Travel Europe: A hop, skip and jump city

Children love Amsterdam. It has floating buses, lots of bridges, great museums to twiddle knobs in and wonderful apple pie. Parents are unlikely to find themselves kicking their heels, either.
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The Independent Culture
How do you keep children happy on a week's visit to a European city in winter? It's simple when you take them to Amsterdam. Let the family fun begin not in an overcrowded, angst-ridden air terminal, but by calmly alighting at Waterloo International for an undersea adventure on Eurostar, arriving cool, calm and connected, via Brussels Midi, around four hours later.

Emerging out of Amsterdam's Central Station can be exciting. You walk into a melee of Euro-youth with guitars, sitting cross-legged on the ground, and brush past fire-eaters, drummers and jugglers, the air rent by Scottish bagpipes and a Dutch barrel organ. Trams trundle and ting, sending the unwary scuttling out of their path. The city's well organised transport network has its hub right outside the train station. You realise, while buying your strip of tickets, that the children are not whingeing as you might expect them to be at this stage in a day's journey, but are transfixed by everything around them. You have to drag them on to the tram, promising them that you will be back; they will see more sword-swallowers and unicyclists: "But you haven't even seen a canal yet."

In time, we saw more canals than you could toss an abandoned bike into. We walked beside them, dodging cars and cyclists. We rode them as tourists do, in the glass-topped boats that skim around the city. We counted them from above while having coffee at the rooftop restaurant in Metz department store. It was here that the children caught sight of their first Dutch tart up close; apple was the flavour of choice, and if we needed an incentive to bag another of the city's 1,000 bridges on our way to the next sight, then the promise of an apple tart worked its magic.

No food bribery was needed to get us walking across the city from our hotel to Anne Frank's House on the Prinsengracht Canal. The story of a brave Jewish girl in wartime Amsterdam is familiar to each new generation of Blue Peter viewers. There's a strange sense of having visited before as you climb up into the secret apartment where Anne spent her final teenage days hiding from the Nazis.

But the strongest feeling was just how human lives connect; there on the wall were the pencil marks to show the heights of the Frank children, just like our pencil marks at home in England.

The Westerkirk just down the street is probably the most elegant church in the city. We joined a queue for a trip up its bell-tower to get the best view of all of the canals and bridges. From the platform, we were able to plan out trips for the next few days that we were to be in the city. Beneath we located the museums, the Vondelpark and the New Metropolis Science Centre.

This has been designed by Renzo Piano to look like a ship curving into the harbour, and here you have several floors of child-centred exhibits - computer screens aplenty, demonstrations and irresistible things for adults to fight with their children over doing first. Amsterdam doesn't have the balmiest of climates, so a wet afternoon can be well spent inside New Metropolis. But I do have a couple of criticisms of the place. One is that it is expensive, and the other is that most of the fun activities lack explanations of the science or technology behind them.

Our favourite museum, however, was the Stedelijk, given over to modern art. Here, a young person's attention is not tested not by rows of canvases, captured by a series of rooms housing art installations. Wandering from room to room gave a continual set of surprises. If you're worried about your children seeing representations of all manner of body parts, then give it a miss. But boring it isn't. It also suffers less from the crowds let loose from tour buses than the worthy Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum.

A walk from Museumplein will take you into quiet streets with a vibrant, lived-in feel. The area known as The Pipe - because the apartments are long and thin, like pipe drawers - has a range of cheap eating-places, small cafes and a strong sense of calm community life. All this is only a brief tram ride from the bustle of the city centre.

After a blow-out meal at a pancake house or at the excellent restaurant attached to the Vroom & Dreesman store, take a stroll to see the lights. There's no need to wander into the red-light district; the canals themselves present quite a show after dark, with strings of bulbs lighting up bridges and the gables of some of the 17th-century bourgeois houses, so that you can quite easily see right inside. Oh, how we parents coveted our Dutch neighbours' loft-style living spaces.

When you desire the company of strangers once again, there is a certain buzz on Leidesplein. There are twinkling lights of the international advertising boards up ahead, and fast-food outlets galore. You can stand in the square watching the street entertainers and be cynical about it all, or feel guilty about the consumerist jamboree. But it's not half a lively place and the kids aren't nagging you to move on to buy an ice-cream. They're up at the front urging the bearded American street performer to juggle with the third chainsaw, squealing with delight as he appears to do the impossible.

So there's enough variety in Amsterdam to keep children well entertained for a week. And without realising it, they will walk for miles. A bit of culture here, a trip to the souvenir shop of the Ajax soccer team there, and everyone's happy.

Aiming For Amsterdam

Rail

Donald Hiscock paid pounds 99 for a return trip on Eurostar (0990 186 186) from London to Amsterdam via Brussels; for this you have to stay a minimum of Saturday night. Children under four travel free; those aged 4-11 pay pounds 59; 12-25 year-olds pay pounds 79.

Rail and sea

For those travelling from the London area, a cheaper deal is usually available from Stena Line (0990 707070) in association with Anglia Railways; the high-speed vessel between Harwich and the Hook of Holland is out of service at present, but from December through-tickets for pounds 49 return to Amsterdam (book a week in advance) should be available from Liverpool Street station.

Air

Amsterdam has the best connections from Britain of any foreign destination. Flights serve the city's Schiphol airport from Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow, Humberside, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, London City, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Sheffield, Southampton, Stansted and Teesside. Most of these flights are on KLM UK (0990 074074), though EasyJet (0990 292929) has good fares from Luton and Liverpool. Trains run four times an hour from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam's Central Station, costing about pounds 2 each way.

More information

Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1T 6NE (0891 717777, for premium-rate interactive information, or 0171-734 0860 for the Dutch reservation centre). Amsterdam's main tourist office is opposite Central Station. It opens 8am-8pm Monday-Saturday, 8am-5pm on Sundays. A second office is at Schiphol airport.

The main attractions

AFC Ajax souvenir shop (00 31 20 311 1685): at the main entrance to the stadium at Arenaboulevard 1, in the south east of the city. It opens 10am- 6pm daily. Anne Frank House Prinsengracht 263 (00 31 20 556 7100), open 9am-7pm on Fridays and Saturdays, other days 9am-5pm; admission 10 guilders (about pounds 3). New Metropolis Science Centre: Oosterdok 2 (00 31 20 531 3233) open 10am-6pm; admission for children aged 4-6: 16.50 guilders (about pounds 5.50); adults 23.50 guilders (about pounds 7.50). Stedelijk museum: Paulus Potterstraat 13 (00 31 20 573 2911), open 11am-5pm daily; admission 12.50 guilders (about pounds 4).

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