One of the upsides of living away from home is being able to explore new places. I’ve always loved to travel, and I thought that here would be a good place to share our travel tips on the places we’ve been.
But a note of caution: I am not an organised traveller. When it comes to trips away, I am not a planner – I like to be last minute, I like a bit of spontaneity. Add to that the fact that I am rubbish with dates and you have a recipe for occasional disaster. I come from a family where a missed transatlantic flight or two has not dented our memories of a happy holiday. I booked a holiday in Thailand to meet friends from the UK in Phuket. Unfortunately I booked the wrong dates, meaning we were leaving an hour before they arrived. Not the best. BUT it all worked out in the end – even if that meant a few extra hours online frantically changing flights and a larger than expected credit card bill…
So, these travel posts will not be about the minutiae of planning a trip, but a ‘Top Five’ of what we enjoyed when we were there. And hopefully you can also benefit from our lack of planning…as I’ll also tell you all the stuff that didn’t quite work out too.
First stop: Holland
Half term holiday & we wanted to go somewhere different, but not to travel too far. Holland was the perfect answer. An easy drive from Frankfurt, a country that the kids hadn’t visited and one I was looking forward to revisiting after my last weekend there over ten years ago (and no, it wasn’t on drunken hen do to Amsterdam, that’s one British stereotype I’ve managed to avoid!).
We absolutely loved it. Why? Well, it’s just amazing to me how two countries can be so close yet have such a different feel. I know it’s what everyone says about The Netherlands, but it really does feel very laid back. People were friendly, our lack of Dutch was no barrier anywhere we went – not that I thought it would be, as the Dutch seem to be the most multi-lingual of any nationality I’ve ever come across. City breaks with kids can often feel like the antithesis of a holiday, but I came back feeling relaxed and happy. We all decided we’d like to go again in the Springtime – the one thing we felt we’d missed was seeing the tulips – but I think I’d always find a reason to go back to Holland.
Top 5 Travel Tips
1. Visit Haarlam
We decided to stay in Haarlem basically because we had no luck with hotels in Amsterdam (see above: last minute planning!). But on arrival our lack of planning looked like a stroke of genius – Haarlem is a beautiful medieval city, one of the prettiest places I’ve been! It’s like a mini Amsterdam, but without the crowds. Canals, cobbled streets, gabled houses, a stunning market square and even a windmill – it really has it all. There’s great shopping and lots of choices for eating out. I found it a very relaxing place to be, especially with the kids, and would definitely recommend it.
It was an easy train ride into Amsterdam (around 15 minutes) and to The Hague (around 40 minutes).
We stayed at an Air BnB which was absolutely fine for what we needed and a good location – click here for details. Hello I’m Local is just around the corner, a boutique hostel which had also been recommended to us & looked great, but in the end we decided it was easier with the kids to stay in a house.
2. Haarlem Cathedral
Now take a tip from us. The windmill (‘De Adriaan’) is in easy walking distance of the centre of Haarlem. We decided to go to see it first, and then walk to the Grote Kerke, the imposing Gothic cathedral on the market square.
We got to the windmill – only to find it’s closed on a Tuesday. Oh well, never mind. (Here are the opening times so you can avoid doing the same thing!). We then headed over to the cathedral and got there just before 5pm. Yep, you guessed it, five minutes before it closed (details here). But we got to have a look inside and it was worth the (quick) visit.
We were lucky to hear the organ being played – and it’s quite an organ (yes, I know there must be a pun there somewhere but I’m going to leave it alone…). When completed in 1738 it was the largest organ in the world, inspiring Herman Melville’s description of the inside of a whale’s mouth in ‘Moby Dick’: “Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?” If that doesn’t make you want to go and take a look, I’m not sure what will.
3. Make the most of the Museums
We could have gone a bit museum crazy on this trip, but we stuck to just two. The Nemo museum in Amsterdam is fantastic, interactive science museum. The highlight for the girls was playing scientist doing experiments in the laboratory (complete with white coats and safety goggles). It was easy to walk to the museum from the train station, and we spent most of the morning here.
But my favourite was the Maurithuis in The Hague. Not only is it home to Vermeer’s famous ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (I was blown away…what is it about seeing works of art in real life that just makes you so emotional? Or is that just me??) but it is very child-friendly. For 3 euros we rented backpacks for the kids which had information about the works of art, a fabulous colouring book (which they could keep) and coloured pencils. They loved it, they really engaged with the art and not only that, they had a personal memento of our trip
4. Ride a bike
We couldn’t go to Holland without riding a bike (well, actually I have been twice before and never managed it, but that was pre-children…). It’s a perfect (read: flat) country for cycling and cyclists really rule the roads.
We hired bikes in Haarlem (easy to do, just next to the train station) and I was a bit worried as my girls haven’t done much biking. We hired a tandem for the youngest with her Dad which they both loved and the oldest managed on her own. I was nervous cycling in the city, but we were absolutely fine. We didn’t see any cyclists wearing helmets, but I hired some for the girls (not a surprise to anyone who has read my posts about worrying too much!).
We did a beautiful route to the beach which was clearly signed all the way. It was easy going, we cycled through forests and past sand dunes to the gorgeous sandy expanse of the coast. Warmed up with hot chocolates at a beachside café and then back to town to say a sad goodbye to our bikes. The girls’ verdict? Best day ever!!
5. There’s more to The Netherlands than Amsterdam…
Now I know this is true of any country, but I am guilty of only thinking ‘Amsterdam’ when I think of The Netherlands. And it’s true that Amsterdam is an amazing city. But there’s so much more to see. Haarlem is an absolute gem, we had a great day trip to The Hague (fabulous museums, The Peace Palace, the beautiful Binnenhof…) and next time, we will definitely be heading out on bikes to explore the countryside and beaches more. But having experienced the wind chill factor in October, I think we’ll wait until the sun is shining for that trip…