Imagine walking around Amsterdam – it’s busy, there are crowds of people everywhere, you’ve just spent an hour and a half walking around the Rijksmuseum after queuing for two hours to get in. You’ve had enough; you’re tired and fed up. You want to sit down somewhere without someone bothering you. That’s when you spot a doorway. You try the handle, and it opens. Inside is a beautiful courtyard with a garden and some houses – maybe even a chapel. You walk in, and sit down. There is nobody else there. You have found one of Amsterdam’s best kept secrets. It’s called a ‘hof.’
They are all over Amsterdam, and the most well known is the Begijnhof. Originally built by rich people as an act of charity, the gardens were used to home single women who had been widowed and had found themselves penniless. The women that lived in them had to obey a strict code of conduct including going to church, praying, and abstaining from drinking, in exchange for free housing and financial help.
Many hofs have a church or chapel inside (usually affiliated to the religious community of the original donor), which can’t be seen from the outside. This is because in 1578, Amsterdam went from Catholic to Protestant in a revolution and afterwards, Catholics weren’t allowed to worship in public. Convents and monasteries were dissolved, and churches confiscated, but the city still allowed Catholic churches to be built as long as they couldn’t be recognized as a church from the outside.
Many of these hofs are still in operation today, and many of the Regents are direct descendents from when they were originally built. Most have been taken over by religious organizations and housing associations and it is possible to visit them even though many are still lived in today.
The most popular to visit is the Begijnhof. It’s quite busy, and won’t necessarily be the quietest garden but its chapel is a great place to sit away from the tourist groups.
It’s Amsterdam’s oldest hof, dating back to 1100s. The women that lived here were part of a religious community who wanted to care for the sick – these women were the first ‘Beguines,’ which is where the name ‘Begijnhof’ came from. They were not poor women, but they were unmarried and had to take a vow of chastity, and promise obedience to the Parish Priest.
As you walk in from the Spui entrance, look to the left – there are several colorful gable stones set into the wall. In the center is the church. On the other side of is another lawn, and several pretty houses each with a small front garden area, which many use to plant flowers. An otherwise open hof, the areas with houses are marked for residents only to ensure their privacy.
The church was given to the English after being seized during the Alteration, and became known as ‘The English Church.’ They hold services in English here every week, as a reminder of the history, and there are always several candles which have been lit for loved ones. The chapel, which from the outside looks like a house, was also built during the Alteration so that the women could worship freely without the building being seized.
Address: Begijnhof, Spui, 1012, Amsterdam. There is a doorway a few buildings away from the American Book Centre. Trams 1, 2 and 5 stop at the Spui
The Zon’s hofje
As you walk into this hof, you’ll notice a very long corridor leading into an area with picnic benches and a small garden. There might be a cat or two wandering around. If you’re lucky, someone’s window will be open, and the sound of soft guitar music will be your accompaniment.
The garden of the Zon’s hofje used to be a Mennonite church called the Sun, or ‘Zon’. During that period this courtyard was a meeting place for worshippers. In 1720 the church was sold off to the Frisian Mennonite Congregation and the name was changed to Noah’s ark. Some time later, the Frisian Mennonites, and the former members of De Zon church united, so the name Noah’s ark became redundant, and in 1755 the church was closed and the hof replaced it.
Shaded by a few trees, it’s a small courtyard with picnic benches, a manicured green hedge that goes around a small path, and a big concrete flowerpot. The rest of the garden has a wild look about it, almost as though shading the owners from prying eyes.
Address: Prinsengracht 159. Trams 1, 2, 13, 14, 17 all stop at Westermarkt. Walk the rest of the way. Open Mon-Fri from 10am to 5pm.
Bosschehofje and Raephofje
On opening the door to the Raephofje, walk down the path into the garden. Once you have looked around, exit, and enter the door to the Bosschehofje garden. It may surprise you that you will be standing in the same garden. The Raephofje was a Protestant hof, and the Bosschehofje a Mennonite hof. These separate buildings were bought on the same day by two different benefactors and because of the different religions, the gardens were separated by a wall for over 300 years. This was knocked down, and in it’s place they put a hedge, until eventually the hedge was removed altogether, which reflects the softening and more tolerant side of both religions over the years.
The resulting garden is small, with a picnic bench along a wall that has long been covered in Ivy. The surrounding houses are brightly –colored – light blue and or painted yellow with red doors, and there’s a small pond at the front, and tiny pathways cross the garden.
Address: Palmgracht 28. Get tram 3 to Nieuwe Willemstraat, and walk the rest of the way. This hof is open most days of the week.
The Van Brienen Hofje
The Van Brienen Hofje was built on the site of a former brewery on the Prinsengracht. Some people say that it was commissioned after Baron Arnoud Jan van Brienen prayed to be saved after getting locked in a strong room, and he said if his prayer was answered he would build a hof for poor Catholics. The truth of this is debatable, but it adds a little bit more charm to the courtyard.
There is a footpath that runs all the way around the garden. Right in the center of the courtyard is an area with two water pumps and a bench to sit on after a long day. The architecture is grand – it has a clock tower at the beginning of the garden and pretty houses, flowers and potted plants out front, all the way around the courtyard. During the daytime it’s very quiet, with few people around.
Construction was started in 1804 by city architect Abraham van der Hart and the first residents were living there by 1806. At first the courtyard was only for single men, but eventually spouses, widows, and unmarried women were allowed to live there too. If you only visit one hof, make sure it’s this one.
Address: Prinsengracht 133, the nearest tram stop is Westermarkt – trams 1, 2, 13, 14 and 17 stop here. Opening hours Mon – Fri 6am-6pm, Sat 6am-2pm, Sun – closed
The Karthuizer Hofje
When entering this hof, you will immediately notice that it’s much bigger than the rest – it is in fact the biggest in Amsterdam. This hof wasn’t built by a single individual, but a collective organization called the Huiszittenmeisters who commissioned it after selling a number of houses that had been donated to them. Their names are listed above the entrance into the hof.
In 1615 the hof was opened for widows and their children.
Inside are two separate lawns with a white fence around each of them. There are plants and flowers bordering each lawn and little sprays of color in the red and white flowers. On either side there are a trees providing shade in an area which has a lot of sun. Around the two large pumps that sit in the center between the lawns, there is a bike stand ensuring that the residents bikes aren’t stolen in the night. These two gardens were used to bleach clothes, and if you look up when you leave the hofje, you’ll be able to spot the white clothing lines.
Address: 89 Karthuizerstraat. The nearest tram stop is Marnixplein. Take tram 3 or 10 and walk the rest of the way.
The St Andrew Hofje
This courtyard is one of the oldest in Amsterdam, as construction was finished in 1617. Benefactor Jeff Gerritsen was a rich cattle dealer, and on his death his funds were allocated to building a Catholic hof. His nephew and the executor of his will, Jan Jacobsz Oly, bought the houses and named the hof after the house that he lived in.
The covered entrance has tiles in blue and white which were added at the beginning of the 20th century, a civilized touch to the garden which otherwise looks wild. There is a path into the center where there is a big table without chairs, and around this table is a small hedge, which seems to be trying to stop the garden from taking over the central area. There are two gable stones in this hof, but the most interesting is on your left – it is a stone with Christ the Redeemer on it.
Address: Egelantiersgracht 137. Open Mon-Sat 9am-6pm. The nearest tram stop is Westermarkt – trams 1, 2, 13, 14 and 17 stop here. Walk the rest of the way.
Josua van Eik was the president of the Association for the Working Classes, an organization aiming to get better housing for the working classes. He was also the chairman of a housing association called Stichting voor den Ambachtsstand – Constantia Woningen, who commissioned the building of this hof in 1863. It was for workers over the age of 60 who had worked for more than 12 years with the same employer in a working-class job. After the death of Van Eik and his wife, the Stichting voor den Ambachtsstand – Constantia Woningen was re-named Vereeniging Van Eik Stichting-Constantia-Woningen, in honour of his work.
The entrance of the hof is big, and pretty – you can’t miss it. Inside the hof there are two green areas with hedges surrounding the edges. A paved brick pathway leads through the two areas, and if you’re lucky, the one of the picnic benches will have flowers on it. There are plenty of trees, so you can sit in the shade. It’s busy, with residents coming and going, but they don’t seem to mind people coming in to have a look.
Address: Willemsstraat 149. The nearest tram stop is Nieuwe Willemsstraat. Take tram 3 or 10 and walk the rest of the way.
Claes Claesz Hofje
Constructed in 1615, this is one of Amsterdam’s oldest courtyards. This hof is one of the most difficult to find, as it is completely unmarked. Walk past the Claes Claesz restaurant (look for the coat of arms) and you’ll see an alleyway with a white fence at the top of the entrance. Originally this was called the Anslo Hofje, which was three houses. A tree with whitened bark stands in the middle of this paved courtyard. The house on the corner has been covered in ivy.
To the right, near the end of the alleyway is a former military hofje which used to be a courtyard linked to swordmakers who worked in the quarter. Here there are two small green areas, with a tree in one, with shrubs, while the other houses a street light. This was called the Zwaardvegershofje. The two courtyards took the name of Claes Claesz in 1970 from the housing association that renovated the buildings.
Address: Egelantiersstraat 26. The nearest tram stop is Westermarkt – trams 1, 2, 13, 14 and 17 stop here. Walk the rest of the way.
Try to avoid visiting the hofs on a Sunday as many are closed to the public then. Make sure that you are quiet and respect the living quarters of the residents.
Photos courtesy of Ashley Howe.
Read more about secret places in Amsterdam
– Ashley Howe