Known as the oldest building and parish church in Amsterdam, the Oude Kerk sits on the quaintly cobbled Oudekerksplein, beside the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal. Despite the church’s postcard-perfect setting, which transports visitors centuries back in time, today the Oude Kerk looks firmly to the future. While it still hosts regular church services, in 2016 the building also became an official museum, inviting contemporary artists to exhibit and interact with the historic space.
- Explore Amsterdam's oldest building.
- Learn more about the history, artefacts and tombs of the Oude Kerk.
- Take in an adventurous contemporary art exhibition in the grand church.
The history of Amsterdam's Oude Kerk
Today, the Oude Kerk (literally the ‘Old Church’) sits at the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Its humble beginnings date back to approximately 1213, when it was built as a wooden chapel at the point where the River Amstel flowed into the River IJ. In those days, the church held great significance to the seafarers and fishermen prevalent in the area – in 1306 it was officially dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of fishermen, sailors and merchants. Over subsequent centuries, the building evolved into the grand monument that can be seen today. Transepts were added to form the familiar cross shape, while its main tower – which houses four swinging bells and a 47-piece carillon – has been raised and reshaped on numerous occasions.
During the building’s lifetime, the church has been home to first Catholic then Calvinist worshippers, seen civil uprisings, been torn apart by mobs and damaged by fires, but still remained a core part of life for Amsterdam’s citizens for 800 years. There are some 2,500 graves in the church (and another 10,000 Amsterdammers buried beneath), the final resting places of everyone from admiralty and governors to poets and composers. Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife Saskia van Uylenburgh was also laid to rest here. And if you’re wondering how it came to be known as the ‘Old Church’, this stems from the 15th century, when the Nieuwe Kerk (the ‘New Church’) was built as the city’s second, bigger parish church, beside Dam Square.
Look in any direction within this historic church and you'll see artefacts from across the ages, all with a story to tell. The heavy stones on the ground mark graves from key moment in Amsterdam's history. Colorful light pours through the grand stained glass windows, many of which date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Miniature ships can still be seen hanging too, commemorating its days as a harbor church. And as you raise your eyes to the ceiling, the wooden vault reveals remnants of the church with music during regular organ recitals. To make the most of all this history, book an offical guided tour or download the museum's Soundwalk audio tour.
A new museum in Amsterdam
While the Oude Kerk has been a frequent host of exhibitions and special events throughout the years, in 2016 it became the first church in Holland to attain the official status of a museum. Its goal is to present contemporary art in a location steeped in history. In doing so, it invites Dutch and international curators to exhibit art, devise installations and host performances within the church space, not only displaying art, but creating new works that converse with the building and its history.
In the neighbourhood
When you’re in the heart of Amsterdam, be sure to take a canal cruise to see the city’s most photogenic sights from the water. The nearby NEMO Science Museum offers a family-friendly introduction to science and technology that will live long in the memories of kids, while ARCAM Amsterdam is a must-see for architecture aficionados, tracing the past, present and future of Amsterdam’s developments.
The Oude Kerk is accessible to wheelchair users or visitors with other mobile impairments. Understandably, caution should be taken by all visitors when navigating the uneven surfaces of the stone floor.
Editor’s tip: Despite its name and reputation, much of Amsterdam’s Red Light District is a safe and welcoming area for all ages in daytime. Many new businesses have moved into the Oudekerksplein and neighboring alleys, such as cafés, chocolatiers, bars, restaurants, artist studios and independent shops. Just 100 meters from the Oude Kerk, Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder is another iconic religious monument and museum with a spectacular story to tell.