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Tell anyone that you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam with kids, and puzzled looks paired with snide comments are likely to follow. But the city’s reputation — typically centered on its red-light district and marijuana — can be deceiving. Though not typically thought of as a family-friendly destination, the Netherlands’ capital city and its nearby neighbors have plenty of perks for families. And canals, traditional Dutch villages and windmills are just the beginning.
Where to StartHit the ground running — or floating, rather — down Amsterdam’s 165-strong canal system. Along with helping traveling broods get the lay of the land, canal tours have a fun way of sneaking in a bit of city history while pointing out landmarks and cultural highlights. A number of operators offer tours, and sightseeing by boat beats walking any day.
Though most kids don’t want to spend hours in a museum, choosing an artist or two to focus on is easy thanks to the city’s plethora of museums, such as Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt House Museum and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. With the exception of Rijksmuseum, all of these (and a canal city tour) are covered by the I Amsterdam City Card, which can help families save a little bit of money when on the go.
The Anne Frank House is a must-see for school-age children who have read her diary. Note: It needs to be booked well in advance to avoid standing in line.
Head for the SeaWhen temperatures soar, Dutch sun-seekers make for the beach, and visiting families should, too. Thanks to a direct train from Amsterdam Central Station, Zandvoort aan Zee is an easy 30-minute ride. Beach clubs complete with playgrounds dot wide stretches of sand, which are ideal for swimming, sandcastle building and collecting shells. The beach is also a top pick for kite surfers; as they fly atop the waves, their gymnastic-like moves will impress kids and parents.
A former fishing village, Zandvoort aan Zee is a fun spot to wander, boasting a number of shops and restaurants that sell everything from souvenirs to swimsuits. Spots to grab vacation favorites such as French fries and ice cream are plentiful. For kids who might be less than thrilled to leave the beach, a ride on the seaside carousel may soften the blow.
Venice of the NorthGiethoorn, about 75 miles outside Amsterdam, has all the makings of a quintessential Dutch village: colorful homes with thatched roofs, an inviting maze of canals and more than 180 high-arched pedestrian bridges. Cementing its charm is the lack of roads in the old part of town. And no roads means no cars, so transportation is limited to bikes, wheelbarrows and anything that floats.
There are organized boat tours, but it’s more fun to hire a small electric whisper boat and putter around on your own. Located in the center of Giethoorn along the main canal, Mol/Groenewegen is a good place to launch a family boating adventure. Owner Gerrit Mol will walk parents through everything they need to know about becoming sailors for the day and the best route to explore. It takes a couple minutes to get used to the steering, but after a few gentle bumps (and most likely a lot of laughing), it’ll be smooth sailing.
Narrow waterways wind under arching pedestrian bridges, which were purposely built tall enough for standing cows to float under with head room to spare. There will be donkeys and ducks along canals, sprinkled in between guesthouses, restaurants and shops. The trip from Amsterdam to Giethoorn takes a couple hours by train and bus, and about 90 minutes by car. Vehicles can be left in parking lots within walking distance of the village.
Windmills Are a MustWindmills and the Netherlands go hand in hand, but there’s something especially exciting about that first sight of the twirling structures at Kinderdijk. Arguably one of Holland’s best-known Dutch tourist spots, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is just a 40-minute train ride from Amsterdam and a 20-minute waterbus ride from Rotterdam. Visitors are often surprised to learn that the windmills of Kinderdijk — which make up the largest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands — are actually homes. Fifteen of the 19 windmills are inhabited by millers, those tasked with operating a windmill to pump water and prevent the below sea-level scenery from becoming submerged.
Two windmills are open to the public. The steep stairs at Museum Windmill Nederwaard are worth the climb: By providing the history of a local miller, his wife and 13 children, every floor helps create a better picture of what living in a windmill was (and is) like. Be sure to climb to the top and look out the window to watch and listen as the sails spin round and round.
In addition to getting another look inside a mill at Museum Windmill Blokweer, visitors can try on a pair of traditional wooden Dutch clogs. Along with providing a great photo op, having kids don a pair is also perfect for a parent looking to slow down; after all, it’s doubtful any child can run in wooden clogs.