As the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam has plenty of things to do and even more places to see. And if you’re in search of a cultural activity while in the Dutch capital, then you simply must wander around the city (or, indeed, cycle) in search of some of the prettiest hofje streets. These small passageways and secret alleyways are filled with almshouses and often date back centuries. One of the best and most popular of these is the 14th-century Begijnhof Amsterdam…
But Wait! What is a hofje?
The term ‘hofje’ is a Dutch word, and signifies a usually privately owned courtyard surrounded by almshouses. The word is much like ‘mews’ in English, whereby it can’t easily be translated into other languages. Hofjes have existed in Amsterdam since the middle ages and other Dutch cities where you’ll find them (asides from Amsterdam) include Den Haag, Haarlem, and Leiden, among others.
A Begijnhof is slightly different from a regular hofje in that it is similar to the French ‘beguinage’. These courtyards were traditionally for the sole use of women, known as ‘beguines’ who remained within the community but were committed to fairly religious lives. They wouldn’t take vows, nor would the women retire from public life. Instead, they attended regular mass, took a vow of chastity, but remained free to leave if they wished to marry.
Begijnhof Amsterdam: A Secret 14th-Century Hofje in the Dutch Capital
One of the very best reasons to visit Amsterdam is all of the history the city has to offer up. Those who are particularly interested in the middle ages should head to the heart of the city. And somewhere in between the traditional architecture and canals- at 1012 AB to be precise- you’ll find an enclosed area that’s tucked away from the hustle and bustle of busy city life.
Behind two small doors, enclosed by ancient brick red walls and once inhabited by beguines, the history of Begijnhof dates all the way back to the middle ages. First founded as early as 1346, though an exact date remains unclear, the courtyard’s architecture was similar to that of a convent (rather than the usual look of a private hofje).
Over time, many of the original wooden dwellings were replaced with stone façades and now none of the original 14th-century structures survive. As a result, most of the architecture you can expect to find in the courtyard is the 17th and 18th-century designs which are so synonymous with Amsterdam.
When Catholicism was banned in the city during the 17th-century, a clandestine church was located in the Begijnhof. If you’re interested in learning more about the secret churches of Amsterdam, then I’d highly recommend visiting Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in The Attic), a former attic church which has since been transformed into one of the best small museums in Amsterdam.
The Beguines who would live there took a vow of chastity and were committed to attending regular services of worship. Today the Begijnhof in Amsterdam is home to two churches; one English Reformed Church and a second Catholic Church. Other highlights of the Begijnhof include a restored wooden house (Houten Huys) which dates back to 1528 and is thought to be the oldest house in Amsterdam.
Tips for visiting Begijnhof Amsterdam
Free to visit and open every day of the week, it’s best to visit the hofje earlier in the day so as to make the most of your time inside, and also so that you can arrive before the rest of the crowds (after all, Begijnhof Amsterdam is probably the Dutch capital’s worst kept secret). Though the entrance can be a little tricky to find, it’s located near the American Book Centre.
Gates are usually closed to the public at 5 pm and it’s worth noting that the houses within the hofje are still inhabited to this day. As such, it’s important to be quiet, respect the silence and respect the inhabitants’ privacy. This also means that when visiting the courtyard, you’ll be restricted to remaining within the non-resident’s area!