Since the Middle Ages and throughout the 17th century, the Netherlands was a country with a relatively high degree of freedom and tolerance towards other religions and cultures, especially compared to other countries in Europe. Between 1590 and 1800, the estimated foreign-born population was never less than 5 percent, many of them settling in Amsterdam. This led to a large diaspora of Jews, Huguenots (French protestants), Flemish, Poles and other peoples in the city. The Jewish people especially have always had a large presence in Amsterdam, notably in the Old Jewish Quarter (though this quarter has been in a status of decay since World War II). The most prominent synagogue is The Esnoga (or The Portuguese Synagogue) , built in 1675 in an austere Classicist style.
As the Netherlands was a protestant nation, most of the churches are from this branch of Christianity. Some of the most notable churches:
- Oude Kerk (1306) Located on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, in the red-light district. The oldest of the five main churches in the historic centre. You can climb the tower from April to September on Saturday & Sunday, every half-hour – but make sure you either do that early or stop by to book a climb in the morning, it could be sold out by the end of the day. Also open in the winter by group appointment (maximum 10 people) cost €70 per hour.
- Nieuwe Kerk (15th century) Located on Dam Square. Used for royal coronations, most recently the crowning of King Willem-Alexander in 2013, and royal weddings, most recently the wedding of crown prince Willem-Alexander to princess Máxima in 2002. Today, the church is no longer used for services but is now a popular exhibition space.
- Zuiderkerk (built 1603-1611) Located on Zuiderkerkhof (“Southern Graveyard”) square. Now an information centre on housing and planning. You can visit the tower from April to September Monday to Saturday (with guide only) every half-hour, cost €6. Also open in the winter by group appointment (maximum 15 people) cost €70 per hr.
- Noorderkerk (built 1620-1623) Located on Noordermarkt on the Prinsengracht.
- Westerkerk (built 1620-1631) Located on Westermarkt near the Anne Frank House. The church is open (free) for visitors from Monday to Friday, 11AM-3PM, from April to September. You can also climb the tower (with guide only) every half-hour, Mon to Saturday €7.50 (2013). This is 6-person-at-a-time journey, thus the amount of visitors per day is limited – make sure you do the climb (or book it) in early hours. In good weather you can see all of Amsterdam, and as far as the coast.
The late-medieval city also had smaller chapels such as the Sint Olofskapel (circa 1440) on Zeedijk, and convent chapels such as the Agnietenkapel on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231 (originally 1470), now the University of Amsterdam museum. Later churches included the Oosterkerk (1669) in the eastern islands, and the heavily restored Lutheran Church on the Singel (1671), now used by a hotel as a conference centre. Catholic churches were long forbidden, and built again only in the 19th-century: the most prominent is the Neo-Baroque Church of St. Nicholas (1887) opposite Central Station.
Also, investigate some of the “hidden churches” found in Amsterdam, mainly Catholic churches that remained in activity following the Reformation. A prominent hidden church is Amstelkring Museum (Our Lord in the Attic Chapel) Well worth the visit. Two hidden churches still in use are the Begijnhofchapel near the Spui, and the Papegaaikerk in the Kalverstreet (both Catholic).