Gretta Schifano, author of Mums Do Travel, visited Amsterdam with her 10-year-old son and together they discovered a beautiful city full of interesting finds and wonders to be discovered. She shows that this fascinating and family-friendly city is more than a red light district.
When I told a friend that I was going to Amsterdam for the first time and taking my 10 year-old son she looked concerned: “What about the sex shops?” she asked. Amsterdam is renowned for its sex industry and cannabis cafes so before we arrived I found the red light district on a map and made sure we didn’t go there. We spent a lovely three days exploring the city’s picturesque UNESCO World Heritage canals, streets and bridges. My son was oblivious to the ubiquitous cannabis-themed souvenirs on offer because he doesn’t know what a cannabis leaf looks like and was busy searching for Ajax football tops.
I like travelling sometimes with just one of my children. It was a joy going on a canal tour with my son on our first afternoon in Amsterdam. He loved looking out for houseboats and delighted in spotting surprising things afloat such as a chihuahua on a cushion, a sleeping duck, people cooking dinner and even a wedding party blossoming with white balloons. There was an audio guide on our Gray Line tour which is probably very good but I stopped listening to it after a few minutes as I preferred listening to my son.
The Rijksmuseum is the largest national museum in Holland and reopened this year after ten years of redevelopment. A family trail is being planned but there was nothing on offer specifically for children when we visited. My son took advantage of the free WiFi there while I had a quick look at the Rembrandts but he perked up when we reached the third floor with its twentieth century art. He was drawn to a Dutch film about the building of a dam in 1961 and we watched the whole thing. Outside we drank hot chocolate by the fountain in the museum gardens and looked at some Henry Moore sculptures before heading towards the Anne Frank Museum.
We pottered along the 17th century Prinsengracht canal looking at houseboats and seeing how many ways we could see of people carrying small children on bikes. The most common seemed to be Bakfiets, which are bikes and trikes with built-in boxes on the front. We stopped for sandwiches by the canal at the friendly Koffiehuis De Hoek which has a pleasingly sloping floor, brown walls, peeling paint and wobbly tables.
I found the Anne Frank Museum very moving. It was busy and we inched through the empty rooms of the secret annexe where Anne, her family and four other Jews hid from the Nazis for two years until they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps. The only one of the group to survive was Anne’s father, Otto, and after the war he published the diary which she wrote while in hiding between the ages of 13 to 15. I told my son Anne’s story and he thought it very sad but didn’t really “get” the museum. I hope that he’ll remember it and understand more as he grows up.
After two museum visits in one day, we were pretty hungry. We strolled further along the Prinsengracht canal for dinner at The Pancake Bakery, a cosy restaurant housed in a 17th-century building. The chef cooking in the open kitchen told me that pancakes are a traditional dish for special family occasions in Holland. My son and I each chose a savoury pancake and then shared a sweet one for pudding. They were deliciously light yet very filling.
My son was really keen to visit the city’s famous football stadium so we took the Metro from the city centre to the Amsterdam Arena for a one-hour World of Ajax tour on the last day of our trip. With 53,600 seats, it’s the largest stadium in Holland and has a roof which can open and close. I don’t follow football so this isn’t something I’d usually choose to do but I found the tour fascinating and my son loved it. From the pitch, we went behind the scenes to the changing rooms, press room, players’ tunnel and more. Our guide Anita showed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the club’s history and really engaged with the group, especially my son, the only child on the tour.
We then had a few hours until we needed to head to the airport. I deliberately hadn’t planned anything for this time because I wanted my son to decide what to do. After some discussion he said he wanted to go to a street market. We found one on Albert Cuyp Straat on our map and headed over there. It was interesting, with busy stalls stretched along both sides of the sunny street selling clothes, jewellery, food, luggage and all sorts of other things. We bought a box of ten poffertjes (tiny pancakes) for €2,50 from a local woman making them there. They were still warm and tasted scrummy with butter and sugar – a perfect Dutch snack to set us on our journey home.
Our journey to Amsterdam and back was very straightforward and relaxing. We travelled with KLM on the shortest flight I’ve ever taken. We were in the air for just 35 minutes on a flight from Manston in Kent to Schiphol. KLM is one of those nice airlines that gives allocated seats and a drink and snack on board – water and biscuits on this flight. We travelled with hand luggage only (thanks to a generous allowance of 12 kg plus a handbag) and were through passport control within a few minutes of landing at Schiphol. From there an 18-minute train ride took us to the city centre.
We stayed at the three-star Apple Inn Hotel, a 15-minute tram ride from Central Station. The hotel was quiet and comfortable and our ground floor twin room was neat and compact. We liked the hotel, especially its free WiFi, but I would have preferred somewhere more central.
We found it very easy to get around Amsterdam. Cycling is the locals’ favoured travel mode: The city has more bikes than inhabitants and there are cycle lanes all over the place. There are bike hire shops around the city offering adult and children’s bikes and Bakfiets. My son’s too big for a Bakfiets box and too inexperienced for city cycling so we explored on foot and public transport using Iamsterdam City Cards.
Getting to Amsterdam
KLM has regular flights from UK airports.
Return train tickets from Schiphol airport to Central Station cost €8,80 for adults, €6,00 for children.
Getting around Amsterdam
Iamsterdam City Cards give free public transport and entrance to many museums and cost from €42 for 24 hours or €62 for 72 hours.
Bike hire costs around €8 per day. The main companies are Yellow Bike, Rent a Bike and MacBike
Where we stayed
Apple Inn Hotel , Koninginneweg 93, 1075 CJ Amsterdam
Things to do with kids in Amsterdam
The Gray Line one-hour boat tour costs €15 for adults, €7,50 for children from 4 to 12 years.
Admission to the Rijksmuseum costs €15 for adults, children are free and it’s best to book online and visit early in the day to avoid the queues.
Admission to the Anne Frank Museum costs €9 for adults, €4,50 for children from 10 to 17 years (under-10s are free) and it’s a good idea to book a ticket and time slot online as it gets very busy.
World of Ajax Stadium Tour tickets cost €14,50 for adults and €9,50 for children from 5 to 12 years.
For more information about Amsterdam, go to www.iamsterdam.com
Gretta Schifano is a freelance family travel journalist and blogger who posts at www.mumsdotravel.com. Gretta has lived and worked in Italy and Spain and is now based in rural south-east England with her husband, children, dog and cat. Gretta previously worked as a BBC radio producer and can be found tweeting at @grettaschifano.