An Amsterdam For Everyone

With Its Extensive Canals, Charming Architecture And Plentiful Museums, This Netherlands City Is -- Surprisingly -- A Great Place For Families

June 03, 2007|By Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara,Los Angeles Times

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS //

When considering Amsterdam, its famous red-light district and the coffee shops where cannabis is smoked, you may assume it's less than an ideal city to visit with young children. But you would be wrong.

On a visit here last summer with Danny, 8, and Fiona, 6, we had a few, um, educational moments. Fiona wanted to know why all the women in the windows looked "like they were getting ready for a party." (I guess because they were wearing lipstick and underwear and that's all.) And both kids were stunned, stunned that so many people smoked. (They could not, thank heavens, identify what was being smoked.) But those two issues occupied only 10 seconds of our four days in Amsterdam. (OK, the drunken singing by Italian fans as they celebrated their country's World Cup victory took up an hour or two, at 3 a.m.)

The rest was fabulous. Amsterdam is precisely the sort of city a child might conjure in her dreams: the concentric circles of canals; the long canal boats with their terraces and little lawns; the overflowing window boxes; the tall houses shoulder to shoulder, their peaked roofs like tricorn hats; the pretty little bridges; the brightly colored doors; and all the bicycles. The Dutch eat pancakes for lunch, put mayonnaise on French fries, have a really big park and what isn't easily accessible by foot can be quickly reached by really cool trams.

What's not to like?

We came to Amsterdam as the first leg of a trip through Germany because I had always wanted to visit the Anne Frank House and see the canals, and this seemed our best chance. Having no sense of the city, we chose to stay in a building right on the Dam, which is the main public square, (which was why the post-Cup drunken rowdies were an issue). Several apartments were available, so we let the kids pick.

They chose the one with the loft bedroom, of course, which was on the top floor. The views were wonderful, but I was pregnant, which meant I was hauling a big belly -- and my husband was hauling a backpack -- six flights up a circular staircase at least twice a day. In retrospect, I would have chosen one of the quieter neighborhoods, but at least it was easy to find our way home.

Outdoor life

We arrived in the afternoon, headed out to the tourist information center a few blocks away to buy tickets for the Anne Frank House and an I Amsterdam Card, and got on a canal boat tour, to get a sense of the city and to fight jet lag.

Amsterdam was even more beautiful than I had imagined, more like a small kingdom than a city, with so much outdoor life, from the cafes to the markets to the boats to the bikes. The tour took us through the Centrum, along the canals that ring the city center. In the warm July sun with the canals glittering under shady green trees, it seemed impossible that anyone would ever want to go indoors.

We spent the rest of the day walking along the central canal belt, from the Herengracht to the Prinsengracht, heading west to the artsy, Greenwich Village-esque Jordaan district, then back east, stopping for lunch at the Pancake Bakery, until we wound up in front of the Anne Frank House.

We had intended to wait a day or so and visit it at night, when the lines would be shorter, and possibly go one adult at a time, but at 5 p.m. on this day, no one was waiting and both kids solemnly said that they really wanted to go too.

We had told Danny and Fiona the story of Anne Frank weeks before our trip; it is not an easy task to try to explain the Holocaust to young children because they keep asking, "Why? Why would people do that?" and of course, there is really no answer. Or no answer you want your children to comprehend. But they understood that a girl and her family had been forced to hide for a long time and that they were finally found and all but one killed because they were Jewish.

We stood in the glimmering dusk of our first day and reminded them that this was a serious, sad place and that they didn't have to go if they didn't want to. But they did, and with the understanding that we would take them out if they acted inappropriately, we entered.

There's no point in writing about how heartbreaking this museum is. The marks on one wall where the Franks measured Anne and her sister Margot's height brought me immediately to tears, which I think affected my children more than what they were seeing -- the tears and the utter weighted silence of the adults around them. When we left, they were subdued for some minutes, contemplating the short lives of children just like them, and we talked about what we had seen off and on during our trip.

Kids' playground

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