New museums to marvel over in Amsterdam, Rome and Paris
In a wide-ranging trip to Europe this year, I found three major new museums to love: in Amsterdam, the first satellite branch of Russia's celebrated Hermitage; in Rome, a long-awaited museum for contemporary arts that is a work of art itself; and in Paris, a picture gallery with a constantly changing program of special exhibitions meant to shake up the enterprise of art appreciation.

The Hermitage Amsterdam

The Hermitage, begun by Empress Catherine II in 1764, has 350 galleries in a series of decaying royal palaces near the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. But even they aren't enough to display the collection, 3 million artworks strong. When I visited the Hermitage during a long Russian winter some years go, many rooms were closed, and the heating system was so deficient that docents sat guard in coats and gloves.

Creating a satellite to display excess treasures from the Hermitage is an idea whose time has come, following in the footsteps of other museums with lesser collections, such as the Pompidou, now in the French town of Metz as well as in Paris, and the Guggenheim, which has planted offshoots in Venice, Italy; Berlin; Bilbao, Spain; and Abu Dhabi. Income from the Hermitage Amsterdam, a private institution, will help with upkeep at the Russian mother ship.

A baby Hermitage is a logical outgrowth of the long-standing ties between Russia and the Netherlands, forged when Peter the Great visited the Lowlands in 1697, and Anna Pavlovna, sister of Czar Alexander I, married Dutch Prince William of Orange in 1816.

The Hermitage Amsterdam, in the center of the city, occupies a long, low complex that was built as a home for the elderly in the 1680s. Its classical brick facade and finials look like something from Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg. But the interior was largely gutted to make way for wide, airy galleries around a courtyard where the old folks' linen was once laundered.

The dramatic restoration allowed for state-of-the-art touches, including scanners to read bar-coded entry tickets and synthetic DNA tags that help safeguard objets d'art. The main lobby has computer terminals and a contemporary flying staircase that leads to the stylish Neva Restaurant, with seating areas around coffee tables, a magazine rack and open kitchen serving Russian beet-root soup and salmon blinis.

I didn't have a ticket or even a city map when I arrived in Amsterdam by train. It didn't matter because the busy Central Station tourist office issued me a 24-hour transit pass, museum entrance and hotel booking at the Residence le Coin, a modest hotel on New Doelen Street owned by the nearby University of Amsterdam. From the train station I caught a tram that jolted past houseboats on placid canals and planters full of tulips, reminding me how hard it is not to like Amsterdam.

It was a quick trip, with just enough time to see the new museum's current exhibition of Russian Orthodox Church art that lasts until mid-September, to be followed by a couple of blockbusters: Flemish painters from the Hermitage, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Jordaens and Rubens (including his stunning "Descent From the Cross"), opening Sept. 17; and in the fall of next year, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks from the vast St. Petersburg collection, together with 75 works by Vincent Van Gogh, temporarily homeless while the city's Van Gogh Museum closes for renovation from September 2012 to March 2013.

A pleasant surprise at the Hermitage Amsterdam is a wing of handsomely restored rooms from the building's nursing home era when residents occupied snug chamberettes and attended daily religious services. The 18th century kitchen remains intact, and tall windows illuminate the old church hall, which still has an 1810 organ that once accompanied the singing of hymns.

Hermitage Amsterdam, 51 Amstel, 011-31-20-530-74-88,; open daily 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. Wednesdays); Admission: $22.


Since May, half a million people have visited Rome's National Museum of 21st Century Arts, more commonly known as MAXXI. This is the new home of two museums devoted to contemporary art and architecture, demonstrating that there's much more to art in the Eternal City than headless statues and paintings of the Madonna.

I'd wager that many visitors come chiefly to see the building, designed by Iraq-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid. It took more than a decade to finish, a flamboyant, flying coil of a structure that joins a small club of noteworthy contemporary buildings in Rome, whose other members include Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica auditorium, Pier Luigi Nervi's 1960 Olympic Stadium and Richard Meier's Ara Pacis Museum.

The 2006 advent of the starkly modern Ara Pacis on the Tiber River in the historic heart of Rome caused much head-shaking among architectural purists. MAXXI avoided censure because, like the Parco della Musica, it is in Flaminia, several miles north of the center. Getting here by public transportation involves catching a clattering tram at Piazza del Popolo, which traverses a pleasant, green residential district before arriving near MAXXI's threshold in about 15 minutes.

Approaching from Via Guido Reni, visitors see an early 20th century Italian army barracks; behind the old facade, Hadid's new building prepares for takeoff. It's shaped something like a quotation mark; its third level sweeps over the first and second before coming to a stop in a glass-lined, cantilevered gallery. This show-stopping space overlooks the plaza, which occupies an entire block and has another barracks-era building now housing a bookstore and restaurant-cafe.

MAXXI's fluidly curving interior has catwalks and ramps leading through its five galleries, equipped with ceiling tracks that allow for room reconfiguration and louvered blinds that allow natural light. Hadid designed MAXXI to accommodate big temporary exhibitions in which the works can be huge or unconventional, such as the stainless steel mirrors and mountains of rags in a show devoted to Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto on display through Aug. 15.

More an art campus than a museum, MAXXI is already a hub for events such as this summer's Young Architects Program, which has transformed the piazza into an archipelago of green islets. Future exhibitions include "Thoughtform," created by London-based Otolith artists collective, and "Indian Superhighway," new art from the subcontinent, both opening this fall.

The architecture museum uses gallery space to display special exhibitions and pieces from its archives, which include fascinating photos, sketches and diagrams by important modern Italian architects such as Carlo Scarpa, Pier Luigi Nervi, Aldo Rossi and Enrico del Debbio, who designed the Mussolini-era Foro Italico sports complex just across the Tiber.