Travel: Going Dutch in Amsterdam

A houseboat on one of Amsterdam's canals. Picture: Contributed
A houseboat on one of Amsterdam's canals. Picture: Contributed
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AMSTERDAM has plenty to offer the whole family, writes Kate Wickers

It isn’t just the stunning 17th-century architecture or the unique spider’s web of canals that makes Amsterdam one of western Europe’s most charming cities. It’s the small, manageable size of the city that oozes with historical interest and cultural vitality that also delights its visitors.

It’s also infamous for its red light district and laissez-faire attitude to drugs, but don’t let that put you off heading there for a family break, because the seedier side of the city is easy to avoid so you won’t have to fend off questions such as, “Mummy, why is that lady in the window waving at Daddy?”

We were staying at The Grand Sofitel Legend, which felt like a cross between a night in a museum and the coolest club in the city. It reeks of history, with many reincarnations since 1578 from convent to royal lodgings to admiralty headquarters to town hall to luxury hotel.

Rooms are gorgeous and individually designed with quirky cartoon-like drawings of former 17th-century guests such as Admiral Michiel de Ruyter on the walls, although my sons were more interested in the travel diaries and jar of sweets that had been left in their room than the Hermes toiletries.

There was a predictable groan when I told my boys we were off to the Rijksmuseum to see one of the greatest art collections in Europe with its impressive A to Z of Dutch Masters, including Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch.

“Thought this was supposed to be a fun weekend,” grumbled Ben, 12. But they soon forgot that they weren’t supposed to be having a good time when I presented them with the Rijksmuseum’s award-winning family treasure hunt. It’s actually an interactive audio tour which lasts about an hour and takes in the highlights of the collection while looking for clues in the paintings and the museum’s collection of, among many artefacts, 17th-century pistols and model boats. It is clever, enjoyable and the kids get an art history lesson without even realising it.

For lunch we opted for traditional food: Indonesian. Just like the British who have adopted the Indian curry as their own, the Dutch love nothing more than a rijsttafel (rice table), a meal of several small hot and cold, spicy and mild dishes. Bojo at Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 51 is one of the busiest and best-value places around, and we tucked into chicken satay and beef dumplings before heading to Leidseplein to work it off on the open-air ice rink.

Be warned: every Dutch person glides around the ice like they were born with skates on, so it’s easy to look like a fool as you slip and slide your way inelegantly around the rink, but it’s great fun and there are push-along plastic seals to help those who are really struggling.

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Hop on a tram from here to the very trendy Negen Straatjes (nine little streets) that run from the Prinsengracht to Singel. It’s easy to while away an afternoon browsing in these quirky one-off shops, and there’s enough to keep the kids interested with shops that sell nothing but toothbrushes; the Noordermarkt flea market with its vast collection of Davy Crockett fur hats; retro design cameras in Lomography; and De Weldaad with its curiosities like bugs in paperweights, fossils and shells. Pop in to Pancakes! to refuel on hot chocolate with whipped cream.

Back at The Grand we swam in the pool at So Spa, which unusually welcomes children (as long as they’re not too rowdy), then headed out to a stalwart on the Amsterdam dining scene for 30 years: the lively Rose’s Cantina. It’s not easy to find a restaurant where you feel like you’re having an adult night out with the kids in tow, but this ticks all the boxes with heady margaritas, candlelight, a DJ spinning cool tracks and a menu they’re happy to adapt for kids with half portions and milder versions. Try the pulled pork tacos with spicy beans and rice.

Breakfast in The Grand’s restaurant Bridges is decadent. My sons went native – happily pouring hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) on to bread while we scoffed smoked salmon and poached eggs. At 11 o’clock we joined the historic tour of the hotel to see where in 1966 the former queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix, got married in a stunning wood-panelled art deco council chamber. But the highlight was the tiny Arts and Crafts salon (popular today for the weddings of well-heeled Amsterdammers) with stunning olive green, peony purple and gold murals by Chris Lebeau.

We boarded a canal bus on Prinsengracht and played our own version of Through The Keyhole while cruising around the scenic canals of the Jordaan, once a run-down ghetto, but now one of Amsterdam’s prettiest neighbourhoods. The stone tablets carved above the doors of the merchants’ houses are the clue to the profession of their 16th-century inhabitants. “Pig!” shouted Freddie, eight, pointing to the picture of a fat swine above one door, concluding that it must have been the butcher’s house.

We jumped ship at Prinsengracht 296 to visit the quaint floating Houseboat Museum, housed in the Hendrika Maria, a former freight boat built in 1912. It gives a fabulous glimpse into what life is like living on one – complete with a chance to ask searching questions such as “Where does your pee go when you flush on a boat?”

Dutch food is perfect for a cold winter day, and at Moeders on Rozengracht 251 we slurped a hearty helping of traditional pea soup, thick enough to stand your spoon in, while the boys tucked in to profitjes – small fluffy pancakes and whipped cream. It’s an unusual place and the mismatched crockery and silverware is the result of the cheeky owner asking everyone he invited to his opening party to bring a plate, fork and knife.

From the 16th century to the modern day, there’s no denying that the Dutch do architecture well. The huge Nemo science museum is one great example: reminiscent of the Titanic, its bow disappears into the Amstel River. We spent an afternoon exploring the inside of this sinking ship, which has something for every age. Freddie got stuck into logistics and sending parcels all around the world at Machine Park, while Ben built his own dam (when in Amsterdam!) in Water World, while my 14-year-old son Josh enjoyed the “Let’s Talk About Sex Peepshow”. In the Netherlands, sex is treated in a sensible, very matter-of-fact way and with a good amount of humour. It’s not the kind of exhibit you want to wander around with your parents though, so we left him to it.

Amsterdam is, in a Dutch word, “gezellig” – cosy, fun, with a lovely atmosphere, and the Vesper Bar, sandwiched between the bustling Haarlemmerstraat and picturesque Brouwersgracht, is a good example of what gezellig feels like. It’s a squeeze with just three tables and the bar to sit at, but it had caught Josh’s eye with its homage to 007 with James Bond memorabilia among the retro SodaStreams. I ordered a porn star martini, a blend of Ketel One vodka and passion fruit with a shot of prosecco on the side, which caused my sons to raise their eyebrows.

“Just as well we don’t live on a houseboat,” commented Freddie. “Mum would probably fall in the canal.”

Double rooms at The Grand Sofitel Legend start from £193 per night, inclusive of breakfast (extra bed for kids under 12 free). Go to www.sofitel-legend-thegrand.com for the latest offers. KLM (www.klm.com) and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) fly direct from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Amsterdam. KLM fares start at £83, Easyjet at £66 return, including taxes.