Emma Gibbs visits one of Europe’s best short-break destinations with a toddler in tow. Here’s what she learnt about travelling to Amsterdam with kids.

The last time I visited Amsterdam I was eighteen; eschewing the Spanish islands that most of my classmates were heading for, I was after something that was more “cultural”. In reality, of course, we were mainly interested in the city’s infamous coffee shops (though on hindsight I’m impressed that we made it into the Rembrandthuis). So, it goes without saying that my return to the city, with a toddler in tow, was always going to be different. Here’s what I learnt.

You can’t escape the drugs…or the prostitutes

Going to Amsterdam with a child raises a few eyebrows – even today, it seems, a lot of people immediately think of cannabis and the sex trade. Naively, I thought that staying away from coffee shops and out of the Red Light District would be enough to avoid these things. However, I was surprised by just how throat-ticklingly potent the smell of weed was at certain times and there were numerous occasions where we were caught off-guard by a rather underdressed lady in a window. Thankfully, the latter (and hopefully the former) went entirely over our daughter’s head.

It’s all about location, location, location

The criteria by which we would normally choose a place to stay (if it was just my husband and I) – proximity to good restaurants, an interesting/lively neighbourhood – more or less went out the window on this trip. We were arriving into the city by train, so the most important factor was proximity to the station. The last thing we wanted to do was traipse across town with a bag and a baby in tow. The area around our hotel, the Renaissance, wasn’t the most thrilling, but we were just a stone’s throw from the canals and being so central meant that we could easily travel anywhere else in the city.

Leidsegracht, Herengracht Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Europe

Domestic cats are more exciting than gorillas

Faced with a room full of gorillas exhibiting stereotypical behaviour – beating their chests, play fighting, swinging from ropes – our daughter decided that the animal that really deserved her attention was the black domestic cat curled up on one of the radiators on our side of the glass. Fortunately, other animals at Artis Zoo were graced with a little more attention – the snowy owl was deemed hilarious and getting up close to lemurs was thrilling – but the cat remained the stand-out hit of this appealing city zoo.

Nap times are grown-up times

Amsterdam is full of invitingly cosy bars which, although often well-stocked with high-chairs and amenable staff, aren’t really the place you want to be with an investigative toddler. After spending a chilly day looking wistfully at every bar we passed, we hit on the solution – nap time. So, as soon as our daughter’s eyes were closed, we slunk into a nearby one to enjoy a beer and a little bit of adult time; thankfully, a day exploring the city had so exhausted her that even the clamour failed to wake her.

Tram and Central Station, Amsterdam, Holland, Europe

Trams can be tremendously exciting

Trams are amazing to a twenty month old. First greeted with an enthusiastic “wow!”, every subsequent sighting of a tram (which, let’s face it, happens frequently in in Amsterdam) was met with a joyful “ding ding” or “choo-choo”. Possibly the only thing more exciting than watching the trams was riding on them, dinging the bell, and charming all the commuters.

No one cooks like Moeder

My main concern before Amsterdam was how our toddler would cope with so much eating out when she’s at an age where sitting still is something of a foreign concept. We needn’t have worried – everywhere we ate was incredibly family-friendly. The foodie highlight was undoubtedly the rather appropriately-named Moeders (“Mothers”), which serves up deliciously unpretentious Dutch home cooking. The cinnamon-spiced red cabbage went down so well that its removal from the table at the end of the meal was met with great displeasure.

Cheese in shop display, Leidsestraat, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cheese is your secret weapon

There are a lot of cheese shops in Amsterdam. The best thing about them? The free samples. Many a grumpy moment was quickly averted by slipping into a cheese shop to sample a little mature gouda. Of these, the Cheese Museum (more a well-stocked cheese shop with a small, informative display about cheese making) was a particular favourite.

It’s about more than ticking off sights

City breaks can often feel like a rush to “do” all the major sights. Travelling with a toddler is surprisingly liberating because you have no choice but to eschew that. Sure, I would have liked to have seen Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or The Night Watch by Rembrandt in person, but it wasn’t going to make or break our trip. Instead, we pottered about at a leisurely pace, stopped on bridges to watch boats go past and outside cheese shops to pet life-size models of cows, and saw everything through the wide-eyed wonder of a not-quite two year old.

Stena Line ferries run twice-daily from Harwich International to Hoek van Holland, from where frequent trains run to Amsterdam (via Schiedam). For more information on visiting Amsterdam, visit Holland.com or read the Pocket Rough Guide to Amsterdam.

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