There are many great museums in Amsterdam, stuffed with masterpieces by the world’s best-known painters. But our favourite Amsterdam museum is a small house on a narrow canal, full of things to touch, sniff and feel. The Tulip Museum tells the history of this famous flower. By the time we left, there was nothing we couldn’t tell you about a tulip.
You enter through a secret door leading into a hall of mirrors, reflecting field after field of the multicoloured petals to infinity. It made us all feel quite cheered up and merry. We learnt how tulips came from Asia, how they are grown now, and how once millionaires traded not in shares but in bulbs.
‘I want to be a budding millionaire too,’ quipped my 11 year old, very pleased at his pun.
There is something rather corny and clichéd about Amsterdam and tulips. Max Bygraves' Tulips from Amsterdam topped the charts in the year I was born, but I can still sing it by heart. Yet there’s something very special about the simplicity of this particular flower. We can find dahlias distasteful or carnations a bit ugly, but everyone likes tulips. Especially the Dutch. You can even eat them. In Amsterdam, confiserie and bakery windows are stacked with piles of chocolate tulips, pastry tulips and tulip-shaped biscuits.
The Tulip Museum is in a charming part of the city – a grid of backstreets crisscrossed by canals a few paces wide. Tall narrow houses with rounded gables and wooden shutters line the cobbled roads each side of the water, no wider than a single car. It’s the Amsterdam of picture books. We walked through this city – unchanged since the 17th century – to the floating Bloemenmarkt, rows of stalls on the water stocked with every kind of bulb, from as big as your head to as tiny as your thumbnail.
When we weren’t looking at tulips we looked at handbags. Our second favourite museum wasn’t the Hermitage (although the modern galleries are light and airy, not at all stuffy) nor the Rijksmuseum (with all its Rembrandts) nor the Van Gogh (although sunflowers are our second favourite flowers), but the Tassenmuseum – the handbag museum. The history of the handbag is as long and interesting as the history of the tulip. And, as I kept telling my son, proves that handbags were worn as much by men as women. They’ve only become a female accessory relatively recently. This 17th-century canal house is stuffed with more than 4,000 handbags, from these very earliest examples to caseloads of very wacky ones shaped like cupcakes, a cheetah’s head and Charlie Chaplin. The collection for sale in the museum shop was just as interesting; I bought a very wicked handbag with the silhouette of a gun on it.
We’d travelled to Amsterdam by ferry from Hull – an overnight journey across the North Sea. P&O lay on a free coach from the port to either Rotterdam or Amsterdam, dropping you in the centre of either city. It’s a perfect way to get there. And with no luggage restrictions, we could buy as many chocolate tulips as we liked. And handbags.
Read more about things to do in Amsterdam with kids.