Amsterdam’s Begijnhof- The Quiet Amidst the Chaos

Amsterdam can be so many things to so many people. To some, it is an unadulterated den of iniquity. To other it is home to some of the best museums in all of Europe. To others, it is the singularly the greatest walking city in Europe. 
To most people however, it is all of those things rolled up into one amazingly complex city. My first visit was in 1997. Our bus tour left us only parts of a day and a half to explore Amsterdam. My first impression was that of loosely organized chaos. Our bus dropped us off at the end of Damrak, the tourist-clogged main street leading away from Central Station, and probably the worst place to get a first impression of Amsterdam. Our tour guide took us on a quick walking tour through the streets and seedy alleys of the Red Light District, probably the second worse place to see within you first five minutes in the city. I suspect all of this was done to shock us (in my case, it worked), but soon we were on our canal boat excursion peacefully gliding along back canals while drinking wine and seeing the city in an entirely different perspective. The next day we returned to the city after a morning biking in Edam, and I spent the time walking the canal ring with a group of people from the tour group. I left that day with one dominant thought: I must come back here with more time to explore this fascinating place.

So return, I did. In July of 1998, I set aside a week of my two-month trip to Europe to explore Amsterdam with my friend, Ron. While I still came to appreciate the walks, the art and the chaos- I discovered my most favorite spot in Amsterdam on that 1998 trip. 

I had read about the Begijnhof in one of Rick Steves’ Europe Guidebooks. I’m glad I had paid attention to the directions, because it still took me a few tries to finally find my way into the courtyard from the entrance off of Spui. 

Spui is a open, brick-lined square, which stands at a crossroad of sorts- the roads in one direction leads back to the Dam and further on Damrak and the Train Station, one leads toward Leidesplien, and many of the city’s restaurants and cafes, and the other direction heads to Amsterdam’s famous museums. 

As I mentioned, finding your way in can be a bit tricky. There is an arched entrance off the main square, and also a gated entrance of the small alleyway just to the east. Five months after visiting, I had a friend going to Amsterdam. I explained to him how to find his way into the court, and even included a map with much of my helpful scribbling on it. When he returned 10 days later, he confessed that he never was able to find his way in. 

Built originally as the courtyard of the nearby church, the square was closed off in the late 1300s. They building around the square were used to house women, the elderly and the infirm during the middle ages in Europe, a time where the downtrodden often became victims if they lacked protection. 

Almost all the buildings surrounding the courtyard are architechtural gems in their own right, but the drabbest of all of them is the most famous, The Houten Huys, Amsterdam’s oldest wooden house, dating from 1477. A nearby plaque proudly proclaims that the house ‘remains virtually in it’s original state’. 

The Begijnhof’s main church, built as a Catholic Church, has been used by an English Presbyterian Congregation since the mid 1600s, when the reformation stormed through Northern Europe. The courtyard also house a smaller chapel, which was once a ‘hidden’ church, like so many around Amsterdam. 

While the history of the Begijnhof is extremely interesting, what stood out to me the first time I entered (and all subsequent times) is the overwhelming sense of peace and quiet. Being right in the heart of Amsterdam’s frenetic center, with two tramlines a short walk away and crowds of locals and tourists congregating just outside of the gate, I expected tons of ambient noise, just like most other places in Amsterdam. 

It is truly a peaceful place. Most of the days I’ve spent in Amsterdam, I’ve taken at least a short stroll around the grass-lined courtyard. 

November 1998, when I still had hair 🙂

I included the Begijnhof in my 10 Great Amsterdam Tips from last year, and it is my favorite spot to step away from the chaos of Amsterdam that surrounds it. If you do go, please be respectful. Although I didn’t experience it, I have read stories about people being loud and disrespectful in the courtyard. It would be a shame if this special place was one day closed off to the general public for this reason.

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