A guide to Amsterdam's Red Light District

Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District is a carnival of vice, with skimpily-clad commercial sex workers in brothel windows, raucous bars, haze-filled 'coffeeshops', strip shows and mind-boggling museums. It's not for everyone.

A canal-side shot of Amsterdam's Red Light District
The Red Light District in Amsterdam is awash with blazes of neon and almost endless vice. © Olena Z / Shutterstock

If you choose to satisfy your curiosity with a wander around the area, keep your wits about you and watch out for pickpockets. Most importantly, remember that there's more to the Red Light District than its salaciousness – and much more to this multifaceted city than the Red Light District.

The Red Light District – a warren of medieval alleyways making up the inner-city area locally known as De Wallen – is just southeast of Centraal Station, on and around the parallel neon-lit canals Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal; Warmoesstraat is home to the district's main gay action.

An exterior shot of the Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution in the centre of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Get a behind-the-scenes insight into the lives of sex workers at the Red Light Secrets museum © Solarisys / Shutterstock

Red Light District background

A major trading harbour since the Middle Ages made Amsterdam a magnet for the 'world's oldest profession.' As early as the 1300s, women carrying red lanterns (due to their flattering light) met sailors near the port, and bars, clubs and risqué entertainment venues flooded into the area. But sex work wasn't legal until 1810, and brothels weren't legalised until 2000.

Changes continue: since 2007, city officials have taken measures to clean up the district by reducing the number of red-light windows in an effort to eliminate pimps, human traffickers and money launderers (all of which are illegal). Project 1012, named for the area's postal code, encourages fashion studios, art galleries, cafes and other creative enterprises to set up here. In 2013, the council raised the minimum age for sex workers from 18 to 21 and introduced mandatory red-light window closing hours between 6am and 8am. In 2020 tourists to Amsterdam will no longer be able to take a tour of De Wallen. It's a measure designed to combat overtourism, but sex workers have come out against the plan.

Tourists walking in the red light districts, where prostitutes try to lure customers from behind their windows.
Red lights on doors in the narrow alleyways mark houses of prostitution © Hollandfoto / Getty Images

Sex work

Despite the changes, more than 290 red-lit window brothels remain, and the industry generates about €650 million annually, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics (yes, commercial sex workers pay taxes).

Ground-zero for red-light windows is, ironically enough, Amsterdam's oldest building, the 14th-century Oude Kerk (Old Church). Near its entrance, look down to see the 'golden torso' pavement plaque of a hand groping a breast.  On the Oudekerksplein is Belle, a bronze statue of a sex worker with the inscription 'Respect sex workers all over the world'. Just nearby, the Prostitution Information Centre is a fount of information for both sex workers and visitors, and runs informative 90 minute Red Light District walking tours twice a week. They also sell self-guided tours for €3 at their shop.

Need to know:

  • Don't photograph or film sex workers in the windows – out of respect, and to avoid having your camera flung in a canal by their enforcers. Seriously.
  • On the De Pijp neighbourhood's western border along Ruysdaelkade, there's a second, smaller district with a strip of red-light windows (minus the stag parties and drunken crowds).

A statue depicting a commercial sex worker known as Belle in the Red Light District in Amsterdam
The statement 'Respect sex workers all over the world' is inscribed on the bronze statue of Belle. © Aleks49 / Shutterstock

Museums

Opened in 2014, brothel-turned-sex work museum Red Light Secrets gives you a behind-the-scenes glimpse and insight into the profession. You can check out bondage exhibits and other eyebrow-raising displays at the Red Light District's Erotic Museum or, for more raunchy exhibits, head northwest to the Sexmuseum Amsterdam, between Centraal Station and Dam square.

Learn everything you ever wanted to know about hash, marijuana and hemp at the eponymous Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum.

Coffeeshops

Coffeeshops (ie cannabis cafes) exist all over the city (and country), but the Red Light District has an especially high concentration. Greenhouse and Baba are two of the area's most popular. Cannabis is not technically legal in the Netherlands but the possession and purchase of 5g of 'soft drugs' (ie marijuana, hashish, space cakes and truffles) is widely tolerated and users won't be prosecuted for this amount.

The most potent cannabis varieties contain 15% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active substance that gets people high (anything above 15% is classified as a hard drug and therefore illegal). If you do partake, always exercise caution; even many regular smokers can't stomach the local product. The Red Light District's Cannabis College has reams of information.

The lowdown:

  • Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco (whether mixed with marijuana or on its own) in coffeeshops is illegal.
  • Don't ask for hard (illegal) drugs.
  • Never buy drugs of any kind on the street – fatalities can and do occur.

The exterior of the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Learn all about 'botany' at the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum. © Ewa Studio / Shutterstock

Drinking and dining

As well as all the seedy dive bars and rowdy pubs you'd expect, the area also has some wonderful jenever (Dutch gin) tasting houses, charming bruin cafés (historic Dutch pubs), and an independent brewery, Brouwerij de Prael. Fast food – including local specialties frites (fries, usually slathered in mayonnaise), pancakes, and FEBO outlets dispensing deep-fried snacks from automat windows – proliferates.  Zeedijk, on the district's eastern edge, is the heart of Amsterdam's Chinatown, with eateries galore.

Shopping

Condomerie Het Gulden Vlies sells condoms in every imaginable size, colour, flavour and design (horned devils, marijuana leaves, Delftware tiles...).

Last updated in May 2019.

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