I’ve wanted to visit Amsterdam for many years, but only seemed to pass through the (very nice) airport and never reached the city center. Ideally, I would go in the spring, but when we got the opportunity to meet friends there over the New Year, of course we said yes!
You might not immediately think Amsterdam is kid-friendly. Trust me, I was a bit skeptical. But we found several fun things to do that were entertaining and educational, and the kids had a blast. But, of course, some aspects were educational in an unfortunate kind of way…Yes, that is the smell of marijuana and yes, it’s gross and you should never try it! Without ever veering near the Red Light district, we spent a lively two days in this gorgeous city. I still haven’t seen it all and hope to go back during tulip season, preferably without kids so I can spend at least two days in the renowned museums that we didn’t dare enter with three boys.
The Highlights – History, Food and the dreamy Canals
We began our first morning with a tour at the Anne Frank House, and I have to say it was my favorite part of our trip (besides spending time with the Waltons!) Be sure to book early…the tickets go on sale exactly two months in advance. We decided to book an early morning time slot and I’m glad we did. Friends who went later in the day said they were crammed into the small rooms of the warehouse that hid the Frank family, but we had plenty of space and were able to slowly and intentionally listen to our audioguides without feeling rushed. It was an intensely moving tour and both kids and adults pored over the exhibits, videos and storyboards for almost two hours.
We were all a bit somber after leaving the Anne Frank House, but it’s in a beautiful, canal-lined neighborhood so we walked around and enjoyed the fresh air and gorgeous Dutch architecture. There are several cute boutiques and shops in the Nine Streets area and every bridge is Instagrammably gorgeous! Being careful to avoid the “coffee shops,” i.e. pot bars, we ducked into a few “cafes” to warm up (try Bakery Cafe or Melly’s). We always had our eyes open for a Stroopwafel, the yummy caramel-filled waffle cookies that are perfect with a cup of coffee or tea! There are several van Wonderen Stroopwafel stores throughout the city that can give you a sugar boost when you need it.
I’m a big fan of learning about a city through their food, so we joined a free walking food tour from an expert guide who kept all of our interest for nearly three hours! Did you know that the Netherlands has the world’s second-largest cacao industry?! And those crazy wooden clogs are used for cold farmers making mouth-watering cheese? We picked up a bit of food trivia at our stops to taste ice cream, chocolate, waffles, cheese, bitter balls (a meatball-like bar snack) and even raw herring (well, I didn’t try that one!) The stories were entertaining and we brought home a few delicious souvenirs. If you can’t make the tour, make a stop into Tony’s Chocolonely, Metropolitan and Henri Willig. You won’t regret it.
I always thought I wanted to cycle the Amsterdam canal streets, but it’s actually more precarious than you might think. Duchies are all business when it comes to moving around the city on their bicycle and even crossing over the bike lanes on foot can be dangerous. We chose instead to walk throughout the canals and bridges so that we could leisurely enjoy looking up at the narrow houses. With 17th-century ornamental facades, they seemed to lean precariously against each other as if they’ve just returned from a nearby coffee shop.
We wanted a view from the water, so we boarded a canal boat one night after dark for a canal cruise. The city was hosting a Light Exhibition, so we floated around the city enjoying bright art installations and marveled at the imposing architecture lit up in the night sky. Pro tip: show up early so your group can sit together and bring snacks!
Just Beyond Amsterdam – An Afternoon in Haarlem
After a full day and night of being tourists in Amsterdam, we were ready for a quiet afternoon. And, we were in search of an iconic Dutch windmill. So we set out on the train (so clean, easy and modern) to nearby Haarlem. Only 15 minutes but worlds away from the smell of weed, Haarlem has the charm of Amsterdam with a fraction of the tourists. We disembarked but couldn’t make our way to the town center without first getting a photo of the gorgeous tiles and ironwork at the station.
We walked 10 minutes to the central town square to marvel at the massive St. Bavo church looming above. It was only a few Euros to enter, so we spent a few minutes walking through the impressive interior. Only a few minutes beyond was the De Adriaan windmill, completing our treasure hunt for famous Dutch landmarks. The Corrie Ten Boom House is also in Haarlem if you have interest in another courageous story of hidden Jews and those who risked their lives to save them. We would have visited if the tickets weren’t sold out.
We decided Haarlem would make a great hub for a family’s visit to Amsterdam. It’s easy to reach the larger city center, but you enjoy a quieter, subdued atmosphere and probably cheaper accommodations.
Food and Drinks for Every Palate
On our last night, we met up with friends and family at Foodhallen on the west side of town. Not far from Vondelpark or the Museum district, it’s a renovated tram station with high ceilings and a cool vibe that houses bars and food stalls from every corner of the globe. I ate the best banh mi sandwich this side of Vietnam while Luke and Mitch gorged on tacos and barbeque. Reminiscent of Krog Street Market in Atlanta, this hipster hall is worth a stop, as long as you have an empty stomach.
Our two days went too fast, and it was hard to say goodbye to our friends. But we’ll see them again soon, and I imagine we’ll do the same with Amsterdam.