old church sanctuary

The Old Church: shrine on the ramparts

Did you know that the Red Light District is the only place in the world where religion and prostitution are literally opposite each other? In Old Church Square to be exact. With the Old Church at its center, and the red windows surrounding it, this place has always been a mix of faiths. Though sometimes those were close together.

In the Middle Ages, Old Church Square was the chaotic hub of a burgeoning city. In the Golden Age, the square was the center of trade and economic prosperity, when wealthy guilds invested in the Old Church. In the 18th century, it was, as historian Geert Mak said, “an island of austerity in a lavish city. And today, the church, tourists, prostitutes, residents and clients of the adjacent daycare center intermingle. Talk about contrasts.

Confessions on abill
Many stories circulate about the Old Church and the square around it.
One tells the story of the prostitutes who used to write their confessions on a piece of paper at the end of their shift at night, sometimes with some coins attached, and slip them under the door of the church. The priests of the Old Church would seal each bill with wax and forgive their sins every morning, over and over again. The church may not have been for prostitution, but then again it was not against the people. And what the church was not against at all was money.

From chapel to city archive
The Old Church was built in 1213 as a wooden chapel. In 1306, the chapel was replaced by a stone church. Since then, the church has undergone many renovations. The Old Church began as Roman Catholic, but was taken over by the Reformed Dutch Reformed Church. During the 1566 iconoclasm, a lot of decorations were destroyed. After the Reformation, the church became a registry of marriages and the city archives were housed here. Important documents were locked in an iron-clad chest in the church.

One of the church’s most famous patrons was Rembrandt van Rijn. He had all his children baptized here, and his first wife was buried there. If you look carefully, you will find her name, Saskia van Uylenburgh, in one of the hundreds of tombstones in the floor of the church.

Coffee in the locker room
Fancy a cup of coffee after attending church? The Old Church also houses a café, called the Coffee Kitchen, in the part of the church where priests used to keep their vestments, church records and other precious items. This secret gem serves delicious cakes, juices, soups and other lunch in addition to coffee.

Climb the tower
The Old Church still serves as a church, but most of the time it is used for exhibitions. During the months of April through September, you can climb the tower with a guide. Tours take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Visit the Old Church and Old Church Square? Then – in all Amsterdam fashion – be dropped off by a boat from De Nederlanden. Or book your canal cruise at Rederij de Nederlanden.