Travel

Begijnhof Amsterdam: A Secret 14th-Century Hofje within the Dutch Capital

As the main city from the Netherlands, Amsterdam has lots of things to do and much more places to see. And if you’re looking for a cultural activity whilst in the Dutch capital, then you simply must wander around the city (or, indeed, cycle) in search of a few 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! Exactly what is a hofje?

The term ‘hofje’ is a Dutch word, and signifies a usually privately owned courtyard encompassed by almshouses. The term is similar to ‘mews’ in English, whereby it can’t be easily translated into other languages. Hofjes have existed in Amsterdam since the dark 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 for the reason that it is similar to the French ‘beguinage’. These courtyards were traditionally for the sole utilization of women, known as ‘beguines’ who remained within the community but were dedicated to fairly religious lives. They wouldn’t take vows, nor would the ladies retire from public life. Instead, they attended regular mass, took a vow of chastity, but remained free to leave when they wanted to marry.

Begijnhof Amsterdam: A Secret 14th-Century Hofje within the Dutch Capital

One of the extremely best reasons to visit Amsterdam is from the history the city has to offer up. Those who are particularly interested in the middle ages should head to the heart from the city. And somewhere in between the traditional architecture and canals- at 1012 AB to become precise- you’ll find an enclosed area that’s tucked away in the hubbub of busy city life.

Behind two small doors, enclosed by ancient brick red walls and when inhabited by beguines, the history of Begijnhof dates completely to the center ages. First founded as soon as 1346, though an exact date remains unclear, the courtyard’s architecture looked like what convent (rather than the usual look of the private hofje).

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Over time, most of the original wooden dwellings were replaced with stone facades and today none of the original 14th-century structures survive. As a result, the majority of the architecture you will probably get in the courtyard is the 17th and 18th-century designs that are so synonymous with Amsterdam.

When Catholicism was banned within the city throughout the 17th-century, a clandestine church was found in the Begijnhof. If you’re interested in learning more about the secret churches of Amsterdam, then I’d recommend visiting Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord within the Attic), an old 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 dedicated to attending regular services of worship. Today the Begijnhof in Amsterdam hosts two churches; one English Reformed Church and a second Catholic Church. Other popular features of the Begijnhof incorporate a restored wooden house (Houten Huys) which goes back to 1528 and it is thought to be the oldest house in Amsterdam.

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Tips for visiting Begijnhof Amsterdam

Free to visit and open every day each week, it’s better to visit the hofje earlier in the day in order to take full advantage of your time inside, and also to be able to arrive prior to the rest of the crowds (in the end, Begijnhof Amsterdam has become the Dutch capital’s worst kept secret). Although the entrance could 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 continue to be inhabited to this day. As such, it’s important to be quiet, respect the silence and respect the inhabitants’ privacy. This means that when visiting the courtyard, you’ll be restricted to remaining within the non-resident’s area!

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