When taking the kids to Europe, it’s easy to throw too much at them, with jam-packed days full of sightseeing that are heavy on history, museums and culture. Try to avoid some of the usual sights that may be over the heads of little ones, or too much like spending a day in school for the tween or teen set. Plan instead to mix in fun, interactive attractions, unusual tours and unique sights to keep everyone engaged and inspired. A two-hour morning visit to an art museum will be easier to handle when a midday boat tour is on tap for the afternoon.
Like many large cities, Amsterdam has plenty of things to see and do that are geared towards families. Spend a few days exploring, throw in a long weekend in Belgium’s nearby Bruges, and you’ve got the makings for a great family vacation. Fuel your family travel with these great spots:
1) Explore by Water.
Instead of opting for a typical bus tour of the city, why not see Amsterdam via its famous canals? The Dutch have a saying, “God created the Earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands,” and it’s true that the country was literally reclaimed from the North Sea through the construction of a system of dikes, canals and pumps. Much of the population lives within a third of the country that is below sea level and would otherwise be submerged. Amsterdam has three main canals that ring the center of the city, the Herengracht, Prisengracht and Keiserzgracht. Several companies offer tours and you can either buy tickets online in advance or simply walk up to one of the starting points on the canal and acquire passes on the spot. There are tours leaving throughout the day.
2) Wonder at Works of Art.
Museums can be challenging for young children; even older kids may lose interest in viewing yet another painting or sculpture. The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, two must-see attractions, engage younger visitors with age-specific programs and activities. It’s possible to hit the highlights of both in one day. Spend the morning at the Van Gogh Museum, the smaller of the two, as it gets very crowded later in the day. Kids under 18 receive free admission and you can book a guided tour for families to maximize your time or simply order a multimedia guide. For kids ages 6-12, pick up the family guide at the museum’s multimedia desk. You can also pick up a treasure hunt at the information desk and bring it back filled out at the end of your visit for a small prize, or grab Vincent’s Traveling Case, filled with fun activities. On Saturdays and Sundays, the same aged kids can join a workshop where they’ll tour the museum with a guide and then paint in a real studio. Workshops should be booked in advance online and English guides are available upon request. At the Rijksmuseum, a National Dutch Museum, kids under age 19 are admitted free. For families with kids ages 6-12 you can join a family tour during the summer season or book a private family tour any day of the year for up to 15 people. On weekends, between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., visit the Picnic Room where there are free Rembrandt drawing lessons and paint demonstrations. Order a family guide online in advance or pick one up onsite, containing two 45-minute routes through the museum. There is also a 1-kilometer family route available at the information desk.
3) Visit a World-Famous Home.
The Anne Frank House may not be appropriate for very young children, but for tweens and teens a visit here is a must. Anne Frank, her parents, sister and four others hid from the Nazis in a Secret Annex here for two years until they were discovered. Anne later perished in a concentration camp but the diary she kept while in the hiding remained, her father later had it published, and the house became a museum. The story of Anne is told through photos, videos and original items that were in the home at the time Anne was in hiding, including the original diary. Tickets are only available online and should be purchased well in advance of your planned visit. Kids up to age nine and ages 10 – 17 get in for reduced fees.
4) Touring with your Taste Buds.
Meals don’t need to be a formal affair while on vacation and there are some wonderful places to sample local cuisine. Dine on Dutch pancakes any time of day at The Pancake Bakery, housed inside a 17th century Dutch East India Company canal house, or at one of the other pancake houses in the city. Dutch pancakes differ from ours; they are larger and thinner (just slightly thicker than a crepe) and are filled or topped with any number of sweet or savory ingredients. The Amsterdam Cheese Museum is a great place to learn about Dutch cheese, sample a wide variety, and pick up some vacuum-sealed portions to bring home. Dig into an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table, in Dutch) dinner at Restaurant Blauw or many other eateries serving this traditional feast, the influence on local cuisine the result of more than 300 years of Dutch involvement in that country. Dine on many small plates of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes, all accompanied by steaming white rice.
5) Set Sail.
The National Maritime Museum boasts one of the largest maritime collections in the world, with more than 400,000 objects, including models of ships, navigation instruments, paintings and maps. Learn about 500 years of Dutch maritime history through a free virtual reality experience, Dare to Discover; explore onboard a replica of the East Indiaman Amsterdam, a ship wrecked during its first voyage in 1749; and walk through Tale of the Whale, a permanent exhibit on whales and whaling through the centuries, among other interactive exhibits. The museum offers free audio tours or you can book a private guided tour for up to 15 people for a fee.
1) Chocolate Fix.
Chocoholics will rejoice at the dozens of shops selling chocolate in every imaginable size, shape and flavor. Along the shop-lined sidewalks of Bruges you may find three or four on one block! For a more comprehensive experience with this much-loved sweet, visit Choco-Story, The Chocolate Museum. Open daily, with admission free for kids under age 6, the museum explores the 4000-year-old history of chocolate with pictures, text, artifacts and a demonstration center. There are more than 1000 objects here that relate to chocolate along with several places stationed throughout the museum to sample and satisfy your cravings while learning about this treat. Tickets are available online or onsite and can be combined with tickets to several other museums or a chocolate walk, which includes stops in two of 12 chocolate shops in town.
2) History Comes to Life.
The Historium, located on The Markt (Market Square), brings the history of Bruges to life with the help of an audio guide that takes visitors through seven themed rooms, telling about the Golden Age of the city through special effects, music and film. Historium Virtual Reality can be added on before or after this guided tour for a thrilling adventure through medieval Bruges. Cap off your visit with a stop at an exhibition depicting city architecture, layout and ramparts and a 145-step climb for a view from the top of the Historium Tower.
3) A Lofty Perch.
Get an overview of the city from high atop the 272-foot-tall Belfry. Though this requires an ambitious 366-step climb, there are places to stop along the way and the 360-degree views are well worth the effort. There is often a long line, so it’s best to arrive first thing in the morning. Afterwards, get a good overview of the city with a horse-drawn carriage ride through crowded streets. It’s a good way to get kids off of their feet for a break and you can easily find your ride lined up alongside the Market Square.
4) Get a Good Scare.
Older kids will get a thrill out of visiting the Torture Museum, located in an old, historical European prison, De Oude Steen (The Old Stone). Explore more than 100 cruel instruments and devices of torture, tracing the origin of torture and its judicial use in medieval times. Tickets are available on site.
5) Get Out into Nature.
Bruges is one of the European cities considered “The Venice of the North” for its network of canals, and it’s easy to grab a tour from several spots in the heart of the city. Buy a ticket and then wait in line (lines typically move quickly, although you can always try later in the day if the wait seems overly long). After your scenic float, take a walk through Minnewater Park, around Minnewater (Lake of Love) for beautiful, serene vistas close to the city center.
6) A Royal Stay.
There is no better place to set the stage for a visit in Bruges than the five-star Hotel Dukes’ Palace, just a short walk from the Markt. Once home to Burgundian aristocracy, 15th century elements blend seamlessly with modern luxury in a well-appointed property complete with a variety of rooms and suites, including suites designed for families. A breakfast room, restaurant serving dinner, a lunch restaurant/bar and a summer terrace provide ample spots in which to dine. A tranquil spa and fitness center round out the hotel offerings.