Today is our eight month anniversary of living here in The Netherlands; Holland to be more specific. Our family bounced around the United States for several years, from California, to Texas (<3), to Maryland, and Pennsylvania. When the call came about a position for my husband across the pond, we leapt at the chance. My husband and I have three sons, ages 10, 9, and 2.5. We have found our home in the Amsterdam area to be an amazing place for children and families. I think we could do something new every day for a year and still not be done. Should you find yourself in our neck of the woods, I invite you to check out our five favorite places to visit in the Amsterdam area. The list is in no particular order, because I just couldn’t decide!
1. The Anne Frank House
What is it?: Anne Frank wrote in her now-iconic diary within the confined walls of the upper levels of this Amsterdam row house during the holocaust in World War II.. The home has been turned into museum which you can walk through and learn about the life her family and the Van Pels family, as well as the brave individuals who provided the families with aid and news from the outside. The house, unassuming from the street, has a palpable vibe that stirs your emotions as you walk through the rooms. During the war, the house was stripped of all contents, as were all homes belonging to deported Jews. When Frank Otto returned and saw the home empty, he stated that he wanted it to remain empty. There are pictures on the wall of each room, showing what the room looked like when the Frank and Van Pels families were hidden there, but the emptiness of the rooms really drives home the gravity of what took place there. The Anne Frank House received approximately one million visitors per year. From www.annefrank.org, the aim of the museum/organization is: It brings her life story to the attention of people all over the world to encourage them to reflect on the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination and the importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy. So you can see why a visit to the Anne Frank House is a valuable experience.
Don’t Miss: I took Aiden, our oldest, to the Anne Frank House for his tenth birthday. Booking ahead of time is a must, as you will otherwise be waiting in line for hours. The museum has a family program that made our visit into a treasured experience. See information about the family program here. Note: the family program is for children ages ten and up, but they did not ask to see a birth certificate. I am sure if your child looks approximately ten and is quiet, you will not have any problems. I would not recommend this experience for younger children, as the house is very cramped in places, with very steep stairs, and quiet is expected.
Aiden and I showed up at the appointed time, and were directed to a classroom with photographs and artifacts hanging around the room. A docent spoke with us for half an hour about WWII, Anne Frank’s life, and the museum itself. Questions were encouraged, and I thought it was great to see and hear people from around the world who had come to learn that day. I teared up a little, truth be told. Here is a value-add: once the presentation is over, you are led straight into the house. That’s right: we did not wait in line for even one minute. Look out the windows as you walk through the house. That was their view. You are looking through the lens of history.
After we took our time walking through the house (Do not hurry through the last room, which was the most crowded. Pages from Anne Frank’s actual diary are on display.) and the nice gift shop, we walked outside and the world just seemed changed. I struggled to fathom the monumental unfairness that life outside the walls of that building went on as “normal,” while there were people trapped inside, fearing for their lives at every unexpected bump and engine noise. Not wanting to leave the environment, Aiden and I walked over a canal bridge and took outdoor seats at a cafe with a view of the house, and drank a kopje koffie while taking it all in. It is so humbling and emotional to sit and know you are in a place where so much transpired in years gone by.
What is it?: You know, I was going to name a specific museum here, but I just can’t. The three main museums within Amsterdam’s Museumplein are: the Rijksmuseum (Dutch art and history from the middle ages and onward), Van Gogh Museum (strives to make Van Gogh’s life and works accessible to as many people as possible in order to enrich and inspire them), and Stedelijk Museum (modern and contemporary art and design). Each are fantastic, and each deserves a visit. If you and your children are exceedingly good sports, slept well the night before, are not prone to snapping at each other when you’re in an unfamiliar situation, and ate your Wheaties for breakfast, you could hit up all three in one day. I took my three boys to the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk in one day, but we live here, so it wasn’t such a big deal that my 9 year old asked if we could go home about 15 minutes after we walked into the second museum. Sigh. This is why we can’t have nice things!
Don’t Miss: Explore the museum links above. Each of the three museums has rich family programs. It pays to plan ahead and take advantage of the programs. One of my favorite things about these museums, you know, aside from all the art, is that tickets aren’t going to break the bank. As a family of five, we appreciate that. After you’re done exploring the museums, head to the Albert Heijn supermarket, which is adjacent to the Stedelijk, and purchase some rolls and Dutch cheese and have a nice picnic on the expanse of grass. Let the kids run wild. Take pictures with the I Amsterdam sign. The people-watching is great.
3. NEMO Science Center
What is it?: The NEMO Science Center’s goal is to make science and technology engaging and accessible to the widest possible audience, and boy do they do a great job. Located a ten minute walk from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, this hands-on museum encourages learning through play and exploration. All three of my sons could have spent several more hours there the day we went, but a certain toddler had a blow-out, and I made the rookie mistake of not bringing spare pants for him. But you’re much better prepared, and far-less forgetful. I can tell.
Don’t Miss: There are a few “don’t miss” items for this museum. 1) On the second floor, they have a laboratory, in which kids get to don lab coats, and perform experiments involving household items. My 10 and 9-year old felt pretty important when they donned the lab coats and safety glasses. 2) If you’re considering a visit to Amsterdam, you are probably already familiar with the Red Light District, and the fact that prostitution is legal here. Within NEMO, there is a Red Light District-themed “teen facts” area that is very informative regarding puberty, hormones, sex, and sexuality. Not just for teens and tweens, adults can learn a thing or ten in this area, too. 3) This last “don’t miss” isn’t actually inside the NEMO. When you leave and start walking back toward Centraal Station, you will pass the Amsterdam City Library. Go inside! Not only is the building beautifully designed, the top floor has a La Place Cafe, which is a popular cafe chain here in The Netherlands. The view from the 7th floor is amazing, and they have an outdoor terrace during nice weather. The food was fantastic, and they have something for even the pickiest of eaters. And a nice bathroom with a changing table. (Ask me how I know.)
4. Muiderslot Castle
What is it: It’s castle! A real castle, with a moat and everything! Built around 1285, by Count Floris V, the castle has been home to multiple residents, the most notable of which was Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, the “Dutch Shakespeare,” who lived there for about 40 years, until his death in 1647. The castle is reachable by ferry (during warmer months), bus (plus 15 minute walk through a quaint little town), train, or via a 1.5 hour bike ride. The website has all the travel details you need, as well as information about the fun programs for children, and an events calendar.
My two oldest and I went there on a wet and cold November day. The castle folk carry on as though they actually reside there, and can be quite entertaining with their role-playing. My sons got to make chainmail, engage in a spirited jousting competition, and view with wide eyes, real suits of armor. The spiral staircases are narrow and no joke. You’re not getting a stroller up there, no matter how hard you try. With that said, if you go during the warmer months, you and your littlest family members can find things to do that don’t involve going up into the castle’s towers. The garden is beautiful, and there is a falconer in residence. There is plenty to explore!
Don’t Miss: A stroll through the garden and around the grounds. The cafe and gift shop are also nice spots to visit. We bought some postcards to send to friends, and enjoyed some hot chocolate. Also don’t miss the fact that you’re in a real castle!
5. Amsterdamse Bos:
What is it?: The Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam Forest) is quickly becoming our home away from home, now that the weather has taken a turn for the gorgeous. I have to tell you that another park that is more central in Amsterdam, the Vondelpark, almost won out as my last list item. Vondelpark is beautiful, full of flowers and bike/walking paths and nice little cafes and playgrounds; it’s not to be missed. However, Amsterdamse Bos is a bit more off the beaten path; you will not find throngs of tourists there. So maybe don’t tell them I sent you, okay?
We ride bikes from our house (is that a humble brag?), and I really think you should rent bikes (link is in Dutch, use Google Translate) and do the same. The paths are just so beautiful! Sometimes I will cycle ahead of my bickering children and pretend like I am on vacation by myself. If you don’t want to rent bikes, fret not. They just started operating a “Bos Bus” (Dutch), which is free and stops at seven different parts of the forest which, by the way, is three times the size of NYC’s Central Park, and completely man-made.
Don’t Miss: At the Grote Vijver, you can rent a handful of different kinds of watercraft, including kayaks, canoes, paddle boats, and adorable electric boats that kids can operate themselves. The rental prices are very affordable. For example, a 1 person kayak is 6 Euros per hour. A 2-person paddle boat is 10 Euros per hour. The cute electric boat is 15 Euros per half hour, and your little captain will get a certificate at the end, saying they have successfully navigated the wild waterways of the forest. Adjacent to the boat rental facility is every adventurous child’s dream: a water-based play area. There is a zip line, a couple rope swings, an obstacle course that runs the length of the shore. And did I mention a zip line? The whole thing makes me feel a bit like Tom Sawyer. Also in the same general area is the Grote Kinderbad, which is a large paddling pool for kids and adults alike, accompanied by a lot of grass for relaxing, and a playground. Note: boat rentals are cash only, and require you to leave identification for the duration of your rental.
Hop back on the Bos Bus or your rented bike and in a few short minutes, you will be at our other favorite place in the Bos. A working goat farm (Dutch)! In addition to tasty organic goat dairy products (cheese and ice cream, to name a couple), and local honey from their own bees, the farm has a fantastic playground. Something that sets it apart from other boring old playgrounds is that the goats are able to roam freely within different sections of the play area. There are also chickens running about the place. While the kids roam around, adults can relax on the outdoor patio. Unless your kids are the type to try to ride a goat, in which case you might want to follow them around. Your choice.
There is also a ropes course/climbing park at the main entrance to the forest. If you don’t want to make it a main part of your day, there is a free section where your kids can climb smaller trees and obstacles. It is possible to do all of the Amsterdamse Bos “can’t miss” items in one day, but start early so you can truly enjoy it all!
If you look at the Bos Bus link, you will see the “don’t miss” locations on the route map.
Here are a few general Amsterdam tips:
- Be sure to check out the I Amsterdam City Card, if you plan to visit many Amsterdam points of interest. You won’t regret it. It includes a free canal cruise, unlimited use of public transportation, and admission to a large number of museums and attractions, including Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum, as well as Muiderslot Castle (but not including the Anne Frank House).
- Call or check the website before you go anywhere.The larger museums and businesses are more predictable, but it is not uncommon for there to be unexpected fluctuations in operating hours from day-to-day. We have learned that lesson the hard way, more than once.
- Nearly all adults here speak English, especially at museums and other tourist attractions.
- Bicycles are king. All bike paths are painted a maroon/reddish color. Always look both ways before stepping onto one to cross it. Never actually walk along the bike path, unless there happens to be lava running on the sidewalks. Pedestrian crosswalks are “zebra-striped,” and bikes aren’t supposed to ride on them. Just be sure when you are crossing a street, you’re walking on the zebra stripes.
- Only the bigger/more corporate businesses in the tourist areas will accept American or swiped credit cards. If your card has PIN chip technology, you will have more luck using it, but it’s best to travel with cash whenever possible. Well-concealed cash, because pickpockets are always looking for their next target.
I hope my rambling recommendations help you decide that you cannot possibly survive another vacation without visiting Amsterdam. Please feel free to ask questions!
About the author: Jennifer Ford is originally from California but has lived in many different states, including Texas. As a recent expat living in Amsterdam, she enjoys going on adventures to explore her new city of Amsterdam with her husband and three sons.