Amsterdam + family = Famsterdam

The city known for drugs and sex shops really does offer something for everyone
The city known for drugs and sex shops really does offer something for everyone

I’m standing on the cobblestones of a modestly sized square. A gleaming white Apple store stands at one corner while the rest of the intersecting streets are occupied by a hodgepodge of pancake houses, cafés and souvenir hawkers. The sickly sweet smell of marijuana wafts through the afternoon air. A middle-aged busker, his unkempt grey hair peeking out in tangles from beneath his foam trucker hat, has been spouting off-colour sexual humour for nearly 15 minutes now in an attempt to warm up the crowd before juggling a machete with a chainsaw.

Then a cry of pint-sized frustration erupts at my side.  “Daddy? When is he going to do the trick already?!?”

That’s right. I came to Amsterdam with my seven year old daughter. Her nine year old sister. My wife. And my mother-in-law.

When words like “family vacation” get tossed around, Amsterdam — famous for red lights and redder eyes — isn’t typically on top of anyone’s list. But as I quickly learned, the city really does offer something for everyone; you just need to know where to look.

The mere thought of dragging children under ten through an art gallery often strikes fear into the hearts of hapless parents, but both the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh — two of the world’s great galleries — have excellent kid-friendly interactive tours that substantially enhance the experience. Gordon the Warden walks kids through the incredible Dutch masters at the Rijksmuseum, encouraging age-appropriate critical analysis of such famous works as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. At the Van Gogh, a children’s treasure hunt had my kids eagerly squeezing in front of patrons ogling Sunflowers to discover secrets hidden in the brush strokes. Oddly, these programs are not well advertised, so be sure to ask about them at the respective information desks.

We also paid a sombre visit to the cramped canal house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis for over two years. I was again impressed with the efforts to make even such an emotional and difficult topic accessible to younger children. The house is devoid of the gruesome photos that characterize many Holocaust museums, instead using Anne’s diary itself as the primary narrator. A child-friendly graphic novel version of the famous diary purchased in the museum shop was already dog-eared from repeated readings by the time we boarded our departing flight. If you plan on visiting the house, make sure you have your tickets or passes arranged ahead of time as the line snakes around the block within minutes of the museum’s opening each day. We ended our tour of Jewish Amsterdam on a more upbeat note with a visit to a quartet of small museums including the 17th century Portuguese Synagogue.

There were, however, some challenges during our stay in Amsterdam. My appreciation for an early check-in for one of our two rooms at the NH Amsterdam Centre hotel was tempered when our second room was still not ready for check-in at 8pm after a full day of touring. In addition, stepping out of our hotel lobby felt like being thrust into a swarm of caffeinated bees. Bicycles whizzed by everywhere. Sidewalks have a barely discernible, red-tinged hue that serves as a “bike lane” — though the reality is that bikes rule Amsterdam’s arteries, moving seamlessly between pedestrian walkways and streets. Learning how to navigate this chaotic arrangement proved difficult — particularly with children in tow. We rewarded the kids for their exceptional Frogger skills with trips to Amsterdam’s NEMO science centre and the eclectic collection of hands-on cultural artifacts at the Tropenmuseum.

Mobility and minimizing waiting times are optimal concerns for families on vacation, and both of Amsterdam’s two main pass cards allow you to waltz to the front of often lengthy lines. The Museumkart, primarily marketed to locals, offers free admission for a full year to a robust list of sites. The iAmsterdam card does not cover some of the most popular attractions, but it does grant a complimentary tour of the city’s maze of canals and waterways with the Blue Boat Company. The unlimited use Amsterdam’s exceptional public transportation system is also a huge benefit and the card can be purchased in 1-, 2- or 3-day formats. I recommend studying your proposed itinerary closely and picking the card that works best for your unique trip needs.

As for that colourful busker? We waited a while longer as he demonstrated the sharpness of his blades by slicing seemingly haphazardly at a sheet of cardboard. After a few menacing cuts he unfolded the eviscerated cardboard sheet to reveal a perfectly carved heart that he presented with a flourish to a lady in the crowd before going on to effortlessly juggle his gas-guzzling chainsaw with a wicked looking machete. After three whirlwind days in Amsterdam with a pair of eager children, it seems that the city itself mimics its colourful street performers. Give her a chance and you may be genuinely surprised at what you get out of her.

Edward Prutschi is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or email