We haven’t done much travelling since Oscar was born. I’d like to say ‘I’m not really sure why’, but I know exactly why. Fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of it all going so very wrong and being so very far away from home. I’d like to say his Autism diagnosis played a part, and I guess to an extent it did. But I’m starting to think it did only in as much as we have used it as an excuse to justify the fear.
Anyway Oscar is nearly seven now and for the past two years his daddy has worked most of the week, every week, in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is less than an hours flight from London and if we were looking for a first experience outside of the country, we thought might prove to be the perfect place to start.
Flying with Oscar was probably the biggest mental hurdle I had to get over with this trip and I will write at more length about it in another post. But suffice to say, the airport/flight/transport angle of the trip went as well as we had prepared for.
And I was so right about Amsterdam. We LOVED it. Since coming home I have become almost evangelical about how good the city is to visit with children. When I tell them, most people look at me like I’ve lost the plot, but it’s true. Amsterdam is so much more than red light districts, stag dos and weed. Amsterdam with children is superb!
We went for five nights and it worked out just right for us. Ben was with us for the flights and for Sunday. On the other days he had to work, leaving Oscar and I to explore alone. And do you know what? ‘Flying solo’ as it were, in another country was not nearly as nerve wracking as it could have been. I chose one ‘thing’ to do a day and with the help of good old Google Maps, we just got on and did them!
Nemo Science Museum
Our first full day in Amsterdam was a Sunday and so we chose to do something we could all enjoy together. The Nemo Science Museum blew our minds. Five floors of hands on exploration. Oscar couldn’t have been happier. It was busy but it was also so big that there was rarely an exhibit you couldn’t get close to. It really was designed with children in mind, with written explanations kept to a minimum and never in the way of the hands on fun. The staff to visit ratio was also impressive, with many staff members floating about always on hand to explain or demonstrate.
We stayed for the entire day, making our way up through the floors and then back down again to see the things we’d missed, or revisit favourites. We had lunch in the incredibly well stocked fifth floor restaurant and thoroughly appreciated the outdoor play zone next to the restaurant.
The entrance cost was a little higher than we’re used to (coming from the UK where most museums are free), but it was absolutely worth it. And to be fair, I could have got in for free if I’d remembered my Carer’s paperwork. Ahh well, next time.
Zaanse Schans is a kind of living museum of Dutch history/industry. If you’re looking to get your fill of windmills, cheese and clogs then this is the place to go and it was only forty minutes by bus from Central Amsterdam (and only 25 from where we were in Zaandam). Yes a lot of the exhibits were thinly veiled shops and it was probably the most touristy thing you can in Amsterdam, but we really enjoyed it none the less.
Oscar loved being able to go inside one of the working windmills, despite being unsure about the smell of milling chalk (it was incredibly strong and unusual). We both thought it was a fascinating experience.
A highlight of our visit was the boat cruise round the River Zaan, taking in all of the Windmills on the site. Oscar getting to drive the boat really was his highlight of the day!
We started our trip to Zaanse Schaans with a visit to the Verkade Experience, a museum dedicated to the history and processes of the Dutch chocolate maker Verkade. Overall I think its probably a museum better suited to adults. Oscar’s expectations of some kind of Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory were sadly disappointed! It was very much a museum for information and the staff were very professional but not particularly child friendly. Side note: it was also the only place I ever had to mention Oscar’s diagnosis to explain his behaviour to an unfriendly member staff the whole week.
We absolutely loved Vondelpark, in the centre of Amsterdam. It’s a giant park full of life (including a colony of wild parakeets!) with seven playgrounds aimed at all ages and abilities. You could literally spend an entire day there, playground hopping, making friends and having a ball. Which is exactly what we did! It’s also free, which for an amazing day out, in the centre of a European capital, is rare.
When a fallen tree becomes a playground in it’s own right!
The only money we spent on our trip to Vondelpark was on lunch at Kinderkookkafe. Situated in the park, this cafe was so different to anything we’ve ever been to before and Oscar absolutely loved it.
Aimed at 1-6 year olds (although we saw older children having just as much fun!), everything is at child height including the visual image menu. The idea is the children choose their meal, take the ingredients, make their own lunch and the staff then cook it for them. Oscar chose pizza, followed by a cupcake (and then an apple, because he just loved the apple peeling machine they had!)
Everything was accessible to children
The cafe had a menu for adults (not prepared by the children!) which was basic but really delicious. The cafe also had its own enclosed outdoor playground, aimed at preschoolers. It would be perfect for summer afternoon hang out with the children!
Anne Frank’s House (Anne Frank Huis)
The visit to the famous Anne Frank House, was definitely more for me than for Oscar, but I’m so glad we did it. He coped so unbelievably well in the house, and seemed to understand the sombre tone (which the museum sets brilliantly with subdued lighting and sparse displays). However, I’m not sure all children would get it. It’s definitely one to make a parenting judgement call on.
If you are planning to visit I would highly recommend reading Anne’s full and unabridged diary before going. I did and consequently felt I got more out of the visit. It also allowed us to forgo the handheld audio tour, given to everyone on arrival. This meant we could move around the building more freely but it also enabled me to keep the commentary I was giving to Oscar (quietly) more appropriate to his level.
Six is very young to expose to the full horrors of the Holocaust. But it did start a conversation and for that I was grateful. I also bought him a fantastic book on the way out, written by the Anne Frank Foundation based on the questions they have been asked by children over the years. It meant I had answers to any questions he may have come away with.
My only other suggestion if you’re planning to visit the house is to book your tickets in advance. The museum only allows a certain number of people in per allocated time slot so booking in advance should mean avoiding long queues.
Oh yes and PANCAKES Amsterdam is next door. Delicious!
I’ve never been one for ‘city breaks’. A holiday where I got to relax on a beach was always much more my thing. But since having a child, and particularly a child like Oscar, I’ve had to reevaluate what a good holiday looks like to me now. And I can hand on heart tell you that, right now, city breaks, in cities that really get kids and appreciate parents, are the way ahead.
We not only had fantastic fun, but we all came away having learnt something. About another culture, about history, about ourselves.
And I can’t ignore how proud this holiday made me feel. Of Oscar; he really threw himself into the whole trip and came away with some amazing memories. But also of myself. I did this! And I can’t wait to do it again.
Which is why we’ve booked to go to Stockholm this summer!! Yup I’ve truly caught the family city break bug. I can’t wait to show my little guy the world. One trip at a time 🙂