“About seven years ago, a minister came here on a tour about criminal activity in the area,” says Jereon Apers as he gives me a tour of De Ceuvel, which used to be a polluted shipyard.
A decade ago, Apers, an architect, and other founding members of a non-profit association, helped whip their project in the neighbourhood of Amsterdam-Noord into a poster child for sustainable urban development. This involved transforming 16 old houseboats, costing no more than €20,000 (£17,400) in total, into work studios with solar panels and compost toilets.
Now there are regular tours of the site, which also features a popular plant-based restaurant and houseboats for tourists. While only ever a temporary project (with a 10-year contract), it has been extended for another year, until building works get under way.
However, Apers, who shows me the development on a winding wooden walkway and runs a studio on one of the converted boats, is hopeful that De Ceuvel will remain, albeit as a slightly different, smaller version.
“The philosophy will still be there,” he says.
De Ceuvel is a success story in the evolution of the Noord, an area that Amsterdam’s tourism board is hoping will continue to attract visitors as officials discourage crowds and party tourists away from the city centre.
While tourist numbers for the Noord weren’t available, everyone I spoke to felt a growing number of people were heading across the IJ River to visit the waterfront district. It can be reached via the Metro or on the free and regular five-minute ferry from Centraal Station.
The Noord is vast and growing – the population has increased from 88,119 in 2005 to 106,888 in 2023, according to the city’s own research. There are areas such as Nieuwendammerdijk, a former village that was absorbed into the city and which has plenty of heritage, but much of the former shipping hub is reminiscent of Hackney Wick or Brooklyn.
The Noord has more graffiti per square yard than you’ll spot across the river, while former garages and warehouses have turned into up-and-coming restaurants and bars. Lower rents have attracted creatives, and with that, interesting spaces. But the area is fast changing, with block after block of flats being built and signs for “luxury apartments”.
At times during my visit, it feels like always construction in sight (this is also true across the river, but here it seems to be on a bigger scale).
Most tourists aren’t coming this way for the charm and uniformity found in the main city, but for the lower hotel prices, the pockets of creativity, and new places to eat – or dance.
Jade, 30, visiting from Australia, says the “reasonably priced accommodation was one of the driving points” for staying in the Noord.
However, she tells me she’s quite taken by the atmosphere this side of the river. “I popped to [central] Amsterdam yesterday and this is nicer: it’s quieter, has more culture. It reminds me of more up and coming places in Adelaide.”
Lucas Schilder, floor manager at Cornerstore, a predominantly plant-based restaurant in a former garage, says the business welcomes lots of tourists.
“There are more and more hotels popping up and other things people are coming here to check out,” Schilder adds.
He says there is also growing number of investors coming to the Noord.
“They see how much potential the area has. I’m not exaggerating, but 15 years ago you could buy something here for 30 per cent of the price it is now.
“And, because of places like [Cornerstore], because of all the trendiness, all the gentrifying, it just lifts up the whole area. Like we cannot honestly survive without the expats living in the Noord.”
There’s certainly enough in the waterfront neighbourhood to keep you occupied for a weekend without having to visit central Amsterdam.
Set in a warehouse in the former shipbuilding hub of NDSM, Straat Museum is devoted to street and graffiti art. It draws you into the ways art is used as a strong visual communication tool for, say, political, environmental activism.
Elsewhere, Nxt Museum is an interactive museum; the A’DAM Toren Lookout has indoor and outdoor observation decks with panoramic views of Amsterdam and, in its white, futuristic-looking building, the Eye Filmmuseum serves up interesting films – and its exhibitions and bar overlooking the water are equally tempting.
You can fill your bag with vintage finds at Europe’s biggest flea market at IJ Hallen in NDSM.
For food, check out Pllek, which overlooks the river and is just as appealing in the winter with its open fire as it is in the summer, or Cornerstore for dishes such as barbecued oysters, green sichuan mussels and pork neck. In the evenings, head to Skatecafe and Sexyland World, or watch a gig at Tolhuistuin.
In the Noord, there’s always a new place cropping up, such as the newly opened Kuuma Noord, a sauna overlooking the River IJ (sessions from €25).
More hotels are opening, but one of the most popular is the Sir Adam hotel in the A’DAM tower. It’s upbeat and lively, with karaoke in the lifts and vinyl libraries in its rooms.
Away from Amsterdam’s beaten track – the Red Light District, the Rijksmuseum and Vondelpark – there is a quieter, albeit increasingly popular, side to the city.
Eurostar offers several departures a day from London St Pancras International to Amsterdam Central. The operator is running a sale until 27 November with one-way tickets starting from £39 for travel between 7 January and 16 March, eurostar.com
Sir Adam has doubles from €118 (£102), sirhotels.com