‘Amsterdam? In February? With young kids?!’
It was, I explained to my sceptical friend, who knows the city well, a break born of circumstance. We were staying in a holiday village just outside the Netherlands’ capital so it seemed crazy not to discover what Amsterdam has offer from a children’s point of view (like most parents, no doubt, my husband and I had both only explored it from a very adult perspective…).
After all, I said, even those cities that seem least child-friendly are home to young kids and must cater to them in terms of entertainment, activities and eating out (see also my feature on Florence With Young Kids). While I knew that we wouldn’t be able to experience the laidback Dutch city in all its glory – in summertime, Amsterdam’s lively alfresco scene includes funky urban beaches and outdoor concerts and theatre in its streets and parks – I was certain that we could find enough to keep us interested for four days.
In fact, we had difficulty packing it all in, Amsterdam has so much to offer children, even younger ones like mine (then seven, six and two). We began by getting stuck into some of the city’s impressive culture offerings, luring the kids to the Van Gogh Museum with gory tales about the artist who went mad and chopped off part of his ear. Though they were disappointed that the body part in question wasn’t on display, Ethan and Ripley were thrilled by their junior audio-tours, which had them racing round the busy galleries in search of the butterfly icons that signalled that a particular painting was discussed via their headsets. More by luck than judgement, toddler Zac was asleep in his buggy, which meant that both my husband and I were also able to appreciate the displays to some extent. When he awoke, we beat a retreat to the museum’s lovely café, to drink hot Chocomel amidst the dried blossom branches (a reference to the artist’s paintings on the subject).
Getting up to freezing temperatures the next morning, we set out bravely to collect the bikes we’d reserved from Damstraat Rent-a-bike, a well-reputed and very popular company who offer all sorts of family-friendly contraptions. We’d chosen an adult-and-child tandem and a bakfiets (front trailer), on the basis that Zac could ride in the latter while his older brothers could take turns on the tandem and in the trailer, but it turned out that Ethan was too large for the trailer, and Ripley was only to happy to stay in the snug, warm trailer with its rain-cover.
It took a few hair-raising moments on the street to get used to our bikes (the long wheelbases make them a bit unwieldy), but once we were up and running, it was exhilarating riding along pedestrianised streets, down wide bike lanes, alongside canals, over bridges, and beside pretty 17th-century gabled canal-houses. Of course, despite having come armed with a map, we were lost in minutes, but this turned out to be an advantage since we accidentally ‘discovered’ the city’s fragrant Chinatown – which happened to be setting up for its New Year celebrations – as well as a whole host of picture-postcard minor canals, all deserted, glittering in the winter sunshine.
We eventually arrived at our destination, a ship-shaped green building looming up from Amsterdam’s Eastern Dock. Nothing to do with the Disney fish, NEMO – a science and technology centre for kids aged 3–13 – takes its name from the Dutch for ‘no one’, in a reference to ‘the voyage of discovery between reality and fantasy’. This voyage is what is offered by the centre’s five stories of interactive exhibits and its frequent demonstrations and performances.
We were lucky enough to visit during North Holland’s school holidays, which meant that although NEMO was pretty busy, there were plenty of extra activities on offer. My older boys loved the noisy, explosive demonstration of rocket-making and -launching that was no less enjoyable for it being delivered in Dutch. Other highlights for them were standing inside giant bubbles and waiting to get a shock from the electrocution machine, while Zac, though technically too young for NEMO, also enjoyed the bubbles and various other gadgets and displays, especially the Machine Park ball factory. NEMO is expensive, so you need to spend the day there – as we did – to get your money’s worth, but you can take food to picnic on-site (on the splendid rooftop if it’s fine), or there are several inexpensive eating options in the building.
We set off to explore more of Amsterdam by bike, doing a large circuit of the centre via the Prinsengracht. As this happened not to have bike lanes or be car-free, we took it steady, wondering at the number of Amsterdammers hurtling along with seeming disregard for pedestrians or other vehicles. At one point we were overtaken by a woman with what looked to be a newborn in a babyseat on the front of her bike, going so fast she seemed as if she’d achieve lift-off (the baby was completely unperturbed). Several times we saw dads or mums setting out with what looked like everything but the kitchen sink in huge boxes clamped to the front of their bike – two or three kids, a folded buggy, and a week’s worth of grocery shopping!
After aborted visits to Artis Zoo (sad and dilapidated) and the Vondelpark (ruined by drizzle), we spent our last day at Muiderslot castle a few kilometres from central Amsterdam. We drove (having left our car at a Park & Ride outside the city during our stay in the city), but it is possible to get there by public transport. Again, we counted ourselves lucky to have come in the Dutch school holidays, because despite the long queues, Muiderslot – built by the revolutionary Count Floris V in 1285, and the most famous castle in the Netherlands – was alive with children dressed as knights and damsels (entry was free to kids who arrived in costume).
Although visitors are free to just wander moated Muiderslot and its lovely grounds at will, it’s best to purchase one of the Quest booklets containing stickers and assignments to help kids learn about the castle’s history as they follow the Knight’s Route and/or Tower Route through the medieval parts of the building, including the gruesome dungeons complete with ancient torture equipment. You can also hire an audio-tour, buy an information guide, or take a guided tour through the museum section (the 17th-century Golden Age route), suitable for ages six and up (in Dutch, although the guides are normally happy to provide some information in English).
The boys came out of Muiderslot raving about what they’d seen and learnt and asking when they could get knights’ costumes. Our Amsterdam city-break had ended on a highpoint, and we left the Netherlands in no doubt that its capital can be a kid-friendly city for those who choose to look beyond the clichés.
Our hotel of choice was the Renaissance Amsterdam, with a very good Italian restaurant, Scossa, featuring a children’s menu, drawing materials and charming, child-attentive staff who whisked ours off to tour the kitchens and help prepare their own desserts. The hotel itself feels cosy despite its 402 rooms and suites, and the décor in our inter-connecting rooms was fresh and contemporary, with pretty modern artworks of Amsterdam scenes on the walls (some rooms sleep four in two double beds). The hotel is also well situated on a quiet street yet only a few minutes’ stroll from the main train station as well as attractions such as the Anne Frank Museum.
Read more about Amsterdam family breaks and holidays.