In this post I’m taking a break from writing about associations, food policy, and leadership. My friends are headed to Amsterdam for spring break next week with their three children and I wanted to share what I think are some of the best things about this great city.
I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between Amsterdam’s sleazy image and the amazingly friendly and lovely city that is the real “Dam.” I’ve visited Amsterdam several times and I always think about how fun it will be for my kids to see it someday. So what is it about Amsterdam that works for a family vacation?
The People (so lovely)
In all of my interactions I have found the Dutch to be such friendly, interesting, and helpful people. They are happy to speak English, proud of their English, and not bothered by the need to use it like the folks to the south. There is also a laidback kindness to the Dutch that I want my kids to see.
The History (modern commerce was invented here)
It’s easy to overwhelm children with too much history when traveling. My wife thinks her parents took her to “every church in England” when they toured. But Amsterdam has fascinating history and it’s represented particularly well in two places, the Anne Frank House and the maritime museum, Het Scheepvaartmuseum. The maritime museum is fun for kids to visit because it’s on the water and easy to navigate. There is a kids’ science museum nearby called Nemo, but I haven’t visited. I’ve never enjoyed children’s museums, I prefer an adult museum that children can enjoy and this is one. This museum uses boats to tell the story of the spice route and Amsterdam’s practical invention of modern commerce.
Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl had a tremendous impact on me when I first read it, and many people have said that the house museum is just as impactful. They also say to go early, be there at opening if it’s possible, because the house is really small. The Anne Frank House is in the Jordan, perhaps the most beautiful part of the city, west of the Center.
The Food (cheese & french fries; what more does a kid need?)
Amsterdam isn’t traditionally known as a culinary destination. Of course they know how to make cheese and there are places you can go to see it made and try it at the source. Most American kids eat lots of cheese, I know mine do, but as far as they know it comes from the Giant. The Dutch countryside, not too far outside of Amsterdam has several “cheese towns” including Alkmaar, Edam, and Gouda. Seeing a cheese town means that you’ve left Central Amsterdam, out in the countryside.
The other Dutch foods that work well for kids are “tostis” and French fries. Tostis, which Americans might call “grilled cheese sandwiches”, are ubiquitous in Amsterdam. You can order one with just cheese, cheese and ham, cheese and tomato. In Amsterdam they specialize in this super kid-friendly food. And the French fries, also everywhere, even sold from tiny shops that sell nothing but French fries. They come with a variety of sauces, they have ketchup, but most locals ask for mayonnaise, and Dutch mayonnaise is very different from American mayo, much creamier, you have to try it.
The Canals (breathtaking)
The canals of Central Amsterdam are beautiful and a great way to see the unique architecture of the city. Boat tours are reasonably priced and they last about 45 minutes to an hour. You can buy tickets and board at several spots, with the most choices near Central Station and the Leidesplein. You may want to plan your trip to coincide with the sunset so you can see the city in the most amazing light of the day. Adults may want to buy a beer or small bottle of wine before you board. Canal tours are good for kids because they don’t have to stay in their seats the entire time.
After the canal cruise walk through Amsterdam’s nicest neighborhoods, Jordan and the Museum area (Museumplein); in the early evening Amsterdam is lovely because the Dutch like to put their homes on display. Front rooms are frequently well lit and the curtains are pulled so strollers can see how lovely it looks inside.
Orange is Everywhere
The Dutch royal family is called the House of Orange and their subjects show their loyalty by wearing lots of orange. One of my favorite food legends is the story of the Dutch farmer that selectively bred his white and purple carrots to make them orange, in honor of the royal family. This act of honor is why most carrots today are orange.
The Red Light District (not as prominent as you expect)
But what about the prostitution and the tolerance for soft drugs? Yes, these are the things that have created a certain, not-so-family friendly image for this beautiful city. Before you actually see the city it’s possible to get the impression that it will be one big open brothel and drug market, it’s not. Prostitution is carefully regulated and it’s mostly confined to the Red Light District, which is less than ten percent of the overall area of Central Amsterdam. If you don’t want the kids to see it, just stay away. This photo is pretty typical of what you will see.
“Coffeeshops” where soft drugs, mostly marijuana, are sold are spread all around the city but they don’t create a nuisance, not even as much as the bars full of rowdy patrons. They do have some great bars in Amsterdam, with most of the rowdy ones full of weekend visitors from the UK, a short trip over or under the English Channel.
How to explain prostitution and drugs to the kids will be up to the parents. But I think a trip to Amsterdam is a great excuse for bringing up the subject.
The Museums (skip ’em)
Amsterdam is known for several great art museums. They have some great collections and this was of course Rembrandt’s home. But I say skip the art museums when you’re traveling with small children, they get bored. One of my favorite lunches in Amsterdam was in the large park behind the Rijksmuseum, a simple ham sandwich on a baguette. My point is that if I was traveling with the kids I would skip the museums but the area around them is fun to visit if the weather is nice.
Getting Around (boats, trams & bikes)
The way the Dutch use their bicycles is amazing. There’s a three story bike parking garage across from Central Station and it’s common to see lots of families on bikes. They aren’t as worried about helmets in Amsterdam as they should be. The speed and volume of bikes in Central Amsterdam is intense. If I was visiting with my family I think I would arrange a ride in the countryside. Mike’s Bike Tours has a countryside tour, including a cheese stop.
The best way to get around Amsterdam with a family is to use the trams and to walk. Walking Amsterdam is a fun challenge because the streets and canals don’t always meet at right angles. Getting lost should be anticipated, and enjoyed.
I hope these notes will help any family visiting the beautiful city of Amsterdam.