Belgium, Holland & Luxembourg for Families
The young folks'll be pleased to learn there's more to the Benelux lands than paintings by Old Masters (sigh!); Gothic architecture (groan!); struggling with French, Dutch, and Lëtzebuergesch (aak!); and eating mussels (no way!). Actually, you don't need to worry too much about the lingo since most natives speak English. And there are hundreds of fun family-friendly things to see and do in these three countries -- remember, Benelux burghers have kids, too!
Day 1: Brussels
Whenever the kids step out of line in Brussels, uttering these magic words should get their attention: "Maybe we should tour the European Union administrative buildings today." I'd wager that they (and you) would prefer the Atomium. And while you're there, in the city's northern Bruparck district, think about seeing Mini-Europe. Back in the center of town, treat the kids to an exposé of bold little Manneken-Pis; grown-ups usually wonder what all the fuss is about, but kids love him. By the way: Going around the city by tram can't hurt.
Day 2: More of Brussels
Boys, especially, might want to take a look under the hood of Autoworld today. And is it being sexist to suggest that the girls might prefer costumes and lace at the Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle? Both genders will likely agree that the comic strips and characters at the Centre Belge de la Bande-Dessinée are pretty cool.
Day 3: Bruges
In this historic Flemish city, you can swerve past Old Masters, Gothic architecture, and mussel-slurping diners in one fast move. Achieve this satisfying feat by visiting the Boudewijn Seapark or the Kinderboerderij Domein De Zeven Torentjes -- or both. The open-top canal cruise boats are another good bet. And it's safe to go around by rented pedal-bike in the center of town.
Day 4: The Belgian Coast
A day at the seacoast is a no-brainer for families, especially in summer -- just imagine building sandcastles on the beach, swimming in the sea, and riding beach buggies and sand-yachts. Ride from one end of Belgium's seacoast to the other onboard the amazing Coast Tram. At Ostend there's the Noordzeeaquarium, and the museum ships Mercator and Amandine. Up the coast at Knokke-Heist, allow some time to check out the bird sanctuary at Natuurreservaat Het Zwin.
Day 5: Antwerp
Begin day 5 in Antwerp, with a visit to Belgium's only traditional zoo. Then, in the afternoon, cross over to Aquatopia. For other options, consider a cruise downriver to the harbor, and/or a visit to the National Maritime Museum.
Days 6 & 7: The Ardennes
From Antwerp, the drive here takes long enough that I'd suggest allocating 2 days for your family's visit to Han-sur-Lesse. On the first day, drive to the village and visit the Grottes de Han underground caverns; the next day, spend some time at the Réserve d'Animaux Sauvages before moving on.
Day 8: Rotterdam
Today, make your way to the Euromast for the greatest views of Rotterdam. Afterward, you'll probably need to choose between a boat tour through the city's vast harbor and a visit to the outstanding Blijdorp Zoo, but if you have time for both, by all means fit them in.
Day 9: Amsterdam
Going around Amsterdam by tram is fun for the whole family. I'm not sure, though, about going by bicycle. Parents might need to spend too much time watching out for the kids. I suppose it all depends on what age the children are. A canalboat cruise is a good idea. A visit to the Anne Frank House is interesting and thought-provoking for children about as old as Anne was when she hid from the Nazis here and wrote her famous diary. After this, try the Artis Zoo, or -- if you've had enough of zoos by now -- go onboard the Amsterdam, a full-size replica 18th-century ocean-going sailing ship. Unfortunately, the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum) that is the ship's usual home is closed until some time in 2010, but the ship is still open for business, tied up just across the water at NEMO.
Day 10: More of Amsterdam
Today, choose between a visit to Madame Tussaud's and the Science Center NEMO -- either one is worthwhile, but both in a single day can be too much, unless it's raining. By way of variation, you could try in-line skating in Vondelpark, ice skating at Jaap Eden IJsbanen, or bowling at Knijn Bowling.
Day 11: Dolphins & Sailing Ships
From Amsterdam (your base), drive east today to Harderwijk and visit the outstanding Dolfinarium Harderwijk. Cross over into Flevoland province and head to Lelystad. Here, at Batavia Wharf, a full-size replica of a 17th-century sailing ship, the Batavia, is moored, and a man-of-war from the same century, De Zeven Provinciën, is being constructed.
Day 12: Enkhuizen
This town lies on the western shore of the IJsselmeer, a freshwater lake that until 1932 was a sea known as the Zuiderzee. Enkhuizen hosts the superb Zuiderzeemuseum, which aims to recreate traditional life around the transformed sea. Between getting to and from Enkhuizen and visiting both sections of this large museum, you'll need most of a day to do it all justice.
Day 13: Zandvoort
Always supposing the weather is good, there's nothing your standard young Amsterdammer likes more than to take a train for the short ride to Amsterdam's favorite seacoast resort, Zandvoort, on the North Sea. The locals will do this in all but the most abysmal weather, but if it's really too bad for the seacoast, try instead the neat little Visitor Center at the Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam Wood). You can peruse the nature displays here and get out and about in the park if the weather picks up.
Day 14: Back to Brussels
One way to break the monotony of a 3-hour drive back to Brussels is to stop off at the cluster of windmills at Kinderdijk, close to Rotterdam.