The capital city of The Netherlands is not just for backpackers or young singles. In fact, a family holiday to Amsterdam with kids provides a perfect combination of European culture and history with easy family living. Hidden behind the picture perfect façade of the Amsterdam canals, pedestrian bridges and tall townhouses with flowering window boxes lies a children’s paradise.
A visit to Amsterdam with kids is bound to be memorable for much more besides an introduction to the seedy side of life. The city that you’ll find waiting for you beyond the backpacker trap is famed for its laid back outlook on life, which is not restricted to sex and drugs! The Dutch are famous for their work-life balance, achieved at least partly by the fact that many parents (and almost all women) work part-time. This means that on any given day you will see parents running errands with their children, having coffee with friends or going to the playground. The city has a relaxed and lived-in feel to it and, if the sun shines, the locals spill out into the parks and on to the canals for impromptu picnics and boating.
At the same time, Amsterdam is one of the major cultural capitals of Europe, packing an amazing number of museums and a lot of history into a very tight geographic area. It also boasts a bustling financial district and is home to a great number of European multinational companies. And yet, because of its location near the sea, the many canals and the lush greenery, the city always allows you enough room to breathe – as the Dutch would say.
This being Amsterdam, the Venice of the north, a canal cruise is almost obligatory. This is Holland’s most popular tourist attraction and it is also a lot of fun with interesting tidbits about historical places and tips for visiting when back on dry land. Kids are allowed to walk up and down the boats, get to ask questions and on some cruises drinks and food are served as well. On sunny days the cruise will be accompanied by a fleet of small boats filled with summery dressed Amsterdam natives floating along and relaxing on the water.
In the winter, the canals freeze over enough that you can ice skate or sled on top of them.
Back on land, Amsterdam with kids is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Don’t be afraid to duck into small alleyways and peek around corners – this is where you will find a hidden playground or one of the dozen petting zoos located within the city. Duck into the right corridor and you might even find yourself in the middle of the picture gallery of several life-sized 17th century pictures of the city guard, running between the two buildings in which the Amsterdam Museum is located.
There are more historical treasures to be discovered. In the 17th century Catholicism was frowned upon and public worship was not allowed. This led to the institution of schuilkerken (hidden churches).
One of the most famous, a full blown Catholic church built inside the top three stories of a townhouse, can still be visited: Ons Lieve Heer Op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic).
Or you could step behind the bookcase in the Anne Frank House and discover where the 13-year-old Jewish girl wrote her famous diary. Through thoughtful and interactive displays children discover the historical reality of the Holocaust.
For discoveries of a different nature, head on over to the Nemo along the harbour from the Central Station. The building is unmissable: it is the green ship rearing up from the harbour side. This is four storeys of children’s science experiments and explanations with lots of hands on activities. The rooftop has a lovely view of the old town and is perfect for a packed picnic lunch when the weather is good.
In fact, almost all the big museums (the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Hermitage) have special programs and activities for children from roughly seven years onwards. Even better, most are centrally located near the Vondelpark(often compared to Central Park in New York City, though at the same time smaller and without traffic running through it) so after a few hours of culture, the children can burn some energy at the playground.
[For more travel tips on selecting the right galleries and museums for kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Visiting Amsterdam in fact does not mean foregoing nature – during the Great Depression the government decided to plant a forest at the city’s edge, which has since been enclosed. The Amsterdamse Bos may not be very wild, but it is lovely for walks, has some wonderful playgrounds (including the famous melkhuisje (Milk House) where parents can sit and have a coffee while watching their children) and a working goat’s farm where children get to help out in feeding and milking the goats. (The parents get to eat goat’s cheese.)
Finally, if goats are a little too tame for your small ones, there is always city zoo Artis with monkeys and tigers and all manner of wild animals.
The Netherlands stands out for three reasons when it comes to food: firstly, the daily coffee intake per person is the highest in the world (the Dutch drink over half a cup more than the second country on the list). Secondly, groceries are cheap, fresh and plentiful. Thirdly, the Dutch love all things dairy and have an amazing assortment of dairy desserts. It is absolutely worth checking out the local grocery store (Albert Heijn) which is always walking distance away.
Dutch cuisine is not as advanced as in the neighbouring Francophone countries, but it more than makes up for its lack of finesse with the enthusiasm for the accompanying children. If you stick to so-called eetcafés (somewhere in between pub grub and gastropubs) you can get a good meal and a lot of snacks for the children.
Even better is to go to a pancake restaurant of which many are dotted around the city. The most famous are the Pancake Bakery and the Pancake Cruise and they all serve thick, filling pancakes with either a sweet or a savoury toppings and icing sugar and stroop (the local syrup) on the side. These places are known as family restaurants and will often come with not only crayons but entire play areas outside.
The KinderKookKafé (“children’s cookery café”) takes dining with children to a whole new level by letting the children (from two years onwards) cook the food. From eight years onwards you can drop them off and let them be chef for the day!
During the day you’ll find broodjeszaken (sandwich places) all over town where you can sit down have a coffee or tea and a sandwich – which’ll run the gamut of simple bread with cheese to whole creations. A lovely one is the Bakkerswinkel (bakery shop) at the Westerpark, although the chain has several outlets. Having milk with your lunch is perfectly acceptable – including for adults. Often these places come with a play area for children and you will meet other parents taking a break during their day off there as well. Working part time is very common for both women and increasingly, men so there is plenty of opportunity to meet some local parents.
[For more travel tips on introducing foreign foods to kids, see the suitcases&strollers interview with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant.]
Like any major tourist destination, Amsterdam has its fair share of hotels and places to stay, ranging from the exquisite to the downright basic. The Plantage area is a nice place to stay for families, a little more quiet and near to both the zoo and the Vondelpark.
The area around the Central Station is the most bustling and a great draw for the party crowd, including those looking for marijuana. However, if you are planning on many daytrips outside of Amsterdam, this is the most convenient area.
Hampshire Hotel Lancaster is located on the Plantage Middenlaan, has ample family rooms and is non-smoking. Breakfast is included, but the hotel does not have a restaurant.
For more greenery and space, have a look at the Mövenpick Hotel. It is located slightly further away on the banks of the river (or lake) IJ.
A designer touch for those with slightly older children is the Conservatorium Hotel located in the Museum district and filled with contemporary design and intricate family room arrangements.
For the adventurous, there is the Botel, a basic, clean and well-run budget hotel on a boat.
Finally, for the full Monty (central location, old townhouses and also a gym and a spa) there is the Crowne Plaza hotel, a stone’s throw away from the Central Station.
The Netherlands is a small country. Utrecht is only half an hour by train from Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague less than an hour. The Keukenhof, the landscaped park with acre upon acre covered in tulips every spring is also close by, as is the sea (which is nice for walks and less so for bathing). In fact, only a few hours to the South lie Brussels and Paris, making Amsterdam an ideal base for European day trips.
Most people arrive in
Amsterdam city via train. The Central Station looks out over the city on the
one side and over the harbour on the other. Ferries across the water to Noord
(North), a residential neighbourhood popular with young families, are free.
From the Central Station it is a short walk down the Damrak (the Dam), the
square at the heart of the city.
From here, the city fans out into all directions, each neighbourhood with its own flavor. The central area is where all the canals are, circling the city centre and lined with grand townhouses. To the east and west are the gentrified old neighbourhoods with the quiet residential neighbourhoods in the east and quaint shops, innovative companies and hipster hang outs in the west. Zuid (South) is where old grandeur resides with beautiful houses and tree-lined lanes.
The famous old harbourfront is near the current train station, to the left along the water (and a few streets in). It has retained many of its former attractions, including Chinatown, the red light district and a fair few “coffeeshops” (cafes that sell marijuana). This is also where most of the backpacker hostels are located. However, the city council is working hard to turn this part of town into a more pleasant experience for tourists by limiting the permits for the adult entertainment and offering the space instead to creative start-ups. The area itself is safe to venture into. Should you not want to go there, take care to avoid the area between the Zeedijk and the Warmoesstraat. Most tourist maps will have the red light district marked on them or you could ask your hotel to mark it for you. Should you want to show this side of life to your (older) children, it is possible to book walking tours through this area. Tour guides include former policemen from the Bureau Warmoesstraat.
English is very widely spoken, though not the native language. People are generally friendly and ready to help.
Amsterdam lies only a little inland from the North Sea and has a temperate climate. This means that the weather is neither extremely cold nor warm, but can be a little unpredictable. In summer the weather is generally pleasantly warm (20 to 25 degrees Celsius) and in winter it is generally in between cool and cold (-5 to 5 degrees Celsius). However, this does not take into account the rain (anywhere from drizzling to slashing) or the wind (anywhere from soft breeze to gale). All this means that packing several layers is the best bet.
Spring is a particularly lovely time of the year to visit the Netherlands, as all the tulips and daffodils are in bloom. Also, most major holidays fall in the April/May period, including the largest national holiday of King’s Day: 27th April. This celebrates the birthday of the monarch with a nationwide flea market, loads of boats in the canals and an amazing amount of orange clothing. It is, however, not advisable to travel into or out of Amsterdam on this day as traffic, including trains, is often completely gridlocked.
Getting around is easy, both on foot (pack sturdy shoes) and by public transport (buses, trams, subway). An OV chip kaart (prepaid public transport pass) is available, most easily at the Central Station. These cards can be charged at the machines inside the station.
If you feel a bit more adventurous, you could also hire bicycles from, for instance, Mac Bikes. They rent out child seats as well. Don’t be shocked if you’re not offered a helmet for your children! The Dutch don’t use helmets at all. Another option is the bakfiets, a carrier bike with a big tub in front in which you seat the children. You will blend right in with the locals.
Getting around with a stroller is reasonably fuss-free. Almost all sidewalks are paved. Take note, however, the wide red sidewalks are not for pedestrians! These are cycling paths. Do watch out for cyclists as they might not be where you would expect them to be. Train and subway stations have lifts, but hotels and houses are a different matter. You could be expected to leave the stroller in the hallway and carry up your child in your arms.
There are no malls or outside shopping centres in or around Amsterdam. This means that supermarkets, drugstores and pharmacies are dotted all around town, generally never further than walking distance away.
The water is safe to drink. In fact, should you fall into a canal, there is not much to worry about. The water hygiene is closely monitored. Also, the water in the restrooms is always cold.
By Katrijn de Ronde; Images: Botel, Folkert Boelen, Michelle Leung, Edwin van Eis, Our Lord in the Attic, The Pancake Bakery, Geert Snoeijer, VVV