Travel & Adventure

Amsterdam-Noord Is the Ultimate Creatives’ Vacation Destination

Your gap-year Eurotrip might have taken you to Amsterdam for a cloudy lost weekend of window-shopping and weed-smoking, but Holland’s charming capital has always had more to offer than its famously lax policy on vices. More than ever these days, it’s an internationally recognized design destination and arts mecca with a thriving craft beer scene and culinary boom that mirrors its cultural diversity. Nowhere is this progress perhaps more evident than in the burgeoning Noord (or north) neighborhood, an exciting stop for creative travelers and cool kids looking to dig deeper into another side of local flavor.

You’ll need to hop on one of the free, round-the-clock ferries from the Amsterdam-Central train station to reach Noord, which sits right across the river IJ from the city’s center. At the height of the Dutch Maritime Empire in the 16th century, that shoreline was a district of merchants, sailors and shipbuilders—some of the city’s poorest laborers—who naturally settled near port areas. Its relationship to the ship-building industry lasted for hundreds of years, with defunct wharves and docks now being reclaimed and transformed into restaurants, event spaces and art galleries. While there are several hotels on the IJ’s northern side—namely Design Hotels’ Sir Adam Hotel and the very offbeat Crane Hotel Faralda, comprising three distinctively adorned suites in a refurbished crane—you may be better off staying in the city center if you plan to also visit Amsterdam’s downtown attractions during your trip.

For a certified sustainable option, head up to the waterfront, Claus en Kaan-designed Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam City Centre, whose 408 rooms boast soaring views of Noord, the bay and the train station sitting conveniently steps away. It also shares a building with the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ and the Bimhuis concert halls—the former, an experimental, global institution, and the latter, a dedicated jazz venue—which, while not technically on the north side, are both famous musical establishments that are often lumped into their cross-the-river neighbors. Given Noord’s wealth of open-air spaces and activities, your best bet is visiting during Amsterdam’s fair-weather tulip-blooming months, between mid-March and early May, or during the warmer summer (but beware the hordes of tourists).

Start your trip at the heart of Noord’s visual arts scene, the nearby sprawling outdoor NDSM Werf complex, which was initially founded in 1915 to facilitate the construction of modern iron powered ships owned by the Dutch Shipbuilding Society. After it closed in 1984, its massive warehouse spaces and shipyards were integrated and converted into a multi-concept arts hub anchored by the landmark NDSM Art City, a non-profit broedplaats (literally “breeding ground”) of nearly 80 independent design and art studios and showrooms, and, for the geeks among us, an industrial 3-D printing lab called MX3D. The arts community in Noord embraces a laid-back ethos of experimentation that allows innovative or otherwise quirky concepts to flourish. Take, for example, Sociëteit SEXYLAND, NDSM’s ambitious “temporary club” open for 365 days with a different owner every day who’ll decide what form they want the tabula rasa space to take on, from supper club to pop-up art exhibition; and IJ Hallen, the largest flea market in all of Europe, which takes over the NDSM Werf’s outdoor space for two weekends in April and May. On a recent visit, the area was lively with tourists from the “mainland”; graffiti artists adding to the already colorful spray-paint murals that cover many of the building exteriors; and university students coming in and out of TempoHousing—a “shipping container campus” of modular dorm rooms that have become some of the most popular, and affordable, residence halls. While weed isn’t a major part of Noord’s draw—head back to the Red Light for more of the green—these students are happy to point you in the direction of Coffeeshop Funny People, a local joint hawking joints at a super affordable rate. Lunch at the wharf is, naturally, a similarly experimental affair.

Many of the food-and-drink venues on the NDSM site double as live music stages, like chef Dimitry Mulder’s Pllek, a sustainability-minded restaurant (and sometimes yoga studio) housed in a yet another rejiggered shipping container that offers a regularly changing menu of dishes that range from Korean-style falafel to Cajun barbecued mushrooms. Every first Thursday of the month, the Pllek Live Stage showcases two live bands followed by a danceable DJ set that plays into the night, begging a comparison to several similar concepts in New York’s across-the-river Williamsburg ‘hood. On a smaller scale, Noorderlicht, known for its killer house vegan seaweed burger, often fits its outdoor terrace for small concerts and events that have included a silent disco and fireside acoustic gigs. 

As you move further away from the water, Noord’s industrial facades fade into more traditional, somewhat suburban areas, but even among the residential spaces lie fun and unexpected mashups like the SkateCafe, a full-service dinner restaurant with a mini skate ramp for boarders and bikers to show off their moves while chefs flex their chops with dishes that run the gamut from noodle soups to classic Dutch bitterballen. If you’re looking to explore the further areas of Noord, which include the Buiksloot, a village settled by families in the Waterland as early as 1275, and home to traditional canal houses, you’ll want to rent a bike and ride through the tranquil Noorderpark. 

Before heading back into town, satisfy your sightseeing urges with a quick trip to the A’DAM Tower’s rooftop lookout for 360-degree views of Noord and the city center. Five euros gets you onto the “highest swing in Europe” for a mini thrill as the ride shoots you over the edge of the building. The tower is also next door to the EYE Film Institute, an instantly recognizable angular white building with exhibits that document Dutch film history. And for dinner, the nearby Tolhuistuin—which sits in what was once the dining canteen for Shell factory employees—slings tapas renditions of Dutch cuisine that reflects the true cultural makeup of Amsterdam: Surinamese hot dogs, Southeast Asian eggplant curry and Chinese bao zi are all on the menu. 

As you hop back on the ferry to downtown, you can’t help but wonder why the Red Light district gets all the attention when it’s clearly been lit over in Amsterdam-Noord.

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