This lively Dutch city is the perfect vacation destination for kids. Canal paddle-boats, childrens’ museums, dozens of parks, whimsical architecture, and a very child-tolerant population make Amsterdam seem like a large, fiendly schoolroom!
By Ron Bernthal
I have always enjoyed traveling to Holland, and have always thought the Dutch people to be the most humane, friendly, and intelligent in Europe. During many visits to the country, from bicycling the southern hills near Maastricht to prowling the waterfront alleys of Rotterdam, I have always been impressed with this very small country, and its great big heart.
When I took my 10-year old daughter, Marisa, to Amsterdam last summer, I was hoping that she too would experience the same friendly Dutch smiles, and see the same rich Vermeer landscapes and North Sea light that I have enjoyed for years.
After spending a week in Amsterdam and its immediate surroundings, and, despite the mostly wet and cool weather I am happy to report that my daughter is now as hooked as I am on everything Dutch!
The best thing about taking a kid to Amsterdam is that the city is compactly built. Its 17th-century inner historic district, laced with canals, interesting shops, and inexpensive cafes, is easy to walk around. Older kids would even enjoy biking around the city on well-defined bike paths that parallel every street. Bicycle rental shops are everywhere, and quite affordable.
It was during Holland’s “Golden Age,” the 17th-century, when Amsterdam was the richest city in the world, and when its canals and 90 small islands were created, interconnected by hundreds of bridges.
The best introduction to this “Venice of the North,” and its waterways is via a canal cruise in a glass-topped boat. These narrow, low-slung boats operate year-round and glide through all the major canals, with on-board guides providing interesting facts and stories as the boats wend their way under low bridges and past 300-year old gabled houses.
Of course, there are “kid” ways to explore the canals as well. Using water-bikes, or paddle boats, kids and their parents can travel along the canals under their own foot power. These safe, heavy-duty, plastic water craft can be rented at several locations along the canals, and returned to any water-bike station along the route.
Amsterdam has 40 museums and, although you wouldn’t want to drag children through even half of them, most are definitely worth the price of admission. The Rijksmuseum, which houses the famous Dutch Masters, including Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch,” also has an amazing doll house exhibit which is great for kids. The original owners of the doll house commissioned real tradesmen to copy objects and ornaments from Amsterdam’s Golden Age, and everything in these two houses are exactly as they were in those days. A tapestry room is covered with real silk, and the ceiling is painted just like in the 17th-century. Actual Italian marble is used for the floor in the hall, and in the attic the laundry is hanging out to dry.
In Amsterdam’s harbor is a museum which looks like a huge green sunken ship. This is NEMO, the city’s new science museum. The motto of this museum is “forbidden NOT to touch.” Kids blow soap bubbles so large you can stand inside it; they can make licorice, a favorite sweet of Dutch kids; an amazing music studio lets kids make their own rock music videos; a chemistry lab instructor helps kids conduct interesting experiments, while they are dressed in white lab coats and safety goggles. And there are incredible slanting stairs on the roof of NEMO which afford a wonderful view.
There is also the Anne Frank House, a museum at 263 Prinsengracht, where Anne, her family, and other Dutch Jews were hidden from the Nazis during World War II by Christian friends. My daughter, who had read the Diary of Anne Frank before the trip, was fascinated by the visit to the secret hiding place, as were the hundreds of other adults and kids that lined up each day for an opportunity to climb the narrow stairs to the top floor annex, and sense what it must have been like to live in hiding for two years in such small quarters, without being able to go outside or talk loudly. Of course, knowing that everyone, except Anne’s father Otto, eventually died in Nazi camps, made the visit very solemn and profound.
Two other major “kid” attractions, both located outside Amsterdam, are also worth visiting. Efteling, one and a half hours south of Amsterdam, is one of the leading theme parks in Europe, and presents a true Fairy Tale Forest in a gorgeous park-like setting,with lakes, forest trails, and cute child-friendly trash bins that implore kids (in Dutch of course), via out-of-sight speakers, to throw their garbage into the bin’s mouth.
Efteling was built in the 1950′s and its theme, childrens’ fairy tales from America and Europe, and its very unDisney-like commercial clutter, provide an experience filled with the innocent wonder and naivet� of that era. I expected my daughter, and the other American kids we met, to be under-awed by this purposely-simple and old-fashioned 50-year old park, but I was wrong. They were absolutely delighted with the 1895 steam carousel, the award-winning Fairy Tale stage show, the Adventure Maze, and the wooden roller coaster called Pegasus. The $15 ticket at the front gate seemed like one of the best bargains in Europe.
The other attraction that kids love is Madurodam, about 30 minutes by car or train from Amsterdam. Like Efteling, it too opened in 1952, and this incredible collection of miniature Dutch structures —buildings, houses, factories, train stations, airports, soccer stadiums – is like no other in the world. All the scale models, including the little railway system that winds around the park, are made at 1:25 scale, and reflect actual architecture found in Holland.
At some of the miniatures, children can drop a Dutch ten-cent piece (about 5 U.S. cents) into a slot and the scale models actually work-little trucks move down a highway, music comes from a tiny orchestra, airplanes roll down the runway at a little Schipol Airport.
It takes 35 maintenance workers to keep the miniatures in working order, and new scale models are under construction all the time. Kids, and most adults, truly love Madurodam. Like all the other Dutch attractions we saw, it operated efficiently, was clean and crime free, and the admission price was not a rip-off.
If you’ve heard that Amsterdam is an ultra-liberal city, where soft drugs, prostitution, and sex shops are all legal, you’ve heard correctly. But all this takes place within a small area of the inner city, and will in no way affect your, or your child’s, visit. In fact, Amsterdam is one of the safest cities in Europe, and kids enjoy all the wonderful visual images the city has to offer: little yellow electric trams; thousands of commuters pedaling to work along the bike paths; flower-decked houseboats on the canals; hundreds of street stands selling French fries and mayonnaise; working windmills in the countryside, blades turning in the sea breeze.
But best of all are the Dutch kids your kids will meet. While rollerblading in Vondel Park, or biking in the charming upscale residential neighborhood of Jordaan, or visiting a Dutch elementary school, the connection between the kids will be quick and sincere, and Email pals will be created instantly.
If you go…
The Netherlands Board of Tourism can provide brochures on activities for kids in child-friendly Holland, as well as information on hotels, restaurants, and attractions (Netherlands Board of Tourism, 355 Lexington Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, NY 10017; Tel. 212-370-7360; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;Website: www.goholland.com .)