A digital tour guideto Amsterdam

19th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

Friends or family in town and afraid they will get lost if you let them out on their own? We test drive a digital assistant that not only knows where the best places are in Amsterdam, but how to get you there.

I have to admit my sense of direction has been known to let me down on occasion. I can clearly picture where I am and where I want to get to. Everything in between tends to be a blur.

The Nieuwekerk must be around here somewhere!

To compensate for this, my first really important purchase on moving to Amsterdam in 1998 was a map booklet of the city. I carried it everywhere with me. I needed its advice on how to get from Central Station to Leidseplein; Leidseplein to Waterlooplein and so on.

Over the years I have learnt how to get from A to B fairly well. But as soon as I have to vary by route even slightly or go to an unfamiliar part of town, out comes the booklet again.

I know one slight deviation from my planned route and I'm lost, adding time and stress to my journey. My map booklet isn't a huge help: after years of use it is dog-eared, some pages are rain damaged and every second destination is on the edge of the page.

And don't ask me to show you the way. Although I consider myself an Amsterdammer these days, I become a 'tourist' as soon as anyone asks me for directions. I knows that's bad, but my directions are worse.

An answer

The newer touch screen model

Kees and Erik are real Amsterdammers - they love their city and they want visitors to discover its charms too. They describe themselves as " the guys who showed you where to go when you were staring at your map, totally lost. You were thankful and followed our directions."

They have combined their knowledge of the city with technology to create City Navigators, a company that offers a handheld device to help newcomers and the directionally-challenged to "always know where you are, and it will tell you, turn by turn, how to get to your destination".

Similar to GPS systems used by motorists, the two types offered by City Navigators use satellite signals to get the pedestrian or cyclist around Amsterdam with ease.

One type is sturdy enough to place on the handlebars of your bike and its battery lasts for 36 hours. From now on this model is only for people using a bicycle.

The new City Navigator is extremely user friendly. With its touch screen it's completely self explanatory.  Next to our favourite places and the highlights of the city it comes with a world clock, currency converter, measurement converter and a calculator.

Additionally, for expats,  it can come a extra travel guide, a language guide, a MP3 player and a picture viewer. The device comes standard with every European language.

The device is rather like having a miniature tour guide in your hand. It not knows where the best restaurants, markets and shops are - it leads you there in the most efficient manner.

Does it work?

Do the City Navigators work? There was was no better way to put it to the test than to give it to me the bicycle version for two weeks. It was a tough challenge for the little machine.

I lived at the time in Holendrecht, on the south-east edge of Amsterdam. My bike journey to and from work took me though past the sprawling office desert around Bijlmer and Bullewijk.

The navigator suggested slight variations to the route I am used to. On the map these changes made sense. In reality, many of the roads and cycle paths the device suggested were inaccessible due to to major building work. This made me made me a little sceptical. To be fair, the maps the device uses are updated every year so its can't know about recent road closures.

But it can compensate. Once it detects you have strayed from the indicated route, it recalculates its position and alters the directions accordingly. It is a patient little machine. It never judged or criticised me for taking a wrong turn. Instead it went back to the drawing board and suggested new directions - no matter how many times I thought I knew best.

We got on much better in the city centre. When I switched it on next to Waterlooplein metro station, it was a delight to see it quickly register the signals from half a dozen  orbiting GPS satellites.

I wanted to go to the Jewish Museum. Easy, it's just around the corner. Even I could find that!

How about the art deco Tuschinski cinema on the Reguliersbreestraat. Within seconds the device altered its directions. It displays the directions on map with arrows, or you can alter the view to a list of the streets to take.

Half way there I decided I was feeling peckish. This is where Kees and Erik's love of the city comes in. They have programmed in directions and basic information about Waypoints - the locations of the bars, restaurants, markets, museums and other places they like. There are also several suggested tours for pedestrians and cyclists to let you discover the hidden charms of the city. 

The destinations aren't paying advertisers or necessarily the choices in the major guide books. Kees says users of the city navigator machines are welcome to suggest their own favourites.


I felt a real bond with the city navigator after our two weeks together and I didn't want to give it back. Kees sent me a friendly email or two to enquire when the machine and I might be expected to travel in his direction.  

When I finally relinquished it, Erik told me City Navigators wants to cater for both tourists and expats who are finding their bearings in the city. So far, the GPS system has got some good reviews since it became available to guests of at least 12 hotels in throughout the city. The staff at reception give a short lesson on how to use it and away you go.

"A life-saver," according to David and Jo-Ann of San José. "It was getting late and we wanted to go back to the hotel. We had no idea where we were. We just pushed "My Hotel". It turned out we were close enough to walk. In 15 minutes we were back in our room and we saved ourselves a cab fare."

Dijana from Slovenia is also an admirer. "My husband did not want to rent it, so I did. We have spent too much time in the past staring at the free City Maps that are not very helpful. You never know where you are. It didn't take long for my husband to come around. When he was still trying to locate us on his map, the City Navigator had calculated the route to our next destination. He decided to give it a try. From that moment, I never saw his map again."

Kees and Erik also think the City Navigator would be perfect for newly arrived expats for the first few weeks or months. Not having to worry about how to get to the shopping centre or to the office would make life a lot easier. Perhaps your partner could use it to explore the city while you are in the office.

Kees is on the case: the City Navigator in action

Most important of all is that the City Navigator device will always get you home. It certainly worked for me. I discovered Kees was moving apartments and was looking for a tenant for his old place.

In less time than it would normally take me to get from the Jordaan to Amstel Station, my wife and I said goodbye to our five years of exile in Holendrecht and moved backed to within a stone's throw of the Tropeninstituut where we were married in 1999.

One could argue that this might have influenced my appraisal of the City Navigator. It hasn't.

I really hate gizmos that don't work as they should. I have been known to literally 'reboot' ones that don't work as they should. This device did work - as soon as it trained me to take its advice and not try fancy moves of my own.

Don't take my word for it - try it out for yourself or arrange for your family to use it when they are next in town. And if you decide not to, you'd better hope you meet Kees. If you meet me - 'I am a tourist'.

GPS navigator for free at Amsterdam hotels. Click here for the latest information from City Navigators.

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: City Navigators + Life in Holland


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