Hello all. I am travelling to Europe in July of this year. I wanted to spend 5 nights exploring architecture, canals, renting bicycles and enjoying local cuisine and ambiance, etc. around Amsterdam after visiting a little of Italy and Marseilles. The situation that has me asking for help is this; I will be travelling with my husband, who is an extremely religious person, and our young daughter (8). I have ruled out staying in Amsterdam for these reasons. I also have concerns that our daughter see things would be shocking to her. Rick has mentioned that it is hard to completely avoid. I have been to Bruges before for only one night and loved it but have never been to the Netherlands. Should we stay somewhere like Haarlem considering the husband and daughter issue or should we make the effort to take a train to Bruges and stay there since the likelihood of anything provocative there is nil? Is Haarlem comparable to Bruges with the architecture, canals etc.? We will be flying into either Schiphol or Brussels from Nice and then leaving Europe from Schiphol, Amsterdam to go home. What makes sense? Hope that is enough detail. I appreciate any input you may have. Thank you!
Although it's still liberal Netherlands, Haarlem doesn't suffer from the exhibitionism that has made parts of Amsterdam into a somewhat dubious theme park. Haarlem is a lovely historical city, with some good museums (Frans Hals, Teylers), a beautiful market square (Grote Markt) and has enough water to give you and your family a good Dutch feeling. (Check for yourself on Google Maps Streetview.) It's a normal, working and living city without tourist crowds to spoil your experience. Only 30 minutes by train or bus from Schiphol airport.
But you shouldn't forget to visit Amsterdam! It's still unique. Have a walk (something like half an hour) from the Centraal Station to the Rijksmuseum (and take the tram for the return journey). That route crosses all the famous canals and it's far from red lights and associate business.
You're probably also interested in the history of Jewish Amsterdam. There are two wonderful synagogues from the 17th century: the rich Portuguese synagogue and the poorer German one. No crowds as around the Anne Frank House. More information www.jhm.nl/english.
Use www.ns.nl/en/journeyplanner for the frequency and duration of trains to worthwhile other cities within easy reach of Haarlem. Nearby Leiden (20 mins from Haarlem) is as Dutch as you can get, and Delft (45 mins) also won't disappoint you. In between you have Den Haag (The Hague), where the Mauritshuis has one of the best collections of Dutch paintings in the country..
First, I think you'd have to actually seek out the Amsterdam red light district to see anything shocking. Even then, it's far less offensive than NYC's Times Square, New Orleans' "Storytown," or Boston's "combat zone" were in the 1970s and 80s. I think Rick's guidebook overstates the "threat" out of an abundance of caution - my humble opinion, no disrespect intended. Overall, Amsterdam is a very civilized place, and definitely worth a visit. Besides, you absolutely must tour the Rijksmuseum.
That being said, Haarlem is a lovely, relaxed small city. There is a small red-light section, but, again, you'd have to search it out. The Grote Kerk is not to be missed - both Handel and Mozart played its amazing organ. The Franz Hals museum is in Haarlem, there are lovely canals and architecture, and don't forget to try herring and patat friets at the grote markt. Quick rail trips to Delft, Leiden, den Haag, Utrecht (possibly the best preserved Dutch medieval city,) and Eindhoven are easy.
I cannot compare Haarlem with Bruges - we're visiting Bruges for the first time this May. Sorry.
Europe is generally less puritanical than US so to see something shocking can happen anywhere. I would choose Haarlem as a base city for 5 nights. You have been in Brugge. It's much more touristy. Haarlem is close to Amsterdam with very good rail connections. You can see Amsterdam, just avoid Red Light District.
Helen, your OP suggests that Amsterdam and Bruges are interchangeable and similar, which is incorrect. I think Bruges is too boring for an 8 year old and that Amsterdam has much more (even musum-wise) to enchant her. Both countries allow prostitution, so you are also wrong in thinking otherwise. As others have written, this situation is easily avoided by a conservative family.
I also think Brugge is too far from Amsterdam. Leiden, Alkmaar, Amersfoort, and other cities will be even more enjoyable for your daughter. As a NYC native, I think a big city has the most promise to fascinate a child.
As others have mentioned, if you make a point to just not go to the Red Light District in Amsterdam or walk down streets around it to avoid it, you'll see little evidence of what's going on in the RLD. I had no desire to walk through it, and as a result, saw little evidence of it.
Haarlem and Leiden are very nice. I think you'll enjoy!
Thank you so much! This advice is wonderful and much appreciated.
Wherever you stay, plan on a day trip to The Hague to visit Madurodam, delightful for adults as well as children.
We spent a week in Amsterdam and never saw anything that would shock a child or upset a religious person. We stayed away from the Red Light District and instead focused on all the wonderful things Amsterdam has to offer. Your husband might enjoy seeing the Begijnhof.
We enjoyed Amsterdam so much that we took just one day trip, to the Waterlands (Edam, Volendam and Marken) via inexpensive bus. I think your daughter would enjoy the wooden shoe factory in Marken. We brought tracings of our granddaughters' feet so we could buy wooden shoes for them, and we were treated to a personalized demonstration of how a wooden shoe is made.
I've stayed in several areas of Amsterdam and unless you are smack in the middle of the Red Light District, you'll barely run into anything extremely shocking. Even if you walk through the RLD or along its borders during the day, it's pretty tame - I saw more of the "working girls" just hanging out in their windows doing their nails, reading books, drinking coffee or just people-watching. While they do have on lingerie, it's generally covering them up just like seeing a woman in a bikini at the beach. They are behind glass, not soliciting on corners.
Even if you come across a stray shop here and there in the neighborhoods outside of the RLD that sells "adult toys", the window displays are relatively subdued or not visible to passerby and while there may be a sign advertising sex toys on the sidewalk, you'd have to actually go inside to see the merchandise. But by far, the greatest concentration of the prostitution and sex toy shops is centered in the RLD.
Now if openly smoking pot is going to be viewed as shocking to your family, then you might accidentally wander past a coffeeshop as they are scattered around the city and not all grouped in one particular neighborhood. I stayed in a hotel on the Herengracht which had a coffeeshop right next door. While the RLD coffeeshops seemed to attract more of the college crowd and tourists, this one seemed to cater to a lot more of the locals. I would see men and women in business suits with their laptops having a cup of coffee and smoking. It's all pretty civilized. Nobody will be passing out "brownie" samples outside on the sidewalk or offer to shotgun their blunt with passerby.
If you still feel you must skip Amsterdam out of caution, then base in Haarlem or consider some other Dutch city, like Utrecht. Five nights in Bruges is a lot. I've stayed that amount of time in Bruges and unless you are going to take a whole lot of day trips to other cities in Belgium it's an awful lot of time in a very tiny city with a limited amount of things to do. And legalized prostitution does occur in Belgium - ex. Antwerp has a Red Light District. I also happened to wander by a store in Antwerp (not anywhere near their Red Light Light District) which had a 5 foot tall penis displayed outside on the sidewalk. So shocking sights can happen pretty much anywhere. It's a part of city life.