Images and text by Gabrielle.
Two years ago we made our first trip to Amsterdam. On that trip, we saw the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, took a Canal tour, ate the best-rated Frites in town, rented bikes, spent a day in Vondelpark, visited the Floating Flower Market, did lots of window shopping in the Nine Streets district, ate amazing Indonesian food, and had an extended visit to HEMA. Plus visited the tulips, too — we caught the very tail end of the season. You can read about that trip here, here, here and here.
But this trip was totally different. With the exception of a return visit to Vondelpark, it was all new! From this trip, there are 5 things I want to pass on for those of you planning your own visits to Amsterdam.
1) Location, Location, Location.
On the first trip, we spent our entire visit in Old Town and it was charming and walkable and lovely. This time, we tried a different area, outside the tourist runs, and saw an entirely different view of Amsterdam, which was also charming, walkable and lovely. And it was kind of by accident. When we tried to book a hotel, we noticed almost everything in town was sold out — the whole country was gearing up for their big national holiday, Queen’s Day, made even bigger this year, because the Queen abdicated her thrown and her son became King. (Next year, the holiday will be King’s Day!)
But Ben Blair found space at the Lloyd Hotel and we LOVED it.
The building has a long fascinating history — it was originally the hotel for immigrants, and had a stint as a prison as well — and we found it to be super cool and unusual. We had corner rooms with two-story windows and these amazingly tall working shutters. Insane! But apparently, all the rooms are really unique, each one created by a different designer — we hear there’s one with a gigantic bed that sleeps 9 — sounds just right for our family. : )
Staying outside of Old Town meant riding the tram to get back and forth to our hotel. We bought 24-hour tram tickets from the hotel check-in desk and ended up using them a ton. We would climb on a tram whenever we needed a walking break.
[ A little sidenote story: On our first tram ride, we went into Old Town and got off at Central Station, right away we happened upon a store with displays that were too cool to resist. It was actually a 3-part establishment with a shop called Options, a restaurant called Stock, and a hotel above those two called Exchange. (Great names, right?!)
That same night, I was in back at the hotel, talking to the staff about a display wall in the hotel restaurant. I asked if the display items were for sale, and they mentioned that yes, the hotel owners owned a shop in town called Options, where I could buy the items. I about died!
I went all fan girl and ended up emailing the owners of the hotel and told them how impressed I was with their work. The next day, the owner made a point of saying hello to my family in the lobby and taking us all on a personal tour up to the highest tower in the hotel. Very cool! ]
Staying in a different part of town was wonderful. In fact, just blocks from the hotel was some of the best shopping we encountered, including a huge Sissyboy Homeland store. And the restaurants in the area were 100% non-touristy. It was easy to tell because the menus weren’t offered in English. : )
Our favorite meal of the trip happened on the first night, right across the street from the hotel. We ate tapas at Puerto Pata Negra. It was a Sunday night and the restaurant was rocking! Live music and everyone so friendly. Tapas is perfect for a family like ours — everyone gets a bite of everything.
While we’re on the topic of food, I should mention we also ordered poffertjes every time they were on the menu. They’re a miniature puffed pancake — I like them best with butter and powdered sugar. And we had bitterballen twice. Yum!
2) “Tulip Season” Is Flexible.
If you’re planning your trip to coincide with the tulips, even with the most careful calendering, you might miss them. But that’s okay. It’s beautiful anyway!
Because we pretty much missed the tulips on our last visit, we were excited to get this second chance. And we carefully, carefully studied the calendar and the tulip websites and picked days that were predicted to be right at the tulip peak. But once again, we missed it! Hah! In fact, it has been so unexpectedly cold this year, that the tulips are on a 2-week delay. So instead of getting the peak, we got a peek.
There were a few tulip fields in bloom and they made a dramatic neon slash across the end-of-winter landscape. Simply gorgeous! Plus, there were lots of earlier blooming flowers still around, specifically fields of hyacinths and daffodils.
The hyacinths scented the air for miles. Seriously remarkable. We drove with the windows down so we could enjoy it.
There were busload after busload of tourists who, like us, had also planned their trips for the peak of the season. We all took photos of the few fields and had to laugh about it.
But really, even the few fields were pretty darn gorgeous. And even if there were no flowers at all in bloom, the windmills would still be something amazing to see.
3) Everyone Speaks English.
We sort of remembered this from our last visit, but talked about it more on this trip. I swear, the Dutch have a gift for languages. In addition to their native Dutch, it seems like everyone we encountered could slip into English, French and German as well. And with ease!
If not-speaking-the-language makes you nervous about traveling to a foreign country, Amsterdam would be a good destination for you. Yes, the signs are in Dutch, but everyone speaks English, so potentially frustrating language situations become a non-issue.
4) Watch Your Step!
Amsterdam is all about the bikes. You’ll see bikes in all European cities, but nowhere we’ve visited compares to the bike culture in Amsterdam. It’s kind of mind-blowing, and it’s hard to describe how truly pervasive it is, because there’s nothing to compare it to. I find it so unusual that it makes me super curious about how it developed.
In Amsterdam, we remind the kids to be aware of their surroundings constantly. I’m sure it becomes a sixth sense if you live there, but as visitors, it was sometimes tricky to identify when we were on a sidewalk versus a bike lane versus a road. There are parts of the city where all 3 blend together!
There were a few times that one of our distracted kids had close call with a bike. So pay attention!
5) The Line at The Anne Frank House Moves Fast. And It’s Worth It.
There was a line, but it moves fast, and friends, it was worth the wait. The thing is, this is not just a really well-done museum. It’s the actual space where Anne and her family lived and hid for two years. You get to walk through the actual rooms!
This is not a toddler visit sort of place. I mean, June was happy and there was plenty to distract her, but it’s quite a somber visit. The older kids, who are similar in age to Anne herself, were really moved by the visit. I’d say this is a good stop for 8-years-old and up.
At the end, there was an exhibit talking about cultural questions of freedom and how they sometimes come in conflict with each other. Fascinating stuff! Highly recommended.
One last tip: To keep ourselves occupied while we stood in line, we went over the wikipedia page about Anne Frank with the kids, so they would know what they were about to see. Oscar was entranced. We also took photos. This is one of the views from the queue — not a bad place to spend some time.
I hope you find these notes helpful! Writing them up makes me wish we’d had a longer trip. I really, really like Amsterdam. I think it might be my favorite European city. There’s a very cool, creative vibe there. And I love how the city has layers and layers of ancient and modern right on top of each other — with a scribble of bikes all around the edges. Yay Amsterdam!
P.S. — These last shots below are of our return visit to Vondelpark. They have the most amazing play structures there. So high and vast. They look absolutely death-defying!