Discovering a children's paradise in Amsterdam
Amsterdam: it's not exactly the destination that springs to mind when thinking of a family break. But look beyond its reputation as an adult playground, with its abundance of coffee shops and the notorious red light district, and you'll find plenty to keep the kids occupied – as I discovered on a weekend break with my five-year-old daughter, Jessica.
Within minutes of departing the Eurostar, we step into the city, and it doesn't take long to realise why it's famed for its love of bikes.
Dodging them at every turn, we take the 15-minute stroll to our lodgings for the next couple of nights, the Pulitzer Hotel.
Tucked away beside the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals, in one of the most chic neighbourhoods of the Dutch capital, you would never guess this five-star establishment is made up of 25 interlinked 17th and 18th-century canal houses.
Dinner that evening is at Jansz, the hotel's restaurant, which serves up a menu of modern classics and local fare. I opt for the Jansz vegetable salad followed by the hanger steak. A special children's menu ensures we are all able to experience Dutch dining at its finest, and the incentive of dessert decorating with the pastry chef after the meal ensures clean plates all round among our younger diners.
We begin the next day with a treasure hunt around the hotel. Taking us through the hotel's warren of canal houses, we discover the many rooms and courtyards we have not yet uncovered. The jewel in the crown is the tranquil inner gardens – an unexpected hideaway in the centre of the hotel.
This is followed by a leisurely canal trip on the Pulitzer's very own boat. And with the jetty right outside the hotel, we don't have far to go to board.
Seeing the city from the waterways allows us to observe buildings which, had we walked, wouldn't have been as easy to notice. Some of the canal houses are leaning so much they look as though they are about to topple over. We even see giraffes and elephants as we cruise past Artis Zoo!
We disembark at Hannekes Boom, a colourful waterside shack across the water from the NEMO Science Museum on the banks of the Oosterdok.
Blissfully hidden away from the tourist track, it makes for a charming hangout on a warm July lunchtime.
The beer garden and rooftop terrace are perfect resting points to sit and enjoy funky music while nibbling on rustic home-cooked snacks. Like us, the children could have stayed there all day, running up and down the jetty and swinging on a rope swing over the water.
When we finally manage to prise ourselves away from the 'shack', we reach the highlight of Jessica's trip: the NEMO Science Museum. With five floors of interactive activities, experiments and demonstrations for children of all ages, you could easily spend all day here.
Heading to the museum's impressive rooftop square – the biggest in Amsterdam – I relax with a drink and take in the panoramic views of the city, while Jessica enjoys the interactive water exhibition Energetica, having lots of fun splashing around in the fountains.
There is just enough time on our final morning to take a stroll around the neighbourhood and pick up a few souvenirs before heading to PANCAKES, Amsterdam's famous pancake house by Central Station.
It's a great way to round off our Dutch experience. I choose the apple crumble topping, while Jessica opts for chocolate – both are delicious and fill us up nicely before we head across the road to board the Eurostar home.
Five ways to please kids in the 'dam
1. Learn the science of play
NEMO's mission is to bring science and technology closer to the public in an interactive and accessible way. And with five floors crammed full of exhibitions, experiments, demonstrations and workshops, the museum certainly achieves just that. Plus, with ever-changing activities, there's always something new to explore.
How: Age 4 upwards, €17.50/£16; under-4s, free. Visit nemosciencemuseum.nl
2. Float down canals on a boat trip
No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a trip down its famous canals, and you won't struggle to find a willing guide to take you. However, my pick of the bunch is the kids' cruise run by the Blue Boat Company. For 75 minutes, parents can sit back and listen to tales about the city, while the kids get to go on an adventure of their own. Armed with binoculars, they can spot wildlife, design a tattoo for a pirate, draw a boathouse, and even become a certified pirate themselves.
How: Adult €18.50/£17; child 5-12 €9/£8.50; ages 1-4 free. Visit amsterdamcanalcruises.nl
3. Find freedom for free in the parks
As every parent knows, kids love parks. At 2km long, Amsterdam's Vondelpark is the city's biggest and most visited park, with a children's pool, sand pit and play castle. The newly constructed adventure climb bridge is sure to be a highlight for everyone; ascend to the top of platforms to find yourself in the treetops. The Kinderkookkafe and spectacular slide are also guaranteed hits.
4. Splurge on delicious desserts
A visit to Amsterdam wouldn't be complete without a trip to the self-proclaimed 'best pancake house in the city'. This waterside eatery, in a prime location behind Central Station, is one of four branches. Housed in a converted ship merchants, it offers a traditional Dutch treat for everyone, and with more than 30 toppings to choose from, there is sure to be something to satisfy any palate. The kids' special, comprising strawberry jam, chocolate sprinkles and apple, is billed as the 'dream pancake', and with the option of adding extra toppings of your choice, it definitely has the potential to live up to its name.
How: Prices start from €9.95/£9. Visit pancakes.amsterdam
5. Hang out with creatures great and small
A day ticket gives you access to the aquarium, planetarium and botanical gardens. So, whether you fancy a journey through space, a trip to the aquarium or a simple stroll through the impressive gardens to admire the plants and wildlife, Artis Zoo offers a rare chance to experience nature in the heart of a city centre.
How: Adult €24/£22; child 3-9 €20.50/£19; 0-2 free. Visit artis.nl
Need to know
Eurostar (eurostar.com) operates a direct service from London St Pancras International to Amsterdam Central Station. Prices start at £35 one way.
The Pulitzer Hotel (pulitzeramsterdam.com) offers a two-night family package for €950/£839 (based on two adults and two children), including breakfast, a dinner at Jansz and tickets for NEMO Science Museum.