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Family Travel: G-rated Amsterdam

Amsterdam canals

My most mortifying moment as a parent happened in Amsterdam. My husband and I were there with our then-eight-year-old daughter and toddler son, having a lovely time strolling beside the canals and visiting the Anne Frank house and eating stroopwafels.

And then we blindly turned a corner and found ourselves in front of a shop window displaying a live in-progress sex show.

Whoa! If I could have run directly from there to the airport I would have, but even more nightmarishly, we were lost in a maze of in-your-face, XXX-rated action. Not only did my kids get an education they weren't prepared for, but so did my husband and I.

Amsterdam is a small, easy-to-navigate city that can be perfect for a European adventure for a young family. But, as evidenced by my experience, a family trip to Holland's largest city bears advance research and planning to make the most of its G-rated pleasures and avoid the city's seamier side.

Plan to stay in an area of the city outside the Red Light district, also called De Wallen and clustered around the central train station. Some lodging options rated highly by families with children, according to the experts at Booking.com:

  • The Cityden Rijksmuseum Residence, which offers comfortable modern one-and-two bedroom apartments near the museum park, is an excellent option for families that want to combine art tours with outings in the park's playgrounds and outdoor cafes. The art and antiques shopping district and the sprawling Vondelpark are a short walk away. Prices range from about $250 a night for a one-bedroom to about $350 a night for a two-bedroom.
  • The Ambassade Hotel offers Family Specials, where for about $430 a night including breakfast and taxes for a family of three, the hotel will arrange custom-made tours for children aged 6-18.
  • The Blue House Boat offers a unique Amsterdam experience, living on a lux, charming houseboat in the Prinsengracht Canal near the Anne Frank house, with one queen bedroom and a living room with fold-out sofa...and a flat-screen TV. The Blue House Boat sleeps four and a crib is available for no charge. The price is about $300 a night.

Amsterdam offers many casual cafes, including choices in its lush parks and with tables facing the canals, where you can eat happily with even the pickiest child: Pasta, fries, and hot dogs are readily available, as are a wide range of desserts laden with schlag -- the fun-to-say word for whipped cream.

If you stop for a pick-me-up coffee, you'll want to be sure you're visiting a coffee house and not a coffee shop -- the code name for establishments specializing not in caffeine but in cannabis. Coffee shops are identifies by the green and white stickers in the window.

At the Kinderkookkafe in Amsterdam's largest park, Vondelpark, children can cook their own meals, prepare meals for the whole family, even write menus. The restaurant is open seven days starting at 10 in the morning and offers cooking programs for children from toddlers to teens.

On the one evening of the trip when the whole family dresses up and goes out to the kind of dinner you'd savor if you were traveling in Europe sans kids, Restaurarant DeKas can be an intriguing option. In an old greenhouse that had been scheduled for demolition, DeKas grows its own vegetables and herbs and is open for lunch and dinner.

Combine an activity with a meal by cruising Amsterdam's canals on the Pancake Boat, where you'll feast on all-you-can-eat pancakes while taking in the city's sights.

 

The must-see museum in Amsterdam for families with older children is the Anne Frank House. Because the rooms where the Frank family hid from the Nazis have been left largely untouched, it is an enormously moving experience. My daughter was nine-years-old when we visited and had just read the book; visiting the Frank House helped us bond over the family's story. While younger children might not get as much out of the experience, the museum tour is relatively quick and easy, plus kids under nine are free.

The enormous and imposing Rijksmuseum is the centerpiece of Amsterdam's art museum complex, mostly centered on the Museum Square. While older children may enjoy the dollhouses and airplanes in the Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandts and Vermeers in the austere setting may prove a bit somber.

Better with kids is the Van Gogh Museum, a short stroll across the park, where the paintings are livelier and the exhibit tells a vivid story about the artist's life. Depending on your child's age and sensitivity, you may want to soft-pedal the part about cutting off his ear -- or play it up.

If your children are too young to appreciate art or have simply had their fill of Old Masters, Museum Square offers an adventure playground and a wide range of cafes selling everything from "American hamburgers" to soft-serve ice cream. And it's a perfect place for kids and even adults to simply run off all that culture.

Other museums in Amsterdam that offer "kids-corners" with special exhibits and activities include the Houseboat Museum, the Nemo Science Center, and the Hermitage Museum, an outpost of the great Russian museum, where there's a Hermitage for Children program.

One museum NOT to visit: Amsterdam's Torture Museum. Yes, really.

A must-see highlight of the city is Artis, the city's amazing zoo, which includes an aquarium, a planetarium, and a petting zoo.

Amsterdam's Royal Palace might be another highlight of a trip to the city, especially given that the new King Willem-Alexander has three young princesses of his own, including Catharina-Amalia, 9, who will inherit the throne. Palace tours include ones aimed at younger and older kids.

Pamela Redmond Satran is the cocreator of the baby name website Nameberry and the author of the novel The Possibility of You.