The Nederlands Openlucht Museum (let’s call it the “NOM” shall we?) is a vast open-air museum of Dutch heritage and culture in Arnhem. Founded in 1912 and now attracting over 500,000 visitors annually (more than any Dutch museum outside of Amsterdam and The Hague), it was voted “European Museum of the Year” in 2005 and is a quasi-compulsory experience for Dutch schools, youth associations and family days out.
So why had we never heard of it before?
It turns out we’re not the only ones: since returning to Luxembourg from our winter vacation in the Netherlands, we’ve been telling friends about it, and none of them have heard about it either. What’s more, we spent over six hours in the museum – six wonderful, magical, informative, educational hours – and we very rarely overheard any language other than Dutch.
Which begs the question: Is the NOM the Netherlands’ best-kept international tourist secret? We think it may just be.
Upon entering this impressive historical institution on a bitterly cold January morning, we quickly realised something: it is impossible to see and do everything that the NOM has to offer in one day, especially with kids in tow. Therefore, this article is not a review, is not a “top things to do in…” report; it is merely ten things that our family enjoyed about our day in the NOM, in no particular order. If you visit this museum, you may find ten completely different “favourite” things. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?
1. Ice skating
Is there anything more synonymous with winter in the Netherlands than ice skating in the great outdoors? The canals in the park were not sufficiently frozen at the time of our visit, so visitors were given the choice of two special-purpose ice rinks; one for beginners (complete with old-style wooden chairs as learning aids) and a larger one for the more accomplished. Guaranteed to put big smiles on little faces.
The NOM is big. Weighing in at a hefty 44 hectares (108 acres), it is almost 50% larger than the celebrated Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm (30 ha) and bigger even than Disneyland, California (34 ha). It’s obvious that a visitor attraction on this sort of scale needs an internal transportation system, and this requirement is met perfectly by NOM’s very own tram network.
Beautifully restored vintage carriages trundle along a circular track around the museum, with smartly uniformed conductors and six different stations serving the main attractions. The park’s tram system is so revered that it arguably qualifies as a tourist attraction in its own right, even having its own blog dedicated to it (in Dutch). Genuinely impressive.
When we recently asked Child #3 to name her favourite memory of the NOM, her answer was immediate and unequivocal:
Yes, knitting. Right beside one of the tram stops we discovered four kindly, flowery-aproned ladies in a cosy farmhouse, patiently giving knitting lessons for clumsy little fingers. The perfect, calming, warming antidote to the winter chill and the hustle and bustle of the visiting masses.
4. Café and old Dutch games
The attention to detail and efforts to recreate historical accuracy in the museum is admirable. So when we began to feel the cold and ducked into a café to warm up, we weren’t really surprised to discover that it was an authentic huiskamercafé (living room café), a once-popular way for farms to supplement their income (and catch up on the local gossip). This particular one – dripping with atmosphere – was originally located in the Brabant region and painstakingly moved to the NOM beam by beam and stone by stone.
Along with our drinks, we tried out some old Dutch sweet treats – Boterkoek, Krentenwegge and Suikerbrood to name but some – and the kids played traditional games as we ate. A nearby shed was also full of these Oud-Hollandse Spellen, and after our hot chocolates we whiled away almost an hour in there having good old-fashioned fun, the Dutch way. Sjoelbak (shuffleboard) was a particularly big hit!
It’s an open-air museum in the Netherlands; of course there are windmills! Naturally, some photos were taken:
Yet another free activity for the kids: grab a stick with some dough stringed around it, roast it over an open fire and – hey presto! – you have stokbrood (“stick bread” or “twist bread”). This is something that we often do back home in Luxembourg, but familiarity didn’t tarnish the thrill and cosy feelings elicited by this simple, warming experience.
7. The oil mill
When Child #2 spotted a sign for “Molen” – which means “Painting” (verb) in Luxembourgish – she ran ahead of us in anticipation of becoming the next great Dutch master. However, she was initially disappointed to discover she had made a translation error: it turns out that “Molen” means “Mill” in Dutch and we had stumbled across a working linseed oil mill.
Like many attractions in the museum, the occupants of the oil mill were friendly, highly knowledgeable and multi-lingual. Who knew that humble linseed oil was manufactured in such an interesting way? We also discovered that linseed oil forms the basis of the oil-based paint used by the old Dutch masters (and many other painters) and so, by sheer coincidence, Child #2’s mistranslation turned out to be not too far wrong after all…
8. Quiet corners
This is a major visitor attraction in one of the most densely populated areas of Europe, so of course it can become infuriatingly busy. But its clever layout and enormous scale means that escaping the maddening crowds is surprisingly easy. Besides, if you wander down a little side-street or into a quiet building you will probably discover something special.
The quintessential miniature Dutch pancake, our kids discovered poffertjes on a previous trip to the Netherlands, and the lure of more proved irresistibly tempting. In one particularly buzzing corner of the park, we stumbled across pure poffertjes gold – an entire café dedicated to the art and craft of these gorgeous little mouthfuls of dough and powdered sugar.
I would normally add a photo, but the poffertjes were all gone before I could get the camera out…
10. A family photo
And last but not least, a kindly passing visitor gave us a rare gift – he offered to take a photo of all six of us together, something that is extremely infrequent in our family photo albums.
A lasting souvenir of a really great day out.
Practical tips for visiting the Nederlands Openlucht Museum
- The museum is situated on the northern outskirts of Arnhem just off the A12/Waterberg junction (exit 26). It is very well signposted – just follow the signs for Arnhem-Noord (Openluchtmuseum/Burgers’ Zoo).
- It is open from the end of March to end of October (summer season) and December to mid-January (winter season).
- Entrance costs are €16 per adult and €12 per child (4-12 years), with kids aged 3 and under going free (2016 prices). All of the activities mentioned above were included in the entrance price. However, parking is an additional €6.
- Major signs and explanations are in Dutch, English and German. All of the museum staff that we encountered spoke either English or German.
- Ice skating is (obviously) winter-only. Skate hire and access to the ice rinks are included in the entrance price. We had brought some of our own ice skates, which turned out to be a good idea: due to high demand there was a shortage of skates in some kids’ sizes.
- Dogs are permitted in the park (on a lead) but not in the historical buildings.
- The park is pushchair-friendly. From the tram we spotted an impressive playground, but we didn’t get a chance to visit it. In short, the museum is definitely suitable for little ones.
- Most importantly – don’t try to see everything in one day. Choose the attractions that interest you most, and savour them slowly.
Daisy the bus visited the Nederlands Openlucht Museum in January 2017
(c) 2017 Jonathan Orr