Today I’m delighted to have a blog post from the author and journalist Keren David. She lived in Amsterdam for eight years, and her children grew up there, so she’s the perfect person to give you the rundown on what to do when you’re visiting this Dutch city with your family. And it sounds just perfect – from the parks to the museums.
Over to Keren:
For me, Amsterdam is not a city of coffeeshops and dodgy areas, it’s a great place for kids and parents, with lots to do and see beyond the obvious.
The most obvious park is the Vondelpark, which is one of my favourite places in the world. You can hire bikes (try Macbikes in the Leidseplein, which also does kids’ bikes), or roller skates with protective gear (the Vondeltuin at the Amstelveenseweg entrance), or just stroll around. There are playgrounds (we liked the one at the Melkhuis café best), a rose garden, and a good tree for climbing. The Blauwe Theehuis is definitely the best café in the Vondelpark, it’s round and blue and looks like a grounded flying saucer. But for a more active experience, try the Kinderkookcafe where children get to cook and serve the food.
Just north of the Vondelpark is the Hollandsche Manege – a stables and riding school dating from the late 19th century. You can watch the horses training in dressage from the café, tour the stables and book riding lessons in the Vondelpark. The Overtoom, which is the road just north of the Manege has some great furniture shops.
There are other parks too.The Beatrixpark has a paddling pool and a playground, and if you walk around you are sure to see some herons – I once counted 17 in one lake. The Amstelpark is a bit further out, but worth it for smaller children as there is a little train, a crazy golf, ponies to ride, an excellent playground and chickens running wild. But my favourite is the Amsterdamse Bos. The 1,000 hectare forest on the outskirts of the city is entirely manmade (built in the 1930s as a response to high unemployment rates) and is the perfect place to walk, cycle or picnic. There’s a lake with an island which is just for children – the Speeleiland – we used to take a picnic to the artificial beach at the side of the lake, and the kids would swing over to the island on a zipwire. The Bos also has a goat farm where you can feed the animals.
The Artis area
Everyone goes to visit the Anne Frank House, and rightly so. But few go to see the monument to the entire Jewish community of Amsterdam, which is quiet and devastating, and, I think, a better place to contemplate the scale of the Holocaust. It’s filled with pictures of a community at work and play, celebrating weddings and barmitzvahs, taking holidays and living their lives. The Hollandsche Schouwburg was once a theatre, but first the Nazis designated it a Jewish theatre and then it became a deportation centre. Some children escaped death by being smuggled by the Dutch Resistance to a nursery across the road.
The Rembrandthuis is one of my favourite museums in Amsterdam. The house where the artist lived and worked has been painstakingly restored, giving a real sense of life in the 17th century. Rembrandt was a keen collector of curiosities, and I never tired of visiting his workshop and looking at all his stuff – from the stuffed armadillo, to Roman helmets and spears. It’s just around the corner from the Waterlooplein market, Amsterdam’s flea market, and then across the road is the Jewish museum and the Portuguese Synagogue – a really beautiful building, lit my candlelight and still in use today.
The Artis itself is Amsterdam’s zoo – quite small, but fun for kids.
Dutch cuisine is mostly mashed potatoes – although you should definitely try poffertjes, little sugar-covered pancakes, and also raw herring with chopped onion, bought from street stalls, for a taste of the local cuisine. Liquorice is the national sweet, and in any supermarket you’ll find dozens of varieties. For the most amazing chocolates you have ever seen, head to Puccini in Staalstraat.
But you can’t go to Amsterdam without trying Indonesian food. My favourite restaurants are Tempo Doeloe (you will need to book) and Sama Sebo, which is right next to the Rijksmuseum. Order a rijstafel for a feast of little dishes so you can try everything. Vegetarians are well catered for.
And for cakes, head to The Pijp, which is full of little shops to explore, and has a thriving street market. My favourite local landmark is a gloriously camp café called De Taart van m’n Tante which is the place to go for the most flamboyant and creamy cakes imaginable.
The Rijksmuseum can be too much for kids, so pick your galleries carefully – the dolls houses were always a favourite for my family. The Van Gogh museum up the road is smaller, and easier to digest. But if your family includes a budding fashionista, then take them to the Tassenmuseum, a comprehensive collection of bags and purses through the ages. When I first visited it, it was displayed in the home of the lady who had collected these bags, but now it has outgrown her, and has its own home in the centre of Amsterdam. Children also enjoy the NEMO interactive science museum. Our absolute favourite though was the Scheepvartmuseum, the maritime museum full of maps and globes, a preserved whale foetus and an 18th century boat to explore.
If you explore outside Amsterdam, then don’t miss Enkhuizen – a short train journey away. From the station you can take a boat to the Zuiderzee museum, a place where Dutch life in times gone by is lovingly recreated. You can sit in the village school and write on a slate, visit a working windmill, and the kids can dress in clogs and traditional clothes.
For a trip to the beach it’s Ijmuiden every time. Just half an hour drive from Amsterdam it’s not as smart as some resorts, but you can walk for miles on the beach, and eat the best fish and chips in the Netherlands near where the Newcastle ferry docks.
The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s concert hall, has free lunchtime concerts where you can hear orchestras in rehearsal. And in the summer there are free concerts in the Vondelpark.
Try and time a visit for King’s Day on April 30 when Amsterdam has a giant party, and everyone dresses in orange and sells jumble on the streets. Head to the Apollolaan for the best bargains. Children take over the Vondelpark for their stalls. Or, for a taste of Dutch culture come for the Sinterklaas parade in mid November, when St Nicholas arrives at the harbour on his boat from Spain and parades through the streets of Amsterdam. The tradition has caused controversy in recent years, because of the figure of “Zwart Piet”, the Sint’s companion. Now there are moves to change Piet to ‘Colourful Piet.’ You’ll see lots of Piets, some on roller skates, giving out sweets and pepernoten – little spiced biscuits.
Keren David is the author of eight Young Adult novels, including This is Not a Love Story, set in Amsterdam.
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