We discovered Amsterdam for you!

The Red Light District of Amsterdam

Red Light District Amsterdam

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.

The Reality.

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.

Party Central.

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:

  • Condomerie het Gulden Vlies – This extremely popular little store is the first shop in the world to specialise in the sale of condoms. You will find every style, colour, size and taste on display. Indeed the store is a veritable condom museum. Address: Warmoesstraat 141

Red Light Coffeeshops.

There are several well established coffeeshops within the boundaries of the Red Light District:

  • Bulldog – If you ever arrange to meet friends ‘at the Bulldog’ be more specific as branches of this extremely popular coffeeshop are located all over town. In the Red Light District there are three on the same street which simply adds to even more confusion for visitors. The Bulldog brand has been extremely successful and all of their branches sell merchandise featuring the angry bulldog face including T-shirts, sweatshirts, bags and of course cannabis. Address: Oudebrugsteeg 16
  • The Grasshopper – This huge establishment is located on the very edge of the Red Light District just off Damrak and is possibly the first coffeeshop that people see when they arrive in the city. At night time it lights up in a shade of green. The cannabis shop and smoking area is in the basement whilst upstairs there is a sports bar and steakhouse restaurant on the first floor. Some people swear they can hear the sound of grasshoppers at the entrance some evenings but it’s probably just their imagination. Address: Oudebrugsteeg 16

Surprising Finds.

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.

Impressive Architecture.

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:

  • Oude Kerk – This stunning church dates back to the 14th century and is Amsterdam’s oldest building. It was consecrated by the Bishop of Utrecht in 1306 and its actual name is Saint Nicolas. The ceiling boasts the largest wooden vault in Europe whilst the floor is made up of some 2500 gravestones laid upon an incredible 10,000 buried previous parishioners. The church, now a cathedral, hosts regular services as well as concerts throughout the year. It is also the regular site of the incredibly popular annual World Press Photo exhibition. Address: Oudekerksplein
  • Ons Lieve Herrop Solder – This beautiful gem of a church is perhaps one of the most unusual places of worship in the city since it is hidden away in the top floors of a canal house on the edge of the Red Light District. A wealthy merchant named Jan Hartman who was a devout Catholic purchased the building in the mid-17th century. However since at this time it was strictly forbidden to commit public Catholic worship he chose to build a secret church in the upper three levels of the building. For the next 200 years this unsuspecting canal side house remained the hidden focus of the city’s Catholic community. Today the building is open to the public and a visit here comes highly recommended. Check their website for specific opening times. Address: Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40

Red Light District Museums

  • Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum – Learn all about the city’s most famous herb at this incredibly informative visitor centre. You will be able to see a variety of plant types growing happily under bright lights and you will learn all about its versatility as a medicine and a textile source. The gift shop is extensive and a little overwhelming! Address: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 148
  • Erotic Museum – This is one of two sex museums in Amsterdam, the other is located at the top end of Damrak and extremely popular with visitors eager to get out of the rain…so they insist! Three floors of historical, cultural and artistic artefacts from around the world as well as an impressive collection of old photographs make up this slightly dusty old visitor attraction. There are few thrills on your journey around the museum and frankly we would recommend the Damrak Sex Museum every time over this establishment. Clearly simply cashing in on the Red Light business market, it’s hard to take this location very seriously at all. If you want a cheap giggle and quite literally somewhere to escape a downpour then why not give it a whirl? The gift shop here is spectacularly tacky and almost worth the entrance fee to the museum itself. Address: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 54