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Amsterdam's Historic Almshouses

Hidden behind innocent-looking gateways throughout the city center, most notably along the main ring of canals and in the Jordaan neighborhood, are some of Amsterdam's most charming houses.

There are more than 40 hofjes (little courtyards surrounded by almshouses), mainly dating back to the 18th century when the city's flourishing merchants established hospices for the elderly.

Their philanthropy was supposed to be rewarded by a place in heaven. But be warned (and be prepared for disappointment): today's hofje residents like their peace and quiet, and often lock their entrances to keep out visitors.

The most notable examples on the Grachtengordel can be viewed only on open days.

Begijnhof. Here, serenity reigns just feet away from the bustle of the city. The Begijnhof is the tree-filled courtyard of a residential hideaway where women lived a spiritual and philanthropic life from 1150 onwards. Documents from the 14th century mention the "Beghynhuys" with some rules and regulations for membership. They were simple: no hens, no dogs, and no men. Free lodging was provided in return for caring for the sick and educating the poor.

No. 34 is one of two remaining wooden houses in the city following 15th-century fires that consumed three-quarters of the city. The small Engelse Hervormde Kerk (English Reformed Church) dates from the 14th century, when it was a place of worship for the Begijnen. Its pulpit panels were designed by a young Piet Mondriaan in 1898. After the Alteration of 1578 the church was relinquished to Protestants (and used by the Pilgrim Fathers visiting in 1607). When senior Begijn Cornelia Arents died in 1654, she said she'd rather be buried in the gutter of the Begijnhof than in the—now Protestant—church. Her wish was granted the following year when her remains were moved; look for the granite slab and plaque on the wall between the church and lawn. The replacement chapel, Begijnhofkapel (Begijn Chapel) was designed by Philips Vingboons and approved by the city (as was the mode), provided it didn't look like a church from the outside. Entrances on the north side of Spui and on Gedempte Begijnensloot opposite Begijnensteeg, Centrum, Amsterdam, 1012 RM. www.begijnhofamsterdam.nl. Begijnhof-Kapel, Mon. 1–6:30, Tues.–Fri. 9–6:30, weekends 9–6.

The Begijnhof is by far the most famous hofje, but there are a few other little gems to explore that are generally open.

Sint Andrieshofje. The Sint Andrieshofje, built in 1614, is the oldest courtyard almshouse in Amsterdam and famous for its Delfware entry. Egelantiersgracht 105–141, Jordaan, Amsterdam, 1015 RG.

Claes Claeszhofje. The Claes Claeszhofje is two joined hofjes: the Zwaardvegershofje (Sword Makers' Hofje) and the three-house hofje founded in 1616 by the Anabaptist draper Claes Claesz. Anslo (note his coat of arms atop one entry). Today's tenants are artists and music students. Don't miss the Huis met de Schrijvende Hand ("House with the Writing Hand"), topped by a six-stepped gable. Junction of Egelantiersstraat 28–54, Eerste Egelantiersdwarsstraat 1–5, and Tuinstraat 35–49, Jordaan, Amsterdam, 1015 NX.

Zevenkeurvorstenhofje. The Zevenkeurvorstenhofje was founded around 1645, though the houses standing today are from the 18th century. Tuinstraat 197–223, Amsterdam, 1015 PD.

Karthuizerhof. The Karthuizerhof was founded in 1650 and has a courtyard with two 17th-century pumps. Karthuizersstraat 21–131, Jordaan, Amsterdam, 1015 LL.

On the Prinsengracht, between the Prinsenstraat and the Brouwersgracht, are two hofjes very close to one another. The Van Brienenhofje (Prinsengracht 85-133, closed to the public) and the Zon's Hofje (Prinsengracht 159-171, open weekdays 10-5) both have plaques telling their stories.

Suykerhoff-hofje. For a moment of peace, visit the Suykerhoff-hofje and take in its abundantly green courtyard. These houses opened their doors in 1670 to Protestant "daughters and widows" (as long as they behaved and exhibited "a peace-loving humor") and provided each of them with free rent, 20 tons of turf, 10 pounds of rice, a vat of butter, and some spending money each year. If only the same were done today. Lindengracht 149–163, Centrum, Amsterdam, 1015 KE.

Updated: 11-2013

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