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Begijnhof | © Allie_Caulfield / Flickr
Begijnhof | © Allie_Caulfield / Flickr

The Story Behind Amsterdam's Secret Hofjes

Picture of Tom Coggins
Updated: 28 September 2017

There are around 30 concealed courtyards or hofjes in Amsterdam that are mostly hidden behind historical buildings inside the city’s iconic canal belt. Most of these sanctuaries were originally attached to almshouses for elderly women or men which were built in Amsterdam between the 12th and 19th centuries.

From the end of Middle Ages onwards it was quite common for rich Amsterdammers to spend their wealth on charitable organisations and many decided to found almshouse in the city. These homes were mainly created in order to give Amsterdam’s poorer, elderly women somewhere to live and the chance to cohabit with people of their own age. In Amsterdam almshouses often resembled urban cloisters and centred around small courtyards that were largely closed off to the rest of the city.

While residents weren’t forced to stay in these communities, they were expected to comply with certain rules and generally lived quite religious lives. In fact, many hofjes contained onsite chapels and were managed by religious organisations. Although this type of living may seem restrictive today, these communes acted as a precursor to modern forms of social welfare and protected older, vulnerable people from poverty and homelessness.

Begijnhof | © Bert Kaufmann / Flickr / Hermitage Museum Amsterdam was once an old people’s home | © Fred Romero / Flickr / The 17th century gate on Kloveniersburgwal that leads to Oudemanhuispoort | © A. Bakker / WikiCommons

Although female hofjes were more common throughout history there are still several historical old peoples’ homes around Amsterdam that admitted men, including Amstelhof which is now known as Hermitage Museum and the University of Amsterdam’s jurisprudence building, Oudemanhuispoort. Other well-known hofjes include Begijnhof near Spui which ranks among the most popular attractions in Amsterdam and Zon’s Hofje on Prinsengracht which is now surrounded by student accommodation.

As most hofjes are part of residential complexes they are usually closed to the public. However, once a year, Museum van Loon organises a weekend long event called Open Tuinen Dag where almost every hofje in Amsterdam welcomes visitors.