Amsterdam’s iconic windmills, drawbridges and 17th-century canal mansions combine with cutting-edge contemporary design to make the Dutch capital Nirvana for architecture aficionados. Yet some of the city’s most unique residential wonders are hidden in the melange of churches, palaces and historic landmarks.
Beyond such well-known architectural sights as the Old Church, New Church, Royal Palace and Anne Frank House, here are six weird, wonderful, often overlooked residential gems, all in the heart of Amsterdam:
Amsterdam’s Oldest House
Unlike the ornately gabled brick mansions that line Amsterdam’s UNESCO-recognized canal ring, the city’s oldest house is made of wood. Built around 1425, Begijnhof 34 features a Gothic-style timber frame. The charcoal-colored home is set in the Begijnhof, a peaceful oasis in the heart of bustling Amsterdam that was once a sanctuary for women who took no monastic vows but committed themselves to serving the poor and needy.
After two devastating 15th-century fires that burned down most of medieval Amsterdam, the city banned timber construction in 1669. Begijnhof 34 and Zeedijk 1 are the city’s only remaining wooden homes.
Although it’s private property, visitors are welcome in the serene inner courtyard where Amsterdam’s oldest wooden house sits surrounded by more typical brick abodes. Today the peaceful oasis is still occupied by single women, but is also used as a site for daily masses and weekend weddings. A shop accessed via the chapel sells postcards, candles and religious books.
Amsterdam’s Narrowest Façade
Size mattered in the Dutch Golden Age, when houses were taxed on the width of their façades. To minimize their tax burden, many people built long, narrow homes.
The architect of Singel 7 found a design loophole that not only minimized taxes, but also maximized living space. While its façade measures a mere meter wide, what looks like the entrance is really the back of the house. Thanks to the ingenious design, the home expands to a somewhat more comfortable seven meters at its widest, in the rear.
Amsterdam’s Smallest House
The Dutch don’t waste much, and Amsterdam wasn’t about to forsake ten square meters that remained at Oude Hoogstraat 22 after a warehouse was built on the site in the mid-18th century. The city purchased the slim slice of land on a busy shopping street leading into the old city center and erected what some call the smallest house in Europe on it.
Measuring just over two meters wide and six meters deep, Amsterdam’s smallest house is barely noticeable next to the imposing Gateway to the Walloon Church in today’s Red Light District. In 1742, watchmaker Jan Tenking rented the tiny house for an annual sum of 150 guilders. Whether or not he found his home claustrophobic is anyone’s guess.
The property found new life in 2014 as The Smallest House, a cozy tea boutique proferring loose and pre-packaged teas, tea accessories, tea sets, and an assortment of chocolates, honey, fudge and liqueurs.
Just a few can crowd into the tiny shop, which serves breakfast, lunch and high tea for a maximum of five guests in an upstairs tearoom accessed by typically perilous Dutch stairs. Reserve ahead to sip tea in what’s now a national heritage site.
Amsterdam’s Widest House
Built in 1666 for the wealthy Trip brothers, the Trippenhuis at Kloveniersburgwal 29 reflects the grandeur of the Dutch Golden Age. At 22 meters wide, it’s Amsterdam’s most spacious residence. On an expansive Neoclassical façade, mortar-shaped chimneys hint at the brothers’ successful arms trade business, through which they made their fortune.
In 1812, King Louis Napoleon housed the Royal Institute of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts—precursor of today’s Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences—in the Trippenhuis. From 1815–1885, the palatial space hosted the Rijksmuseum before the national museum moved to its current location on Museumplein. According to legend, the Trips built a similar but much narrower house across the street after their coachman commented, “Oh my, I would be happy if I had a house that was only as wide as the front door of my master’s house.”
Amsterdam’s Most Cerebral House
What do you call a home with six ornamental heads on its impressive façade? In Amsterdam, it’s known as the Huis met de Hoofden or House with the Heads. Built in 1622 by municipal architect Hendrik de Keyser (who also built the Westerkerk), the striking residence at Keizersgracht 123 is adorned with the heads of six Roman gods and goddesses—Apollo, Ceres, Mercury, Minerva, Bacchus and Diana.
The ornamental heads were added by second owner Louis de Geer, an iron and paper merchant. As the Bill Gates of his day, de Geer believed wealth was an asset best used for social change. While the heads might represent his progressive beliefs, a more colorful explanation alleges they’re stand-ins for six thieves who tried to break into the canal mansion. When the kitchen maid saw the robbers’ heads peeking into a basement window, she chopped them off one-by-one with a meat knife.
In its Golden Age heyday, de Geer’s Huis met de Hoofden was a center for the development and exchange of ideas in science, philosophy, culture and commerce. Today it’s gearing up for its debut as a public venue where freethinkers can debate scientific, theological and social issues.
Amsterdam’s Most Eclectic Houses
In 1894, wealthy, well-traveled politician Samuel van Eeghen commissioned Dutch architect Tjeerd Kuipers to design a collection of homes that would satisfy the pre-flight-era desire to experience faraway places. The result is the Zenvenlandenhuizen—seven houses lined up in a row, each representing the architectural style of a different country. The unexpected architectural feast from a designer of neo-Renaissance-style reformed churches testifies to the late 19th-century fascination with all things exotic and far away.
The Zevenlandenhuizen are set on Roemer Visscherstraat, a tiny street that parallels Vondelpark in the Oud-Zuid, where many of Amsterdam’s rich and powerful kept large homes in the late 19th century. The collection encompasses a Dutch Renaissance-style home, a turreted German abode, a domed Russian number, a neo-classic Italian palazzo, a striped Moorish-influenced Spanish home, and a French-style residence that might be at home in the Loire Valley. The arts-and-crafts-influenced English-style house is now the two-star Quentin Hotel. To avoid any confusion, the names of the countries influencing the architectural styles are displayed above the front doors.