Everybody thinks they know Amsterdam, but beyond a stroll through the Red Light District, a cruise round the canals and perhaps a look at the Van Gogh Museum, few ever make it out of the central core. Amsterdam resident Daniel Schechter explores the city's least-known quarter, Amsterdam-Noord, on a new QR code tour.
Phones at the ready
In a bid to reveal Amsterdam’s lesser-known attractions outside the city centre, the city is developing a new kind of self-guided tour that anyone with a smartphone and a bicycle can do. In the coming months, 139 unique signs will be placed on sites of historical and sociocultural interest throughout the city. For now, the pilot zone for the project is Amsterdam-Noord (north), a sparsely visited but fascinating slice of the city that gets you right off the beaten track. Separated from the city centre by the IJ River, the north is historically a territory of shipyards, sheep farms and working-class neighbourhoods but – perhaps due to its very aloofness – it’s become a magnet for artists, festival-goers and adventurous foodies.
Each sign consists of four handmade ceramic tiles. Beneath a striking red cross and explanatory blurbs in Dutch and English is a QR code you can scan using the I Amsterdam QR spots
app to read more about the location and its secrets. Finding a QR code is a bit like grabbing the brass ring on a merry-go-round: it gives the tour a sense of purpose while providing oodles of background information. The app is free to download and it also gives you access to historic photos and recommended nearby sites (traditional scan apps also work if you don’t have an iPhone/iPad).
Free ferries from behind Amsterdam’s Central Station go to three northern destinations, each with its own set of QR code tiles. There are no fixed routes so just grab your phone and hop on a ferry!
Buiksloterweg Ferry – Rambling gardens and sweeping river views
The quickest and most frequent option goes straight across the IJ to Buiksloterweg, with ferries casually dodging tugboats, tankers, cruisers and big barges. In about three minutes, these pull up right in front of the Café De Pont (Buiksloterweg 3-5, 020 636 3388), formerly an inn for ferry captains, now a cosy spot for coffee. The ferry landing has a grisly past, as you’ll learn by scanning the first QR code, right in front of the café. The next set of tiles is just left, by the former tollhouse for ships plying the northern Buiksloter canal. As the QR code explains, the adjacent greenery, known as the Tolhuistuin, opened in 1859 as a leisure haven for urbanites. The rambling gardens are the scene of concerts and festivals in summertime.
Nearby is the Overhoeks Tower, former headquarters for Shell Oil. A scan of the tile explains the name: “Overhoeks is another word for ‘diagonal’,” as the tower is “rotated 45 degrees relative to the IJ”. Like a robotic dog snapping at the tower’s heels, the Eye Film Museum holds the national film archive as well as four cinemas. Since its recent opening, the Eye Bar-Restaurant (IJpromenade 1, 020 589 1402) has become a key meeting point for coffee and eye-popping desserts with sweeping river views from its front terrace.
Returning to the ferry landing, you can cycle blissfully up the North Holland Canal as far as the Krijtmolen d’Admiraal. Scanning its QR code, you learn that “the world’s only functioning wind-powered chalk mill” is back in use after a two-century hiatus.
IJplein Ferry – Urban forests and ambitious food
A second ferry arrives slightly east of the first. From the IJplein, bikes flow into the Meeuwenlaan, a grittier thoroughfare through an immigrant district where all the streets have birds’ names. At the top of Meeuwenlaan is the Museum Amsterdam Noord. As the QR code at the front of the museum explains, the humble structure used to be a public bathhouse for the adjacent Vogeldorp, an “emergency village” that sprang up during a late 19th-century housing shortage. It’s right beside Amsterdam’s oldest urban forest, the Vliegenbos. Along the forest’s northern edge, the Nieuwendammerdijk is part of the extensive dike built by farmers to protect their lands from an overflowing IJ. Mostly bicycles ply the long, narrow street, chock-a-block with the homes of merchants and shipbuilders from its former life as a port; the QR code here points out some of the more vivid examples.
A second tile is devoted to the Café ‘t Sluisje, “the lock”, named after the ancient but still functional canal transit point by its side, which you’re likely to see in use as you quaff a craft beer on the terrace. The apparently deserted warehouse zone between the Meeuwenlaan and the IJ River harbours a few of Noord’s more ambitious restaurants. Tucked away in a converted garage with vintage cars on risers, the Hotel De Goudfazant (Aambeeldstraat 10, 020 636 5170) is normally in a boisterous mood, with platters of razor clams and terrines of duck stew issuing from a busy open kitchen to a vast, invariably packed hall. With freighters rolling by in the darkness, settings don’t come much cosier.
NDSM-Werf Ferry – Artists’ hangouts and Holland’s most surreal restaurant
A third ferry heads west along the IJ, after about 12 minutes pulling into a harbour where a Russian submarine is moored, as well as a pancake kitchen on a ship. Europe’s biggest shipyard after World War II, the NDSM-Werf shut down after the economic downturn of the 1970s, and the vast open yard with its abandoned hangars presents an apocalyptic landscape. But, as the QR code here explains, after a dormant period, the shipyards began to be settled by squatters and found new life as a creative incubator for artists, filmmakers and skateboarders. Now the hangars house artists’ studios, the old slipways stage frequent festivals, and there’s a massive monthly flea market.
Beyond the stacks of multi-coloured freight cars that serve as student housing is the Kraanspoor, an incredibly elongated black structure that once served as a track for cranes to load and unload freighters. The tile on its north side explains how one architect, glimpsing it from her bicycle one afternoon, reimagined the crane track as the ultra-modern office building it’s become.
Make your way east past a hulking crane to reach what is perhaps Holland’s most surreal restaurant, the Noorderlicht Café (Tt Neveritaweg 33, 020 492 2770). Arriving at the transparent Quonset hut strung with glittering lights is like stepping onto a Fellini film set. Inside, it’s a cocoon of culture where laid-back staff whip up hearty meals from fresh seasonal ingredients. On summer evenings, a glorious riverside terrace is put into use, and on weekends throughout the year it’s a venue for live music and DJs. The cruise back to Central Station (every half hour till midnight) elicits oohs and aahs from almost all aboard, with twinkling towers along either side of the broad shipping lane.
Need to know
The VVV, Amsterdam’s tourist office, provides a series of excellent cycling and walking tours for each of the six districts where the tiles are being placed. This relatively compact city is woven through with a practical cycling network, making it a breeze to pedal from tile to tile. Rent a bicycle at Bike City (Bloemgracht 68-70, 020 626 3721) or MacBike (Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat 114, 020 620 0985).