My family (2 adults, 2 kids 15 and 13) will be in Amsterdam in early July. I'd like to rent bikes and go see some of the countryside, but not necessarily go with a tour group (unless there's a good one to recommend). Wondering if anyone has suggestions about which direction to travel to get out of town quickly to the most scenic outlying areas. Can we just leave from the city center or do we need to take a bus/train out further to get started? Thanks in advance for any advice!
Just ask the bike shop for directions and maps. Easy to do. It is pretty flat. Where do you want to go? You can reach the coast fairly easy by just heading west.
The best cycling area is north of the city, across the IJ. A rightly popular route includes Ransdorp, Holysloot (with a pedestrian and cyclist ferry), Monnickendam, Broek in Waterland and back home. Less popular, but not less nice, is south, by following the river Amstel to Ouderkerk, continuing to Abcoude, and going back via Weesp.
You can venture further away from the city, either by taking your rented bicycles on the train (€ 6 supplement, valid all day, not during rush hours) or renting it locally. Haarlem, for example, is a good base for the seaside and the dunes, and has a rental at the railway station and the nearby Rent a Bike.
Per the previous poster, there are a couple of bike rental shops located near the central train station from where you can pedal a few hundred yards to a free pedestrian/bicycle ferry that crosses the Ij. Once on the other side it's light traffic on dedicated cycling paths until you emerge into the countryside of the Waterland area, where you can meander for miles along the very pretty (and flat) poulder countryside or along the dikes all the way up to the villages of Marken and Monickendam. Lots and lots of photo ops along the way.
The bike shops sell a very good map that details all of the dedicated cycling paths in the vicinity - a bargain at 2 Euros. You might pick one up a day or two before you plan to set off on your ride just to preview your routes in advance. As mentioned, there's also a very nice riverside path that goes south to Ouderkerk, and if you're truly ambitious you could pedal out to Zaans Schans to see the windmills.
The bike shops tend to be small, locally owned little things that can get crowded in a hurry if a bunch of people show up at once. You might be well advised to call or visit before hand to select and reserve your bikes to avoid long delays during the check out process. Rates are really pretty cheap and usually include locks, insurance, etc.
And unless you're already avid (and regular) riders I'd suggest bringing along some padded cycling shorts...you can thank me later.
Better than the paper maps, yet, are free Android/iOS apps that you can use to navigate bike routes, such as Fietserbond. They have offline modes that are easy to use (you download data in your phone at home, don't need to be using data traffic at all while riding, just a GPS connection which is obviously free). Bring your own bike mount for your smartphone (I'd not recommend attaching a tablet to a bike mount).