Amsterdam with the Kids in Tow
Finding Family-Friendly fun in Famously Adult Amsterdam
By Margot Black
Travel is the perfect way to teach your children many life lessons including flexibility and living in the moment.
So, it was with great eagerness that my family and I enjoyed a whirlwind tour of Amsterdam with the kids on our way to Africa.
The capital of the Netherlands might not scream family friendly, but it should. I was pleasantly surprised at how much it has to offer young visitors.
It’s a contained, vibrant, history-rich city that has a strong cultural identity and infectious, happy energy which we were more than ready to soak up.
Once a fishing village, due to its proximity to the River Amstel, the canals still play a huge part in this city’s ecosystem. In fact, anything to do with moving from a to b, whether it be in a boat, on foot, by bike, tram or car is an event here.
A City of Character
Forget eight-lane highways and faceless malls, this is an exquisite city full of character, small winding streets, beautiful houses, coffee shops, canals, one million residents and two million bicycles!
It’s also known for its relaxed drug laws and Red Light district, the latter of which proved to be a learning moment for not just our son but also me and my husband. More of that later.
It’s impossible to see everything in three days but that didn’t stop us from trying. I always prefer to advance book a car pickup when landing in an unknown city.
It’s nice to be greeted by someone who is expecting you, and a great opportunity to ask tons of questions to someone who knows their way around.
iiA Special Pick Up at Schiphol
I was immediately impressed by the immaculate large black Mercedes van from the Black Lane Car Service that we had booked to pick us up from Schiphol airport.
Our driver was courteous and impeccably groomed, and the vehicle had ample space for a family and all our luggage.
It takes about 15-20 minutes to make your first reservation and acclimate yourself to their app, after that it’s a snap.
We returned for a pass-through a day after our trip to Africa, and I organized and confirmed our return ride while in an airport in Zanzibar in under five minutes.
The Museum Quarter
Our base was the Hotel NH Amsterdam Museum Quarter, which as the name suggests, was centrally located in the museum district.
There was no doubt we were in Europe looking at the haphazard maze of roads and houses spread below.
We had a fairy tale fantasy room that was a magical delight. So many children’s movies feature a lead character looking out over the city from a rooftop window and that’s what this room felt like.
It gave us the establishing shot to our stay. We enjoyed watching nightfall and I awoke early each morning to enjoy the dawn. I could not stop staring out of the window.
The hotel was extremely family-friendly and had every mom’s travel essential, a coin laundry room, which we took full advantage of, and a splendid, variety-filled breakfast buffet that fortified us for a great day of exploring.
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in another culture than by eating, so we started our exploration with a four-hour food tour.
We booked Eating Europe’s Jordaan Food and Canals tour, and so our culinary endeavors began in the Jordaan district, which is where the painter Rembrandt once lived. The one-hour canal boat ride was the first of two we took during our stay.
Jordaan means “garden” and it was the rose season in Amsterdam so utterly gorgeous to look at. In the past, laborers and craftsmen lived in this area but today the crisscrossed streets are home to a bustling community of restaurants, pubs, galleries, and shops.
Jordaan is also renowned for its “mom & pop” shops and the entire neighborhood dripped of character. I was happy to have a guide throughout as we would have missed many interesting sights without one.
A Brown Cafe
We started with a visit to a traditional Dutch pub known as a ‘brown café’ (bruin café), and I had immense mom pride when our ten-year-old son announced: “My name is Jett and I eat everything!”
Cafe Papeneiland, built in 1641, is famous for their apple pie and also the fact that President Bill Clinton stopped to eat here in 2011. These local cafes are a quintessential part of the city’s culture and we devoured their homemade handed-down-through-generations recipe. I vowed to learn how to bake an apple pie while sitting in this adorable pub.
As part of the tour, we also stopped by a local butcher to enjoy a magnificent sausage tasting and later chicken satay made by a charming husband and wife team.
This was one of the best ways we’ve ever started a trip. We did not leave hungry and had a true appreciation of all that this Dutch neighborhood has to offer.
Don’t Miss the Rembrandts
Being located in the museum district was also very useful. You’ve completely failed Amsterdam if you don’t get to see at least a few masterpieces with your own eyes but there’s so much more than Rembrandts and Van Goghs, fabulous though they are.
We literally stumbled upon the Museum of Bags and Purses. I was in heaven and even my husband and son had a good time. website
Curating more purses than the Kardashians’ personal collection it also had a fantastic coffee and sweets café on the second floor, as well as an enchanting tea room (reservations required).
We wanted to linger here for the entire afternoon. There’s a great gift shop and we all went home with a new bag!
The IAMsterdam Card
Many museum entrance fees are included in the IAMsterdam card program which is a most convenient and economical purchase if you plan to do three or more of their offerings per day while visiting (easy to do). The card gives you unlimited free public travel, entry to most museums (advance reservation required on many of the large ones) as well as discounts at restaurants and shows. website
We used it throughout our stay for museum visits as well as tram rides and our second canal boat trip. We purchased two cards and paid/supplemented where needed for our child (many museums have free entry for those under the ages of 17, 11, and in some cases 5 – check museums for regulations), adding in a child’s ticket for the canal tour, Anne Frank House and a child’s trolley day pass for tram tours (which our kid loved and always wanted to take them).
The Hermitage is the Amsterdam branch of the noted Hermitage museum in St Petersburg Russia and was a family favorite. Advanced online reservations are essential (midweek, we made ours an hour before with our phone and got a spot that same day).
There are three separate rooms and installations to explore and a fantastic interactive video room highlighting a selection of masterpieces.
Our kid was actually running towards the next painting after each video presentation ended (Thank You, Hermitage!!!). I also loved the room where anyone can draw.
Our son tried his hand at drawing a nude and while staring at all the perfectly sculpted statues I vowed to start doing sit-ups. My favorite statue was the ode to beautiful buttocks. For that alone, you must go. website
Anne Frank House
More sobering was the Anne Frank House which is the home where Anne, her family, and friends were hidden from the Nazis for much of World War II. It’s a very small but well-run museum. Walking through the door to the tiny upstairs rooms, which was hidden by a bookcase, gave me chills.
We were enchanted by the efficiency of the self-guided audio tours, and exploring the home of one of the world’s best-known diarists was an eye-opening education for our son. Advanced online reservations are essential. website
We also briefly explored the Tulip Museum and the Cheese Museum but only because we stumbled upon them too. We enjoyed tasting all the different varieties and consumed our body weights in dairy products.
Pancakes for Dinner
We ended the day in a way that screams vacation, by eating pancakes at the Pancake Bakery. Pancakes for dinner? Yes, indeed! It’s a chain but a super fun one and our philosophy is to try all the local favorites.
They serve typical diner food (omelets, scrambled eggs) for breakfast and you can also order salads but why do that when you can have literally anything in a pancake from spicy Thai red curry, chorizo, and guacamole to many sweet options including banana and Nutella, cherries, apples, peaches, pineapple.
You name it, they’ll put it in a pancake. This was a very satisfying family experience.
The following day we decided to leave central Amsterdam and take a ferry ride to a real-life castle. After reading all of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series and all of the Brotherband Chronicles by John Flanagan (Great books! Check them out!) during our precious family reading time, a visit to Castle Muiderslot was a perfect choice.
Arriving by tram (thanks again to our IAMsterdam cards) at the Amsterdam Tourist Ferry we boarded and spent 45 glorious minutes on the water before reaching our destination, which we saw long before we docked.
We were excited to explore the striking castle which was built in 1370. There are spectacular flower gardens and picnic tables outside, and rooms filled with costumes and weapons inside. There’s also a café to enjoy a lunch stop inside the high walled courtyard.
Children can learn more about Count Floris V, the castle’s first resident, and have their photo taken as Floris himself or a knight or noble lady.
You can take part in treasure hunts, learn how to defend the towers, explore the dungeons and kitchens, which have been restored to their 17th-century glory, play in the interactive water installation, the Watershield, and arrange a visit with the falconer to meet a real-life bird of prey.
I highly recommend this family day out. We had an absolute blast and our son said: “I feel like I went back in time and lived in history while visiting that castle.”
Back in Amsterdam, we had a stroll around the city’s largest park, the, which is home to a playground, a large pond, and an open-air theater.
By then it was time to address the elephant in the room, the Red Light District, which is not the usual stop on a family-friendly itinerary.
My husband had never been to Amsterdam and was curious to see what it was all about; you hear and read things but seeing is completely different.
We quickly walked through a few streets in the early evening during full daylight on a Saturday night. The district itself is packed with equally curious tourists.
We told our son that the ladies in the shop windows were modeling bathing suits.
A Woman in the Window
A soccer game was in progress during our visit and the crowds were pouring in, so we had a quick look around and darted out to eat cheeseburgers. Then ten blocks away, a half hour after sitting down to eat dinner outside, a beautiful woman appeared in the window across the street.
By that time, we were bundled up in sweaters as we ate. Our son remarked that it was too cold to be in bikinis now and we could only agree. Amsterdam, your charm is deep!
We loved our bonus stopover city break. It was full of fun, laughter and fabulous purses. It’s a liberal city so everything is legal, everyone is happy, and everything is easily accessible.
We’ll definitely return to sample more Dutch hospitality – and before you get any ideas, we mean the apple pie!
Born adventurer and Los Angeles-based travel writer, Margot Black focuses on outdoor family travel, family travel, cultural immersion and experiences in nature. Her goals in life include mastering Spanish, being the weight on her driver’s license, and learning how to travel with just one small suitcase.