Eyebrows were raised when I told people our main family holiday this year was a house swap to Amsterdam. With its infamous cannabis cafes and Red Light District, the city is often associated with sex and drugs rather than family activities. Those who had visited had invariably gone for just a weekend, and couldn’t imagine how we would fill one week, let alone two! Is there really enough to do in the Dutch capital that is suitable for kids?
I’m delighted to say we found Amsterdam to be a brilliant destination for families. World class museums; a beautiful, historic centre; lively and diverse neighbourhoods; and excellent parks and playgrounds – all in a city that’s just the right size to explore, by bicycle or public transport. I’ve pulled together a list of our favourite activities to help you plan a fantastic family holiday in Amsterdam, however long you’re hoping to go for.
Our top ten things to do with kids in Amsterdam
1. Go wild at Artis Zoo
One of the oldest zoos in Europe, ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo is a special place which enchanted us from the get-go. It’s home to over 750 different species of animals, including elephants, giraffes, big cats and sea-lions, housed in naturalistic living environments. The site itself is a delight to explore thanks to its beautifully planted flower beds, mature trees and historic listed buildings, many of which are still in use.
Our favourite moment was inside the 1906 Forest House, where the kids found lizards and adorable squirrel monkeys just an arms reach away, amongst the very trees and bushes we were walking through. The impressive Aquarium, built in 1882, had everything from tropical fish to a tank dressed like an Amsterdam canal, replete with abandoned vehicles. Add in dozens of animal enclosures, a butterfly pavilion, reptile house and bird house, playgrounds, cafes, and somewhat inexplicably, giant white dinosaur sculptures to climb, and you can see why we spent over 6 hours there. We didn’t even have time for the children’s farm, planetarium, or Micropia, the museum of microbes! We’ll just have to come back.
- Bring a €2 coin to borrow a children’s cart – like a supermarket trolley, the coin is returned. We found it invaluable to lug the kids around the sprawling site when they got tired.
2. Catch the sunset on NEMO’s roof
Housed in a striking, copper-green shape which rises high above Amsterdam’s eastern docklands, you’ll know when you’ve seen the Netherland’s largest science centre. Inside NEMO are five floors of hands-on activities which had our younger kids enthralled for hours. But it was our time on the rooftop which was one of our holiday highlights – and unlike the rest of the museum, this part of the building is free! Designed by architect Renzo Piano as a public square, the rooftop has stunning views over the city and brilliant water- and wind-based hands-on exhibits. The rooftop is open late every evening in the summer, but if you can, visit on a Thursday when local music students play live classical and jazz music. It was hip enough for Museum Teen, with lots of alternative-looking young twenty-somethings soaking up the atmopshere. We got to sit, relax, and enjoy a beautiful summer evening with a cool beer, live music and happy kids. That, my friends, is a rare and special thing.
- Bring swimsuits or a change of clothes so the kids can enjoy playing with the water without having to endure wet clothes for the rest of the day!
- The rooftop is very exposed, so bring an extra layer for everyone to wear, especially in the evenings, and sunscreen for bright days.
- There are lots of stone steps on the rooftop so crawlers and new walkers need constant supervision.
3. Travel like a local – by bike!
No-one could have been more surprised than me that we ended up cycling in Amsterdam almost every day! In London we only ever take Museum Boy out on his bike in parks or woods, so I hadn’t even considered us ready to take on urban cycling. I was delighted and terrified in equal measures when MB insisted on riding a bike on the roads for the first time ever – he was great at it, and enjoyed it so much he kept asking to do it again! It was a great way to get around as we could take impromptu pitstops – we even got away with a quick beer stop at a brewery next to a windmill. By the last day of the holiday we could cycle a 10 mile trip to, from, and around Vondelpark – all with MB on his own bike. Museum Girl was delighted to be ‘leader’ of our bicycle pack as she sat in the front box of our cargo Bakfiet. Amsterdam is very set up for cyclists with dedicated cycle paths separate from the roads, although there are still other hazards to be aware of – such as other riders and petrol scooters. We were very kindly allowed to use our houseswappers’ bikes, but I would definitely recommend hiring them if needed as our cycle rides turned out to be one of the best parts of the holiday.
- If you or your children are novice cyclists I wouldn’t recommend starting in Vondelpark – it’s a busy throughfare for cyclists with little time or patience for learners! Instead, I would suggest practicing in the quieter Oosterpark or Flevopark, both of which have the bonus of fantastic playgrounds.
- Public transport costs mount up very quickly (€7.50 adults / €3.75 children for 24 hours at the time of our visit) so you’ll save money on this.
4. Cruise the canals
Amsterdam’s canals are absolutely beautiful, and the best way to see them is by boat. There are hundreds of different companies offering tours which start all over the city, so its easy to fit a canal cruise into any itinerary. We picked the Blue Boat Company as they offer a pirate themed tour for children, plus under fives are free. The audio tour didn’t capture Museum Boy or Girl’s interest, but the little pop up binoculars and activity book in the accompanying pack kept them occupied for most of the cruise. You move quite quickly so it’s actually quite hard to spot anything the kids are looking out for, but we really enjoyed escaping to the little open deck at the back of the boat and getting a different perspective on the stunning historic centre.
- Pick a cruise which is no longer than 45 minutes to an hour, that is enough for short attention spans.
- Our boat had a covered glass roof which meant we could escape the short shower.
- Bring your own headphones as the free ones don’t stick inside little ones’ ears.
5. Solve Rijksmuseum’s mysteries
‘What I really want to do on holiday is walk around a busy museum stuffed full of old masters and decorative art’, said no six year old EVER. I’d heard great things about the Rijksmuseum but thought it would be too much of a stretch to attempt a visit with my youngest ones. But their clever interpretation team obviously think about families like mine, and have come up with a corker of a solution – a digital ‘family game’. Working as a team of up to four, you have to find eight objects in the galleries and solve puzzles about them. It was fascinating – we discovered the secret escape passage for the Night Watch, learnt Vermeer’s signature style and found out that a bordaloue is bascially a fancy potty! It definitely works best for children aged 6+, proven by the fact Museum Girl spent her entire time picking different languages on the game and rolling on the floor, but at least it gave her something to do. Once you’ve answered all the questions, you crack a code word which gets you a free gift in the shop. Museum Boy took the mission so seriously that there was no time to as much as glance at the rest of the displays, but it was great working as a team and made for a very enjoyable introduction to the museum. Case in point – Museum Boy now says ‘I love the Rijksmuseum!’. Goals.
- Check out the Playmobil sets in the shop for miniature play versions of the grand master paintings you’ve just seen! I’ll stick my neck out and call it the best museum merchandise ever.
- Bring swimsuits or a change of clothes for the kids as the museum gardens have a fantastic play fountain that will have your kids squealing with delight (and soaking wet!)
6. Eat poffertjes
Eh, what? Virtually unknown outside of the Netherlands, these are small fluffy pancakes, traditionally topped with sugar and butter. Hot and fresh, they are absolutely delicious and a hit with the whole family. We bought some from Ome Tom’s Poffertjes, a food stall in Amsterdam Oost, where Museum Boy got to stand on a stool and watch them being made. Sweet street food, cooked right in front of your eyes – what’s not to love?
- An insider tip from the pancake maker himself – before eating, turn your pancakes over so they get evenly coated in the butter and sugar. You’re welcome.
- The Pancake House opposite Anne Frank Huis also does a good version, which you can choose to takeaway, although they are more expensive and you can’t see them being made.
7. Build your own playground (yes really!)
This is something we’ve never seen before – at Jeudgland in Flevopark, families can ask for a hammer and nails to build their own play structures with pallets! Museum Dad and Boy spent a happy hour knocking up a house, complete with stairs and roof terrace. There’s lots more to do in this vast nature playground. Adventurous children will love the giant slides, pallet fortress and the flying fox that crosses a thankfully shallow stream (as we found when Museum Boy fell in!) There is gentler playground equipment too, a cafe, and a petting farm where Museum Girl was delighted to feed a carrot to a donkey. It was challenging, wild and anarchic – and our kids loved it! Plus it’s completely free.
- Children must be aged at least 6 to use the hammers.
- Bring a change of clothes as your kids will probably end up getting wet with the flying fox!
- Something for the grown ups – if you can, stop by the nearby Jenever distillery in Flevopark. It’s in a beautiful spot overlooking a lake and you can try different aged versions of this spirit, which is a predecessor to gin. Be warned – there’s absolutely nothing for kids to do apart from complain that the lemonade is red and avoid the multitude of wasps, so bring your own entertainment, give them water, and prepare for a quick exit!
8. Get arty at Moco
With its bright street art and immersive Lichtenstein room, Moco Museum is engaging even for very young children. It’s not just eye candy though – it explores the politics of Banksy and banned Iranian street artists Icy & Sot, meaning there’s plenty of questions to raise with inquisitive children. Housed in a charming 1904 townhouse, the contrast between historic domestic interior and bold street art really works. The compact size of the building makes it just the right length of visit for little ones, and the sculpture garden was a huge hit with the kids, thanks to the giant gummy bear and oversized metal rocking horse.
- We picked up a voucher for a free poster from a staff member handing them near the iamsterdam sign, so its worth stopping by there first if you fancy a souvenir.
- The Rijksmuseum is very close by so you can easily combine visits if you wish.
- The hot dogs for sale in the food market just outside Moco are excellent!
9. Eat your way around the world at Foodhallen
We absolutely love food but hate the formality of restaurants for families, it just doesn’t work for us. So it was a huge relief to discover Foodhallen in Amsterdam, with its broad range of world foods and an informal atmosphere where no-one will even notice if the kids start fussing. Tucked inside a converted tram shed, Foodhallen has all the energy and freshness of a food festival, but with the added bonus of a roof making it an all weather option. The food on offer from the dozens of stalls ranged from traditional Dutch bitterballen to Vietnamese, with sushi, Spanish cured meats, deep fried crab sandwiches, and much more besides. Our highlight was the chicken tacos – the first tacos my teenager has ever tried, I must add. There was something for all ages, with the younger kids choosing a gourmet burger and giant hotdog which they enjoyed watching being prepared. We left full and happy – Foodhallen made eating out as a family fun again!
- Grab a table first and then take it in turns for everyone to pick something.
- There are extra tables upstairs which are easy to miss
10. Visit Anne Frank House
As I found out on my visit with Museum Teen, the Anne Frank House really is a must do for those of you with older children. They are bound to know her tragic story as Anne Frank’s Diary is part of the UK primary curriculum (or perhaps they remember it from The Fault in Our Stars). But even if they don’t, the museum and accompanying audio guide give you all the background you need to prepare for the heart of the visit – the secret annex where she hid from the Nazis for two years, alongside seven others. It was incredibly moving to go inside this hidden space, particularly to see Frank’s bedroom walls with remnants of the pictures she pasted to help make her room a little more cheerful. The museum highlights that Frank was just one of over 100,000 Dutch Jews who were killed by the Nazis, and brings her story up to date by considering her legacy today. This is powerful, important stuff which I definitely want my future global citizens to know about.
- Book your tickets in advance – it is recommended to book at least two months prior to your intended visit, but I managed to get some evening tickets four weeks in advance.
- Stick to the recommended age of 10+, it really isn’t suitable for younger children. I saw adults being shushed for whispering quietly inside the Annexe.
- Turn up at your ticket entry time, not before – they will turn you away.
So there you have it – our favourite ten Amsterdam experiences, from Anne Frank Huis to zoos, with food, boats, bikes and DIY playgrounds! If you like this guide, want to know more about any of the places, or are keen to share what would be in your top ten, comment here or come find me on social media. Happy holiday planning!
Disclaimer: I’ve only recommended things we tried and enjoyed, and we paid for all of our visits and experiences. We visited in August 2018 when our children were 15, 6 and 4.