With the Kids in Amsterdam

The Rijksmuseum narrates the story of Dutch history through a chronological showcase of paintings, sculpture, furniture, china, and clothes.Pictured: The Rijksmuseum narrates the story of Dutch history through a chronological showcase of paintings, sculpture, furniture, china, and clothes.

Despite being better known for its Red Light District and “coffee shops,” Amsterdam offers so many charms for families that it’s rocketed to the top of our list of European cities for children. The gorgeous canals bobbing with houseboats, the cobbled streets dotted with narrow townhouses, the avenues bustling with tulip stalls and vendors selling hot caramel “stroopwafels”—simply strolling is a magical delight in Amsterdam. This compact city is easy to get around, and boasts no less than 75 museums, beautiful parks, and an amazing (and kid-friendly) culinary scene.

Sampling the museums is a must as many have exhibits geared especially for children. A great place to start is NEMO, a “hands-on” science museum in a fantastical green building shaped like a ship. Explore three floors of interactive displays explaining everything from DNA to how bridges work, watch live demonstrations on concepts like “chain reactions,” and don’t miss the laboratory on the top floor—grab a lab coat and goggles to try out the different experiments. From there, walk through the edgy Amsterdam Oost (East) for a well-deserved glass of wine and authentic Dutch cuisine prepared with contemporary flair at Wilde Zwijnen (Wild Boar). We went for the four-course “surprise” chef menu and dined on an unusual and tasty main of pork neck; our kids, however, opted for a simpler menu of pasta and steak.

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One cannot visit Amsterdam without going to see the incredible art. For this, head to the Museumplein. Must-see museums for families are the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum, both of which reopened in 2013 after extensive renovations. The spectacular Van Gogh Museum is home to the largest collection of his work—more than 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 letters. Hot tip: Ask at reception for a children’s audio tour or a free treasure hunt to aid exploration. Nearby, the Rijksmuseum tells the story of 800 years of Dutch history through a chronological showcase of paintings, sculpture, furniture, china, and clothes. Play tip: Between the two museums, enjoy the lovely park with a playground and one of the enormous “I amsterdam” signs which are dotted around the city. (Other signs are located by the Central Station, the airport, the opera house—allow time as each demands a climbing/photo stop.) If more fresh air is required, the lush 70-acre Vondelpark is just a few blocks away.

The suite apartments at the Sofitel Grand complement the traditional feel of the accommodations with state-of-the-art facilities and modern amenities.Pictured: The suite apartments at the Sofitel Grand complement the traditional feel of the accommodations with state-of-the-art facilities and modern amenities.

Smaller museums, unique boutiques, quaint cafes, and bakeries make the De Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) a great area to explore with kids. At the top end is one of the city’s most visited attractions, the Anne Frank House. This is a very moving experience that, despite its tragedy, most children will be able to handle and learn from. The Anne Frank exhibit includes a thoughtful tour of her bedroom in the Secret Annex, the original diary, and videos of her father and several of the people that helped hide the family. Tip: Pre-booking tickets online is a must to skip long waits; there are a limited number of online tickets so book at least one to two weeks ahead.

Just along from Anne Frank House are a few light museums. Learn about the “unofficial” national flower of Holland at the tiny Tulip Museum (“unofficial” only because there is no official national flower); or taste your way through the Cheese Museum, dedicated exclusively to Dutch cheese; or see what life might be like aboard one of the 2,500 houseboats that line the canals and visit the House Boat Museum. Afterward, head to Singel Street for some respite—have a cup of coffee and a delicate, crispy fresh “stroopwafel” at Lanskroon, where they’ve been making them for 100 years; or pop in next door to Van Stapele, a cool cookie shop that sells only one kind—a dark chocolate cookie with white chocolate chunks, always served warm. Along Singel at #419, find the boutique with no name (just the address) for hip stationery and retro toys, including an amazing selection of wind-up robots. Finally, one last museum, the Amsterdam Museum, has an incredible interactive history exhibit specifically designed for children on life in a 17th-century orphanage (the building was formerly the Civil Orphanage of Amsterdam). Wearing special bracelets that activate the multimedia displays, the children get to dress up and go through secret doors on a self-guided journey back in time. Genius. (A slightly less interactive, but no less engaging, experience is more suited for adults in the floors above. Children are welcome here as well, though you might be more inclined to skip the exhibits—toward the end—that address modern Amsterdam’s more liberal attitude toward sex and drugs.)

The Sofitel Grand’s Junior Suites are 484-square-feet in size and have spacious bedrooms with king-size beds.Pictured: The Sofitel Grand’s Junior Suites are 484-square-feet in size and have spacious bedrooms with king-size beds.

You’d never imagine that such serene luxury could exist just a few minutes from the energetic Dam Square, yet there sits the magnificent Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam, set back in a courtyard off one of the city’s most central canals. Originally built in the 1400s as two convents, the building later served as Amsterdam’s town hall (1808-1987) and was the location of Queen Beatrix’s civil wedding in 1966.

The Grand was rebranded as the first Sofitel “Legend” in Europe in 2012 after an extensive renovation of the public spaces and 177 guest rooms, including 52 suites, and the addition of Butler Service. Sofitel “Legend” properties must be in registered buildings with at least 100 years of history. This particular building is of such significance that they offer free guided tours daily at 11 a.m.—this is worth doing, if only to see the Wedding Chamber with its Jugendstil murals and colorful glass windows. As the building was not designed as a hotel, every room is different, but most have views of the garden or the historic canals, and all feature elegant Art Deco décor, modern bathrooms and rain showers.

Head Butler Mauricio de Aguiar Silva guided us to our roomy Junior Suite (nearly 500 square feet) connected to a Luxury Room (No. 403 and No. 405) with views over the garden to Dam Square. The kids delighted in a special welcome of cuddly bears and plush mini-robes and slippers. Mauricio offered to draw us a bath in the gorgeous freestanding white tub, but we were on our way to the bountiful Easter Brunch and egg hunt in the ballroom where Queen Beatrix was married. All guests staying in Suites have Butler Service, and Mauricio—as well as the concierge staff—was tremendously helpful. Head Concierge is Niels Essink (Clefs d’Or Concierge; [email protected]). VIP museum tours, private guided canal boat rides, exclusive restaurant bookings, and more—nothing is beyond their reach.

The hotel has 20 connecting rooms; the larger Prestige Suites (nearly 600 square feet) have canal views and a proper sitting area. Celebrities and royalty frequent The Grand as the hotel has converted several former Canal Houses into a mix of grand suites and guest rooms with kitchenettes, but most importantly, these offer private street entry as well as direct hotel access. The week before we arrived, Cameron Diaz was a guest and, in the 1990s, Michael Jackson famously stayed in the Canal House Imperial Suite No. 324 and bought all of his fans waiting outside (nearly 300 of them) hot chocolate. For Suite bookings, contact Pierrette Gude, reservations manager ([email protected]).

The hotel’s restaurant, Bridges, was awarded a Michelin star in 2012. The focus is organic seafood, with delicate dishes inspired by Chef Ron Blaauw and prepared by Executive Chef Joris Bijdendijk. There’s also a tremendous raw bar with caviar, fruit de mare, oysters and fish tartar plates.

We started each day at So SPA with a swim in the heated, triangular-shaped indoor pool. So SPA also has a Turkish steam bath, Jacuzzi, sauna, two private treatment rooms and a small fitness room. To book, contact So SPA manager Yana Bovsha ([email protected]).

Top Tulip Tip: For two months only (mid-March to mid-May), the Keukenhof, the second largest garden in the world (the first is now in Dubai), is 45 minutes away by car and not to be missed. Originally a 15th-century hunting ground and later a kitchen garden for a nearby castle, the Keukenhof was established in the late 1940s to showcase Holland’s varieties of tulips. Every year, seven million bulbs are planted over 80 acres—the designs and spectrum of colors are incredible, like nothing else in this world. This is a great outing with the kids as there is also a windmill, a fun zip line, and an adventure playground. The hotel’s Butlers or Concierges can arrange private guides or book group tours. Peak time to see the most blooms is mid-April.

Essential Time Saver: Skip the lines at attractions: The “Iamsterdam City Card” offers free museum entry, a free canal cruise, and free transport. Purchase ahead online or by the Central Station for either 24, 48 or 72 hours. Time activates upon first entry, not purchase date.

For Foodies: Just 15 minutes outside the city center is De Kas. Dine amid the gardens of a former Amsterdam city nursery with soaring 25-foot glass ceilings in this superb restaurant. The set three-course menu is changed weekly (51 menus a year, kitchen only gets one week off) depending on the week’s harvest. They will, however, happily cater to any dietary needs—and children. We settled in with nibbles of warm bread, green olives and herbed cauliflower. These were followed by three delicious appetizers served family-style: white asparagus with creamy egg yolks and bok choy; lobster with lemon remoulade, chard and zesty radish; and a crispy, roast breast of duck with fennel and yellow heirloom carrots. The main course was equally scrumptious—local lamb served with a vibrant mint salsa, toasted hazelnuts and feta. The dessert of lemon mousse with rhubarb, cookie crumbles and yoghurt ice cream served as a refreshing and lovely finale. Afterward, Chef Wiegel gave us a tour through the garden, where he picked some of the fresh radishes and mint that we had just eaten.

Sommelier Enno De Groot offers wine pairings by the glass, or as another option there is a list of about 80 bottles to choose from. For those without children along, there’s also an exclusive Chef’s Table in the kitchen, where dinner is at the whim of the chef (four people maximum.)

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