Amsterdam. Family friendly and incredibly beautiful are perhaps not the first adjectives that come to the mind of most people who haven't been to this fun town in person. Amsterdam's more 'exciting' reputation precedes it. In America if you tell your friends you're planning a trip to Amsterdam they may give you a bit of a wink and smirk, blush or giggle as they say, "Oh really!!!!"
Amsterdam is of course known worldwide for its Red Light district; its relaxed attitude toward drug use and sexuality. If you're looking to spend a debauched weekend in Amsterdam, this is of course possible with relative ease. For some travelers, that is the main attraction!
Yet there is so much more to Amsterdam than you might imagine... and it really is a fantastic city for families with kids. Breathtaking canals, insanely delicious food, fascinating museums and gorgeous parks with ziplines and playgyms for children (and adults) to play in... major universities and business schools, opera and ballet, world famous breweries. Lovely cafés full of exotic coffees. Talented musicians busking in the streets and bicycles everywhere flying right toward you at breakneck speed. Street markets full of fresh fish, art and handcrafted chocolates!
Amsterdam is a small city but magnficent in both its culture and historical importance.
Over the past two years our family has spent nearly three weeks in Amsterdam... 10 days in the summer of 2015 and a little more than a week just now for Christmas 2016. We've been lucky to enjoy the town when its parks have been green and verdant, vines and bushes blooming colorfully around the lovely canals... and also when the landscape was barren, crisp and chilly, with chimneys smoking and families laughing and playing in the outdoor ice rink in the Museumplein.
Every time we come to Amsterdam we love it. Every time we leave my children say, "I wish we could stay longer!" and "Let's come back again soon." We love Amsterdam!
Here are some of the adventures and attractions we experienced in this terrific city on Boxing Day 2016 when the temperature ranged from 9C to -2C and Little Angel and I bundled up in four layers, hats, scarves and gloves to stay warm, agile and happy!
Señor Aventura, a biology major in college, has now taken to describing Micropia as the "coolest, most interesting museum I think I've ever been to!" High praise indeed! This museum, currently the only one of its kind in the entire world, is dedicated to sharing information about microbes ('the smallest and most powerful organisms on our planet'). It's an amazing 90 minute interactive science lesson teaching children and adults alike about the one hundred trillion microbes that are on us and in us at every moment, and around us everywhere we go.
The displays at Micropia are unconventional and fascinating. They sometimes use microscopes to show real bacteria, fungi, viruses, molds, yeasts, algae, archaea and more... other times you might look at the rotting carcus of an animal to see how it is decomposing. You can scan your own body to see approximately how many microbes you carry, where they are located and what types they may be. There is even a fun "kiss-o-meter" to show how many microbes are transmitted in a single kiss (see photos below). The museum teaches about how microbes can be both highly destructive or highly helpful inside the human microbiome; how they influence various products, vaccines and medicines; and their many crucial roles in our Earth ecosystem.
The children and I have visited Micropia twice now, and we are still completely fascinated by its jars of different types of bacteria growing on household items, displays of molding or rotting food, jars full of poop from different species, real human intestines and much more. Talk about not getting bored! We could barely tear the kids away from this place for lunch!!!
Anne Frank Haus
The line to get into the Anne Frank Haus travels down the block and around the nearby church. We've waited for over an hour each time we've toured the annex where she and her family hid during the German occupation of Holland, but both times our visit was completely worth the wait. On Boxing Day (after our Micropia visit) we arrived just as the sun was setting at 4:30pm and the wind by the canal was picking up. By the time we finally made it to the front door for admission to the building, it was 6:00pm, pitch black and literally freezing outside... I could not feel my toes!
Still, something about waiting outside in the dark and cold for so long before entering the tiny annex where Anne Frank, her family and a few other families hid for several years made the experience of climbing up that very steep staircase to their rooms hidden behind the bookcase even more powerful and moving.
The quiet of the dark, cold night made the eerie stillness inside of the old Dutch house feel even more personal. More than ever I could visualize Anne and her sister Margot curled up on their narrow beds in the darkened rooms... writing, studying, trying to think of happier days ahead... desperate for a breath of fresh air or glimpse of sunlight, while forcing themselves to be completely silent.
Visitors to their rooms pass through in near-silence as well, honoring the tragic living space as they might typically honor and respect the silence in a church, synagogue or mosque. In its way, visiting Anne Frank's annex is also a spiritual journey. Each visitor must confront the past and ask themselves, "What would I have done if I'd been there? What would I do if it happened now?"
Our children left with so many questions about World War II, Judaism, Naziism, the role of The Netherlands, concentration camps and more. The 90 minutes we spent touring this unforgettable house were followed by another 90 minutes of talking it all over at dinner. The kids were perhaps most impacted by the fact that Anne's father, Otto Frank, tried to get papers to leave The Netherlands and bring his family safely to the United States but couldn't get the right documents. They were also surprised to learn that that before the war Anne was a popular girl who loved to flirt and thought mostly about boys; reading magazines about famous movie stars, and spending time giggling with her friends.
"She sounds like most of the girls in my sixth grade class, Mom," mused The Scientist. "Even though she's so famous, she was just a regular person."
"That's the thing," his dad and I nodded. "The reason Anne Frank's story is so powerful is that she could have been any of us."
"I'd like to read her real diary," he added. "The full version. When I get a little older."
"Absolutely," we agreed.
Over dinner we talked quietly about what it means when governments have registries for citizens of a certain race or religious background; what it means to exclude certain people from activities due to their ethnic or cultural background; and we also had to explain internment camps to our daughter. We all felt so sad for Otto Frank... who survived the concentration camp to return home and learn that his wife and daughters were dead. Talk about losing everything.
Our children range in age from 11 to 7. Though it is a serious tour and obviously quite sad, we all agree that visiting the Anne Frank Haus is a fantastic activity to go through together as a family. It truly expands your perspective, stimulates crucial conversations and gives kids a sense of how blessed they are to live and worship freely today. Highly recommended!
Speaking of dinner, we had a fantastic experience at the Koh-I-Noor restaurant, just a few minutes walk from the Anne Frank Haus. After waiting in that freezing line and then touring the house, we'd found ourselves chilled to the bone and ravenous by 7:45pm. To our dismay, the café at the Anne Frank Haus had just closed for the night.
"But mommy, I'm so HUNGRY!" said Little Angel urgently. "You said we could have a snack at the café!"
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea it would be closed." I rested my head in my hands and rubbed my neck for a moment, thinking. "You know what would be amazing right now?" I asked my family.
"Indian food! I want something really hot and spicy to warm up with... I still can't move my toes!"
"That does sounds great," my husband agreed. "I could definitely go for Indian food."
"I saw an Indian place when we were getting off the bus," The Scientist added. "I can look it up." He pulled out his phone (as he loves to do!) and soon told us (thanks to TripAdvisor) that the Indian place just down the street was called Koh-I-Noor and received mostly five star reviews.
"Perfect! Thank you so much. I'll call right now!"
Everyone in Amsterdam speaks flawless English, so when I telephoned the restaurant to ask about a reservation on short notice, it wasn't too much of a problem that the man on the other end of the line answered in Dutch. Within moments we'd both transitioned to English and I was relieved to have such an easy conversation with man on the other end of the line.
"I have three very cold, very hungry children," I explained to him. "We are just minutes away. I am so sorry that we do not have a reservation."
"Rest assured madam, children are welcome here. We will find a table for you!"
"Wonderful!" Our family cheered and then began to relayer our thick winter sweaters and jackets for the walk.
The restaurant itself proved to be intimate and colorful. Even though it was not yet eight o'clock, it was packed! We'd arrived earlier than our reservation so they kindly led us to a separate waiting room where they handed our children juice and brought my husband and I beer and wine to wait with. We relaxed and watched fun Bollywood music videos together.
"I want to dance like that!" exclaimed Little Angel, pointing to the long row of elegant Indian dancers.
"Me too!" I agreed.
"Not me!" grinned Soccer Dude. "I don't dance!"
Before long we found ourselves ensconced in a spicy sea of curry, tikka, masala, spinach, chutney and naan bread. The service was so personable and warm. For the first time since morning, we felt completely warm and comfortable. Soccer Dude began to clown around, while Señor Aventura told us funny stories.
The owner came by our table to check on us many times. "I opened this restaurant in 1981," he confided, "and I've been here almost every day since then. Many of my customer have been coming here for 20, 30 years. Parents come and then their children come. We have many regulars, with their favorite tables and dishes. They have become friends."
We loved him instantly and agreed that we will always return to Koh-I-Noor any time we are in Amsterdam. If only they had a restaurant in Barcelona!
By the end of dinner, Little Angel was resting her sleepy head on her arms and even The Scientist had begun to yawn. We emerged from the cosy restaurant into the frosty night feeling cheerful and ready to go home. We waited for a while for the tram to arrive and passed the time watching our breath as we exhaled white clouds into the dark night. My husband and the children beat-boxed to stay warm. We laughed at ourselves out loud, and then felt quietly grateful. It had been a very good day.
Up next in our tour of Amsterdam... ice skating on the Museumplein, Bagels & Beans, Banksy at the Moco, and a whirlwind of experiential art at the Stedelijk!