Holland for Kids
Holland" (North and South), is just two provinces in the Netherlands, but is famous for its cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft, and the artists Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. The pastoral landscape doesn't come easy – a big chunk of the Netherlands is land reclaimed from the sea. Kids will enjoy exploring the canals, windmills, and dikes throughout the Netherlands.
Amsterdam is a great family destination, and my kids still say it's their favorite city in Europe. It's an old city (dates back to 12th century), with a beautifully preserved city center – canals, locks, bridges, canal houses in all shapes and sizes including the smallest house that is only as wide as the doorway.
Canal bikes – Rent pedal boats called "canal bikes" and pedal your way around the canals. This is a fabulous way to see those wonderful old canal houses and uses up a lot of energy (let your kids do the pedaling). The "bikes" seat four and have canvas awnings in case of rain. My kids voted canal biking as their favorite thing to do in Amsterdam.
There are four rental locations – in front of the Westerkerk, at the Leidseplein, in front of the Rijksmuseum, and on the Keizers-gracht near the Leidsestraat bridge.
Climb up the tower of the Westerkerk – The tower of the Westerkerk church on the Prinsengracht is a landmark in Amsterdam. Climb up the church tower to get a panoramic view of Amsterdam from the observation deck. The kids liked looking at all the comings and goings in the city below, like a living miniature city. The Westerkerk itself is a lovely spare church. The schedule of free concerts in the evening is posted outside.
Anne Frank House – Down the street from the Westerkerk is the Anne Frank house, sandwiched in among other houses along the Prinsengracht. It's a rare experience to walk into the small rooms where the Frank family went into hiding in World War II. Anne Frank did not survive, but The Diary of Anne Frank, a record of her teen years in this house, is tribute to the youthful spirit of hope amidst the destruction of war. From the attic, she could see the tower of the Westerkerk.
Rent bicycles – I have a vivid memory of the kids biking through the Vondelpark, speeding along smooth paths like leaves blown on the wind. Amsterdam is a good city for biking – it's flat, there are bike lanes and you can really see things. Small size kids' bikes are available for rent and some bicycles have kids’ seats to carry a toddler on the back.
Buy cycling maps that mark bicycling routes through the city and outlying areas at the Amsterdam tourist office and bookstores. Be sure to lock your bikes as bike theft is common. (Note: Stolen bikes are often just jettisoned into the canals. The city has a special crane and hook for pulling bicycles out of the water. It’s fun to watch).
Science Museum Nemo – This is a really terrific hands-on science museum, with a Dutch twist. You can't miss the distinctive building on the Amsterdam waterfront, and once inside, prepare for your kids to charge right in. The exhibits are multilingual and some are topical to the Netherlands, technology with a cultural slant. There are things to do for toddlers (bubble fun, magnetic games, large piece dominos) as well as a full-fledged chemistry lab for older kids. While my boys spent hours piloting their model oil barges or sorting balls in the ball factory, I sat in the café on the upper floor with a spectacular view of the Amsterdam skyline.
Scheepvaart Museum (Ships Museum) – Stand on the prow, gaze out over the water and imagine your sailing ship is about to dock in the Spice Islands. At the Scheepvaart Museum, there is a full size replica of a "Dutch East Indiaman" ship, The Amsterdam. Inside the museum, there are tons of exquisite models of ships from the 17th century to WWII. Head for the basement if you want to buy kits to build model boats. The shop has a good selection, but the guy who runs the shop is rather grouchy when kids are present.
Go see windmills – Here's a good (kid) description of windmills, "The windmill has big arms that you put sails on to spin the arms that turn the wheels that scoop the water to somewhere else."
A single picturesque windmill is located on the Amstel River in the Amstel Park, south of Amsterdam. Rent bikes, take the bike paths along the Amstel River, have a picnic and make it a day. (You can follow the route that Rembrandt took when he painted outdoors, which I thought was fascinating, but my kids were oblivious).
Zaanse Schans – The best collection of windmills close to Amsterdam is the Zaanse Schans in Zaandam..
At the Zaanse Schans, the windmills work and you can climb out on the deck to see the sails thundering round and round (there are safety barriers so you can’t get too close.) It’s quite rackety and impressive inside the windmill too, watching the huge wooden gears turned by the sails!
To get a glimpse of a 19th century Dutch household, stop into the Museum Het Noorderhuis. There are also stores where you can watch artisans at work. At the De Tinkoepel Tinnegieterij pewter shop, we watched pewter spoons being hammered into shape. For a quick snack, there's the De Kraai pancake house.
Canal cruise – If you don’t want to pedal your way around the canals, take a canal cruise. When you take the canal boats at night, you’re in for a real treat. The bridges over the canals and Amstel river are lit up with hundreds of lights.
Take the one hour cruise (rather than the longer dinner or "candlelight" cruises). Buy snacks and drinks on the dock before you go, or bring them with you on the cruise. Canal cruises are available from the dock across from Central Station.
Rijksmuseum – This museum is filled with marvelous paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, but don’t be discouraged if your kids are not initially impressed. The museum has other great things, like exquisite doll houses from the 17th century. Take a look at some of the "food paintings," still life works with that good Dutch cheese and bread. Look for the "The Threatened Swan," a painting depicting a huge, angry swan rearing up, spreading its wings wide to defend against an attacking dog.
Van Gogh Museum – Don't miss the newly renovated Van Gogh Museum, chock full of stunning van Gogh paintings. Van Gogh is an artist that seems to resonate with kids – find your favorite scenes of boats, olive groves, sunflowers, irises, gardens and fields.
Woonbootmuseum (Houseboat museum) Prinsengracht 296 – Ever wondered what it’s like inside a houseboat? Visit the Woonbootmuseum. The houseboat is very homey and cozy, especially nice on a rainy or gray afternoon. The museum has a children’s play corner (kids can color pages of houseboats), and a café with coffee, hot chocolate and soft drinks.
Willet-Holthuysen Museum – This is your chance to see how a wealthy Dutch family lived in centuries past. Lovely high-ceilinged rooms, gilded chandeliers, windows with stained glass, elegant furnished rooms. Don't miss the ballroom or formal garden.
Tropenmuseum – This museum is dedicated to "peoples of the world" and is a great hulking building with excellent collections of musical instruments and masks, as well as reconstructions of life in different countries. The museum is kid friendly (aka noisy) and fun for older kids.
Ride the ferries – Amsterdam is a watery town, and getting around on boats is part of the fun. For a short ride, take the ferry (behind Centraal Station) across to North Amsterdam, and back. For a longer ride, take the 2 hour Historical Ferry boat ride (pick it up also at the pier behind Centraal Station) around the Eastern Islands and Nieuwendam area.
Relax in the parks – Amsterdam is dotted with wonderful parks that have lots of green space and playgrounds for toddlers. In the center of Amsterdam, visit the Vondelpark. Other good parks are the Westerpark, Beatrixpark, Rembrandtpark.
There are also small playgrounds, near the Noorderkerk, (slides and swings) and Frederick Hendrik Plein (sandbox and jungle gym) in the Jordaan.
Artis Zoo – The zoo is okay (there's nothing spectacular about the collection) but it's a nice place to go. The complex includes an aquarium, geology museum and planetarium (show is in Dutch). There is an excellent kid's playground area with sandbox and climbing structures. To make a day of it, take the Artis Express canal boat from Central Station.
Madame Tussaud's – Madame Tussaud's is tacky and wonderful, and a way into Dutch history. You'll find incredibly lifelike portraits of the Dutch painters, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer. In the Grand Hall, step into opulent Dutch life around 1700. One family writes, "Worth the visit, especially on one of those many rainy days."
TunFun (under Mr. Visserplein, near Waterlooplein) – Wondering where to play if the weather is crummy? Head over to TunFun indoor playground, a huge play area under ground, with great climbing structures for kids of all ages (1-12), slides, ball pools, trampolines and indoor soccer area. Recommended by a family living in Amsterdam.
Our favorite snack was "vlaams frites" which are french fries. The frites are freshly cooked, dusted with a little oil and salt, poured into a paper cone and eaten with tiny plastic forks. Douse your frites in all kinds of sauces, not just ketchup, but mayonnaise, peanut sauce, etc. We sampled vlaams frites all over the city, but our first choice was Smullers in Central Station.
In the sweets department, there are lots of choices, including pancakes (panakoeken), gauffre (waffles), and profertjes, a fried confection dusted in powdered sugar. The Pancake Bakery at Prinsengracht 191 has a wide selection of pancakes. If your kids love chocolate, Dutch chocolate is delicious in numerous forms – hot chocolate to drink and chocolate candies in unusual shapes.
There are lots of delightful things to buy besides wooden shoes and toy windmills. Bicycle horns shaped like alligators are fun. Small Delftware tiles and tiny ceramic canal houses are a good buy. If you are a soccer fan, the Amsterdam team, Ajax, has a store in the Kalverstraat with shirts and other soccer paraphernalia.
Haarlem – The peaceful town of Haarlem is just a short train ride from Amsterdam, and it's an easy day trip with kids.
Teyler Museum (Spaarne 16) – You might pass right by the small Teyler Museum, but don’t! Built in 1778, this is an old-world, eclectic museum, filled with fossils, dinosaur bones, crystals, and all kinds of 18th and 19th century scientific instruments.
The raising bridge across from the museum is a great place to sit and watch the boats go by. If you're patient, the bridge will raise up to let the boats through. Also, take a stroll along the river Spaarne and the canals.
Frans Hals Museum – It's worth a visit to the Frans Hal Museum to see his wonderful portraits of people, so real, you might expect them to talk. Look for his paintings of good Dutch cheese and the Civil Guard (check out their swords). Don't miss an exquisite dollhouse, filled with minitaure furniture. Admission is free for kids.
Grote Kerk of St. Bavo – Stop into this Gothic style church. Inside, look for three marvelous wooden ships, hanging like chandeliers from the ceiling and carved coats of arms on the walls. The church has a fabulous pipe organ – check the schedule for concerts. In the square in front of the church (Grote Markt) there are weekly markets and look for kids playing soccer.
Kennemer Dunes National Park – The Kennemer Dunes National Park has lots of well marked trails that meander through a natural landscape of ponds with ducks and swans, small forests and open land reminiscent of Maine. Great hiking for kids of all ages, there aren’t a lot of steep places. There's a great sand beach and swimming for toddlers at the 'T Wed pond.
When you get to the beach, it'll be crowded with Dutch families, rain or shine. (If you don't feel like hiking through the park, you can drive to beach too.) Further south, Zaandvoort is a big beach resort town, with a big amusement arcade and car racetrack.
Volendam – On a Sunday, head out to Volendam, a charming old fishing village where you'll see people in traditional dress (and if you like, you can put on a costume too, great for adorable pictures.) There's demonstrations of cheese making, a ceramics factory, and blacksmith. From the Volendam harbor, take the Marken Express boat ride to the quiet little village of Marken. The perfect place to picnic on a nice day.
Visit a cheese museum (Alkmaar) – In the center of Alkmaar is a lovely old building that was once the weighing house. Today it is a small cheese museum. Find out how Dutch cheese was made traditionally and see the old carved wooden cheese presses. The gift shop has lots of trinkets with the cheese theme. On Friday mornings (April- Sept.), you can see a demonstration of the traditional cheese weighing.
Ride a steam train (Hoorn) – From Hoorn, you can take the steam train, "Stoomtram," to the town of Medemblik. Bright red and puffing out clouds of steam, the Stoomtram is filled with Dutch families on a day outing. If you didn’t bring a picnic, snacks are served on the train.
Medemblik – Visit the Kasteel Radboud (Castle Radboud). This castle is not particularly big, but it has a moat, armor and coats of arms in the main hall, plenty of charm and possibly ghosts, although we didn’t see any. Don’t miss the delightful park next to the castle. The park has a small urban farm with ponies, goats, sheep and chickens, a miniature golf course and restaurant with thatched roof and flower garden.
Zuiderzee Museum (Enkhuizen) – This open air museum shows life in typical Dutch fishing village at the end of the 19th century. You arrive and depart by a short ferry that takes you to the museum site, then you can wander around the "village" as you like. Kids can dress up in wooden shoes and traditional Dutch clothing. We visited the schoolroom and tried our hand writing with pen and ink (it’s hard, both the benches and the writing).
Madurodam – Madurodam is a miniature city with scenery from all over The Netherlands – cathedrals, canal locks with boats, barges on the waterways, farms, windmills, amusement parks, the airport, the old city quarter in Delft, Muiden castle, the town hall in Hilversum, Centraal Station in Amsterdam, the Peace Palace in the Hague, etc. The buildings have a lot of detail and cars, barges, airplanes that move. Maduordam is a perpetual kid pleaser (it’s been around since forever) – a "must do" when you visit the Netherlands.
Mauritshuis – The Mauritshuis is an exquisititely proportioned building with a primo collection of Dutch masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and paintings by Holbein, Brueghel, and Rubens. Kids may prefer going up and down the marble staircases rather than looking at this fine collection of paintings, but don't miss the Laughing boy by Frans Hals and Girl with a pearl earring by Vermeer.
Duinrell (Wassenaar) – If the weather is so-so, head for Duinrell, a large amusement and water park. The Tiki Pool has hot whirlpools and a Lazy River where you can relax, or high-energy long and twisting water slides. Duinrell is located in the Wassenaar woods, 30 min. northwest of the Hague.
Beach at Scheveningen – From Central Station, take the tram to the beach resort of Scheveningen. In summer it does get crowded, but the flat sand beach is perfect for wading and building sand castles.
Panorama Mesdeg – Leave the hustle and bustle of the beach to see what Scheveningen was like in 1880. This is a unique 360 degree panorama painting of the sands and fishing village in a different century.
National Sea Life Aquarium – Find out what lives in the North Sea. The touch pools and a huge underwater tunnel are fun.
Scheveningen Pier – Rain or shine, take a walk out on the long pier. If the weather is bad, use the lower deck, protected with glass. In sunny weather, walk on the promenade deck for a great view of the beach and ocean. The Pier also has arcades and rides.
Delft is a charming town, famous for its blue and white ceramic work, and hometown of Johannes Vermeer. Kids will like wandering around here, so spend time walking around the streets and canals, lined with old houses. Some houses have front doors that open right onto the water.
Museum Lambert van Meerten – This elegant house is now a museum of tiles and ceramics. In the great hall is a wonderful pendulum clock; on the clock face are sailing ships, rocking back and forth in time with the ticking clock. The museum has tons of tiles, 450 years old, decorated with animals, soliders, flowers, children playing. Don't miss the room furnished like a room in a Vermeer painting (complete with a black and white checked floor) – you'll feel like you've stepped into the 17th century.
Nieuwe Kerk – The Gothic-style tower of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) is incredible. It's a huge 15th century stone tower, sitting on marshland, that doesn't lean at all. Climb up the tower for a bird's eye view of the town.
Central Market – Thursday is market day in the square in front of the Stadhuis. There are also free carillon concerts in the summer.
The Hoge Veluwe National Park (near Arnhem) – The Hoge Veluwe National Park is miles and miles of forests, open fields, sandy hills, ponds, pastoral countryside, it's the biggest national park in the Netherlands. Use the free bicycles to ride around (there are some kids' bikes and bikes with seats for little ones). The visitor's center has a cafeteria, but bring a picnic!
Kroller-Muller Museum – The museum, nestled in the park land, has some of your favorite Van Gogh paintings, plus paintings by Picasso, Seurat (all those little dots are fun for kids), and Mondrian (nice red, yellow, blue and black blocky paintings). There's also an outdoor sculpture garden with Rodin and contemporary artists – the sculpture isn't at all stuffy. Don't miss the black and white landscape of the Jardin d'Emaille, a great place to play.
Netherlands Open Air Museum (Arnhem) – Step into 250 years of Dutch life at the Open Air Museum (Openluchtmuseum). Typical cottages, gabled houses, a windmill or two, raising bridges, gardens galore, historical workshops. It's most fun to walk around the park, but there's also a tram ride. Cheese making, ship building, paper making demonstrations. The Open Air Museum is open April – October.
WaterLand Neeltje Jans – Water, water, everywhere.
Deltaworks (Stormvloedkering Oosterschelde) – If your family likes engineering projects, dikes and locks, this is for you! At the Deltaworks, you can see the huge sea locks, doors that are shut to keep out the North Sea during storms. The Delta Expo has exhibits that show how the Dutch built these locks and dams to safeguard Zeeland from flooding. Impressive even if your kids aren’t budding engineers.
The Water Pavilion is devoted to water in all forms – really makes the water cycle come alive. Don't miss the water play place, a series of pools, stepping stones, small scale water engineering where kids can play for hours. Take a boat trip to visit the dolphin station (April – Oct).
Miniatuur Walcheren – This is a miniature version of Walcheren Island – 350 models of towns and villages, a miniature fairground, bridges that go up and down, ships sailing around on the water. There are boats you can pilot from shore, and a pint-sized steam train goes around the park.
Lange Jan (Long John) Tower – In the center of town, climb to the top of Long John Tower, 87 meters high. From the top, you'll get a view of the North Sea, clouds and fields that feels like a Dutch landscape painting.
Efteling (near Tilburg) – Efteling, a fairy-tale amusement park, is a must do for whole family. One of the oldest amusement parks in Europe, its Hansel and Gretel style is completely charming. Little ones will enjoy the Fairy Tale Forest, Villa Volta with Hugo the Goat Rider, or the troll marshes in Dream Flight. Bigger kids will be entertained the Python roller coaster and other rides.