Amsterdam is a beautiful city with a rich history. It might not be the first city you think of when planning a family trip to Europe, but it should be on your list! Your family should definitely plan a trip to Amsterdam with your tweens and teens – let me show you how!
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Why You Should Take My Advice
If you’ve been following my website for awhile, you know I’m a bit of a know-it-all. I am a definitely a know-it-all when it comes to traveling in The Netherlands! My husband and I (both Americans) lived in The Netherlands for a year and a half before we were married. We lived an hour south of Amsterdam. I was in the American Women’s Club, which is based in Amsterdam. So each month I would take the train to Amsterdam, either alone or with the friends I made, and walk through the city to the beautiful old building where our meetings took place. Other days during the month, I would visit the homes of other Americans living in Amsterdam when they hosted gatherings. I also attended many outings to other locations – sometimes in Amsterdam, sometimes to other towns.
I feel I have a good understanding of the city. I’ve seen the touristy areas, but I’ve also spent time in the outer neighborhoods. I’ve gotten around town alone. Fast forward a bit and now I can negotiate my way around with two big kids (and a husband) in tow! Let me tell you the best way to do it.
Why You Should Visit Amsterdam with Tweens and Teens
Amsterdam is beautiful! The canals and canal houses are so charming. The people who live there – the Dutch- are kind and friendly and speak excellent English. Amsterdam has an interesting history and is a good place to teach kids about several different historical eras.
The Dutch Golden Age -when The Netherlands was a powerful force in the world – was in the late 1600s through the 1700s. The industry and trade of the Dutch had an effect on the world, and the art of the Dutch masters was very influential. Helping your kids imagine this time can really contribute to their education and understanding of the world. My California kids don’t see anything so old where we live – I am thrilled to have the opportunity to show them history up close!
Amsterdam also has strong connections to World War II. Again, this is a time that my kids can’t “experience” at home. I really appreciate being able to walk around a city and explain to them what life was like during the struggles of past generations. The Anne Frank House is a gem for tweens and teenagers to experience.
3 Days in Amsterdam with Tweens and Teens
We arrived in the afternoon and took the train from the airport into the city, then we caught a cab to our accommodations. I highly recommend that you take the train, especially if you are American (or Canadian, Australian, etc.) and a seasoned traveler. Doing so is such a different experience for our kids! My California suburbanites almost never get to experience trains or public transportation. They are always in a car. Getting to ride a train is part of the joy of travel, and also makes the experience much more authentic! If you are not a seasoned traveler and idea of figuring stuff out makes you nervous, it’s okay to take a cab or Uber.
We rented an apartment in order to keep our trip under budget. I think it’s the best way to really experience the city with a family, too! I found a place with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. It really helps a family get along with each other better when there is room to breathe. Plus when you are dealing with jet lag it is nice to have a separate living room so if one person can’t sleep they can get up without disturbing the rest of the family.Search VRBO to find the perfect property for you
Get your bearings and fight off jet lag
Once you are situated in your accommodations you need to get outside to avoid jet lag! Of course the kids wanted to just lay down for a bit and rest…heck, no! Get up, kids! It is really important that you get your bodies used to the time zone that you are in now. If it is daylight outside, you need to go outside and let your bodies absorb the light so they realize it’s not time to sleep. It’s hard to push through this with kids, but you absolutely have to. Whatever time it is local time – act like it is that time. For us, it was about 4pm by the time we were at our rental. So we acted like it was 4pm!
We went outside and took a walk through the neighborhood. Our apartment was on the Bloemgracht (flower canal), which is one of the smaller canals. We walked over to the Prinsengracht and walked along the canal, people watching and soaking in the vibe. Then we headed over to Dam Square, the central area of the city. We avoided the Damrak, which is the largest touristy street and was too loud and crowded for our jet-lagged kids.
At the Dam Square, you can see the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) and the Nieuwe Kerk (new church, which is actually quite old. It was consecrated in 1409). Both are impressive buildings from the outside. I have been inside both of them, and wouldn’t recommend them for tours. The Dutch removed all the pretty things from inside the church 100s of years ago, so it is quite bare inside. It is used to host modern art exhibitions, so if you are interested you could check what the exhibition currently is. The outside of both buildings is worth seeing and adds to Amsterdam’s beauty.
After the walk, if the weather is nice, eat dinner outside along a canal. We headed back out into the canal belt and found a nice outdoor seating area for one of the restaurants. Getting food for our picky eater was mildly difficult in the Netherlands. Dutch food is similar to American food, but everything is slightly different. We got her a hamburger, which was okay. Similar to home – but different.
Here are a few restaurants that have good basic food and outdoor seating: Cafe van Zuylen, Brasserie Blazer or Cafe Thijssen. You can check on Yelp or Tripadvisor to find more, or just wander and pick one like we did. I’m going to be honest- service in Amsterdam is often slow and inattentive. It’s okay- look at the pretty scenery while you wait.
Finally is was late enough to let the kids lay down and get some rest. My husband and I headed to the nearest Albert Heijn supermarket to get some supplies for breakfast. We bought some bread, butter, meat, cheese, and fruit so that we could enjoy a European-style breakfast. If you want, you could definitely find some cereal and milk if you want to go the more American route. Either way, you can save a lot of money by supplying your own breakfast.
We set an alarm to get up at a reasonable hour so that we could get over the jet lag. It’s important when you are traveling with tweens and teens to make sure they get enough rest – they are still growing, after all! Plus, they will be less grumpy if they are well-rested. But you need to try to get your day going in the morning so you all can adapt to the time zone.
We took the tram to the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum is a beautiful building on its own, and in it, you will find galleries full of historically significant art. I was most excited to show the kids the work of the Dutch masters, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Before our trip, I spent time preparing them to see such things and get interested in it. Soon I’ll be adding an article about getting your kids excited to visit Amsterdam so that you’ll be an expert on that, too! Sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to receive updates and find out when new articles are published.
You should buy your tickets to the Rijksmuseum online before you go. It will save you money and you can skip the line. They usually have a special exhibition going on. Kids under the age of 18 are admitted for free but still need a ticket. As I write this (May 2019), the exhibition is All the Rembrandts. There is no additional fee, but you need to reserve a time slot online before you go.
Since I researched the Rijksmuseum ahead of time, I found out that they have a guidebook for families to help kids get interested in the artwork. If you have younger tweens, go to the gift shop and get one to make your visit more fun for the kids. Since the museum is so big, they have several different versions of this book, depending on which gallery you want to visit. Get the one for the 1700s. Like I said before, the most important thing at the Rijksmuseum is the Dutch master’s collection, so that is where you should be headed!
We purchased our family guidebook and headed to the gallery. The guidebook is kind of like a scavenger hunt – you have to find each painting it discusses and then you learn about it. I recommend it for tweens and younger kids, but it is too childish for most teenagers. Teenagers might prefer the audio tours that are for sale. We did not try those, so I don’t know how good they are.
Feel out your kids for interest level. In our family, I was happily surprised to find out that my son was very interested in the art and wanted to look at each painting and read each description. I hadn’t brought him to an art museum before, so I hadn’t known how engrossed he would be. He didn’t like the family guidebook because it skipped too many of the paintings (since it focuses on the “more important” ones).
My daughter liked the pretty paintings but had a much shorter (read: average tween) attention span (as does my husband). The family guidebook helped her be engaged. I let my son set the pace and stayed with him while my daughter and husband spent time on the benches.
After the gallery, choose what else your family would like. (Hint: It’s way easier if you’ve spent time thinking about it before your trip).
Do your homework ahead of time. The Rijksmuseum has a fantastic website that is very educational. You can see images of many of the paintings online. Make some time to check it out and think about which galleries would be most interesting for your family. For older (or more focused) teens, get them involved ahead of time so they have an understanding of what you will see and they can let you know what sounds good to them. The Rijksmuseum is enormous. Trying to see it all would be overwhelming for almost any tween or teen (or human). If there is something that really interests you personally, check it out – it won’t be easy to come back, right? But be very selective.
Sometimes your teens and tweens will surprise you! You know your family, so make an intelligent choice about how long you will stay in the museum. Remember that there are more museums to come, so don’t spend too much time in this one or your family may not have the patience for the next one.
When we had seen enough of the museum, we headed to a cafe in the Museumplein area for some lunch. The Rijksmuseum has a cafe and a restaurant, but they are fancy and expensive, so weren’t the right choice for us. We walked to the nearby Brasserie Zuiderbad, which was simple, tasty, and inexpensive.
Early afternoon – Kattenkabinet and Bloemenmarkt
After a morning at a museum, it’s important when traveling with tweens and teens to have a more relaxing afternoon. When we finished lunch, we did a rather long walk through the city. You need to decide if that is the right choice for you. I wanted to give the kids a feel for the city’s vibe – but honestly, it was a bit too much for them. Sore feet = grumpy kids. I’d recommend the tram.
Anyways, we walked to the Kattenkabinet at Herengracht 497. What is that? Why, it’s a cat museum, of course! My family is a little weird, and we love cats. This is a museum that is dedicated to the memory of the owner’s cat. As the website explains, “The Cat Cabinet was established in memory of the red cat John Pierpont Morgan (1966-1983). Throughout his life, this special male was the quirky companion of Bob Meijer, the founder of the Cat Cabinet.”
The museum is filled with cat memorabilia. There are cat sculptures and cat posters and cat paintings, including a Rembrandt and a Picasso! One of the reasons to go here though is the building itself. It’s a splendid old canal house built in the 1600s similar to many of the others along the canals in town. I was glad to have the chance to show the kids the inside of one of these old buildings. It has tall windows and high ceilings and even a painted ceiling in the ballroom.
Next we made a stop at the floating flower market (Bloemenmarkt) and did a bit of souvenir shopping. Don’t let the name trick you into thinking there are lots of flowers for sale – it is mostly souvenirs. But we got some cute wooden tulips! You can also buy tulip bulbs to take back home. It is some fun shopping that many tweens would enjoy.
The Munttoren is right by the bloemenmarkt. It’s a cool old tower built in the 1400s that used to be part of the medieval city wall. It has bells that chime every fifteen minutes. It was used to mint coins, thus it’s name – mint tower. Point it out to the kids as you go by.
Late Afternoon – Boat tour
That afternoon, we did one of the BEST activities that you can’t skip on a trip to Amsterdam with tweens. We did a boat cruise, and it was fantastic! I chose Friendship Amsterdam and I highly recommend you do the same. Their boats are open-air and they have live guides that explain everything as you go by.
Each boat has a hostess aboard in addition to the guide, so you are served drinks to enjoy. The tickets are 15 Euro for adults and 8.50 Euro for kids under 12. Drinks are extra. The dock is at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 230 which is just east of Dam Square, behind the Krasnapolsky hotel. You don’t have to buy tickets ahead, you can just hop on board and pay there.
One of the advantages of Friendship Amsterdam is that their boats are small, so they can take you around on the smaller canals and so you can see parts of the city that the bigger boats can’t show you. One of the best sights was the Dancing Houses. The houses are sinking a bit and so are leaning in different directions. Our guide told us that he also thinks they are dancing because there are gay bars located right behind them that play loud music.
We loved our cruise! It was definitely one of the high points of our whole vacation.
For dinner, we went to La Perla in the Jordaan neighborhood. It’s a busy restaurant with seating on a picturesque street and tasty pizza. We also got ice cream down the street at Monte Pelmo, a very popular stop for treats!
Morning- Anne Frank House
We got up early to go to the Anne Frank House. Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who hid with her family in this house during World War II. Sadly, she and almost her whole family died in concentration camps. Her story is one that everyone should know, including your tweens and teens. You HAVE TO purchase your tickets in advance, and our reservation was for 9:15 am. Tickets are put on sale 2 months in advance. According to the Anne Frank House website, they release 80% of the tickets two months in advance, and the rest on the day itself at 9 am. There are NOT enough tickets for everyone who wants to go, so if you are going make sure you plan ahead. And by planning ahead, I mean be on the website when the tickets are released for the day you want to go.
It is optional to get a ticket that includes a 30-minute introductory program in English. We attended the program, and I thought it was very beneficial. The woman presenting explained many details about Anne Frank and her family and put it in historical context. I was impressed that she explained WHY the Germans were motivated to elect Hitler. She explained the circumstances that led to World War II.
I think it is so important to raise our kids to understand that people and events are complex, and people have reasons for doing what they do. The Dutch people had such awful events happen in their country during the war, and the atrocities committed against the Jews and others are horrifying. I found it amazing that a Dutch person could explain the circumstances of what led to the war in such an even-handed manner. The only way we can prevent future atrocities is to educate our children fully, and not just teach them to repeat catch-phrases.
Whether or not you do the introductory program, the Anne Frank House is a must-see with tweens and teens in Amsterdam. Not only is it an illustration of the impact of war, but it represents a story that centers on a teenager. It is a unique chance to help kids understand history. If your kids are old enough, have them read The Diary of Anne Frank before you go. Don’t forget to read my article about how to get kids ready to go to Amsterdam! It’s not ready yet…I will be updating soon, so stay tuned! If you want to know when it’s ready, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll let you know!
After the introductory program, we were each given our own audio tour to listen to as we walked through the house. I really enjoyed it, even though it is so sad. At the end, there is a very nice bookstore with lots of books and other items.
Mid-day- Lighthearted Sites and Pancakes
As the Anne Frank House is very “heavy,” I thought it would be good to do something lighthearted next. We went across the canal to the Cheese Museum.
The Cheese Museum is a cute shop with a bit of history and lots of cheese to taste. It is packaged such that you can take it home on the plane with you.
We had lunch at Pancakes Amsterdam right next to the Anne Frank House. It was delicious and fun! The Dutch call pancakes “pannekoeken.” They are very different from American pancakes. They are served very large and are pretty flat, unlike American pancakes which are light and fluffy and are served stacked up in multiples. The texture is a bit like French crepes, but they are eggier. The Dutch serve them in lots of different ways.
M had an apple crumble pancake, my husband got bacon and apple, and T and I shared one bacon and apple and one lemon and powdered sugar. The kids got hot chocolates with giant mountains of whipped cream! It was all soooooo tasty!
After lunch, we walked over to the Poezenboot. This is ANOTHER attraction for cat lovers in Amsterdam! Its name means, “cat boat, ” and it is a cat rescue association located on one of the many houseboats docked in the canals of Amsterdam. They are only open between 1-3pm and only several days a week, so you will need to plan ahead if you want to go see the kitties.
My kids love animals – especially cats – and had never been on a houseboat before – so this was a memorable experience for them. Plus, it is a charity so it is nice to donate a few Euros.
If cats aren’t your family’s thing, this would be a good time to do some shopping. Kalverstraat has lots of stores that tweens and teens would enjoy. We also went to the Cow museum…don’t go. It was just a tiny shop with very expensive cow decorations. It wasn’t cool or interesting or even particularly kitschy- it just felt like a rip-off.
Afternoon – Van Gogh Museum
When we were done petting the kitties, we took the tram to the Van Gogh Museum. You need to book tickets in advance. In order to keep the exhibits pleasant for visitors, the museum only allows people to come in with a preselected start-time. Our tickets were for 3 pm, which worked out really well for the flow of our day. Tickets are 19 Euros for adults and free for those under 18 – what a fantastic deal for traveling with tweens and teens!
You also should get the multimedia guide when you are at the Van Gogh Museum. It is like an iPad that integrates images, audio, text, and even games to make your trip to the museum personalized and understandable. I spent a lot of time before our trip getting my kids interested in Van Gogh, too – don’t forget to read my upcoming article about getting tweens and teens ready for a trip to Amsterdam. Sign up for my newsletter so I can let you know when it’s published!
The Van Gogh Museum is a truly amazing place. It was designed to tell the story of Van Gogh’s life as you walk through the exhibits. The multimedia guide really made it come to life, too. It’s a beautiful place and Vincent Van Gogh’s story is so compelling. Not only was it special to share the artwork with my kids, but I also appreciated the chance to have a meaningful conversation about mental health.
For our last dinner in Amsterdam we had Indonesian food – and so should you! The Dutch colonized the East Indies hundreds of years ago, so there are Indonesian flavors mixed into Dutch history. We decided to take the kids to the same restaurant that we had been to many times before while living in the Netherlands, called Long Pura.
If your family is up for an adventurous meal, try the Rijsttafel (rice table). Rijsttafel is a collection of various dishes that are served in little bowls, and everyone shares family style. My husband, son, and I shared the rijsttafel. Since my daughter is less adventurous, we got her some extra rice and an egg roll-style appetizer. They also have fancy drinks at Long Pura, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, so we all had something pretty to sip on. It doesn’t make for a cheap evening, but I feel it’s worth it as it’s a fantastic cultural experience.
There are lots of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam. Try to get a reservation before you go.
Tips for visiting Amsterdam with Tweens & Teens
Handle the sticky topics before they come up
There is another side of Amsterdam you have probably heard of – one that makes Amsterdam a bit more challenging to experience with kids. Amsterdam has legal prostitution, most of which is contained in the city’s “red light district.” The red light district is to the East of the Damrak, the main touristy street near the train station. Avoid it if you are with kids. Prostitution is not seen outside of this area, so you don’t need to worry about it. However, isn’t this a great chance to have a conversation with your tweens and teens about what exists in the world? I realized we needed to touch upon it before arriving, as I didn’t want to be caught off guard with questions. I put off the conversation until we were at the airport because I did not want to go there. During our trip, we really didn’t see anything questionable.
Amsterdam also has legalized marijuana. You will see businesses around town that say “Coffee shop” on the sign. These places are where people can go to get marijuana. Avoid them if you are with your kids. If you want a cup of coffee (which is delicious in Amsterdam) go to a “cafe.”
Watch out for bikes!
Many people in Amsterdam (and all over The Netherlands) use bikes for transportation. There are thousands of bikes. Keep in mind – and warn your kids- bikes are quiet. I realized this when we lived there. I was accustomed to hearing cars, not just seeing them, as I crossed streets. But bikes make no noise. You can’t just step out into the street without looking both ways. Also, the people on bikes are mostly locals and they are used to it – dealing with pedestrians and cars and following the rules of the road. They know what they are doing – and you probably don’t, since you are not a local. Careful!
An amusing thing about the Dutch and their bikes is that they use them to transport their small children more so than I see in America. You will see mothers with children attached to their bikes in a variety of creative ways – tell your kids to keep an eye out for them. They carry other surprising things, too. Our family had fun looking for this and pointing it out to each other.
Have fun planning your trip to Amsterdam with tweens! If you discover more tween and teen-friendly places while you are there, tell me about them in the comments below!
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