Stuff Dutch People Like

No. 35: Impossibly steep stairs (aka: the death “trap”)

Living in a postcard is swell

After 2 years of living in the lowlands our expat-provided accommodation ran out, so we naively embarked on a Amsterdam house-hunting mission. Even though it was a good 6 years ago, I remember it well, as we visited not 5 or 6 potential apartments – but a whopping 35 in total! The whole process felt a bit like the story of “The Three Bears”: too small, too big, too hard, too soft – you get the idea.

Potential apartment #34 was one of my favourites, located on a picturesque Amsterdam canal it was like stepping into a postcard. True it was cozy (read: incredibly small), slightly damp (read: major water leakage throughout the house) and inconveniently spread out across 3 tiny levels, but it fit my new-in-Amsterdam romanticism and home-finding desperation well.

What, no harness?!

I could deal with the neighbour’s lack of curtains and the stinky herring stall below. The only downfall that I couldn’t quite come to terms with was the stairs, which could perhaps be better referred to as “the near-vertical-mountain-requiring-daily-scaling“. They resembled a treacherous ladder of sorts that required the use of all fours and the maintenance of ninja-like precision balance. Was this some sort of circus-performers house? Were mere mortals suppose to make this daily climb? 

Better yet, these terrifying stairs are often accompanied by a ceiling  full of precariously dangling bicycles and strollers roped up on some hand-made elaborate rigging system. A great example once again of Dutch ingenuity, but not such a comforting sight if you start to contemplate the impeding snap of one single rope.

The trek upwards on these Dutch stairs is no doubt a mission, but the trek downwards is where things start to get really interesting. Not only are you dealing with an impossibly steep descent, but the teeny-tiny stairs don’t even allow for a full footstep (huh, but what about the Dutch’s massive feet??), and thus must be maneuvered in an awkward sidewise motion. Sometimes, for fun, these sneaky Dutch architects decided to throw in a curve, adding yet another element of danger.  It is no wonder the Dutch word for stairs is trap! How aptly named, for they are a trap indeed, of the death-trap variety!!

Look Mom, no hands!

Of course, I later found out that such staircases were not so unusual in the Netherlands and were characteristic of the 17th-century canal houses. However, you may have also asked yourself at some point, why oh why did such awkward stairwells exist?? Well, the answer is painfully simple and again (surprise, surprise ;) can be rooted in Dutch people’s constant quest for saving a buck. Back in the day, canal houses were taxed on their width, meaning that the wider your house, the more taxes you paid. How could a clever Dutchie circumvent such an issue? Easy, simply build yourself a very tall, very skinny house which requires a crazy-ass set of stairs.

Needless to say, we didn’t end up of taking the canal view apartment. I figured I just didn’t have the Dutch-bike-balancing-circus-act qualities required for such a daily feat. We luckily settled on apartment #35 – where we’ve happily resided (with the Dutch luxury of an elevator) the last 6 years!

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73 response to "No. 35: Impossibly steep stairs (aka: the death “trap”)"
  1. Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Those steep and narrow stairs in Dutch houses are indeed a menace if you don’t grow up with them. If you do, you just race up and down them with learned brain-body athleticism ;) I must say, I’ve never seen those wicked “butcher-block” stairs on that first stair-case photo.

  2. smilesandhappiness said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    haha once again, fantastic piece of bloggin!

  3. Jan met de Pet said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    So after visiting 33 houses with normal stairs you found 1 with a steep stairs? 1 in 34 is not a very high percentage. So I’m glad to hear that most staircases are normal.

    • ahura said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 4:50 pm

      no they are not!!!
      so far I’ve been in 5-6 different houses and all of them are exactly as horrible as described here!!

  4. Bertha Nijkamp said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    After the second staircase: Look Mom, no teeth!

  5. Nina said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Everyone that comes to my place complains about the narrow staircase! And they are Dutch but have lived in post war housing all their lives!

  6. tim said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Those steep and narrow stairs are also exclusive to the centre of Amsterdam. The Netherlands is bigger then the Amsterdam ring of canals. It might be a surprise to some, but stairs outside Amsterdam are actually quite normal.

    • David said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      I definitely came across the same issue when I lived in Rotterdam…

    • Stacey said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 10:43 am

      No, they are not. This is a characteristic of all Dutch homes built prior to the 80′s.

      • Smitty said:Posted on March 14th, 2013 at 12:29 am

        I grew up in a community in the United States that was settled by the dutch. Many of the houses had these same stairs! I often wondered WHY, now I know. :)

    • Bernjan said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 11:21 am

      When people are at my home they also complain about the steep and narrow staircase, but i don’t live in Amsterdam. Anyway, if you grow up with it you can’t imagine it’s hard to climb them.

    • jettte said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      Stairs in the rest of the Netherlands are NOT normal!!!
      They are maybe not quite as crazy as the ones in Amsterdam, but they would still be illegal under most other countries’ building codes. We live in Tilburg in a house built in 1928 and both my German mum and my boyfriend’s Australian mum only ever descend the stairs backwards because they are so steep.
      And it’s not only old buildings either: I’ve seen insane stairs in brand new public buildings around here.
      I’m not complaining, I think saving some space in a country as full as this one is probably a good thing, and so is acquiring the balance and motor skills required for dealing with these stairs. Just saying: the rest of the Netherlands is not entirely different from Amsterdam at least in this one point.

      • Sascha Frangilli said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 5:26 pm

        My Australian (ex) mom-in-law fell down the stairs in my house – she was so not accustomed to stairs in the first place (90% of the houses in Australia are one level) and then the steep stairs curvy stairs here in a normal (!) Dutch rental house.

      • Danielle said:Posted on October 10th, 2013 at 12:09 pm

        My brother lives in Australia and when he and his Australian wife came over a couple of months ago, they told me that my stairs (I live in a typical Dutch house dating from 1971) wouldn’t pass Australian building regulations. My sister-in-law was terrified of them!

    • Bastian said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      Here in Groningen I live at the moment in a student house. Also with a very steep and narrow stairs. I can tell that a lot of houses here also have this.. I don’t believe this can only be found in Amsterdam, but everywhere in the Netherlands

      • hpjd said:Posted on December 14th, 2012 at 4:49 am

        saw them in nijmegen!

    • dark_man_x said:Posted on February 13th, 2013 at 9:32 am

      I live in a 1930s suburb in Utrecht and our house have the same type of stairs. I think Ikea designed their flatpack furniture with us in mind.

    • Jules said:Posted on June 8th, 2014 at 9:47 am

      Nope, lived in Tilburg… Lived in 6 houses there with the exact same issue… And my sister in The Hague has had the same kind of stairs as well… Older houses have higher ceilings and steeper narrower stairs… But they are lovely…

  7. Sandra said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    We in the south of the Netherlands don’t really have many of them luckly :)

  8. Ron said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Note many Dutch people would die for such an apartment, because they are considered so romantical…

  9. Danielle said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    I would disagree with steep, narrow steps only being in Amsterdam ‘grachtenpanden’. I remember my auntie and uncle’s farmhouse out in the country very well for the impossible steep and narrow stairs

  10. marc said:Posted on September 2nd, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    When I worked in an HIFI/Television shop in Amsterdam in the pre-flatscreen era, I was so glad I wasn’t the guy who had to deliver the big televisions to the 4th floor.

  11. Kate said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 2:03 am

    The row houses in the south do have the small stairs, according to my non-Dutch boyfriend. Maybe they are not small and steep to us, but to foreigners they are. It was very easy impressing my boyfriend: just running up and down the stairs at my parent’s home.

  12. Ern said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Had a cousin who lived in low-cost post-war housing in Amsterdam and the stairs there were steep and narrow too.

  13. Lyn said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 4:17 am

    @ Tim, dude, my best friend has stairs like that, and we live in Groningen!

  14. Sonja said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Oh no, it is in other parts of the country too. my brother lives in bemmel and the stairs in his house are awful. They are very steep and curve too. That does save quite a bit of space. But i am not used to them and when I visit and have to go downstairs from the third floor guest room to the restroom on the second floor I fear for me life. Lol. The house is only abou 15years old.

  15. TCM said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 8:09 am

    I have a super steep set of stairs here in the UK so I am waiting for the concept to catch on and then I can sell my house! In other news – I find stairs encountered in Breda and Roosendaal familiarly steep, so I don’t see any Anti-Amsterdamian bias in this blog. A great read too – love the history in it by way of explanation.

  16. Marlies van der Meer said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Nice blog cuz I didnt know (as real Dutchie) the reason why those Adam canal houses are so narrow. And as a real Dutchie I would say: why complain about narrow staircases if you get to live along a canal :) ?

  17. daquiprai said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 9:16 am

    I must say that my partner (Dutch one) fall from one of them and broke his leg!

  18. Tom -dutch expat in spain- said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Ohw come on.
    This has to be the furthest fetch ever on this blog. Have we ran out of typical dutch stuff?

    You’ll find those stairs only in a few monumental (and therefore left in original state) buildings, who can only be found in a small number of cities where they make up less then a percent of the total number of houses. And you already know this.

    I really do love this blog and I do realize none of the postings are about all dutchies, but this one doesn’t even concern more then just a few of them. Why not try a blog on:
    1: every dutchie has his favorite beer and will let anyone know the others favorite brand is piss
    2: dutchies like to interfere with your business, but wont let you interfere with theirs (eg: try asking a dogowner to clean up the dogs turd after it took a dump).
    3: dutchies buy houses near airports or circuits and will complain immediately about the noise and pollution and/or will start an action comite ( a good topic on itself btw ) to mobilize the neighbors.

    -made that up in a few minutes, perhaps you’ve got something there-

    • MARGRIET said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 7:51 pm

      I like the one on dutchies buying a house near a …anything causing troubles…. and than start complaining about it. There is a sense of truth in it, funny thing is also quite often people “born and raised” in certain area never seem to have a problem (for example an airport), the trouble starts with the new comers.

    • Andrew Meehan (@drewdraws2) said:Posted on September 5th, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Tom, I think you’re seriously wrong. I’m an American who has lived extensively in France, Italy, and Switzerland before moving to the Netherlands. Without a doubt, there is no house that I’ve been to in NL built before 2000 that has what the rest of the world considers “normal” steps. None. The Dutch don’t notice because they’re so ubiquitous that it seems normal, but a staircase even in a 20 or 50 year-old house is quite a bit steeper (and often narrower) than what other western countries are used to!

      • Kristin said:Posted on October 6th, 2013 at 1:35 am

        I live in a very Dutch city in the US, we even have a tulip festival where we all dress up in traditional Dutch costumes and dance around on the streets in wooden shoes for a week (Yes, we are all in counseling), My Grandmother’s father (who was born in the Netherlands) built her house and they had these stairs!!! To this day, I have to go down them backwards. I never understood what would possess people to create such an unusable disaster. I was in my teens before I could even get up to their second floor. Now I understand. It’s definitely a Dutch thing.

  19. Rick said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    loved those stairs as a kid, slided down a couple on a matras, it was AWESOME!

  20. Meredith said:Posted on September 3rd, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    You are all crazy: I’ve only seen one house here with normal stairs, and I live in the Eindhoven area (1.5 hours south of Amsterdam). Our stairs are only tolerable for me because of the railing and they are spiral, and therefore a full foot width on the very outside edge (which is where I walk). Even so, I fell down them the second week we lived here, and then we added ‘tread grip tape’ to the edges. We’ve been here almost 4 years and I’ve seen a lot of houses… even a very new, expensive house which the owner was proud to show me her death-trap stairs (which they “saved from the farm house that was torn down!”) Great blog post!

  21. Pietje Puk said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 12:44 am

    It is a hard life being old

  22. Ruth @ FacetiousFarang said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 3:45 am

    They’re insane, aren’t they? My great-aunt lives in an ancient house in The Hague, and the stairs are more like a ladder. She is 80+, and not very agile any more – dreading the day that she misjudges the stairs…

  23. Lisa said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    It’s funny because most other people have trouble going up the stairs in my house and look terrified, while i love running up and down the stairs and sounding like a giant doing it :P

  24. Miriam said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    I have a friend (Dutch) who has trouble even with normal stairs. That is to say, she needs to hold onto the side and walk slowly, one step at a time. She was raised in a one-story building and her school was the same, so no experience! I think this goes for many of our foreign guests, so I don’t blame them for fearing the stairs. Must Dutchies tho, run up and down stairs no hands 2 steps at a time easy peasy, just becaust they have so much experience.

    If you don’t like it, practice a lot, it gets better. It’s good exercise, too!

  25. Anja said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Did the up and down running for 21 years. 5 floors. Then I moved to the US. I miss them, they keep you fit and trim!

  26. Demmy Dumlu said:Posted on September 4th, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    LOL, I remember taking off my heels and throwing them down before me after which I climbed the stairs down as a ladder on all fours with my socks only :):) Once down 3 floors I would put my shoes on again. This was at a friend’s house in Amsterdam center. The real challenge was the evenings when I had a little too much to drink ;-)

  27. Invader_Stu said:Posted on September 5th, 2012 at 8:25 am

    I have seen so many houses with steep stairs. Most of them have been in Amsterdam but I used to live in one in Haarlem. Over time I kind of got used to them but they are insane. Some are worse then other.

  28. Decibel said:Posted on September 5th, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Recently I visited the Netherlands after more than 40 years away, and stayed with my Aunt in the house I had lived in as a child. I had forgotten about those stairs. Vertiginously steep, and soooo narrow! Lugging a 20kg suitcase up two flights to the guestroom in the attic, and down again was a scary business! And yes, there were racks of washing hanging over the stairs at both levels, and there were shoes and and other items on the bottom steps waiting to be taken upstairs.

  29. Marcella VDE said:Posted on September 5th, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    As an expat living in the US for many years now the stairs all over NL are not easy to navigate.
    In 2007 we, along with another family, rented an apartment for a week in A’dam right near the Overtoom….WOW…the stairs were crazy…the apartment was on the 2nd & 3rd floor….we could barely get up the stairs with our kids & strollers & suitcases. The stairs inside the apartment from the 2nd to the 3rd floor were spiral & narrow! The best was the “stairs” to the roof top terrace…a glorified ladder. It was great spot to be in for the week. We enjoyed it Dutch stairs and all. My husband, who is builder, reminds me that many of the stairs that are buildt in NL would never be legal here.

  30. prive said:Posted on September 9th, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Oh, I encountered the steepest set of stairs while flat hunting in Westerpark area of Amsterdam. The flat faced the park and had a lovely facade wonderful layout (recently refurbished with a spacey feel), but the walk to the 1st floor was almost climbing a ladder that skewed to the left as you got higher. Ugh! I thought of struggle to carry furniture and my grocery shopping…I said no thanks!

  31. Margarita said:Posted on September 27th, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    They seem like a very good ,if scary, workout!

  32. Mike said:Posted on September 30th, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I have one of these..and secretly enjoy in anticipation the look on visitor’s faces when they enter my apartment. Not in Amsterdam, but Gouda has it’s share of ‘death traps’ as well :)

  33. Wesley said:Posted on October 1st, 2012 at 9:17 am

    If you’re drunk or have a proper “kater” those stairs are really good fun.

  34. Mary said:Posted on October 5th, 2012 at 9:12 am

    This is so true…it was one of the first things I noticed when I first visited Amsterdam!

  35. Huub said:Posted on October 24th, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    When you realise that half of our “Lowlands” is below sea level you will appreciate the invention of stairs. And yes, when the water comes and after you have ran up all the stairs, then you’re “trapped” on the roof.
    By the way, you may call yourself a lucky one to have had a choice of 35 apartments in Amsterdam.
    I suppose that the boss paid the rent!

    • Stuff Dutch People Like said:Posted on October 24th, 2012 at 6:48 pm

      No boss paying the rent Huub. If he was I would have had a much easier choice!

  36. MJ said:Posted on November 1st, 2012 at 3:11 am

    That blog is the funniest ever! It made me cry !!
    Dutch people should hire Canadian Architects and live normally without making unwanted backflips-triple-axel figures when going down the stairs.

    How about using a rope or a pole to get down on main floor while you’re at it! :)

  37. Danny said:Posted on December 4th, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Steep stairs take up less space and lets you make the most use of your floorspace. It’s a practical thing and quite easy to live with once you get used to it…..until you get home drunk that is..!

  38. crystalclog said:Posted on January 8th, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    My grandma used to live in this tiny house in one of the old port towns, and it had this suicidally steep staircase. Luckily she only lived there for a few months.

  39. aliwiseman said:Posted on February 17th, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    Tis the same here in Leiden! I’ve nearly died a few times!

  40. Erica Gray (@ecomumnl) said:Posted on March 15th, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    After 4 years with death trap stairs in our house in Breda I can now run up them carrying a 3 year old under one arm and a basketful of laundry in the other hand (because, of course, the washing machine is in the attic). Still can’t cycle while texting though – epic failure as a wannabe Dutchie!

    • Menko Ubbens said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 9:30 pm

      We repair iPhones in Hilversum. We’ve had quite few customers who drowned their iPhone due to texting while cycling – they steered their bike into a ditch.

  41. CindyLouBou said:Posted on July 10th, 2013 at 12:53 am

    I visited my Dutch boyfriend back in November and he lives in Utrecht. I also visited some friends in Eindhoven. Both houses, although different, had steep, narrow stairs. Back at the boyfriends house, his room was up in the attic, and coming down the stairs on the 1st day I was there I tripped and fell until I reached the 2nd floor. It scared him to death but I was laughing. Later on at the train station I fell walking up the stairs.

  42. annie bui said:Posted on September 10th, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    YES. Now I know why.

  43. PDtje said:Posted on September 13th, 2013 at 6:25 am

    I miss those stairs. As a little kid my brothers and I would crawl into sleeping bags and roll down the stairs. As we got a bit older we would rollerblade down them. Safe? no probably not, but fun indeed.

  44. Elisabeth said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Rubbish. Ever climbed stairs in medieval castles or seen the servant’s staircases in English country homes, in cottages and farmhouses, in terraced houses of the early 20th century in Paris?
    It’s just that in America everything is bigger, wider and better. And Americans leave no chance letting everybody know that this is so. The Dutch do not claim to like narrow staircases. I like your blog when it is funny and points out our strange habits and likings. So I’m probably a party pooper, but this is rubbish. If you want to live in the old center of one of our big cities, accept how they are built and appreciate the history.

  45. William Endert said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Imagine visiting your relatives and carrying an oversized suitcase up and down those stairs. To tell the truth, I was scared.

  46. John Evanoff said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    The elevators are the size of an old phone booth.

  47. Helen said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Never realized the stairs in Dutch houses were any different from those in other countries. The only stairs that ever scared me were the ones in my aunt and uncle’s house which were so steep I descended them backwards.

  48. Erik Smit said:Posted on September 21st, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    That old law could explain why old Dutch houses were so narrow. But how does it explain steep stairs? These narrow houses are also very deep, so if the stairs went from the front of the house (bottom) to the back (top) they would be almost flat.

  49. Alison Whiitehouse said:Posted on September 22nd, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    oh oh i visited my brother in laws new appartment which is sooo wonderful but the stairs are a death trap to me..but he is Dutch and tall and easily manages those steep steps..i am English and small and felt like a hobbit climbing a mountain!

  50. Farrah (@Momofthreeunder) said:Posted on September 26th, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    This is really funny. We’ve been here in the NL just about 1 year. When we moved over we agreed to do the house hunters international thing and the stairs were the one aspect I was pretty nuts over (honestly, I wasn’t crazy or spoiled anywhere else!) but when our episode aired, this lady WENT OFF (on the House Hunters FB page) on me and my take on the death trap stairs (in fact, I actually used that term) and the fact that I clearly thought my three young children (2, 2 and 3!) were entitled and I was spoiling them and GOD FORBID we live in a house with these stairs. Oh it was crazy. So yeah. I was intimidated big time, but we’ve since managed to be ok without a fall yet! Oh god I just cursed us.

  51. Waterman said:Posted on October 4th, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Steep stairs? If you’re lucky! When I was a kid, I had to use a ladder to get to my room from the ground floor, ever since I could walk. A sturdy wooden ladder with horizontal carpeted steps that my father made. It didn’t lead to a landing, which would be a waste of space, but to a hole in the floor next to my bed, covered by a wooden hatch. Or should I say a trap-door?

    This was not in Amsterdam, but in the Dutch countryside, where many working-class houses were smaller than ours. The house was built on the site of a chicken-shed and was expanded twice before I was born. We had a vegetable garden that could feed the whole family throughout the year. I don’t remember any visitor being surprised by our ladder, but people did freak out about the steep unpaved driveway that went almost straight up a dyke.

  52. Mirjam said:Posted on October 30th, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I guess we are used to them.. and as a child we all fell down the stairs (more than once)..
    Never considered them narrow.. We all get used to our own ‘trap’ inhouse and run up and down them without thinking twice and our hands full on occasions.. Maybe cause of our bike-balancing skills?? ;-)

  53. barrypiatoff said:Posted on November 27th, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Reblogged this on The Second Time Around and commented:
    If I go to Holland one year and never make it back to New York, it’s because these stairs got the better of me.

  54. iris meijer said:Posted on February 26th, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    it’s not that dutch stairs are so small, stairs in other country’s are just ridiculously wide! why would you need 3 meters of stair when you yourself are only half a meter wide yourself. something more ridiculous is stairs without a trapleuning. (i don’t know the english word for it)

    • demmy said:Posted on March 2nd, 2014 at 1:18 am

      Trapleuning: Banister ;)

  55. Imogene said:Posted on October 28th, 2014 at 2:57 am

    Philadelphia has quite a number of old “trinity” houses. They’re brick row houses that are three rooms (four if the basement has been finished) stacked one atop another. You move between floors via a narrow enclosed spiral staircase. I lived in one for several years and only fell once :)

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