Visually, the neighbourhood is characterised by its higgledy-piggledy streets and its famed garden courtyards (hofjes) built by rich 17th-century benefactors for the impoverished elderly. While the exact origin of the name ‘Jordaan’ remains a mystery, it was possibly these gardens (from the French jardin) that coined it. After all, many streets in the area still bear the names of flowers (Bloemgracht – flower canal; Egelantiersgracht – sweet briar canal, Palmstraat – palm street…) and there’s barely a street that doesn’t boast trees and shrubbery, fragrant Wisteria, vibrant bougainvillaea or cascading foliage.
A rich (and poor) history
When strolling around the dainty, crooked streets of the Jordaan today, it’s difficult to comprehend that the neighbourhood used to be a pit of poverty on the verge of demolition. Constructed in the early 17th century, when Amsterdam’s first Golden Age saw a steady influx of wealthy European immigrants, the Jordaan was originally dubbed the Nieuwe Werck (‘New Work’), as it housed the working-class artisans, carpenters and masons toiling away to expand the city’s boundaries. It even became Rembrandt’s last home following his bankruptcy in 1655; a tenant at Rozengracht 184 (a former canal that now serves as the district’s main east-to-west traffic artery), he also hired a small studio on nearby Bloemgracht.
By the 19th century, the population had exploded and the living conditions had severely deteriorated. There was a shortage of drinking water, the canals were filthy dumping grounds and families lived crammed by the dozen in tiny derelict lodgings. After World War II, there were even talks of demolishing the entire district. But the fortunate, timely birth of monument conservation laws in the 1960s saved the neighbourhood. Houses were renovated, the most putrid canals (including Rozengracht and Elandsgracht) were filled, and the famed garden courtyards were granted preservation status.
Life in the Jordaan
Today, the Jordaan offers a real mix: old-fashioned community-oriented Jordanese residents live next door to well-to-do young families shuttling their kids to school in a bakfiets (cargo bicycle). There are numerous hip hangouts and trendy restaurants around Noordermarkt and along Westerstraat and Rozengracht, but there’s also no shortage of traditional brown cafés. The traditional Dutch folk music that was born here – pompous, emotional tunes belted out with total abandon by a variety of aging singers that have saint-like status around here – is also still very much present, for example in Café Nol or during the annual Jordaan Festival.
Right at the northern edge of the Jordaan lies the Haarlemmerstraat and its extension, the Haarlemmerdijk. The street is full of quirky, independent boutiques and hip bars – the perfect spot for shopping, dining and cocktail sipping.