Travelling with teens in peak holiday times is a hideously expensive exercise; that’s why it makes sense to scan the school calendar for inset days so we can take advantage of a short off season break. At this time of year, short haul city breaks work best so last Thursday evening we headed off to Amsterdam.
But is this city ok for teens? It’s a cliché that this is a hot spot for hedonists. This historic city has a tawdry reputation due to the sex trade and druggy coffee shops but things have changed; Project 1012 has cleaned up these dominating features and replaced lots of them with creative, artisan and fine dining establishments.
That’s not all, a new generation is getting switched on to Amsterdam thanks to the recent novel by multi-award winning American author John Green, writer of realist teen literature. His sixth book (and now a fil), The Fault in Our Stars is touching tale. It tells the story of Hazel and Gus, two teenagers with cancer who meet at a support group. I won’t spoil the plot for you but the couple go on a dream trip to Amsterdam in a bid to meet a famous author. The trailer is below and heavily features Amsterdam. My daughter has read the book and seen the film twice, I read the book in an afternoon and it seemed a good enough excuse to use it as inspiration for our trip. I would say we are not alone and this coming half term will see an influx of parents with teens in tow to Amsterdam!
Anne Frank Huis
The Anne Frank Huis, which features in the story, was our first cultural stop. I’ve always been put off by the queues outside when I’ve been to Amsterdam before, so we pre booked tickets online and didn’t have to wait in line at all. Surprisingly, we spent nearly two hours in there and it was profoundly moving, every visitor should visit this place. The story of the Frank family is well known but I hadn’t considered it in such detail. Walking in the footsteps of the eight people who were concealed in the floors above the jam factory which was also the Frank family home was eerie. As was seeing some of the paraphernalia of German occupation and persecution; a Yellow Jewish Star which the Nazis forced the Jewish community to sew onto their garments and entry records to Auschwitz and Belsen with handwritten annotations. There was a lot of multimedia in the house and some interview footage with Anne’s father Otto, and Miep Gies who was his assistant and helper providing food and cover for the secret inhabitants of the building. What struck me was the pivotal role she had played in keeping them concealed and saving Anne’s diaries. There was also video footage of half starved people and emaciated bodies piled up high in concentration camps. These images are brutally shocking and serve as a reminder that the business of war trades on human suffering and death. Another surprise was learning that the Dutch government in exile had broadcast a request on the radio for the people of Holland to record their experiences of occupation by the Germans. This led to Anne rewriting her diaries and turning them into the first draft of the Secret Annex which was published before her diary. While she wanted to become a world famous writer, she tragically died a month before the end of the war. Her wish came true and her work became a national and international legacy. She represents a lost generation, she was antithesis of Hitler, she embodied everything he destroyed; hope, love, creativity and passion. It’s hard not to wonder how the world would be now if the holocaust had not taken place and who was the person who betrayed the concealment of the Frank family which led to their arrest and transfer to concentration camps.
At the end of the tour of the house, there is a filmatic video on the loop which featured a clip a of John Green reading an excerpt from The Fault in Our Stars where Hazel relates her lasting impressions of the Anne Frank house. She comments on how there was just one Anne Frank on the concentration camp admission list, but many other Franks were on it too, and they are forgotten.
I think this book and film have given the Anne Frank organisation a whole new currency but much has been written online about whether this Hollywood film should have been allowed access to the Anne Frank House to film. Having visited it, I think it is a huge opportunity to keep this story alive and remind us all that we should never let this happen again.
The rest of our trip was pretty cool and we spent hours walking around and really enjoyed hopping onto trams, getting onto boats and having lazy lunches.
There’s no shortage of fast food in Amsterdam in the shape of crepes, waffles, chips and hotdogs. While we didn’t try Febo, the idea of a vending machine for burgers and fried food was hilarious.
Our temporary home was de Pijp and there are loads of bakeries and a great street market there. We ate at a couple of restaurants Spaghetteria, a pasta bar which served a nifty home made limoncello aperitif and the Moroccan, Bar Zuid – the food was excellent in both. We discovered a lovely organic slow food restaurant which is more centrally placed on Suistraat; Trattoria Caprese, served the best Parmigiana I’ve ever tasted and really lovely pasta dishes too. For the undecided diner, Utrecht Straat is a great place to wander down as there are plenty of restaurants and cuisines to choose from; Indian, Mexican, Italian, Japanese and Argentinian to name but a few. One of my favourite places is hipster heaven De Kroon which I first went to in 2007. We popped in there so I could have a cocktail, it hadn’t changed and felt disappointingly outdated and a little grubby – what a shame.
Basically you can walk, float, tram or cycle around. Much like Venice, the network of canals and bridges makes it a pleasant and relaxed place to explore by foot and water. We bought a 24 hour hop on / hop off boat pass which gave us loads of time to sight see in a laid back fashion and get a sense of the size of the canal system. It takes around an hour to do the full round trip.
We used the trams to bus in and out of the city centre and they were cheap and efficient, we could do with them in London. We weren’t adventurous enough to hire bikes but a word of caution, you’re much more likely to get run over by a bicycle in Amsterdam than a car so beware! We also used the tram and metro to get back to the airport costing us a fraction of the taxi fare we paid on arrival.
Amsterdam is home of the standard global pit stop; Madam Tussauds, Body Worlds and so forth. The Heineken Experience is worth a visit if you love beer and the diamond quarter is also worthwhile. We went to the Torture Museum which cost more than the Anne Frank House and it was awful. The web site is misleading as it shows wax figures in the old torture machinery but in reality, they are empty. The dated, even broken, signage which looked like it hadn’t been changed since the late 80s. Embarrassingly, most contraptions had ‘Don’t Sit or Lie Here’ or ‘Don’t Place Your Head Here’ on them so obviously it’s just the Brits that act like idiots abroad.
We made a point of visiting the Rijksmuseum which houses the historic arts collections and is obviously a great source of national pride. The enormous Rembrandt works on show were hard to access with crowds of 10 people deep and the place was packed. The interior is hyper modern and the gardens are beautiful, we were lucky enough to be there for the last day of the Calder installation. While it’s worth a visit here it would not go on my list of top Art must sees; the web site does say it’s busiest between 11am and 3pm so we might have fared better arriving outside those time.
The recently opened Hermitage, looked vast and imposing but not somewhere we had time to visit in such a short break.
Sight Seeing and Shopping
Amsterdam is a small city, with less than a million inhabitants. It doesn’t have a huge amount of major landmarks. It is the canals and the beautiful houses and warehouses that line them which define Amsterdam so it’s worth spending time exploring them in depth. Pop on a boat or hire a bike for this and you’ll get to see the Skinny Bridge, Waterloo, Munt Plein and more. There are also various street markets around the city which are great for browsing.
The Dam, which is rather like Trafalgar Square, has major brand name shops; so if you want to buy clothes head there. For mementoes, there are lots of cheese shops, chocolate shops and plenty of tourist shops selling tulip bulbs, clogs and delftware; none of which held much appeal. I felt a bit mean spirited thinking to myself that Amsterdam needed a bit of a rebrand when defining itself. Smelly cheese and wooden shoes sell it short.
What to see if we go back
Three days is not enough to see everything in Amsterdam and it’s a good sign we still had lots we wanted to do so; in fact we developed quite an enthusiasm for the place. I love modern art so the Stedelijk Museum was on the list of things we had to do but decided to swerve it as it was packed and we couldn’t face another bun fight. We also missed the Van Gogh Museum for the same reason, so would add that to the list. Another spot was the Nemo Science Centre out by the harbour which looks ultra modern and cool and near that is the stunning The Eye building which is a monument to cinema. Lunch in China Town is definitely on the menu for our next trip.
Hotels can be a bit soulless and having travelled to Amsterdam many times on business, I wanted us to have a different experience so I tried Airbnb for the first time. We stayed in de Pijp (pronounced Pipe) a tram stop or two away from Rembrandt Square with a young, vibrant feel to it and lots of interesting places to explore. Our Airbnb choice was reasonably priced, no expensive in hotel extras and the super friendly hosts made us feel very welcome. They gave us great advice about where to go, how to get there and things to look out for. We’d definitely book on Airbnb again.
We covered a lot of ground in a short space of time and there are no shortages of things to do for people of any age. We were very lucky with the weather too and it was 20° plus each day.
I made a point of walking through the red light district and popping into a couple of smart drug shops – I thought it would be nonsensical to ignore them but they felt sleazy. We did laugh at all the stoners and their droopy faces; possibly a sobering thought when you realise that most teens will have a slightly more glamorous impression of it. Miley Cyrus shared instagram pictures of herself smoking joints in Amsterdam recently.
I think my daughter took in a lot and had a great experience at the same time; the Anne Frank Huis resonated most, the Rijksmuseum least but she had lots to say about both and that’s important; she now has an informed opinion. Wandering around a wealthy Northern European city and having a deeper understanding of it’s culture and history is a powerful thing.
So there you have it; Amsterdam for teens is a winner.