforgettable floral display that takes place on just two days each year, and enjoy a short trip to the delightful Belgian city of Bruges on this wonderful four-day coach trip.

What’s included:

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  • Visits to Amsterdam and Bruges
  • A visit to Zundert including entry to the Flower Parade
  • Three nights’ bed and continental breakfast accommodation at a three-star standard hotel within a one-hour drive of Zundert
  • Coach travel throughout
  • Return Channel crossings
  • Click here for more details and to book