European city breaks are my idea of a great family holiday. Having been brought up on summer sojourns to Rome, Paris and Stockholm, four-day trips spent shoehorning in as much coffee, culture and shopping as possible are infinitely more appealing to me than long, hot fortnights spent sitting on a beach. I know that’s what you’re supposed to do with small children – to sit around building sandcastles all day – but I genuinely can’t think of anything more anxiety-inducing than two sweaty weeks spent doing absolutely nothing – aside from, knowing me, worrying about my toddler being washed out to sea.
Despite people’s misconceptions about Amsterdam’s adult content making it a no-go with children, the city is one of Europe’s most family-friendly, boasting a wealth of world-class museums, open green spaces, stylish kids’ boutiques and chilled, parent-focused coffee spots. Its proximity to home, relatively compact size and friendly locals make it a treat for those with tinies, while its cutting-edge design, rich artistic history and bewitching scenery will satisfy your cultural appetite. Just keep away from the towpaths, drug dens and brothels and you’ll all be absolutely fine.
Homegrown lifestyle store Sissy-Boy has a sort of Millennial-pink-and-palm-trees vibe that’s not dissimilar to that of Oliver Bonas. You will find stores large and small dotted around Europe – although, unlike Oliver Bonas, whose kids’ section is limited to a small selection of baby gifts, Sissy-Boy offers a large and varied range of own-brand and designer kidswear and toys, with favourite guest labels including Emile et Ida, Mini Rodini and Bobo Choses. We visited Amsterdam’s Magna Plaza branch just off Dam Square and immediately fell in love with its teepee changing rooms and a stuffed whale punnily embroidered with the words “I whale always love you” that would have taken up the entirety of the suitcase we bought out there with the express purpose of filling with holiday purchases.
Sissy-Boy, Magna Plaza, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 182, 1012 SJ Amsterdam
Big en Belg
Of all the many weird and wonderful kids’ shops we visited on our flying visit to the Netherlands, Big en Belg has to be my favourite. Tardis-like with its unassuming frontage on De Pijp’s Ferdinand Bolstraat (there’s another store on Jan Pieter Heijestraat in Amsterdam’s Oud-West district), this enormous bricks-and-mortar marketplace offers an impressively encyclopaedic yet discerningly edited selection of Scandi-style kidswear, keep-forever handmade toys, chic wooden nursery furniture and brilliantly kitschy accessories and pocket-money bits. There’s a well-placed play area in the middle of the store that’s stocked with a variety of wooden Brio toys that should adequately occupy little hands while you browse – and you will need time to browse. I dare you not to spend a lot of money here.
Big en Belg, Ferdinand Bolstraat 168, 1072 LT Amsterdam
De Winkel van Nijntje
I’ve been big on Miffy since I was smaller than Bab, so De Winkel van Nijntje was pretty high on my to-do list. Located in Rivierenbuurt on Amsterdam’s south side, this small but well-stocked shop offers pretty much everything you’ve ever wanted to buy with Miffy emblazoned on it, from art and homewares to clothing and toys. While I’d half expected to leave with half the shop we didn’t actually buy a massive amount in the end – just a few postcards and some kids’ plastic crockery. Personally I preferred the presentation and selection of Dick Bruna merchandise at Utrecht’s Centraal Museum shop, just across the road from the Miffy Museum, and found the new Miffy soft toy we were hankering after at the Let’s Play! shop at Schiphol Airport on our way home. Basically, if you’re a fan and in the market for some merchandise then the trek down to Rivierenbuurt to see this little store is definitely worth your while – but don’t sweat it if you don’t have the time, you will find her elsewhere.
De Winkel van Nijntje, Scheldestraat 61, 1078 GH Amsterdam
Imps & Elfs
We almost didn’t make it to Imps & Elfs thanks to an overstuffed itinerary and its awkward placement on the far-west of Vondelpark, away from all our other planned stop-offs, but I’m so glad we did. This Netherlands-based brand for 0-13s has been making its own huggably soft organic-cotton basics, well-cut denim and typically Dutch heirloom pieces for 20 years, and its hangar-like canalside flagship is the perfect showcase, with one-of-a-kind separates playfully displayed amongst handmade cotton creatures doing aerial aerobics off the rails, passed out in sugar comas on shelves and napping in painted wooden doll cots (also available to buy) in one of the shop’s smaller rooms. This place is pretty unique, with colourful prints you won’t find elsewhere, friendly staff that you probably will (Dutch people are, on the whole, the absolute best) and the softest pieces you’ve ever had the pleasure of caressing. Buy from here and you can guarantee yours will be the most stylish tot in the sandpit.
Imps & Elfs, Sloterkade 41-44, 1058 HE Amsterdam
KIDS’ CONCEPT SHOPS & PLAY CAFES: Blender
Perched on the border of trendy De Pijp and elegant Oud-Zuid, Blender is the sanity-saving parental refuge that every neighbourhood needs. A stylish, spacious cafe peppered with Stokke high chairs and serving coffee, cake and light meals sits alongside a chic, fairy light-bedecked under-fives play space complete with wooden Wendy house, rainbow slide and a number of well-stocked toy baskets. On the left side of the store, through a pair of swinging saloon doors, you’ll find a large, beautifully arranged retail space offering everything you could possibly need for 0-12s, from new-baby cards to big-kid scooters, as well as chic clothing, furniture and gifts. There’s reams of buggy space, a decent kids’ menu and plenty of pretty things to look at. I spent quite a lot of time wondering where the Dutch parents’ had got their toddlers’ outfits – many of which were out-of-this-world amazing – and why there is nowhere quite like this in London.
Blender, Ruysdaelstraat 9-11-13, 1071 WX Amsterdam
De Kleine Parade
Slap bang in the middle of fashionable De Pijp, which is kind of like a nicer, calmer Dalston, you’ll find De Kleine Parade, a three-in-one kids’ boutique, play cafe and party space offering coffee, clothing and bags of charm. By this, our second play-cafe stop of our trip, we’d already discovered that cheese toasties with dippy ketchup were the way forward as far as Dutch kids’ food is concerned (ketchup is a fruit, right?) and had learnt the word kaastosti so didn’t bother to try and translate anything else for the rest of the week. Bab loved the little play area with its Brio train set (Brio might be Swedish but it’s pretty ubiquitous in the Netherlands), mint-green play stove and piles of beautifully illustrated Dutch kids’ books. The event space looked magical and I loved the way the shop had been laid out with clothing hanging from gym apparatus and wellies displayed on old-skool school benches. The owner had brought in her baby and had her lying on a monochrome play mat on the shop floor while she worked, which made me want to move to the Netherlands, open a shop and have more babies.
144, Gerard Doustraat 142, 1073 Amsterdam
Nestled in the north-east corner of chic Oud-Zuid, super-cool MiniMarkt was my favourite of the four drink-shop-do-style concept stores we visited during our trip. Its combination of brightly painted plywood, neon signs, simple yet insanely tasty food and well-chosen merchandise made it an absolute winner for all of us, and the fact that it was completely packed at 10am on a Wednesday spoke volumes. I completely fell in love with its dreamy bedroom decor – in particular the Nobodinoz teepees and play houses, the Sebra furniture and the Oyoy rugs, all of which would have been logistically impossible to lug back to London – and I don’t know what cocktail of drugs they spiked their jam with but it was delicious. The cafe’s central train table was seemingly magnetic, having lured in every toddler within a 10-metre radius – although I don’t know why mine was the only one who had to climb onto it, and there was a lot of side-eyeing from the Dutch children.
MiniMarkt, Beethovenstraat 5A, 1077 HK Amsterdam
We found renting an apartment a million times more practical with a toddler than staying in a hotel since we didn’t fancy creeping around in the dark after she’d gone to bed, and the apartment option enabled her to sleep in a different room and for us to get some time to ourselves in the evenings. We stayed in Cityden‘s Museum Square location, which is perfectly placed between the culture of the Stedelijk, Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum, the calm of Vondelpark and the cool of ultra-trendy De Pijp (it’s also comfortably separated from the trash of Centrum with its heavily weed-scented streets and scantily clad gyrating window ladies, which you’ll probably want to avoid with a toddler in tow – and maybe just in general). Our apartment was compact but well equipped, with a brand-new kitchen and bathroom, a sofa-bed – in addition to the ridiculously comfortable double, a travel cot tucked away behind a wall, and lift access, as well as brilliant service with a host who rocked up on his moped within 10 minutes of our arrival and replaced our kettle on the same afternoon we reported it broken.
A canal tour is the best way to see the city and learn a bit about its history without trekking for miles with buggies or braving museums with angry, disinterested small children. Most kids will enjoy a cruise down the canal and there’s plenty for them to look out for, from wonky canal houses to colourful gable stones denoting the occupation of a building’s original occupants. We went on a Stromma tour, which at an hour’s duration was just long enough and pretty entertaining, but Blue Boat and Lovers trips are also meant to be good. If you’re keen to explore on terra firma then make like a local and hire a cargo bike. A-Bike‘s Bakfiets (literally ‘box-bike’) cost from €29.95 per bike per day and fit two children, with seat belts to keep them safe and snug. You can also pick up an Amsterdam three-day travel ticket for €26 per person (kids go free) for unlimited travel across the city, or if you’d rather travel on foot then most things are walkable – as Londoners who pretty much get the tube everywhere we were frequently surprised how quickly we could walk to places from our apartment.
We’d planned to visit the recently renovated Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk contemporary art museum as we’d heard that both were toddler-friendly, but since we were short on time we decided to devote all our energy to Utrecht’s Miffy Museum, which was kind of our motivation for a Dutch trip in the first place – and you absolutely cannot miss this out if you’re visiting with an under-five. Considering its size, the Netherlands is host to a bewildering number of museums – many of which are much more family-friendly than the majority of those in London. Assuming you don’t spend the entirety of your holiday ogling designer kidswear in one of the many stylish boutiques or munching Edam toasties in a play cafe, the NEMO Science Museum, Tropenmuseum Junior children’s museum and the Amsterdam Museum are all recommended for tinies. The beautiful 120-acre Vondelpark with its avant-garde playground, modernist sculptures, lakes and cafes is a year-round must-see for families. We took a lovely stroll through it on our last morning in Amsterdam but I would have loved to have spent more time there (and I think Bab would have liked to have given me multiple heart attacks exploring the terrifyingly lofty helter-skelter!).
Bab plays at Blender, Museumkwartier