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Take the Family › A Review of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

A Review of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

A rainy Friday afternoon in the Van Gogh Museum, and my seven-year-old son Ripley casts off the earphones of his kids’ audio-tour, demands paper and a pen, and sits down among the sea of grown-up legs to draw an elaborate dragon. While his subject matter may be far removed from that of the Dutch painter, the artistic impulse seems just as strong – focused on his masterpiece, Ripley is oblivious to the inquisitive stares of the other gallery-goers.

My husband takes the adult audio-tour together with our youngest, the latter mercifully asleep in his stroller. I follow the two older boys as they race excitedly around the galleries on the trail of the butterfly icons that denote that a particular painting is discussed on their audio-tour. They love ‘Wheatfield with Crows’, debating whether the black slashes of the birds might not actually be bats, and they’re fascinated by the tuber-like faces of ‘The Potato-Eaters’. I am delighted by the ethereal almond-blossom pictures but haunted by the still-more evanescent image, blown up and covering an entire wall, of Van Gogh in conversation with a friend – one of only two photographs of the artist to survive, it shows him only from behind, faceless, as if he were hiding, even then, from all this mass adulation. 

We lured the boys to the museum under false pretences, taking recourse in the ear-lopping legend to get them interested. It worked, of course. It worked a little too well, in fact – nine-year-old Ethan asks if the ear itself is actually on display, while Ripley surmises even more ghoulishly that Van Gogh’s entire body might be kept at the museum. I let them down gently.

Having been told we must be mad to bring kids to the Dutch capital in February, we’re discovering that beyond the sleaze and the weed, Amsterdam is very much a city for children. If you don’t believe me, just stand and watch as a young mum hurtles alongside a canal with a newborn baby nestled in a seat on the front of her bike, or as a dad heads off to do the family shop, three kids and a stroller arrayed in a giant box on the front of his bicycle. This is not a city where children are wrapped up and cosseted and sheltered from the world. You get the sense that life continues much as before when you become a parent here – kids go along for the ride, and it’s not in a 4X4.

We do as the locals do, leaving our car outside the city and hiring bikes – an adult-child tandem and a bakfiets with a front trailer for the two younger boys. Together we roam Amsterdam, its canals and bridges and parks and playgrounds, its museums, its science centre Nemo, its Chinatown. We spend Sunday amidst local families at the zoo, we eat frites and stroopwaffels and have lunch in typical basic eetcafés, and we play knights and damsels at magical medieval Muiderslot. We even stay in the red-light district, not in the famous Bulldog Hostel itself but in one of its apartments. Beyond our window, Amsterdam life unfolds it all its contradictions – stoners lurch beside the glittering canal, sex-shop facades shimmer, and prostitutes pout and preen in their cabins, but then, in the cold blue light of a new day, Amsterdam’s children emerge from doorways, climb onto their bikes and head to school. 

By Rhonda Carrier

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