Amsterdam, I have all the heart eyes for you. After seeing countless photos of all the beautiful canal houses and reading all about the wonderful things the city had to offer, I was beyond excited for the time we planned to spend there. I will miss the expressions people would make when I told them our plans of taking the children on a family vacation to what many consider to be an inappropriate destination for kids. Sure, Amsterdam is known for its XXX offerings but I also read what a family-friendly city it was and I’m happy to report, it really truly was.
We arrived in Amsterdam late due to an evening flight and that flight being delayed. We were a bit frantic because I had forgotten to reach out to the staff at our apartment to inform them that we would be arriving after hours to check in. When we landed, my brother-in-law Tim and I furiously started emailing the staff to ask them to wait for us in fear we would have to locate a hotel for a 1-night stay which isn’t really something I had planned nor wanted to do. Upon arriving at the airport, we frantically searched for a desk that was occupied by the management company responsible for our apartment. Out of breath and stressed beyond belief, we located the desk where the attendant called our apartment and confirmed that the staff would indeed still be there to check us in–phew! After we recovered from our mini heart attacks and located where we were on a map, we set off en route to find the city bus that would take us to our apartment. Again, being dropped in a new city with the added task of learning a new transit system within minutes is very stressful. Perhaps more so when your children are in tow and everyone is hungry, tired and anxious. After some uncertainty, last-minute scrambling and aimless wandering, we located our desired bus and 2 hours after we touched down in Amsterdam, we finally arrived at our apartment.
The YAYS Oostenburgergracht Apartment was our home for the week and it was awesome. Our loft had a sleeping area on the bottom floor with a separate bathroom off to the side with a sliding door for privacy. There was a living area, kitchen and a separate bath that we designated for the kids. The most awesome aspect of our apartment was a flight of stairs that directed you to two additional beds in a tree-house type setting within the loft where the kids slept. It was a fantastic layout for a family of 4 because it allowed the kids to go to bed early and the adults could continue on with their night without disturbing the younger inhabitants. We found the staff to be very helpful showing us bus routes, grocery options and restaurant recommendations and the location of the apartment made us feel like we were residents of the city and not just a hotel dweller, living in the middle of tourism central. Overall, the apartment was fantastic and greatly contributed to the overwhelmingly positive experience we had in Amsterdam.
We awoke early the next day for our first journey into the city. We were immediately greeted by a sea of bicyclists which we would continue to see for the duration of our trip. We saw an increase in bicycles in Stockholm but it was nothing compared to the number of bicycles in Amsterdam. The bicyclists are equal numbers of men and women alike in business attire, casual clothes, parents with multiple children strung around the bikes. Crossing the street seemed more dangerous than we’re used to because you had tons of bicycles coming at you from every direction. We quickly learned that before you cross the street and check for vehicles, you absolutely have to check both ways in the bicycle path first or else be prepared to face a bicycle head on.
The transit system is very easy to use and thanks to the instructions given to us by our apartment’s staff, we were able to locate our bus quickly. The metro trains have a booth in the middle of the train where it is usually operated by an employee who will sell you bus tickets and give you any travel details you need. The staff was always super friendly and helpful and even changed out bigger bills for us from their own pocket money. We quickly learned that denominations above 20 euro should be reserved for food and/or souvenirs.
We headed for the Museumplein which is home to the infamous I Am Amsterdam sign and the city’s most popular museums: Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum. We stopped at a small outdoor cafe for a delicious breakfast that consisted of fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, pastries and waffles dipped in sugar and more sugar because that is really the only way to tackle vacation.
Our first stop for the day was the Van Gogh museum. In my attempt to retrieve an audioguide for the kids, I somehow signed them up to do the scavenger hunt and I’m quite happy I did. Both kids received two giant 4-page worksheets that directed them to specific pieces within the museum where they then had to answer a series of questions pertaining to that particular art piece. Once completed, they could return their worksheets for a prize. The wonderful thing about the scavenger hunt was it kept the kids entertained in an otherwise boring setting. They would have enjoyed looking at some of the pieces but I know they would have lost interest rather quickly.
They remained engaged, determined to complete all of their questions to redeem their prize. The museum was very thorough and I’ll admit, I learned quite a bit about Van Gogh by helping the kids with their scavenger hunt. Once the kids presented their answers to the front desk to redeem their prize, the museum staff actually looked at their sheets to ensure they completed it and they actually checked some of their answers. Clearly, they wanted to make sure the kids got something out of it too. Their reward was a postcard of a selected Van Gogh piece that each child could choose. The kids were very proud and tired. Their exhaustion required a visit to the museum store for a souvenir.
From the Van Gogh museum, we walked straight to the Rijksmuseum which is home to various art pieces and collections from Dutch history. Upon entry to the museum, we were informed that there was an audio guide/game that the kids could participate in to receive yet another prize. This time, the kids were given iPods that directed them through the museum and asked them to find specific pieces to answer questions relating to the given piece they were observing. They worked as a team and if one person lagged behind, the other person’s audioguide would pause until their teammate was with them. Upon completion of each task, the kids would receive a letter that they would then have to unscramble at the end of their visit to unveil a secret word. All in all, very smart.
This museum was far more crowded than the Van Gogh museum and I feel we missed a lot due to running around and trying to keep up with the kids who were following their own treasure quest. Perhaps it was exhaustion from having had visited two museums in a 3-hour timespan or the excessive walking or a combination of both but once the kids had finished their game, we were in need of a meal. The kids redeemed their prize which was a feather pen and we quickly made our way to the museum restaurant which served more delicious sugary pastries and liquor.
After lunch, we departed for our final museum trek for the day at the Stedelijk museum which is home to the modern and contemporary art collections. Perhaps it was fatigue or we had our fill of art but we essentially laughed our way through this museum. There were exceptions when we oohed and aahed at a few Picasso and Mondrian pieces but a lot of the collection was laughable. We would enter a room to find only two erect ropes in the middle of the room and as others studied the piece with much admiration and curiosity, we stood in the back rolling our eyes and making fart noises. Even as much as our group loves and appreciates art, even we can’t get behind everything.
The children were great and we acknowledged that we had asked a lot out of them to not only walk through one museum but three! Thankfully, within the Museumplein, there is a playground that we allowed the kids to let loose at for a bit while we studied our map and planned our next move. We decided to just walk through the city for a bit and do some exploring.
Amsterdam is really such a charming city with its many canal-lined streets and its storybook architecture. You can’t help but be amazed at the beauty and history of this city. There is really nothing like it here at home so we were all captivated at every turn and at every bridge and yes, sometimes we were staring up at the buildings when we should have been watching for the bicycle that nearly plowed into us. Sometimes walking aimlessly has its perks as it allows you stumble upon unexpected sights but then come the moments when you’re famished and finding a spot to eat becomes damn near impossible. This happened to us as we walked for a couple hours and found ourselves in need of food but with really no direction or idea of where to go.
We found our way to a pub off a main shopping street that had received high remarks online for offering traditional Dutch food. When in a new place, we always like to try the local faire at least once to say we’ve tried it. The pub offered local beers and a shelf full of board games in which we picked out the tried and true game of Rummikub which held our interest until the pub’s kitchen opened for dinner.
We had ordered a variety of Dutch mashpots that are considered typical in Dutch cooking and found them to be one of the worst things we have ever put in our mouths. Tim’s sausage mashpot was basically hot dogs in mashed potatoes. We collectively agreed that going forward, we would only order Dutch food that consisted of pastries and apple pie. This decision was one of the very best decisions I have ever made.
The next day, we started fresh with a round of pancakes from De Carrousel Pannenkoeken where we quickly learned that whatever ingredients you order with your pancake, become cooked into the pancakes. For instance, Miles thought he was ordering pancakes and bacon on the side but what he received was actually one giant pancake with bacon cooked into the pancake. We also quickly learned that the Dutch do not pour maple syrup on their pancakes but instead sweeten their pancakes with a caramel sauce. We unintentionally learned this when I drowned my pancake in this syrup thinking it was maple syrup only to discover that it was not. Thankfully my apple and cinnamon pancake paired quite nicely with it. The only thing I was missing was a fine glass of a dry white wine to accompany my extremely sweet breakfast item.
I’m not a huge fan of tourist traps but felt an obligation to visit the Heineken brewery due to its prominent standing in the beer industry. It was interesting to see the history behind Heineken but for the most part, the whole tour felt like one giant Heineken commercial. At one point in the tour, when the staff is giving their demonstration how beer is made, the tour guide actually made the statement that hops smell terrible. Clearly this is a window in to the types of ingredients they use because hops, good hops, actually smell incredible. There were redeeming parts to the tour when the kids could interact a bit with the beer-making process by helping to mix the wort or mill the grains but overall, it was probably a tour you could pass on if you ever find yourself in the city.
Thankfully there was a very cool playground directly across the street that we killed time at for a bit. It’s sad to say but the playground was indeed more exciting than the Heineken tour.
We had a dinner cruise lined up in the evening so we had practically a whole day to kill before our departure. When all else fails, we walk! Unfortunately, at this time it had started to rain where it proceeded to do so for the rest of the day. I forgot to check the weather report and found myself sloshing through the city in my Toms. We attempted to make our way to ‘The Nine Streets‘ for some alternative shopping but I think because we had our heads down so as not to be lashed in the face by rain, we missed most of the shops completely. In an effort to salvage our afternoon, I remembered reading about a cafe that served the city’s best apple pie. When someone boasts about the city’s best anything, I have to try it out for myself so after we walked out of the way a bit, we came across Winkel 43 which is a tiny unassuming corner cafe. Apparently their reputation precedes them because the place was bursting at the seams. We somehow managed a table that could accommodate all five of us where we devoured five giant delicious and perfect apple pie slices. After a polite old man tried to speak to us in Dutch and we effectively showed our ignorance as Americans, we continued on our way to our canal cruise.
At this point of the trip, the head cold that would consume me for the rest of our vacation, began to rear it’s ugly head and I began to feel ill on the boat. It didn’t help that our supposed dinner cruise didn’t offer food until 45 minutes into the boat ride where our driver parked the boat at the end of one of the canals and two members of the staff exited and returned a short while later with an armful of pizzas. I admit, I felt better once I ate something other than pastries but at this point, I was exhausted and ready to turn in for the evening. The cruise was very informative and it was exciting to see the city from the water but after a day of trudging through the rain, it was time to say goodnight to Amsterdam.
Our first two days in the city were great and Amsterdam proved to be the charming little big city I had believed it to be. What was most impressive was how accommodating establishments were when we arrived with children. The museums not only were free for kids under the age of 12, but they offered games and interesting activities to keep them engaged. Staff in restaurants didn’t roll their eyes at the sight of children but welcomed them and talked to them as equals. There were playgrounds scattered throughout the city that made it easy to allow the kids to blow off some steam after a couple hours of doing tedious things. Amsterdam was quickly winning me over and we hadn’t even dove into the fun “adult” things. I knew the remaining days in Amsterdam could only go up from here.
Some strange and interesting facts about Amsterdam:
Next post: More Amsterdam because we really did everything.