Of Amsterdam's trove of museums, the twin standouts are the monumental Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands' national museum, crammed with treasures spanning more than eight centuries, and the streamlined, modern Van Gogh Museum, containing the world's largest collection of works by seminal Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Both rank among the top-tier museums in Europe, yet each offers a wildly different experience. At a stretch, you could visit both in one, very full day, or, more comfortably, two. But what if you can only make it to a single museum? We drill down into the key aspects to consider to help you choose between them.
Comparing each collection highlights
The superstar attraction of the Rijksmuseum is Rembrandt’s colossal The Night Watch; his other canvases here include The Jewish Bride and The Syndics. Golden Age paintings also include Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, and works by Jan Steen such as The Merry Family.
Also within the museum's whopping 1.5km (half-a-mile-plus) of galleries are blue-and-white Delftware pottery, intricate dollhouses, Asian art and the splendid Cuypers Library. There are artworks by Van Gogh at the Rijksmuseum too, among them his famous 1887 Self-portrait.
For an extensive array, the Van Gogh Museum is a deep-dive into the mind, soul and extraordinary body of work by the tormented genius, from his artistic beginnings in the Netherlands to his prolific days in southern France where he painted with fervent brushstrokes and vibrant colors.
Chronologically arranged, there are some 200 paintings (The Potato Eaters, Sunflowers, Almond Blossom, The Yellow House, The Bedroom, Wheatfield with Crows...) and 500 drawings. You'll also find works by his peers (Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet et al), as well as 700 hand-written letters that provide an intimate glimpse into his close relationship with his younger brother, Theo, Vincent's most ardent supporter.
The Van Gogh museum for an emotive connection to one of the world's most complex artists, the Rijksmuseum for the grand sweep of Dutch art history.
Location and setting of these two Amsterdam museums
The museums are adjacent to each other at Museumplein, a vast, grassy expanse in central Amsterdam around 10 minutes' walk from the lively nightlife hub of Leidseplein and a similar distance to the leafy Vondelpark (great for a post-museum picnic).
The Rijksmuseum occupies a magnificent late 19th-century building combining neo-Gothic and Dutch Renaissance styles by Pierre Cuypers, who also worked on Amsterdam's showpiece Centraal Station. Outside, the gardens, with roses, fountains, hedges and even a greenhouse, double as an outdoor sculpture gallery.
By contrast, the Van Gogh Museum's main building is an early 1970s arrival designed by De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld. Its glass exhibition wing by Kisho Kurokawa was added in 1999, and in 2015, an extension providing an extra 800 sq meters (8600 sq ft) of space incorporated a striking new entrance hall.
The Rijksmuseum for historic grandeur and gardens, the Van Gogh Museum for modern and contemporary design.
History of the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum
Many of the Netherlands' national and royal collections were displayed at the National Art Gallery in Den Haag (The Hague) before Napoleon moved them to join others at the new capital's Royal Palace on Amsterdam's Dam Square in 1808. The collections continued to shift locations until a design competition was held to build them a permanent home befitting of the works on display. Construction of the Rijksmuseum began in 1876 and in 1885 the museum opened its doors. A decade-long, multimillion-euro renovations were completed in 2013.
The founding of the Van Gogh Museum was more personal: Vincent died in 1890, aged just 37, having only sold one painting in his lifetime. He left his works to his brother, Theo, who died the following year. Theo’s widow, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, inherited the collection. When she died in 1925, she passed it on to her son Vincent Willem van Gogh, who loaned it to Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum (also located at Museumplein) until the government commissioned this dedicated museum, which opened in 1973.
The Rijksmuseum for national history, the Van Gogh Museum for family history.
How long does it take to see the museums?
The Rijksmuseum's size and the scale of its collections – some 8000 pieces are displayed at a time – means you'll need plenty of time here. Allow at least four to five hours to do it justice.
At the Van Gogh Museum, visits typically take around two hours, though aficionados will want to stay longer.
The Van Gogh Museum if you have a tight schedule, the Rijksmuseum if you want to make a day of it.
Opening hours and best times to visit
Aim to visit either museum first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, especially midweek, to experience them at their quietest. The Rijksmuseum opens daily from 9am to 5pm year-round. Opening hours for the Van Gogh Museum vary seasonally: during the warmer months (March/April to September/October), hours are typically 9am or 10am to 5pm or 6pm, with extended hours to 9pm on Fridays. The rest of the year it's normally 10am to 5pm (to 6pm on weekends), closing completely on Mondays in mid-winter.
Hours are updated on the museums' websites; you'll need to book an entry-timed ticket (more on that below).
The Rijksmuseum for consistent hours year-round, the Van Gogh Museum for longer hours in season.
Booking tickets at Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum
Tickets to the Rijksmuseum cost €20 for adults; admission is free for visitors aged 18 and under (ie under 19); there are no student discounts. Its sculpture gardens are free. Tickets for the Van Gogh Museum cost €19 per adult, with free admission for children under 18 years old; on weekdays (excluding public holidays), students pay €10 with valid ID.
Both museums require you to prebook tickets online and choose a start time for your visit. Entry time slots are essential even for visitors with a museum pass or discount card such as the worthwhile I amsterdam City Card.
The Van Gogh Museum is marginally cheaper, although you'll probably spend longer at the Rijksmuseum, which may work out to be more cost effective overall.
Tours of Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum
Check the museums' websites for current details of guided tours (subject to Covid-19 restrictions).
The Rijksmuseum app is downloadable from the Apple app store or Google Play (bring your own headphones or purchase them at the museum). This nifty, free multilingual app lets you create your own route through the museum based on your interests.
Multimedia guides in multiple languages for the Van Gogh Museum normally cost €5 for adults and €3 for under 18s, and are disinfected after use; reserve one online when you book.
The Rijksmuseum for its customisable app, the Van Gogh Museum for a ready-made audio tour.
Which of these Amsterdam museums has the best restaurants?
Cafes and espresso bars are located at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. The Rijksmuseum also has a destination restaurant, Rijks, utilising local produce in exquisitely presented dishes inspired by traditional Dutch recipes that have earned it a Michelin star.
The cafes at both museums are excellent. For a meal to rival the artworks, you can't beat the Rijksmuseum.
Rijksmuseum or Van Gogh Museum, which should I visit?
Ultimately, if you're an art-history buff and fan of the Dutch masters, the Rijksmuseum won't disappoint. Fans of Van Gogh's works, on the other hand, shouldn't pass up the chance to see so many of his masterpieces in one place. And if you can't visit them both on this trip, you could always return to Amsterdam.