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A Cultural Christmas in Amsterdam

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What is it? A cultural awakening in the dead of an English winter.

Where? Amsterdam. We spent five nights at Hotel Vondel, a four-star boutique hotel in the heart of the city’s Museum District.

Description: [canal.jpg]Long famous for its hash brownies and red-light district, Amsterdam has cleaned up its image and undergone a cultural renaissance in recent years. Delia Lloyd took her family to explore this “New” Amsterdam over the Christmas holidays.

Exploring one of Europe’s most culturally alive cities

Climb Westerkerk Tower for views of the city on your way to Anne Frank House. Enjoy the complex of theatres, galleries and cafes called the Westergasfabriek, which features an avante garde (but by all accounts, accessible) theatre festival–“Winter Parade”–during winter. Every Wednesday at 12:30 there is a free classical music concert at Het Concertgebouw. It lasts just 45 minutes–just long enough for the kids to stick with it! Visit Spui Square on Sundays for an outdoor art market. Go shopping in the Nine Streets District. Football fans may enjoy a tour of the Ajax Stadium. Or take a quick train down to Delft (approximately 1 hour away) and check out its famous Dutch pottery.

Amsterdam is home to all major cuisines, and is particularly famous for its Indonesian food. Go to a cafe along a canal in the artsy Jordaan district before dinner. Amstel, Grolsch and Heineken are all local brews but be sure to try a Belgian White as well. After dinner, check out some music. Concertgebouworkest-the Amsterdam Orchestra–is among the best in the world and the main music venues (Paradiso, Melkweg, Heinekin Music Hall) are all easy to reach. There is English language theatre year round. In the summer, try the open air theatre in Vondel Park.

Although we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, Hotel Vondel was happy to book a sitter for us and other hotels can make similar arrangements.

Hotel Vondel does not have its own spa facilities but can easily arrange those for you. Check before you go to see what your hotel has on offer.

Local activities: See above.

Wish we had known: How easy it is to get from the airport to city centre. Trains in Amsterdam literally run from the airport lobby itself and they are fast, efficient and affordable. Instead of spending 40 Euros on a cab from the airport, I wish we’d taken the train into town and caught a taxi or tram from there. Once in town, the cheapest and easiest way to travel is by tram/bus. Be sure to buy what’s called a “strip” at any newsagents, which gives you 10 trips at a discount. Nearly everyone in the Netherlands speaks fluent English so it is very easy to get directions if you need them.

Our top tip: Queues for the more popular cultural sites can be very long, so be sure to book on line in advance of your trip. We did this for Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House and saved ourselves a lot of time and hassle.

Kids say: Isaac (8): “Can we move into a houseboat?”. Allie (5): “Olie Bolie! Olie Bolie! Olie Bolie!”

Getting There: Most major European airlines fly from London to Amsterdam, as do Easy Jet and BMI starting as low as L55 (easy jet) and L91 (BMI) round trip (but obviously more during holiday season). Book early to get good seats and fares. You can also travel by train on Eurostar for roughly L90, but bare in mind that this is a six hour journey (vs. 1 hour on an airplane). Hotels in Amsterdam come at all levels and prices. Hotel Vondel charges between 300-400 Euros per night for the two bedroom loft suite and between 250 and 300 Euros per night for the family suite, but check the website for special offers. The following websites can introduce you to a variety of accommodation options: http://www.amsterdam.info/ and http://www.undercovertourist.com/netherlands/amsterdam/hotels/child-friendly/.

About our stay: When I first told people that my husband and I were planning a trip to Amsterdam over the Christmas holidays, they thought we’d gone mad. “You’ll freeze to death!” clamored one half of our friends. “What on earth will you do there with kids?” exclaimed the other. They were wrong on both counts. The weather was fine (7 degrees Celsius on average) and there was loads to do with children. It’s true that Amsterdam’s lax laws regarding marijuana and prostitution have long made it a Mecca for college students trekking across Europe. But that seedy reputation overshadows the city’s rich and diverse set of artistic, musical and historic offerings. And with a recent governmental push to clean up the red light district, Amsterdam is now a first rate place to bring your kids and introduce them to this cultural splendor. We stayed at Hotel Vondel, a modern, art deco hotel in the Museum district which is walkable to many of the city’s major attractions. The family suite consists of two elegantly designed, adjoining rooms, decorated with the hotel’s signature white wash oak furniture. The kids room has bunk beds, each with its own flat screen TV (DVD player also available upon request). We stayed in the two bedroom loft suite at the very top of the Hotel (with walk-in kitchen and Jacuzzi) that was nearly the size of our flat in London. The hotel has a adjoining restaurant–Joost–which serves a full scale buffet breakfast if you choose to eat in (Warning: the Dutch don’t really “do” breakfast so this is a wise option if you like large, English-style spreads. Otherwise, it’s mostly coffee and pastries). In addition to its luxurious decor, the other big selling point at the Hotel Vondel is its superb and knowledgeable staff. Always available, they answered all of our questions in perfect English, and helped us book restaurants, make travel arrangements and suggested family outings. [bike.jpg] We began with the museums. What a fabulous amount of art within one small city! The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum should be high on the list on any journey. Both have audio guides and activity trails specifically designed for children, which kept our entire family occupied for hours. I would also highly recommend the Rembrandt House Museum, a re-creation of the artist’s home and studio which features etching demonstrations throughout the day. The audio tour narrates daily life in the 17th century and is suitable for children 5 and up. (Note that museums in Amsterdam almost never close–you can even go on Christmas Day!) Another must-see is the historic Anne Frank house where the famous child-author lived while her family hid from the Nazis. Parents may wish to use some discretion with some of the holocaust imagery displayed at the very end of the exhibit, but the house itself sparked long and meaningful conversations with our children ages 5 and 8 (and prompted us to read a child-friendly version of Anne Frank’s Diary as a family.) When your kids tire of cultural outings, there is lots of traditional kid stuff to do in Amsterdam as well. The science museum has a world-class reputation for its hands-on exhibits. If you come over Christmas, the World Circus is in town at the Carre theatre. We spent an afternoon at something called “Tun Fun,” an indoor play centre located inside an old train tunnel packed with football, basketball, climbing frames and trampolines–all suitably decorated with a splash of colorful graffiti. I’ve never been in a “hipper” play centre… But family fun is not just confined to the indoors. In addition to taking walking tours around Amsterdam’s many different historical districts, we took a boat tour through the city’s lovely canals (we opted for Blue Boat Company but there are many others). This is a great way to take in the city’s diverse architecture. Cycling is the major form of transportation in Amsterdam, so in warmer weather, you can also rent bikes at any number of outlets for approximately 10 Euros per person and explore Vondel Park (and if you’re more adventurous, the city itself). Artis, the Amsterdam Zoo, is said to be among the oldest and most beautiful in Europe. And in winter, you can ice skate on the main square in front of the museums (5 Euros per person for up to two hours). Afterwards, be sure to pop into one of many outdoor stands to eat pancakes and Olie Bolie (traditional holiday doughnuts)–and, yes, I guarantee that you too w ill soon be chanting “Olie Bolie” daily. [ice.jpg] By the end of our stay, we felt that we still hadn’t begun to exhaust all of the sights in Amsterdam and are already planning to come back for another holiday here soon. In the meantime, Olie Bolie for all! Delia Lloyd is a writer/journalist based in London. She has been a frequent contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s “At Home Abroad” section.

Created: 2009-01-07 15:13:01.850

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