Amsterdam Red Light District: What’s It Like (Facts & Travel Tips)

by Nightlife, Netherlands27 comments

Now don’t get excited. (Amsterdam Red Light District)

I’m not going to discuss an ‘experience‘ in a Red Light District because I would never—what…? Oh, you lost interest in reading this now? Haha! Can’t blame you, I did try to mislead you with the title. *pats myself on the back*

Anyhow, I hope you’d still stick around especially if you’re curious about Amsterdam’s famous and largest Red Light District called De Wallen. Besides, up till now, I still remember how surreal it was and I would like to share with you the experience that I had.

…And yes it really was my first time to step into such a place because in Asia, though our RLDs are equally ‘famous’, they are not the kind of tourist attractions that the general public would look out for (unless you’re a man or woman seeking for the other kind of tourism: sex tourism).

Where to Stay in Amsterdam?

Come and check out my detailed post on the ‘Best Hotels in Amsterdam

Simply put: it’s a shady business, which is much like everything else in the world. For example, the ones we have back in the Philippines are disguised as bars, KTVs, massage parlors, or clubs since it’s definitely considered illegal; however, the government turns a blind eye on it since it’s ‘very profitable’ due to the sexpats.

Besides, even if I’m curious about how it works or looks like, I wouldn’t dare venture into those establishments or streets during their ‘peak hours’ because:

  • I value my life, thank you very much
  • I have visions of pimps kidnapping me, and;
  • I also don’t want to be mistaken as one of the girls
    .

However, the Amsterdam Red Light District is somehow different. Similar, yet altogether different.

It has a tinge of seediness—of course, that feeling will always be there—but for the most part, it felt or seemed so… normal.

Nothing is ‘hidden’ either; they’re as vocal, straight-forward, and transparent as they could be to the public, probably due in part to how prostitution in the Netherlands is legal: establishments have clear huge neon lights directly advertising sex shows or peep shows, and of course, there are the rows of tiny rooms with the scantily-clad girls, offering their services behind a glass door/window that’s illuminated in red.

This kind of red light district is NOT only found in Amsterdam. It’s a common thing in the whole of Europe; Antwerp, for example, has something similar to this and it was more ‘organized’ in a sense that the windows are in a flowing manner, whereas the ones here in Amsterdam are very scattered and you have to walk through small side streets etc.
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RELATED READ: Amsterdam Coffeeshop First-Timer Tips

Amsterdam Red Light District

Amsterdam Red Light District, Moulin Rouge

“IT FELT NORMAL”: I say this because it was such a ‘touristy’ place. You can see families strolling around, eager to see the ‘oddity‘ of this nightlife spot—and yes, there were even families with kids — which still baffles me to this day.

Of course, you will also see the occasional man negotiating and talking to a ‘window girl’ (he gets in, a red curtain will be drawn over the window, once done, he gets out in a rush). BUT the number of curious couples and groups were far more rampant, that the Amsterdam Red Light District becomes a mystifying thing on its own. Groups of girls during their ‘hen night’ or bachelorette party are common here too; most likely giggling around and daring one another to watch the sex shows.

There were even police people stationed at certain spots to ensure that public order is maintained. In fact, it can be said that the Amsterdam Red Light District here is one of the safest areas in Amsterdam because of the number of policemen, as well as the bodyguards (pimps?) that the girls personally have.

I’m here to simply inform you how I saw and interpreted this RLD. If you’re curious how prostitution is handled in this side of the world, then, by all means, visit it yourself and quench your inquiring mind or continue reading this post.
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I, for one, was peculiar about Amsterdam’s liberal and tolerant attitude about all of this, that’s why I wanted to see for myself how they embrace the fact that some people are just into prostitution, soft drugs (read my experience with that as I visited their special Amsterdam coffeeshops), and pornography—that it is all a ‘human’ thing. That rather than banning it (because it will always be there; people will always find a way) it’s better to regulate it in order to protect the women involved.

But naturally, if you’re the kind of person who hates these kinds of things in the first place, then surely don’t go; you’ll definitely end up loathing it.

Also, if you’re a family, please don’t bring your kids to the Amsterdam Red Light District; let them discover this place on their own when they are older. But I guess… okay, whatever floats your boat. Society is becoming more open-minded than before and I could understand if some parents want to expose their kids to the realities of this world, but I do hope to goodness that you guys are mindful of what you’re doing.

– – –

“IT IS LEGAL”: Prostitution was legalized in Amsterdam back in 2000 with the aim of regulating the business, protecting the women, and ensuring that organized crime, human trafficking, or money laundering are kept at bay.

With this, prostitution became some sort of a ‘legitimate business’ wherein all girls have to be registered in the government with a self-employed status (to also ensure that they are not younger than 21) and are positioned in the same tax bracket as that of a tour guide. So yes, they do pay taxes and they have to be officially licensed.

The girls also have the right to choose which customers to take in (it must all be consensual), and if ever there’s trouble—money dispute or a bad customer—they always have an alarm button in their area that would connect them to the police who are just minutes or seconds away (remember how I said that they’re scattered around the RLD?).

However, I understand that we can never know, despite all the efforts of the government to regulate this business, if there are girls who are still involved in human trafficking (there’s a high chance that there still are). But for the most part, this appears to be seasonal work for some girls who leave their European countries, looking for profitable work in a short period (like 6 months or more) so that they can return to their country with a small fortune.

Laws for prostitution vary across Europe but the 8 countries: Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, and Latvia have made prostitution legal and regulated so that there won’t be room for exploitation with the prostitutes.
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Some countries, however, made prostitution wholly illegal, either criminally prosecuting the clients or the prostitutes themselves. Whereas countries like Spain, Belgium and the Czech Republic have prostitution as not officially and not legally regulated; they are simply tolerated or recognized as a job and a laissez-faire.

» Where is the Red Light District: De Wallen?

Girls on Red Windows - Amsterdam

De Wallen or De Walletjes is located in the oldest part of the city, covering several blocks to the south of the church of Oude Kerk and a 10-minute walk away from the Amsterdam Central Station. (There are no tram stops nearby but the nearest station is Nieuwmarkt).

The Amsterdam Red Light District consists of a network of alleys containing approximately 300 tiny one-room cabins rented by prostitutes and that together with the other lesser-known prostitution areas Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade, form the Rosse Buurt (red light areas) of Amsterdam.

The old canals Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal pass through this Amsterdam Red Light District as well, giving the place a distinct charm.

But then again, without the sex shops, red windows, and whatnot, this area already holds a sense of glamour as it is the most medieval part of the city—given its old buildings and 14th-century architecture. (It’s actually along these canals where you will find the main part of the Red Light District. It’s easy to spot because you’ll see all the establishments that hold sex shows. To see more ‘red windows’, you will have to go through the side streets and alleyways.)

» Amsterdam Red Light District Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do NOT take photos of the occupied windows at the Amsterdam Red Light District – this is prohibited and any attempt to do so have consequences. Every girl will get mad and they will run after you, or worse, their bodyguards or ‘pimps’ will come out to get you.
    • While strolling around, I personally witnessed a girl getting mad at a guy who took a photo of her; I didn’t know what happened next but it’s likely (like what other people’s stories go) that they will ensure that it’s deleted/gone — or worse, crush the camera or phone. So it’s best that you respect the girls’ privacy.
  • Mind your belongings – the place is safe with all the clusters of policemen, but still, due to the crowd, pick-pocketing can happen. So always try to go in groups or at least go with someone so you don’t attract any unwanted attention especially in the side streets.
  • Don’t start a conversation with the girls IF you don’t intend to do any business with them; they or their bodyguards will get mad at you for wasting their time. Nevertheless, it’s okay to look at them; they don’t go out of their windows to seek ‘business’ from you anyway.
  • Don’t buy from dealers – sometimes there are people who will try to sell you drugs or bikes here. Do NOT buy them. As I’ve mentioned in my other post about ‘soft drugs’, they are only allowed to be sold in ‘coffee shops’ so if you buy them outside, you’ll find yourself on the other side of the law!
  • Go at night – though there can be girls already at their windows during daylight, it’s less lively. So to get a better feel of the RLD, go and visit during night time when it’s filled with people and the neon lights are on to illuminate the area and the canals. It’s at its peak during 11PM; though at 9PM, the atmosphere could already be busy.
  • Don’t think that this is all Amsterdam is about – because it has a lot more to offer! The city has so much culture, food, and history to give you so I suggest that you wander around!

» What else to do?

Bronze statue of Belle
BELLE: A bronze statue placed in front of Oude Kerk by Els Rijerse with an inscription that says: “Respect sex workers all over the world”.

Aside from the girls on the red glass windows/doors, there are a lot more things for you to do here in De Wallen.

By the way, before I go on, let me tell you some observations that I had while I walking around this vicinity. Other than witnessing someone getting apprehended for taking photos of one of the girls, and seeing a man rushing out of a ‘cabin room’ after finishing his business, I have also witnessed how these girls would normally act behind their glass windows/doors:

  • Most of them will look bored, they are…
    • Sitting, standing, or just staring at the onlookers
    • Texting on their phones
    • Talking to their co-workers
      • If they are in single closed rooms, they would open their doors slightly, animatedly talking to one another and ignoring everyone that passes by.
  • Rarely do I see girls who would really try to ‘market’ themselves, if they do they will just…
    • Dance slightly
    • Smile slightly or wave
      • One of them smiled + waved to me that somehow, I felt giddy; it happened so rarely that I had to tell my friend who was with me that “Someone smiled at me!!
  • I never saw a boy behind the glass doors/windows but I’ve been told that they exist. Probably they are out when it’s really late. We were at the RLD around 9PM-10PM.

Now of course everyone is wearing provocative clothing (lingerie, swimsuits, etc.) sporting different designs and whatnot; some even wear clothing that would illuminate under the neon light of their windows/doors. A part of me became a bit conflicted, thinking about how they couldn’t find another job—but then I also had to sensibly think that there are people who enjoy being sex workers. The truth of the matter is, I’ll never know their background nor intent, so I had to keep certain thoughts at bay.

Moreover, given the laws and protection that the Netherlands gives plus the fact that most of them didn’t seem to be ‘caged up’ (texting away, valuing their privacy so people from back their home town won’t find out, etc.) gives me a bit of assurance that they weren’t involved in human trafficking.

Moving on to the other things to do in De Wallen

– – –

Casa Rosso Theatre, Amsterdam

For those who want the erotic stuff, there are plenty of sex and peep shows. The top 3 popular places for these can be easily identified by their distinct elements: the pink elephant sign from Casa Rosso (oldest live sex theatre in Amsterdam), the red figure signs from Moulin Rouge (not to be confused with the French show), and the yellow banana sign from Banana Bar (said to be for those who are looking for more interaction).

This was NOT my cup of tea so if you want to know what exactly happens in these places, you’ll have to discover it yourself. I noticed though that there seemed to be a fair amount of couples and groups of girls who seem to be the kind of ‘general audience’ that these establishments get.

Another observation: the ‘bouncers’ who are outside the Casa Rosso and Moulin Rouge were insanely friendly. Despite their body size and bulky appearance, it was a bit of a sight seeing them talking to people with all smiles as they try to entice them to come in and watch a show. (Well, they must bring in some business!)

And oh, if I may add, they were wearing suits! One of the guys outside Moulin Rouge was even wearing a tuxedo and he reminded me a lot of Michael Buffer (that “Let’s get ready to rumbleeeee!” ring announcer guy).

– – –

Condomerie, Amsterdam

For those who are looking for goods, there are a LOT of sex shops in De Wallen! Just stroll around and you’re bound to see one. This was also the first time that I have seen sex toys so I was in a giggle fit all throughout our ‘exploration’—like come on… seriously? Some people can fit that in?

Anyhow, they were fun places! The store people don’t seem to mind if you snap photos away either and they don’t even mind if you’re a bundle of laughter (I guess they get it all the time). Actually, in these sex shops, I never saw someone going in there to buy something; it’s rather full of giggling couples and friends!

Anyways, there’s one interesting shop that you should visit which is Condomerie (buy some funny condom souvenirs here for your friends but taking photos inside is NOT allowed) and if you’re into exploring sexuality in an ‘olden fashion’, then drop by the Sex Museum!

For the other kind of ‘goods’ like cannabis or weed, there are coffee shops scattered around the RLD too.

READ: Amsterdam Coffeeshops

– – –

Oude Kerk Church

For those who want history, culture and landmarks, RLD has it! Remember that this is Amsterdam’s oldest part so it’s still full of interesting normal areas. There’s the 800-year-old Oude Kerk (the city’s oldest parish church), there’s even the picturesque street of Zeedijk (Amsterdam’s Chinatown), the dreamy canals of Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal.

• • •

» Top Amsterdam Red Light District Tours «

Red Light Walking Tour

Red Light Walking Tour
Explore the red light district with local guide!

Red Light Secrets Museum

Red Light Secrets Museum
Get to know the girls of the Red Light District!

• • •

Amsterdam Red Light District

Overall

Amsterdam’s red light district is a unique kind of wonder in itself and it’s up to you if you want to witness it or not.

But remember that this isn’t what Amsterdam is all about either; that’s why I suggest that you don’t visit this first and only. (To see the other activities that you can do, go here.)

And again, in no way am I supporting this business but as a traveler, I felt the need to see this for myself—I want to quench my curiosity and gain an understanding as to how this part of the world deals with such a business.

To end this post, remember this: Every window and door has a story.”

So respect the girls; they may be sex workers but they are human like you. Some of them choose to work there, while some have no choice but to have that as their source of income. We wouldn’t know for sure who are those that are still forced to be there despite all the efforts of the government to stop human-trafficking; but we always have to consider the fact that most of these girls have this kind of work as their profession, whether it be because they enjoy it or that they just have to (financial reasons, etc.) so let’s try to put in some sensibility on this matter.

• • •

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27 Comments

  1. Luca

    Hahaha I live in Amsterdam and I’ve gotten so used to it. I’m 16 and when I was little, a friend of mine lived at De Wallen. When I would look out of the window, I would see the prostitutes. I asked my mom why they weren’t wearing clothes and my mom told me “they have a swimming pool inside! they’re wearing bikinis!”

    She really thought I was stupid :P

    Reply
  2. Juan Ovalle

    I went to Amsterdam for the first time when I was 19 and walked the RLD with my brothers. We didn’t have a guide like your post but this would have definitely been useful for a bunch of teenage first-timers then!

    Reply
  3. Bruna Venturinelli

    I remember the first time I went to the Red Light and I was surprised by the girls on the windows, but today it feels normal. I don’t know. It’s weird to say that but it’s regulated by the Dutch government, so…

    Reply
    • Aileen

      Yes, true that. When I went there first, I was mystified. The second time I went, I knew the background already so it didn’t feel weird anymore :)

      Reply
    • Kaylini Naidoo

      Thanks for the honest recount Aileen. I’ve been to Amsterdam and also did a local walking tour through De Wallen. I think what I liked most about it was how the guide explained that this is a job and occupation for the individual just as any other individual would be a nurse or lawyer etc. They are there only for the purpose of making money for themselves or their families and it honestly made me feel like there was nothing sleazy about it. At the sex museums I learnt further about how dangerous the profession can be and how it’s important for the ladies to have someone ‘check in’ on them after, as there have been a number of abuse and murder cases too. I think it’s really important to highlight all aspects of a new destination and for Amsterdam this is certainly one of them!

      Reply
  4. dan

    Loved the post Aileen. You gave a very honest review of how you felt and what you thought about the experience without being judgemental against the girls.
    One of my favorite quotes is “Dont judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes”
    Probably none of us reading the post have come close to walking in these girls shoes. (especially me, I would just fall right down in those darn high heels, lol)

    Reply
    • Aileen

      I’m glad you liked this post, Dan, and I agree with you!

      And oh, haha I love your last statement; heels are darn hard indeed ;)

      Reply
  5. Shailender Kumar

    I have been to Amsterdam couple of times although never been to this place. But now it is there on my list, Amsterdam calling ha ha.

    Reply
    • Aileen

      Really? Then you should definitely check this out then. It’s quite something.

      Reply

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