When to go:
Amsterdam is fun all year round. In winter, you can ice skate on the canals. Spring brings tulips. Summer means constant festivals, drinks on the patio, and urban beaches. Fall is the time to tuck into Dutch comfort food and take a canal cruise as the leaves change colour.
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Base camp: The Jordaan
Amsterdam can be overwhelming when it comes to deciding where to stay because the creatives here are in turbo speed, constantly setting up hip new ‘hoods. When we went, the cool place to socialize was the Eastern Docklands. For an authentic experience with easy access to attractions, we a chose to live in a design-savvy Airbnb apartment in the historically working class now semi-gentrified Jordaan district.
The Jordaan offers proximity to the centre as well as its combination of street markets, old fashioned brown pubs, and exciting new restaurants and shops. Visually, the Jordaan district is characterized by skinny cobblestone streets with narrow houses, secret gardens, and surprising breakthrough views of the Prinsengracht, Keisersgracht, and Herengracht canals.
Other perks: There are many other young families living in the neighbourhood. There’s a popular organic Saturday market: Noordermarkt. The Jordaan also has excellent access to the large urban green space Westerpark, with its hip rows of brick breweries, bakeries, and ice creameries. Westerpark also has a terrific, free petting zoo.
Field trip 1: Eating, drinking & shopping in Jordaan
Amsterdam is known for its brown cafes, which are cozy local pubs with good beer selection and traditional, comforting Dutch food. The brown refers to the color of the nicotine-stained walls. While smoking is no longer permitted inside, if you stay late enough, you may find yourself listening to a rousing chorus of boozy Dutch folk songs from regulars.
De Reiger is one of the best-looking brown cafes — they can be charming or seedy — and it’s known for an excellent dinner service. Built in 1896, the polished wood, brass, and mirrored Art Deco interior glows. They don’t take reservations; you’ll want to turn up before six and get your name on the list. You can hang out and wait — order a beer for the parents, a juice for the small folk and tuck into the Dutch drinking snacks that are on offer all day.
What to try: crispy, deep-fried bitterballen, which resemble scotch eggs but contain beef or veal and roux, kaasstengels (cheese sticks), cheese planks (cheese tasting board), and toasties (grilled cheese). Come meal-time regulars always go for the ribs, which also come in kid portions; the seasonal menu is also impeccable.
Nieuwe Leliestraat 34, www.dereigeramsterdam.nl
If you can’t get a table, check out another fun brown cafes in Jordaan: De Kat in’t Wijngaert.
Rembrandt shopped this pretty outdoor market 350 years ago, and it’s still going strong every Saturday morning. Find organic fruit/veg, street food on one side of Noordermarkt. On the other side, it’s curiosities and kitsch. On Mondays, it’s an antique market.
One of the coolest shopping, dining, drinking streets in Amsterdam is Harlemmerdijk, on the edge of Jordaan. There are too many interesting, independent design/decor, clothing, kids’ toys, food specialty, and other shops to mention by name. Walk slowly. Peer in windows. Buy snacks. Take your time.
Our 3-year-old daughter found a handmade, locally-produced skirt and our two-year-old son was interested in fried herring from a hipster fishmonger and (to our surprise!) cheese-tasting at Kaasland and Caulils Delicatessen. Parents sourced their caffeine fix at Two For Joy, details below.
Two for Joy Coffee Roasters
The place to get your caffeine fix in the Jordaan is Two for Joy, a cafe and organic roasting company. This minimalist, see-and-bee-seen spot is as talented as it is cool; they roast their own MOKUM espresso blend and serve pourovers made with single origin beans from all continents.
If you’re cooking at home head to this organic grocery and prepared foods store for awesome selections of cheese, craft beer, meat, produce, and snack selection.
Don’t forget to stock up on Tony’s Chocolate bars, which they feature prominently in the impulse buy section. The Willy Wonka of the Netherlands takes candy bars to a whole new level. They’re made in Amsterdam’s Westerpark, and the cocoa-beans are ethically harvested without slave or child labor.
The Dutch love their apple pie, known locally as Hollandse appeltaart. It’s actually an ingenious cake-pie hybrid — and we all know pastry hybrids have the potential to exceed their parts. Think cronuts.
The base is a cake batter meets pâte brisée crust and a taller-than-average stack of apples because it’s baked in a spring form pan. We found this interpretation of apples’n’dough magnificent enough to attempt to make it at home.
The place to eat Hollandse appeltaart in Amsterdam is Winkel 43, which enjoys a reputation as the best apple pie house in Amsterdam. Grab a seat under the striped green awning (easy stroller parking) and watch the world go by as you indulge. The drink of choice with apple pie is mint tea.
Field trip 2: The classics — canals, fries, pancakes, tulips, and Artis Zoo
Rent a bike or use a stroller and make your way from Jordaan through central Amsterdam (Centrum) and the iconic canal views to the flower market (Bloemenmarkt) and Artis Zoo. Stop for some traditional Dutch street food on the way. The entire route from east to west takes 25 minutes by bike. It’s 45 minutes on foot.
We’ve tried both bike and stroller. If you’re a confident cyclist, you’ll have a more authentic local experience, and get where you’re going faster, using a Dutch family bike or cargo bike such as a Bakfiets. Iamsterdam.com has a handy a list of bike rental companies in Amsterdam.
De Negen Straatjes
The first neighbourhood you’ll encounter is De Negen Straatjes, or The Nine Streets, which are the quaint streets that straddle Amsterdam’s grandest canals in the UNESCO Heritage Canal Belt. You’ll have trouble putting your camera away as narrow buildings, curving bridges, canal reflections, and adorable shops are everywhere. The Nine Streets were constructed in the first half of the 17th century, when the Heren-, Keizers- and Prinsengracht canals were dug out around the Medieval town centre to cope with Amsterdam’s burgeoning population. Today the bustling micro-hood is home to a variety of restaurants, cafés, galleries and over 200 retailers, including more than its share of independent shops.
The Pancake Bakery
If you’re hungry, you can try more starchy and irresistible Dutch cuisine. The Pancake Bakery is a classic choice. It’s canal-front on Prinsengracht situated in a 17th century Dutch East India Company warehouse. They serve over a dozen savory and sweet versions of traditional Dutch pancakes, as well as smaller, fluffier poffertjes. The dark downstairs is always crowded. Try to snag a seat upstairs in the light-filled dining room with water views.
Prinsengracht 191, www.pancake.nl/en/
Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx
If frites sound better than pancakes, head to Amsterdam’s most famous fry shop Vlaams Friteshuis (founded 1887) for a piping-hot, greasy cone of patat plus the sauce of your choice. Toppings range from Indonesian peanut sauce to mayo and onions. There’s usually a line, but it moves fast.
Voetboogstraat 33, no website
Next stop is Bloemenmarkt, because you really can’t drop by Amsterdam without getting involved with tulips. In wintertime, this narrow strip of tourist-trap bulb hawkers is somewhat less than expected, and the stall owners are really grumpy with curious kids. In spring, the row of blooming floating barges is undeniably breathtaking. If you’re looking for a sturdy, toddler-friendly souvenir opt for a carved wooden tulip rather than fresh cut. For parents of small folk, invest in some bulbs to take home and plant. It must be said, however, that there are flower stalls along many of the canals, and this sort of beauty – albeit minus sheer scale – is everywhere in Amsterdam.
Bloemenmarkt Amsterdam, Singel, www.iamsterdam.com/en/amsterdam-markets/flower-market
We had a truly special time at Artis Zoo because the zoo is so well cared for and the staff are so interactive. Artis Royal Zoo is a world leader in building natural living environments for creatures. It’s home to 750 species of animals and 300 species of trees. In addition to the attention to detail to the natural habitats, many of the zoo buildings are attractive and date back to the zoo’s opening in 1839. We spent hours here because of the high level of education available, from chats with zookeepers to attending one of the many feeding times.
Plantage Kerklaan 38-40, www.artis.nl/
Nearby café-restaurant de Plantage is a light-filled place for an upscale post-zoo meal. They serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. The pretty art deco building is ‘Ledenlokalen’, an original, historical part of the zoo
Plantage Kerklaan 36, caferestaurantdeplantage.nl/en/#home
Field trip 3: Westerpark and Westergasfabriek
While most tourists head to Vondelpark, which is lovely, we recommend hipper, younger Westerpark (an easy walk from Jordaan) for the full gamut of concept restaurants and bars, galleries, and kid-friendly attractions including a free petting zoo. You can easily spend the whole day here.
The 14-hectare space was originally a small 19th century neighborhood park. It was combined with a vast area of the defunct municipal gas installations. The red brick gas factory buildings have become a cultural centre with interesting spots ranging from craft breweries (Brouwerij Troost), bakers (Bakkerswinkel), and artisan ice cream makers (IJscuypje) to boutiques and an indie cinema. Behind the shops and restaurants you’ll find a long rectangular pool for kids when the weather is warm enough.
Amsterdam families are really lucky. Many urban parks have petting zoos. Westerpark’s petting zoo (kinderboerderij) is free and has rare breed animals including doe-eyed Lakenvelder cows, Shetland ponies, dwarf goats, hens, and guinea pigs.
Haarlemmerweg 8-10, www.westergasfabriek.nl
Field trip 4: Highbrow vs. lowbrow culture — Rijksmuseum & FEBO
We’re not going to pretend Vermeer and Rembrandt hold obvious appeal for toddlers, but that doesn’t mean a museum trip is a waste. It’s about exposure. You actually never know what they’re going to hone in on as fascinating. Maybe it will be a milk maid or a floral still life from the Dutch Golden Age of painting. To our surprise, the tots were interested in blue and white Delftware pottery figures.
Our kids (age two and three) were too young for the Rijksmuseum family tours which are for ages eight and up. They did however enjoy drawing in The Picnic Room on the ground floor of the Rijksmuseum, where you can also unpack home-brought lunch and linger.
Entry tickets to the Rijksmuseum are € 17.50 for adults and free for kids. Book ahead online, or suffer in line. It’s also wise to pop in after 3pm, to avoid the hordes.
Museumstraat 1, www.rijksmuseum.nl
Seven minutes away from Rijksmuseum on foot you’ll find FEBO. Getting lunch at an automat is a Dutch right of passage. FEBO (founded 1941) is the biggest of the automat chains. You insert coins, open the little doors, and get your food. Kids get excited about the coins + door system. Despite balking at the initial appearance, frikandellen (minced-meat hot dogs) and kroketten were a hit.
Leidsestraat 94, no website
Farther afield: de winkel van nijntje (Miffy Shop)
Miffy is a small female rabbit in a series of picture books drawn and written by Dutch artist Dick Bruna, created in 1955. Whilst on a rainy seaside holiday in North Holland, Dick Bruna entertained his young son by sketching a little bunny that kept hopping about the garden of his holiday house. Each evening he would make stories up about the bunny and soon Miffy was born. The original Dutch name, Nijntje, is a shortening of the diminutive konijntje, “little rabbit”.
The books are super sweet, and thanks to legendary Dutch design, you’ll have trouble saying no to some other Miffy merch.
Scheldestraat 61, www.miffy.com