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A Mini European Road Trip: Paris, Bruges & Amsterdam

Over Christmas, Rosie and I had an exciting idea. Our plan: to jump in the car with Harry, her best friend Rose, and her mum – my close friend Rachael – and spend a week exploring Northern Europe together. For this extrovert of mine, a whole seven days with her bestie discovering the gems of some of the oldest cities in the world is her idea of heaven. Luckily for us, Rose and Rachael are adventurous souls and were just as enamoured by the prospect of such a road trip!

Initially we were keen for a wintery, snowy type of holiday in Germany or Austria. But after some research, I realised it would require me to fit winter tyres (a legal requirement in Germany, southern France and Luxembourg in the winter). This would have doubled the cost of the trip!

Instead, our super planners, Rose and Rosie (in consultation with Harry) designed us a route journeying to the beautiful cities of Paris, Bruges and Amsterdam. Harry added a stop in Dunkirk on our return so he could visit the infamous beach and pay his respects to the soldiers who lost their lives there in WW2 (important for my little historian).

The trip was such a joy; jam-packed with inspirational experiences and activities, as side-by-side we made many precious, lifelong memories. If you’re interested in doing something similar, I’ll share our experiences here. I’ve also included all the logistical tips that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Day One – Paris: the Louvre & Eiffel Tower

You could spend weeks exploring the romantic, beautiful city of Paris and not be bored. However, given all the other activities they were keen to experience, we only had half a day in the city itself. So, for now, we had to park our plans to see the Catacombs; wandering around Montmartre and Sacre Coeur; travelling by Batobus along the Seine and visiting the Pantheon (we will return!).  Instead, what they were most keen to see were the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. And so those were the focus for our limited time briefly touching this impressive city.

We decided not to sleep in the centre of Paris for a number of reasons. One: the cost, two: the difficulty finding parking and three: the fact that you need a Crit’Air sticker in this low emission zone, which I had failed to organise in time.

Instead, we opted for booking a fabulous Airbnb flat (with parking) in the pretty little town of Saint Cyr L’Ecole. This turned out to be the perfect option as there were regular trains into central Paris from here (RER C to the Eiffel Tower or trainline N to Montparnasse), taking only 30 minutes. Furthermore, it was a short bus ride from the Palace of Versailles, our plan for day two.

Travelling to the Louvre

Early on Monday morning, with three very excited children, we set out for the Eurotunnel, taking the quick 35-minute journey to Calais. From here, it was an easy 3.5-hour drive along empty roads to Saint Cyr L’Ecole. The children were so keen to make videos together in the back, and I so enjoyed the opportunity for uninterrupted chat with Rachael, that the time flew by.

From here, we took a train into Paris.

Arriving at Gare Montparnasse, we took the metro to the Cité station on the centre of the Île de la Cité. We were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day and clear blue skies, showing this handsome city off to its very best. Just the walk across the Île de la Cité, across the Pont au Change, and then along the Seine, marvelling at the Parisian street vendors, was an absolute treat. And our arrival into the striking Louvre courtyard elicited exclamations of amazement from us all.

Exploring the Louvre

The Louvre is enormous. Unsurprisingly the children were most keen to see the Mona Lisa, so we headed in that direction initially. I felt very blessed to be able to explore this art museum with Rachael, an extremely talented artist, with her wealth of knowledge about the artists, their styles and the different artistic periods. It was like having our own personal tour guide!

On our way to see the famous lady, we passed impressive statues, striking frescoes by Botticelli, brightly coloured medieval paintings, and many a neo classical treasure before entering the room with the biggest queue. It was fast moving though and Harry used the time to keep up with his strength and conditioning cricket exercises!

It was definitely worth the wait. And her eyes really do appear to follow you around the room!

Next, we navigated to see the French crown jewels which were housed in a most impressive long room, with a phenomenally elaborate ceiling.

The girls then took us to a quieter part of the museum, in the Richelieu section. This contained Harry’s favourite painting, an oil on copper. He loved its intricate detailing.

All the children were momentarily distracted from the art as they spotted a lady fast asleep and snoring in the corner! They named her Sandra McOldie and were convinced it was a ruse allowing her to stay in the museum overnight and steal the Mona Lisa! Oh, to have the imagination of children!

Finally, we made a quick dash to see the famous Venus de Milo statue, before dragging ourselves away.

I’ll let our photos do the rest of the talking to showcase our visit to this famous art collection.

The Eiffel Tower

We didn’t have a lot of time left in Paris, but we managed to sneak in a quick visit to see the majestic Tour d’Eiffel, lit up in the night sky. They couldn’t come to Paris and not see this extraordinary sight. Next time, we’ll go to the top!

From here, we took a train straight back to Saint Cyr L’Ecole for dinner and settled into our little flat. Unfortunately, the latter part of this process was somewhat less than smooth… We had quite a drama with a low car key battery, car alarms sounding, and some struggles working out how to get into the basement of the flat for parking. But rather frazzled and with anxious children, we finally landed in the apartment, which fortunately was absolutely perfect.

Day Two – The Palace of Versailles

The Strike

It was another early start on day two, as we had a 9am ticket booked into the Palace. Our journey was super easy from the flat as the bus stop directly outside took us straight to Versailles. Super chuffed to be there on time, we were initially flummoxed by the crowds of people outside the gates.

Speaking to the guards, I realised the palace staff were striking – of course they were! Having subsequently looked online, this is not an unusual occurrence.

But there was a glimmer of hope they might open at 10:30/11. Given the Palace was something we all desperately wanted to do, we waited to see if the rumours of a later opening were true. We used the time to sort my car key battery and check out a cute little coffee shop for warming hot chocolates and tea. And some helpful advice from the waitress, who suggested that Paris would be worse affected by the strikes. Oh, and that it looked like the Palace was now open.

The Palace

Indeed, it was. Again, it was well worth the wait. We’d booked the audio guides which were excellent and highly recommended. These helped us decipher the contents of the plethora of rooms in this mammoth palace. You could honestly spend days here; there’s so much to take in.

I was most impressed by the Hall of Mirrors, which Harry informed us was where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I.

We didn’t make it around all the rooms, before the lure of the stunning exterior drew us out into the fresh air. Blessed with another glorious sunny day, we spent a few hours exploring the gardens and park with its Grand Canal set in 800 hectares of land!

The children particularly loved its funky-shaped trees and the noisy parrots and parakeets flying through the woodland.

Harry sketched in his notepad (which he took around Paris with him too), whilst the girls made videos and Rachael and I wandered along the bank of the Canal chatting about homeschool plans.

We were sad to finally drag ourselves home to the apartment. But arriving mid-afternoon, allowed us all time to decompress a little after a busy couple of days. Harry did an oil painting and I even had time for a run before dinner (always a good way to explore an area!).

Day Three – Three Countries in One Day: Road Trip To Edam via Bruges

This was a day with a lot of driving, but it was relaxed, nonetheless. We left at 8am, promptly got stuck in rush-hour traffic and arrived in Bruges at around 12:30. We parked cheaply at the P Centrum Station, which included a free bus ride into the centre.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges is beautiful. At any time of the year. With its pretty canals, cobbled streets, medieval buildings and distinctive gabled architecture, it’s lovely just to wander around.

And of course, taste its famous delicious waffles.

We didn’t have long here, but still managed to fit in a visit to the fantastic Historium. Through the power of story, you are taken back in time to medieval Bruges. Moving through historically themed rooms, the film guides you through a tale of a love centred in the Golden Age of Bruges at the time of Jan van Eyck. A bit like the Yorvik Centre, although significantly less stinky, we really enjoyed this insight into the city’s past. Highly recommended.

But unfortunately, after this, it was time to wander back for another 4.5-hour journey to Edam, just north of Amsterdam.

Edam, Netherlands

As with Paris, we opted not to stay in the centre of Amsterdam as the parking is so expensive. I’m so glad we made this decision as it led us to the gorgeous little settlement of Edam (and yes, this is where the cheese originates).

I think this has to be the prettiest town in which I have ever stayed. It’s like a little fairy land and must be glorious at Christmas. The streets were cobbled; the houses, set in tiny squares between the myriad of canals, were gabled; and the church bells played a charming little melody. The very definition of hygge.

Our Airbnb house was the icing on the cake, uniquely decorated and filled with a variety of musical instruments. This made Harry very happy! At various times, we found him tinkering on the guitar, rocking it out on the drum set or marvelling at the owner’s record collection.

As we arrived late and hungry, our host recommended a fantastic restaurant (La Galera), a 5-min walk away. With delicious food at great prices (so much cheaper than the UK), we returned here the following two nights!

Day Four – Amsterdam: NEMO Science Museum/Rijksmuseum & Jaap Eden Ice Rink

We had a lovely slow start to our fourth day, which was much needed. Harry and I explored the town on our morning run (not so easy on cobbles!).

At around 11, we headed over to the bus station for the 30-minute journey into Amsterdam. This was surprisingly expensive. And the bus drivers were striking! Clearly it was the week for European strikes! The following day we drove to the Park & Ride station at Amsterdam Noord, taking the metro from here. This was a substantially cheaper option.

Once in Amsterdam, we bought the day pass (€9) which gave us access to all the trams, buses and metro.

At this point, we split up for a few hours. Rachael and Rose were keen to see the treasures in the excellent Rijksmuseum. Whereas my two wanted to investigate the NEMO Science Museum.

The NEMO Museum

A giant copper-coloured striking building, overlooking the eastern docklands, NEMO is five floors of fascinating hands-on activities. We loved it and could have spent all day here. I literally had to drag the children away at the end.

We started at the top in Humania. A mixture of biology and psychology, there were many physical challenges and brain teasers helping us discover more about our body and brains. For example, they studied their heart beats and looked at how skull volume was linked to the age of some of our ancestors.

Harry was intrigued by a scientist’s work into how personality can be linked to your music tastes. Both did a short test to confirm their music type. Then, by completing a quick quiz on their personality preferences, they added their own data to the ongoing study.

My personal favourite was watching them compete in a game which looked at their propensity to share rewards. Turns out Harry has a ruthless streak when it comes to his sister, which somewhat backfired in this game!

Rosie came away from this section very excited to start her psychology curriculum next year.

The next floor down was about ‘Life in the Universe’. With limited time, we focused our energy on the chemistry labs. Having donned fetching lab coats, we got stuck into an experiment to see which had more vitamin C: apple or orange juice. I love that they give children the opportunity to do hands-on experiments. The descriptions were very clear in terms of the process and also the reasons behind the results.

The kids then wanted to do the rocket experiment just for fun!

We had to do the second floor, the technology/machines section, at pace! Harry’s highlight was talking me through the workings of an internal combustion engine.


Whilst we were delving into all things science, Rachael and Rose thoroughly enjoyed a visit to the Rijksmuseum. Its world-famous works created by the Dutch masters in the renowned Golden Age include many Rembrandts, Vermeer and Frans Hals.

Captivated by the Rembrandts especially, they felt the whole gallery took you back in time. It filled you with a sense of what life was like during this Golden era of creation. Its portraits of merchants and still life paintings showcasing splendorous imported goods, such as sumptuous fabrics and exotic foods, highlight a time when Dutch trade, science, art and military were amongst the most acclaimed in Europe.

Another high point for these fellow book lovers, was the awe-inspiring Cuyper’s Library. This research library, the oldest and largest of its kind in the country, is open to visitors, students and art historians to use. Its winding spiral staircases, wooden bookcases, cathedral-vaulted roof and stained-glass windows, makes for the perfect spot to hunker down and study.

A further favourite was the room of enormous dolls houses with their intricate detailing, owned by Petronella Oortman. They showcase the affluence of the merchants at the time, since the cost of owning one of these beauties equalled that of a real property!

Jaap Eden Ice Rink

After our individual excursions, we reunited and took a tram to Kruislaan, in eastern Amsterdam. From here it was a short walk to the Jaap Eden Ice Rink, an impressive outdoor 400m track of ice! The girls especially were very excited about the prospect of ice skating on such an enormous space.

After reviving our energy levels with some delicious soup and hot chocolate from the café, we donned our skates and tentatively stepped onto the ice.

It turns out the Dutch are very talented ice skaters. When I said this to Harry, he shook his head at me in disappointment, saying “Did you not watch the winter Olympics…” Nevertheless, I was mesmerised by the skills of my fellow skaters, many of them in skin-tight clothing, effortless speed skating around the central loop. Rachael and Rose were complete naturals on the ice, with Rose very kindly coaching Rosie.

In contrast, Harry and I, more akin to new-born foals, slowly made our way around the edge, holding on for support! The last time I took Harry skating, he opted for the strategy of “go in hard, fall down, get back up and repeat.” The same approach my brother always took! He was black and blue by the end. This time, as I was nervous about injuries for his cricket, I might have scared him somewhat about the prospect of broken bones. So, whereas normally I’d have the attitude of – crack on and see where it takes you – I was quite relieved by his caution in this instance.

After about an hour of skating and watching the highly competitive curling game going on in the corner, we called it a day.

Home Again

It took us a long time to get home thanks to the strikes. But we happened upon another very helpful lady who rather fortuitously lived in Edam. Like her little ducklings, we followed her through the crowds to find the right bus. And she even walked us back to the restaurant once in Edam. Love the kindness of strangers!

Day Five: Amsterdam: Anne Frank, Van Gogh and a Cycling Tour!

Anne Frank House

Although incredibly emotional, this was the best museum of the holiday for me. I have long since wanted to visit the secret annexe, where eight Jews hid from the Nazis in wartime Amsterdam.

The Annexe

After more than two years, they were sadly discovered in August 1944, 10 months before liberation. All occupants other than Otto Frank, Anne’s father, later died in the appalling conditions of the concentration camps.

But it’s the thoughts of the youngest member of the group, 13-year-old Anne, which have so captivated the world. Her story was moving for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it gives such a clear and real account of the traumas encountered during this period. But secondly, as it slowly reveals to us a talented and deep-thinking young woman, misunderstood by those around her, particularly her mother. And it makes her loss all the more painful.

In her father’s words:

“It took me a very long time before I could read it [Anne’s diary]. And I must say, I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts that Anne had, her seriousness, especially her self-criticism. It was quite a different Anne than I had known as my daughter.”

Having a daughter of the same age, I found this especially poignant.

When it became clear Anne had died, Miep Gies, one of the brave Dutch citizens who hid the Jews, returned Anne’s diary to him. In it, she writes:

“My greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer.”

And so, her father fulfilled his daughter’s wish by publishing the diary, which has gone on to be one of the most read books of all time.

The Museum

No photos are allowed inside the annexe, so the ones below are from the 30-minute introductory session. I would highly recommend adding this onto your standard ticket as it gave an excellent overview.

Walking around the small rooms of the annexe was hard, thinking about the reality of being cooped up in that tiny space for two years. Having to be silent. Not being allowed to go outside. With limited access to food. And always with the constant fear of being discovered and killed.

One of the more poignant parts for me was seeing the heights of the children marked on the wall, capturing their growth throughout their time in hiding.

The annexe, information on the Jewish hiders and Anne’s diary was sensitively presented throughout. It was probably the most emotive museum I’ve visited. But so important to see and remember.

A Cycling Tour

In a normal week, Harry does around 15-18 hours of exercise. So, by day five, I felt a physical activity rather than another museum might be a good plan! And we couldn’t really come to the Netherlands and not bike!

We hired a couple of traditional Dutch bikes and set off on an adventure. The bikes were somewhat clunky and heavy but we absolutely loved joining the locals on the many cycle paths scattered across this country. Bikes definitely rule here!

The hire shop gave me a free map, but it is possible to navigate around the Netherlands without one. All the cycle routes are numbered, with clear signposts and regular maps along the way. It’s hard to get lost (even for me).

I had a plan to take the free ferry behind Amsterdam Centraal station, and head north on the Waterland Loop (37km). This turned out to be quite optimistic. Although flat, I’d underestimated the wind factor, which on the more exposed sections, was substantial. So, we cut it short, but the route was very pretty, passing through some gorgeous little villages and suburbs.

It was a great afternoon; I wish we’d had longer. Next time!

Van Gogh Museum

Instead of biking, Rachael, Rosie and Rose, were keen to visit the excellent Van Gogh museum. Rosie was once again very grateful for all the information Rachael provided for the girls throughout their visit!

Initially, they followed a timeline of this Dutch master’s life, learning about him and his family. They enjoyed exploring the interactive elements on route.

The remaining four floors showcased his art and the works of other painters who inspired him. Rosie was particularly struck by the movement he achieved in his oil paintings of sea and sky.

They highly recommend this museum too, a brilliant introduction to yet another style of art.

Day Six: Ghent, Dunkirk and Kent!

Our last day ☹ Sadly we said goodbye to the Netherlands and drove the 2.5 hours to Ghent in Belgium for lunch. Not as pretty a town as Bruges, it does however have a striking cathedral, which is well worth an explore.

From here we drove to the Allies Memorial on the beach of Dunkirk. Harry has read so much about this time in history. He was eager to explore the beach and pay his respects to the soldiers who lost their lives there.

And then finally, we completed the last 20-minutes of our road trip back to Calais, under the tunnel and home to English shores.

It was a wonderful week, with so many memorable experiences made. Harry, Rosie and I are grateful to have been blessed with the best travel companions ever.

We returned home tired, but at the same time, refreshed, energised and inspired by our adventures on the road.

Looking forward to the next instalment!

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