Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Three Weeks in the Netherlands, Belgium and France with Kids

Our three weeks in Europe included two weeks in the Netherlands and one in France. This meant that we were able to spend a day in Belgium on our way to and from France as well. You can see some tips I have give here on what to consider when planning your trip.

Chapmans in the Eiffel Tower

Our itinerary was based on seeing what we could of the Netherlands while making sure our kids had enough down time. All four of my grandparents emigrated from Holland (technically Holland is a region in the Netherlands) in the 50's so it was a huge part of my childhood growing up. Upon arriving in the Netherlands I felt like I took a step into my growing up years–from the language to the food, it was wild. Three weeks was the perfect amount of time to be there as a family of five and we could have spent three weeks in the Netherlands alone but I'm grateful that we were able to explore two more countries while we were there. 

Map of the places that we visited over the three weeks

Week 1 Home Base: Monster, Netherlands

From this AirBnb we wanted to experience the west side of the Netherlands. Monster is a small village but it's right on the North Sea and walking to the beach was a major plus especially when they were experiencing record-breaking temperatures!  One downside of this location is that it was time-consuming leaving the town each day as there is no direct route as you have to take so many different roads and highways, it could've been faster to bike! That said, all the town we visited were within one hour drive. These were the places we visited in the first week:

1. Delft. Here we enjoyed climbing the tower of the New Church (376 steps) as well as visiting the Old Church where Johannes Vermeer and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek are buried. Your tickets for one get you into the other.  Note that the staircase is very narrow and winding. Trying to get around someone coming in the opposite direction is not easy. This town is beautiful with it's canals and flowers and we really enjoyed it. This was our first experience with the wildness that are bikes everywhere! We learned quickly to keep our kids close by and to take a second look before crossing any streets.

Beautiful canals in Delft

View from the top of Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)
2. Amsterdam. We decided to do Amsterdam early on because the heat wave was coming. We drove in and parked at a very expensive parkade downtown. If we were to do it again, we would use a park and ride. We arrived early which meant it was not busy yet (highly recommend to do this). We went to the Anne Frank House (but didn't go in), Westerkerk, Vondelpark and the Rijksmuseum. Coming from B.C. Vondelpark isn't a place that I'd recommend seeing unless you just want a grassy area to sit for a while. Note that free public bathrooms are hard to find anywhere–always have euros on you in case you need to go. The Rijksmuseum was free for kids and we just wandered around for one hour. It was cool to see the restoration of Rembrandt's Night Watch. Amsterdam was not our favourite as we prefer smaller cities.

In front of the Anne Frank House
Restoration of Rembrandt's Night Watch--it is huge!

Much larger canals in Amsterdam

We ate in the market outside the Rijksmuseum--very expensive!
3. Kinderdijk. This small town has the highest concentration of old windmills–19 of them. These windmills are from the 1740's and there is a visitor centre to learn more about it. It is free to enter and you are able to rent bikes if you want to explore a larger area. If we were without kids we may have done so but it was nice to just spend a day walking in nature and buying some ice cream and poffertjes (mini pancakes) from the vendors. Kinderdijk gets quite busy so it's nice to arrive early, besides, then you can beat the heat which is another thing we were dealing with!  

Paved pathways along the windmills for a lot of exploring
Always photo ops with wooden shoes aka klompen

4. The Hague. Here we enjoyed the Escher Museum which is family-friendly with activities for the kids. We saw the major buildings like the Peace Palace and Noordeinde Palace. It was extremely hot and I'm glad we went in the morning.

Great hands on exhibits

The kids really enjoyed this museum

5. North Sea.  There are many beaches to visit when in Holland and we loved that we could just walk to one! We spent two days of downtime just enjoying the beach and resting because the heatwave was at 39C and we did not have air conditioning. If we were not staying at this location, we would have visited the Scheveningen Beach by the The Hague. The beaches have beautiful sand but not a lot of marine life although we did see a jellyfish.

The North Sea

Busy busy beach at Ter Heijde

Week 2 Home Base: Beekbergen, Netherlands. 

Beekbergen is about 1.5 hours east from Monster. This provided a great location for us to explore the east side of the Netherlands. We stayed in a cottage at a resort (through AirBnb) which had a pool and a yard which was very relaxing and much needed. Beekbergen itself had nothing really to see but was a great place to branch out from due to it's closeness to the highway and centrality to the cities we wanted to see.

1. Gouda. On our way to Beekbergen, we stopped in Gouda. This was one of our favourite towns. It was small, easy parking, great food at the bakeries, picturesque and just really laid back and quiet. Oh, and did I mention a lot of gouda to sample?

We had to buy some after all five of us sampled almost everything in the store!

We missed market day by one day where this is normally filled with people selling cheese
2. Arnhem. We spent four hours at the Open Air Museum. This was a pricey entrance fee for us but very well worth it. It is huge and has been open since 1918 and has artifacts and buildings from all over the Netherlands. It was very cool to see what the farmhouses looked like and there were many hands on activities for the kids. There was a special exhibit on the mass emigration to Canada in the 1950's which was particularly meaningful as that is my grandparents experience (as one in 25 Dutch people did). This museum is massive and there is a tram you can take from one section to another--we just walked it all though. This is also where we were able to get a tour inside of a windmill.

3. De Hoge Veluwe National Park. There is a fee of $50 to enter the park but once you are in, there are 1800 white bikes available to ride for free! We biked for three hours and only saw on deer but the kids loved it. Each adult bike has a kid carrier on the back which is what Nya sat in. This day was a highlight of Kai's as we biked through forests and sand dunes (and stopped for an ice cream at the visitor center).

There are three entrances to the park full of bikes! We started at the southern most entrance and did a full loop of the park from there.

The only deer we saw

4. Giethoorn. This town was a highlight for me. After seeing it on Amazing Race I knew we would have to stop here. We rented a boat and travelled the canals, so slowly, and had our packed lunch on the island in the lake. It is very quaint and picturesque. Afterward we explored on the foot path (note that in the Netherlands there is a huge distinction between foot path and bike path!).

Eating our picnic lunch at the "Pit Stop" of Amazing Race. It is a very small island!

This is like the "driveway" to their homes.

5. Apeldoorn. This was a minor stop on one day as we just wanted to explore some more nature and went to the Park Berg en Bos. We saw wild deer and boars, walked the trails and played on the playground. This is not a "must do" in any way but a relaxing morning. There is the Apenheul here which is highly visited as a primate zoo where monkeys roam free but we decided to pass on it.

6. Barneveld. This is the hometown of my mom's parents. There isn't much to see here so I wouldn't recommend it as a tourist destination but it was great to go. Barneveld is known for it's chickens (the Barnevelder breed specifically) and so we had to buy eggs at a vending machine! Everyone in the Netherlands was so kind and willing to help us at any time. At one point Nya was upset in a grocery store and an elderly man started chatting with her and giving her high fives to cheer her up. 

Getting a carton of eggs from the vending machine
Gouda had pictures of cheese hanging in their streets, Barneveld has pictures of chickens.

Week 3 Homebase: Rouen, France

The drive from Beekbergen to Rouen took us about seven hours which was longer than we wanted due to construction but we also wanted to see Dunkirk and Bruges along the way which was a longer route. 

1. Bruges, Belguim. We packed a lunch to eat in the square here and also picked up some treats at the bakery (waffle on a stick is not as good as it sounds). We were only there for an hour but it was beautiful to see the square and another canal or two. It was also very, very busy.

This is the entrance to Bruge!

2. Dunkirk. We only stopped her for a hour to stretch our legs but it was worth it! We walked to the beach, visited the Visitor Center and grabbed some snacks from a bakery. There is a museum but we did not want to add it onto this day.

3. Rouen. This was the town that we were staying in. It was nice to be right downtown so that we could walk everywhere but one thing to note is that the buildings are very old. I know this sounds obvious but be aware when you are planning your AirBnb's...maybe the wifi will not work, maybe the stairs will be very narrow and windy, maybe you will wonder about fire safety etc. The apartments are also very close to others and therefore noise and smoke are factors too–everyone smokes. We only stayed here five nights although we had prepared to be here for seven. The Internet was not working and we had seen all we wanted to. It was a great location in regards to exploring outwards one hour in each direction. Food was more expensive in France but you could be sure to always find fresh baguettes affordably. It was not unusual to see someone biking with several baguettes in their backpack!

The street our AirBnb was on. Just a five minute walk to all the monuments.
Le Gros Horloge
Notre Dame de Rouen

4. Paris. We took a 1.5 hour train from Rouen into Paris and it went so smoothly and affordably. We walked 23km that day and went from one monument to the next. The kids did so well and we had a proper restaurant meal where normally we got food from the market or a cafe. This was Kai's 13th birthday so an extra special day already. If you are doing this trip, note that you can rent scooters along the Seine River instead of walking it. We started at the Arc de Triomphe and next went to the Eiffel Tower. We then walked all along the Seine to Notre Dame, then to the Louvre and back up to the train station. I recommend starting the day early (less busy and cooler) and packing snacks and water. I loved Paris; it was beautiful, clean and friendly.

Climbing up the Eiffel Tower. You can also take an elevator but this was more fun.

There were many water stations, bathrooms and cafes along the Seine. And a playground or two!

5. Caen Memorial Museum and Juno Beach This museum had an amazing amount of arficats from World War II (and Cold War). It's hard to know how the kids will do in a situation like this but they made it 2.5 hours. There is also a bunker to visit and they enjoyed that. All of the information is in French and English.

Juno Beach
Juno Beach
Juno Beach--powerful to see the Canadian flag there.
6. Vimy Ridge. This was a stop on the way back to the Netherlands and a "must do" as a Canadian. I highly recommend taking a free tour at the visitor center so that you can go in the underground tunnels. We went through the trenches and then walked to the memorial. Powerful and important. Side note that everything is free and there is a lot of parking.

Interesting to visit a National Historic Site of Canada in France!

Visitor Centre is very well done
Visiting the underground tunnels--there's 10km worth but we just did a small section.

The trenches (which have been lowered and sandbags are cement now)
Vimy Memorial

7. Ghent, Belgium.  After Vimy, as we made our way back to Amsterdam, we stopped in Ghent for lunch. We parked at the park and ride and took a free shuttle into downtown. We did a boat tour (translated in English and French) and then ate Belgium waffles at the cafe. The kids didn't love the boat tour as it was historical and a little tricky to understand. Ghent is beautiful and I'm glad we stopped there for a few hours.

Boat tour in Ghent

Phew! That was our three weeks in Europe. Is there anything else I wish we had done? I think based on the heat and the need for rest days, we did everything that we wanted to. When people hear about all our kids did they are surprised.  I think the reason it worked so well is our kids love to walk and always enjoy a good treat. It was likely hardest on Nya (age seven) as she didn't understand the history or language but she did wonderfully. 

My three final tips would be:
1. iPads with headphones in the car work well. 
2. Always stop by the market to pick up snacks and/or lunch for the next day! We had a lot of gouda sandwiches, chips and baguettes. We always made sure to have two full water bottles too.
3. Oh, and wine is cheaper than pop so when in France...

If you have any questions at all, please ask! I'm sure there's a few things that I missed. 

Happy travels.


Itinerary for visiting the Netherlands, Belgium and France with three kids.
What to see and do when travelling with kids through the Netherlands and France

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