Amsterdam. The word sparks different images in peoples’ heads when they think about the city from canals to cannabis to the Red Light District. If you have been contemplating family travel in Amsterdam for your own family you may be a bit concerned that the city is more suitable for adults than kids. Not true! Amsterdam is a wonderful destination for kids of all ages.
Last year our family took our first international trip over spring break. We traveled first to London and then moved on to Amsterdam. While both my wife and I had visited London in our younger days this was the first time any of us had been to Amsterdam. We had long heard the romanticized way others spoke of the city with its famous canals, art galleries, windmills, tulips, and, of course, red light district, and were excited to check it out for ourselves.
As I described in my post on tips for international travel with kids we purposefully limited the number of activities we planned for each day. That gave us the freedom to tour attractions without feeling rushed. It also allowed us to have time to simply enjoy being part of a new city whether that meant strolling through a neighborhood or stopping into a local spot for a drink and a midday snack. Even with our slow pace we still managed to pack some wonderful activities into our three days in Amsterdam.
As most people know you it is hard, if not impossible, to avoid water and some form of water transportation when visiting Amsterdam. Nor would you want to! Amsterdam is built around a series of canals that were put in place to provide the dry land upon which the buildings sit. If it weren’t for the canals Amsterdam would still be the wet, swampy mess it was centuries ago and definitely not the go-to European destination that it is today.
The same canals that make Amsterdam possible also make it a tremendous, albeit tricky, town to navigate by foot. There is something very peaceful about being able to walk along a city street with a quiet canal right beside you.
As the guide books and Amsterdam natives will tell you though, be careful. The canals are built in a circular formation so it’s rare that following a canal is your shortest path to your next destination. However, sometimes taking the longest route is the best route when you can stroll along the canals taking in the views.
Back in college I ended up going on more than my fair share of brewery tours in the US. This was before the craft beer craze of current times so the tours took place in well-known large breweries, such as Miller and Budweiser, as well as some moderate-sized regional breweries, such as Old Style and Leinenkugel’s.
The Heineken Experience is like none of those. Yes, it’s a marketing machine from start to finish as you would expect. However, they do a good job of taking you through the history of Heineken the beer and Heineken the company.
The tour begins with the history of Heineken and the way they brew their beer. There is a tour guide that gets you started and provides some information and then you are off to continue the tour on your own. You get to see the various stages of the brewing process and there are some hands-on activities for kids (or adults) to try.
The second part of the self-guided tour highlights Heineken’s involvement primarily in the sports world. They have separate rooms setup displaying pictures and memorabilia from soccer leagues, e.g. Champions League, rugby leagues, and more. You start to get a sense of a scale of the company and why they tout their beer being in over 192 countries.
The final part of the tour ends as most brewery tours do…with beer. However, instead of ending at a bar drinking quietly next to the other tourists you find yourself in the middle of what appears to be a dance club. Flashing lights, moderately loud music, and strained conversations fill your senses. On one side you look over and four tourists are standing behind four taps competing to see who can pour the best beer in the shortest amount of time as you start to reconsider having your kids by your side. However, it is still a family environment and, yes, they do have non-alcoholic drinks for the kids when you reach the end if they accompany you on the tour.
FI Road Tip: To kill three birds with one stone we visited the Heineken Experience as part of the Rock the City excursion. Rock the City gets you admission to the Heineken Experience, admission to the Amsterdam Lookout (complete with rooftop swing and random red horse statue), and a canal cruise between the two attractions. If you are interested in one or both of the attractions and want an easy way to check a canal cruise off of your Amsterdam activity list, check out this ticket.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of The Netherlands? Many people would say tulips. (Many others would say something that you’ll find a whole lot of Amsterdam if you just follow your nose…)
The Netherlands is the tulip capital of the world. If you’ve ever seen pictures of fields that seem like they extend forever filled with tulips of every color in the rainbow there is a good chance that picture was taken somewhere in The Netherlands. It very well may have been taken near Keukenhof.
Keukenhof is an enormous tulip garden attraction about 30 minutes outside Amsterdam. Each spring, hordes of tourists descend on Keukenhof to take in the amazing sights. And, during our trip we were among said tourists that made our pilgrimage to the tulip shrine of The Netherlands.
Our whole family thoroughly enjoyed strolling through Keukenhof. In addition to the numerous tulip gardens and walking paths they have an indoor area guaranteed to have massive tulips regardless of the state of the tulips outdoors.
Depending on the day you visit there may be artisans there selling their goods. Our kids each got a handmade wooden souvenir made as we watched by a woodworker who was showcasing his wooden shoe making skills. There are kid activities including a small playground and petting zoo. And of course there are multiple places to grab a hot drink or a bite to eat including fresh made stroopwafels, which make any chilly Netherlands day more bearable.
Timing is key if you want to visit Keukenhof. Since the tulips only bloom during the spring, Keukenhof is open for about two months each year from mid-March through mid-May. Check the Keukenhof website for the specific date range when planning your trip as each year the timing differs slightly based on weather conditions during winter and early spring. We visited early in the season so the tulips were still growing, however, we benefited from some smaller crowds.
FI Road Tip: Tips for getting to and from Keukenhof using public transportation:
- Yes, you can get to Keukenhof by bus from central Amsterdam. As an adult, I recommend purchasing the Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket. This gets you 1, 2, or 3 days of travel by bus, tram, train, and metro throughout Amsterdam and the nearby area. Use your pass to take the Airport Express Bus 397 to Schiphol Airport and then that same pass will grants you round trip travel on bus 858, the Keukenhof express, that leaves from the airport
- Children can get a separate pass providing unlimited rides on buses, trams, and the metro in Amsterdam for 24 hours for only 4 EUR. The pass does not technically work on the bus 397 to and from Schiphol Airport, however, after 9AM each day kids ride on that bus for free. Before 9AM, the fare is 2 EUR. You can then buy a Combi-Ticket for each kid for 13.50 EUR that will get them a return (round trip) ride on the Keukenhof Express and entrance to the park
- Get to the airport early in the morning to beat the crowds to Keukenhof. We took the second bus of the day and walked right onto the bus. When we returned around noon there were hundreds of people waiting for the bus in a line that snaked all the way back to the airport terminal
Biking with We Bike Amsterdam
There are just a few bikes in Amsterdam. And when I saw a few I mean a ton! There are 1.3 bikes per person in Amsterdam, which is almost twice the number of any other country in the world. As a first time visitor it took us a little while to get comfortable just crossing the road. Between the bike lanes, tram lanes, and car lanes you definitely feel like you’ve been thrown into the game of Frogger for the first day or so.
We decided to add a few more bikes to the road and booked a Countryside Bike Tour through We Bike Amsterdam. The description worried us a bit since it had phrases such as “4 hours” and “18.5 miles”, however, one of the reasons that bikes are so popular there is because the landscape is extremely flat.
We were most worried about our oldest son, just about to turn 9, and whether he’d be able to handle the long ride. Our youngest wouldn’t be a problem since he would be enjoying the scenery from the back of my wife’s bike.
We got extremely lucky as the day turned out to be exquisite for late March in the Netherlands. For the majority of our ride we had bright blue skies and pleasant spring temperatures as we rode through quaint, little towns, alongside fields, and next to numerous canals and waterways.
About halfway through the ride we stopped for a slice of apple pie; the perfect rejuvenator for the trip back into town. When we made it back our oldest told us that not only did he enjoy the ride but that it was one of his favorite activities during the entire trip. (And that counts the extra 2 miles we got to experience after our tour guide got a bit lost on the way back).
Pancakes and Poffertjes
I have a confession to make. I love apple pie. I’m not a big fan of cake so my birthday “cake” is typically an apple pie. I was wholly unaware that one of the things Amsterdam is known for is apple pie until we started researching this trip.
So of course while we were in town we tried the apple pie. My verdict: it was OK. To me, it was a little too cake-like with a thicker than average crust. I felt that the crust overwhelmed the apples. My wife, on the other hand, who likes cake more than pie was a big fan.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of having to stalk a table at the most popular apple pie spot in town, Winkel 43, in the same way that people stalk parking spots at the mall during the holiday season just to have a slice of pie.
When I go back to Amsterdam I’ll have the pie again, but it won’t be the first thing on my list. Instead, that will be…
What are poffertjes, you ask? Great question. The Netherlands are known for dutch pancakes, a thin, crepe-like pancake typically topped with either a sweet (fruit) or savory (ham, bacon, sausage, vegetables) topping. The pancakes I had heard of but poffertjes take dutch pancakes to a whole new level.
The Marriott hotel we stayed at was located across the street from this nondescript, train car-looking building between one of the canals and a set of bike paths named De Vier Pilaren. De Vier Pilaren just happens to be one of the best known places in Amsterdam, possibly the Netherlands, for poffertjes. As they describe them on their website:
are a typically Dutch treat.
They look like little pancakes about the size of 2 euro coin.
They are thick and puffy, made of flour & buckwheat.
They are served on a platter (10 or 20 pieces)
with a piece of butter and powdered sugar.
You can add toppings of your choice.
Basically, they take the pancake batter, pour it into a mini-muffin tin, and bake them in the oven until each one puffs up. Then they take 10-20 of them while they’re still piping hot, put them on a plate, drop approximately half of a stick of butter on top, and let the butter melt all over them while you eat.
Why De Vier Pilaren is one of only a few places in Amsterdam still making poffertjes I do not know. Could be that most of the regular clientele died from congestive heart failure after eating one too many plates of those wonderful little puffs. What I do know is that they are fantastic and I wholeheartedly recommend stopping by De Vier Pilaren for some poffertjes when you’re in town.
Amsterdam Marriott Hotel
While in Amsterdam we chose to stay in a hotel as opposed to renting through AirBnB. While AirBnB served us extremely well during our first few days in London, the options in Amsterdam were either just a bit too pricey or a bit farther outside of the city center than we wanted to be.
We booked a room at the Amsterdam Marriott Hotel and it was worth every penny. I’ve stayed primarily in Marriott chain hotels when I travel for pleasure or business for close to two decades and this had to be one of the best stays I have had. From the initial check-in to checking out the morning of our departure the staff provided tremendous hospitality.
One example of the exemplary service was during check-in. The front desk staff asked if we were celebrating any events. We mentioned that our oldest’s birthday was on the morning when we would be checking out but did not make a big deal of it. Lo and behold, the night before we checked out when returning from the day’s activities we found a plate of assorted chocolates and fruits and a personalized note wishing him a happy birthday. Now that’s going above and beyond.
We also found the location of the hotel ideal for a number of reasons:
- It is on the edge of the city center making it easily walkable to most city center attractions, restaurants, and shops
- Both the Rijksmuseum and Vondelpark are only a couple blocks away (5 minute walk to each)
- The bus stop for the Airport Express bus is directly outside the hotel
- Many of the trams that commute in and around the city center stop near the hotel
- Fresh pancakes and poffertjes are right across the street at De Vier Pilaren!
We’ll Be Back
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Amsterdam, short as it was. I didn’t even get into the food we had during our visit, which was one of the bigger surprises. There were restaurants serving every type of cuisine imaginable throughout the city. In just our couple days there we indulged on Japanese, Spanish tapas, German wurst and schnitzel, and Italian (and don’t forget the pancakes and poffertjes).
Amsterdam has secured a solid spot in our list of cities we want to return in the future. Fortunately, its location near other major European cities means that it likely will not be long until we once again get to take in world class attractions, stroll along the canals, and take a moment to smell the flowers.