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Europe’s museums: the insider guide

The most rewarding way to explore the seven greatest galleries on earth? We ask the men who know: the curators and directors

On April 13, after a 10-year restoration and expansion, the revamped Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, will open to the public. It will feature 80 galleries and contain 8,000 works of art. So, how do you tackle such a daunting prospect? We quizzed Wim Pijbes, director-general of the Rijksmuseum, about what to see and how — then we put the same questions to the curators and directors of six of Europe’s other great galleries.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Wim Pijbes, director-general

Why go? “Never before has a national museum undergone such a radical makeover. We are home to the most important collection of Dutch art in the world, and are one of the few museums dedicated to art created in the region where it is based.”

For first-timers: “If you are pressed for time, follow a multimedia tour or join the daily guided tours. They cover the highlights in 80 minutes, including the masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen.”

Most popular exhibit: “Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, a group portrait of members of Amsterdam’s civic guard. It is celebrated for its use of light and the movement of the people, which was an important departure from the static group portraits of the time.”

Personal favourite: “The small self-portrait by the young Rembrandt, his face shadowed. Imagine this ambitious artist at a turning point in his career, just settled in Amsterdam, in the heart of the bustling business centre of the world, hungry for art. Rembrandt already knew that art follows money. This is his first masterpiece, and the best self-portrait in the world.”

Insider tip: “Visitors will, for the first time, have access to the four-storey library, designed by the museum’s original architect, Pierre Cuypers. It’s home to more than three miles of books — approximately 350,000 volumes.”

Details: entry £8.60; open daily; 00 31 20 674 7000, rijksmuseum.nl.

Eat there: the cafe can serve coffee, tea, sandwiches and appeltaart to 220 people. A full-service restaurant is due next year.

Get there: Eurostar (0843 218 6186, eurostar.com) has rail returns from London St Pancras via Brussels; from £129pp. Airlines flying to Amsterdam include easyJet (0843 104 5000, easyjet.com) and KLM (0871 231 0000, klm.com). Stay at the canalside Hotel Hegra (00 31 20 623 7877, hotelhegra.nl; doubles from £69, room-only).

Uffizi gallery, Florence

Antonio Natali, director

Why go? “The Uffizi places its world-class collection of Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio at the heart of Florence — the two are inseparable. You come to Florence, you must visit the Uffizi, and vice versa.”

For first-timers: “I always think a visitor should look at art that feels spiritually and intellectually close to their own tastes, and ignore what the guidebooks say. Once you’ve appreciated the works that are in tune with your heart, visit the more celebrated Titians and Caravaggios.”

Most popular exhibit: “There are two — The Birth of Venus and Primavera, both by Botticelli.”

Personal favourite: “I feel the greatest emotion in front of the Madonna of the Harpies, by Andrea del Sarto, a 16th-century altarpiece painted for the nuns of San Francesco dei Macci. It depicts the Madonna and child flanked by St John the Evangelist and St Francis.”

Insider tip: “Between mid-November and mid-December, or in January or February, it is quieter. And don’t forget to tear your eyes from the art to look out of the windows at the sublime views of Florence and its hills.”

Details: entry £5.60-£9.50, depending on what’s showing; add £3.45 for online booking; closed Mondays, but open until 10.30pm on Thursdays in May, June, July and September for aperitivo ad arte drinks evenings; 00 39 055 294883, uffizi.firenze.it.

Eat there: the roof terrace of the Uffizi’s cafe has a view over the Duomo — although, of course, you pay for it. The snacks (coffee, pastries, panini, gelati) are pricy.

Get there: Citalia (0844 415 1956, citalia.com) has three nights at a four-star hotel in Florence for £315pp, B&B, including flights from Gatwick.

National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

Sir John Leighton, director-general

Why go? “The Scottish National Galleries offer three world-class art spaces — the Portrait Gallery, the Scottish National Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art. Unlike the overcrowded, sometimes impersonal experiences on offer in other big cities, a visit to our galleries feels direct, engaging and intimate.”

For first-timers: “Take your time, and pick several exhibitions or rooms that really interest you, rather than trying to see everything.”

Most popular exhibit: “The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, known as the Skating Minister, by Henry Raeburn.”

Personal favourite: “That’s incredibly difficult. I always say hello to Degas’s stunning Portrait of Diego Martelli in the National Gallery, while the final stage of my walk to work every morning is encouraged by the slogan emblazoned across the Gallery of Modern Art in neon, by Martin Creed. It reads: ‘Everything is going to be alright.’”

Insider tip: “The galleries can get quite busy on a Sunday, but, unlike many museums and galleries across Europe, we are open on Mondays — so I would stay an extra night and enjoy the relative calm of a Monday morning. Also, we’re particularly excited that Rodin’s The Kiss is at the Scottish National Gallery this year.”

Details: entry free; open daily; 0131 624 6200, nationalgalleries.org.

Eat there: the Scottish Café and Restaurant, overlooking Princes Street Gardens, serves a modern Scottish menu with locally sourced ingredients.

Get there: the cheap but very cheerful Tune Hotel (tunehotels.com) has doubles from just £25, room-only. The grand Caledonian (0131 222 8888, thecaledonian.waldorfastoria.com) has doubles from £159, room-only, and offers posh bars and fine dining.

Acropolis museum, Athens

Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, president

Why go? “The Acropolis Museum presents the history of Greece during classical times. You can admire the sculptural works of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, which became a prototype for many artworks from the Renaissance onwards.”

For first-timers: “Begin with views of the archeological excavation that lies below the museum, then examine the painted sculptures of the Archaic period and the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon — and end with a magnificent view of the Acropolis.”

Most popular exhibit: “The Caryatids, the female statues that replaced the Ionic columns of the Acropolis, with their aristocratic and feminine beauty, created in the late 5th century BC.”

Personal favourite: “The smiling maidens of the Archaic period.”

Insider tip: “Enjoy a cup of coffee or a Greek meal at the restaurant, which has panoramic views of the Acropolis and the historic hills of Athens.”

Details: entry £4.30; closed Mondays; open until 10pm on Fridays; 00 30 21 0900 0900, theacropolismuseum.gr.

Eat there: the glass-walled second-floor restaurant is open until midnight on Fridays. There’s also a cafe on the ground floor.

Get there: Sunvil Holidays (020 8758 4758, sunvil.co.uk) has three nights at the four-star Herodion, with views of the Acropolis, from £589pp, B&B, including flights from London and transfers.

Vatican museums, Rome

Antonio Paolucci, director

Why go? “It’s the museum of the Roman Catholic Church. If you truly want to understand the history, doctrine and culture of the Catholic church, you need to visit the Vatican.”

For first-timers: “The Vatican Museums can’t be viewed in an hour or two. In a short time, you can only appreciate the interest that popes over the centuries have taken in art and culture in all its forms, in all ages. My advice is to go back several times, focusing each time on a specific area such as Greek-Roman sculptures, modern religious art, the Italian Renaissance or ethnographic cultures outside Europe.”

Most popular exhibit: “The heart of the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo, but also by the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance — Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and more. Every year, it receives more than 5m visitors.”

Personal favourite: “What I love the most is Raphael — Raphael’s rooms, his tapestries and the famous altarpieces, such as the Madonna of Foligno. It’s asacred conversation between the figures depicted beneath the Madonna, which dates from 1511. There’s also the Transfiguration — Christ floating in front of illuminated clouds, between the prophets Moses, on the right, and Elijah, on the left. Raphael worked on it until his death in 1520.”

Insider tip: “Take advantage of the educational programme. For example, the late opening night in the summer — to be confirmed for 2013 — has recitals, book presentations and lectures on restoration and museology. For visitors with children, there is also a family tour with an audio guide and map [for an extra £4.40pp].”

Details: entry £13.80; add £3.45 for online booking; closed on Sundays and some Catholic holidays, except the last Sunday of the month, when admission is free between 9am and 12.30pm; 00 39 06 6988 4676, mv.vatican.va.

Eat there: there’s a cafeteria-style restaurant, a bar and a pizzeria. But you’re probably not going for the food.

Get there: British Airways (0844 493 0758, ba.com) has three nights at the four-star-plus Dei Mellini from £379pp, B&B, including flights from London.

Pergamon museum, Berlin

Martin Maischberger, senior curator and deputy director of the Antikensammlung

Why go? “It’s the only museum in the world focusing on the architecture of antiquity, including the principal Mediterranean cultures, such as the Near East, classical Greece and Rome, as well as the Islamic world and, in the future, ancient Egypt.

For first-timers: “Spend an hour each on the ancient Near East and Islamic art. For Greece and Rome, there are only two great halls to be seen, so you might do them in half an hour — which means you should allow at least 2Å hours for the visit.”

Most popular exhibit: “There are three — the processional way and Ishtar gate, from Babylon, the market gate of Miletus and the Pergamon altar.”

Personal favourite: “No doubt — the market gate of Miletus, an ancient Greek city in Asia Minor. It dates from the 2nd century AD and is 100ft wide and 50ft tall, an impressive structure that has been carefully restored.”

Insider tip: “The museum is generally much more crowded in the morning, so try to visit in the afternoon.”

Details: entry £8.70; open daily; 00 49 30 266 424242, smb.museum.

Eat there: the Pergamon has a snack bar, but the cafe at the Bode Museum, which is also on Museum Island and has views of the main staircase, is a better option.

Get there: Kirker (020 7593 2283, kirkerholidays.com) has three nights at the Art’otel Berlin Mitte from £559pp, B&B, including flights from London.

Hermitage, St Petersburg

Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovski, director

Why go? “The Hermitage is more than a museum or art gallery — it is an encyclopedia of world culture and a repository of Russian history. Even the buildings tell Russia’s story, from Catherine the Great’s time through to the revolution, the siege of Leningrad, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the present day. There are fantastic views from the windows, too.”
For first-timers: “Don’t try to do too much — after two hours of concentrating, you can feel overwhelmed. Take an audio tour that will give you the main highlights of the museum in 90 minutes. Or choose one room and concentrate on that.”

Most popular exhibit: “Public taste changes over time, but the Rembrandt room is always incredibly popular, and our Matisse and Picasso collections are very busy.”

Personal favourite: “That also changes, but one constant on my list is The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt, which is one of his final works. I always remember that the painter was not much liked in Holland in his lifetime. Only the French and the Russians appreciated him, but now the whole world admires him.”

Insider tip: “We can only show about 10% of our collection at any one time, but we now offer guided tours of the Staraya Derevnya Restoration and Storage Centre, which allows visitors to see some of the works that aren’t on show. Also, come in winter and you can have many rooms to yourself, even the popular ones. When it has snowed, the whole complex looks incredible.”

Details: entry £8.65; add £3.20 for online booking; closed Mondays, open until 9pm on Wednesdays; 00 7 812 710 9079, hermitagemuseum.org.

Eat there: the Hermitage Cafe is in the Rastrelli Gallery, on the ground floor of the Winter Palace, with lovely views over the courtyard. It serves pizzas and sandwiches.

Get there: British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com) has four nights at the three-star Dostoevsky Hotel from £369pp, B&B, including flights from Heathrow. For something swankier, Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244, regentholidays.co.uk) has three nights at the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22, opposite the Hermitage, from £835pp, B&B, including flights from Heathrow.

Booking online

None of these museums offers discounts for internet reservations. In most cases, though, booking online will get you a guaranteed time slot, so you can skip the queues at the ticket desk — we’ve listed any additional charges for this. Check websites for prices for children and concessions — some museums offer them free entry.

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