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Because the capital of the Netherlands, while notorious for its red-light district and – at least until recently – its 'coffeehouses', can be a refreshing bet for a family city break, provided you approach it in the right frame of mind. The city centre is hectic and touristy, while the Dutch laidback, hippyish approach to life in general can be both refreshing and frustrating. But if you plan what you want to do in advance and go armed with a masterplan, there's no reason why you won't enjoy the 'Venice of the North' and its manifold attractions.
Check out the museums. Amsterdam is a wonderfully cultural city for those who care to look beyond the clichés. The Rijksmuseum, the national museum, is a massive storehouse of art, crafts and history, with plenty to see by Dutch Old Masters Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer, but also a fantastic collection of Asian art. Children's tours are restricted to group bookings, but you can hire a kids' audio-tour for ages 6–12, taking as its theme Food & Drink in the Dutch Golden Age. There's also a Gordon the Warden trail sheet on sale at the information desk, taking kids aged 6–12 on a search for five of the museum's masterpieces, including Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch'.
Walk a short distance from the Rijksmuseum in its home on Museumplein to the Van Gogh Museum, where younger kids can similarly make use of a children's audio-tour (ages 6–12) or a free treasure hunt with a prize (ages 6–10) to gain an insight into the work of the famously tormented genius. Children's workshops are regularly held but only by advance reservation for groups in English.
The Rembrandt House, a little more centrally located, is set in a building where the painter lived and worked before going bankrupt. It's not as child-friendly as the previous museums, but older kids may be interested in Rembrandt's etchings and in the carefully reconstructed period interiors.
Take older kids for an eye-opening, consciousness-raising history lesson at the Anne Frank House, where the young Jewish hid out from the Nazis with her family, as described in her 'Diary of a Young Girl' (the original of which is among the items displayed). Temporary exhibitions are held here too, on issues such as discrimination and freedom of speech. Beware that queues for the museum can be very long – advance online booking is recommended. [If you find the costs of your museum visits totting up, it may be worth investing in a Museum Jaarkaart, although kids go free to many of the city's museums.]
Explore canal's distinctive network of canals – either a hop-on hop-off touring cruiser, or better fun for kids, a 4-seater 'canal bike' (essentially a pedalo) – CanalBike offers hire, route suggestions and rain shields, or else group tours on various themes, including a 'mystery tour' and Rembrandt's Amsterdam (the latter combines an hour's walk with an hour on the canal).
Discover Nemo, the city's wonderful 'hands-on', ship-shaped science centre, designed for children 3-13. It's not cheap, and you'll need a full day inside to see everything over the five storeys and get your money's worth, but there's a gigantic rooftop where you can run amok against great city views (it becomes a magnet for sun-bathers in summertime). You can picnic there or elsewhere in the museum, or there are several eateries. In Dutch school holidays Nemo gets extra-busy but does offer special events, including science displays and workshops.
Decide for yourself about Artis Zoo – somewhat run-down and with some enclosures of a size that many visitors will deem unacceptable (smaller urban zoos are not the place for elephants, for instance), but offering a good if very expensive day out by virtue of its also housing a planetarium with daily shows, an aquarium, a zoological museum, a geological museum, a children's farm and a great playground.
Explore the Vondelpark, generally considered the city's best. In summer, it's' a haven for cyclists and Rollerbladers and there's lots of open-air theatre, while on Queen's Day (April 30) there's a family-friendly celebration here, including games and activities for kids.
When the weather lets you down, head for Tun Fun, a popular, huge and very central indoor playground for ages 0–12, while for older kids, the Amsterdam Dungeon offers the same schlocky fun as its counterparts in London and elsewhere, with historical twists – Rembrandt's Secret explores the iconic painter's dark side, while Crime and Punishment traces the story of the 16th-century 'Council of Blood'.
Venture out to Muiderslot, a medieval castle 12km southeast of Amsterdam, with falconry displays and great children’s trails and activities.
Seek out local beaches in fine weather – Zandvoort can get very hectic, but there are some very family-friendly stretches to the north of IJmuiden.
Dutch cuisine tends to be stodgy but Amsterdam offers most cuisines you might care to seek out, including Indonesian by virtue of the country's colonial history. Pancakes are also a child-friendly staple – the Pancake Bakery near the Anne Frank House gets rave reviews, while most kids also go a bundle for the chips, served with mayo, and for the stroopwaffels.
Personal recommendations from our team and from Amsterdam natives include Tisfris, a central eetcafé (like a gastro-pub), Saturnino, a justifiably popular Italian in the heart of town, on Reguliersdwarsstraat, Scossa restaurant in the Renaissance Marriott hotel (see Accommodation), De Drie Graefjjes, a 'lunchroom-petit restaurant' on Eggertstraat in the centre, serving gigantic muffins (think raspberry and cream cheese) and cakes, omelettes and brunch specials, fresh juices and great coffees, and the Van Gogh Museum café.
Though like all cities, Amsterdam can be visited year round, it truly comes into its own between May and September, when there's a huge range of outdoor festivals and other alfresco events, such as movie screenings. Amsterdam is also blessed with a number of beaches within easy reach, including boho Blijburg an zee, which hosts summer arts events, yoga sessions and capoeira shows.
The most environmentally friendly way to reach the Netherlands is by ferry, with P&O Ferries taking you overnight from Hull to Rotterdam, 90mins southwest of Amsterdam. Alternatively, DFDS Seaways sails from Newcastle to IJmuiden near Amsterdam and Zandvoort.
Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, 2hrs from London, is served by both regular and low-cost airlines and has excellent rail connections into the capital.
If you do bring your car or hire one, consider investing in a GPS, which will allow you to easily locate out-of-town Park & Ride facilities such as P&R Zeeburg, which lets you park outside Amsterdam for a few Euros a day, including free shuttle in and out of the centre. For more tips on driving, see our Taking or Hiring a Car page.
A new high-speed line to Amsterdam has made train travel a very viable option, taking as little as 4hrs 16mins (count on 4hrs to fly centre-to-centre). You take a Eurostar from London to Brussels, then a fast train from Brussels to Amsterdam. For details of this and other train/train and ferry routes, see the Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com).
Amsterdam itself is fairly compact and very easy to get around on foot or or by tram – or best of all, by bike. Among the countless hire outlets, we recommend Damstraat Rent a Bike (rentabike.nl), who have a large variety of models and configurations. Count on €50 to hire a adult-and-child tandem and a bakfiets or cargo-bike (an adult bike with a box on the front for two kids).
The Dutch capital is cheap to fly to by low-cost carrier, but if you need wheels to explore the surrounding region you may be better off taking your own car on the ferry.
You can eat out relatively inexpensively, while accommodation varies from very expensive (in the city) to budget at a holiday village within easy reach of it.
Accommodation within Amsterdam is plentiful but expensive. For a splurge, we recommend the Okura a short taxi ride outside the centre, just south of the Museum District, with more peaceful surroundings than the central hotels. The only European outpost of a Japanese chain, it has various USPs, including Washlet toilets with built-in bidets and heated seats – a giggle for kids. The hotel also boasts two of the three Michelin-starred restaurants in Amsterdam, plus an award-winning family-friendly brasserie.
You might cut costs by staying close to the city, in a holiday village/campsite – see our Netherlands destination guide for some examples. There's also Camping Vliegenbos (vliegenbos.com), 10 minutes from the centre in a large wood, handy for both Amsterdam and the very pretty Waterland and Zaan region. Tents, caravans and campervans can be accommodated but there's no advance reservation; there are also 'trekkers' cabins' for up to 4, with 2 bunk-beds and a cooking ring, which can be pre-booked.
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