When people chat about visiting Amsterdam, for many people great art, fascinating culture and magnificent architecture may come to mind. However it is rarely long before the conversation comes round to discussing the city’s infamous Red Light District. For Amsterdammers it is simply a fact of life, something that has existed for centuries and rarely causes even a raised eyebrow. Indeed it is almost expected that all visitors will at least once stumble across this notorious red neon neighbourhood in the very centre of the city.
In actual fact this incredibly popular little city zone known locally as ‘De Wallen’ is not the only red light area in Amsterdam. There are in fact several dotted around the centre but visitors to the city are usually only familiar with the largest and oldest which is located only seconds away from Dam Square. The area is larger than people often imagine, a rectangle containing many small streets, narrow alleyways and two city canals running through its centre. The district is literally only a three minute walk from Central Station running to the immediate east of the main strip Damrak. It is lovingly hemmed in by the picturesque Zeedijk, the atmospheric Warmoesstraat, the Damstraat shopping street and the slightly more boring, but no less pretty, Kloveniersburgwal. At the heart of the district sits the beautiful Oude Kerk (old church) and many people are shocked to see that its walls are literally surrounded by the iconic red neon windows.
Let’s not pretend that the area this is simply a cheeky theme park for tourists. Whilst this is indeed great place to grab a beer with a unique atmosphere it is also a thriving business district where sexual services are indeed exchanged for cold hard cash. In the Netherlands prostitution is perfectly legal so long as it is not being plied on the streets (street walking).
Approximately 300 little cabins are dotted throughout this infamous neighbourhood. Each one is illuminated outside with a red neon light and visitors, tourists, locals and regulars file past nearly 24 hours a day. The scantily dressed women inside often actively try to interact with those walking past. Heavily bejewelled fingers can often be heard rattling loudly on the glass. Women of all ages, backgrounds, sizes and ethnicities can be found here offering a professionally tried and tested service for all who enter. Since the women are working perfectly within the remits of the law they are therefore also protected by it. It is well within their right to say no to a gentleman caller if they so wish. It is important that you should know that it is also illegal for you to take photographs of the women in the windows. If you do not heed this advice the outcome for you will most definitely not be a positive one. You are likely to lose your camera and your pride before the police even arrive on the scene!
The women who work here are self-employed and therefore pay tax as with any other employment situation. By allowing their role in business and society to be officially recognised the government hoped the women would be able to take control of their own lives, ultimately eradicating pimps. Unfortunately the reality is far for more complicated and the Amsterdam’s most notorious district remains a predictably thorny public issue continuously up for discussion. Most alarming are the serious concerns around human trafficking which have most recently come to the fore. To be quite frank, the future of Amsterdam’s Red Light District in its present form is far from secure.
To find out more about the city’s most fascinating district you can visit the Prostitution Information Center (PIC) in the heart of the neighbourhood where there is even a mini museum for you to explore. Their role is to inform and educate visitors to the city about the reality of Holland’s sex industry and dispel some of the popular myths that surround it. They also provide you with the opportunity to book an excellent informative private tour of the district where you will be escorted through the winding streets by an ex-prostitute. For more information visit pic-amsterdam.com. Address: Enge Kerksteeg 3.
The district is incredibly popular, as you might imagine, with large groups of men and women on hen parties and stag weekends throughout the year. The apparently cheeky charm of it all ties in perfectly with the mischievous and often raucous antics of such celebratory prenuptial events. Expect a noisy atmosphere if you chose to visit the area on a Saturday night, although every night is potentially a stag night in Amsterdam.
The district is packed with a wealth of alternative social attractions that might understandably not appeal to every visitor to the city. There are a string of popular pubs and bars, several coffeeshops selling cannabis and even Amsterdam’s own Hashish and cannabis Museum. Add to that an (apparently) erotic museum, a handful of racy shops selling daft saucy souvenirs and some incredibly eye opening theme clubs including the infamous Banana Bar – please don’t ask us to explain exactly what happens inside here!
Despite what you may have heard, the Red Light District is actually a very safe place to visit, as is the whole of the city today. Unlike London, Paris and other major European cities, Amsterdam has a general live and let live attitude that extends to personal safety in the streets too. You should however take care of your valuables at all times, as is perfectly normal in all busy outdoor environments.
Red Light District Entertainment.
There are several sexually themed nightclubs in the district, as you might expect, which command high entry fees averaging at around 50 euros per person. You will usually be treated to a ‘live show’ of some kind and receive a handful of free drinks. The general consensus is that whilst the atmosphere in such establishments is undoubtedly sexual, it is far from being at all sexy and frankly something of a rip off. Some of the most popular
venues are as follows:
• Bananenbar. Address: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 37
• Casa Rosso. Address: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 106-108
• Moulin Rouge. Address: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 5-7
Shopping in the Red Light District.
You will find some truly unusual items on offer in the selection of tiny shops that pepper the district. Unsurprisingly there are many sex shops selling adult entertainment media and random marital aids. However there are also lots of other shops and galleries worth exploring if you like your retail therapy a little less hair-raising! One of our favourites:
Red Light Coffeeshops.
There are several well established coffeeshops within the boundaries of the Red Light District:
Look out for the Red Light Radio station that is housed within one of the tiny red light booths at the rear of the Oude Kerk. It’s broadcasting all night so why not pop down there and make a musical request? A few doors further down you will find probably the most unlikely establishment flanked by women in booths – a kindergarten.
Only a few steps away at the other side of the church on the Oudekerksplein sits the world’s first monument to sex workers. The small sculpture shows a woman standing in a doorway. Look down at the cobbled street and see if you can spot the mysterious bronze sculpture of a hand caressing a single breast. No-one knows who made it and where it came from. There are many similar such anonymous pieces of street art dotted around the city. They simply pop up overnight and the local council happily leaves them in peace if they are not obstructing anything or anyone.
One cannot deny that the winding streets and canal side houses in this compact neighbourhood are extremely enchanting. There are several building of particular architectural interest including:
Red Light District Museums