No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a walk through the famous Red Light District of Amsterdam. Back in 1971, we must have walked through every day, and every night. We were in shock and awe at the concept, the windows, and the action. I have never seen anything like it since then either.
The guys I was hanging around with dared me to talk to one of the girls. I think dinner was the bet. So, I walked up to one of them and asked if she offered a student discount!! The guys were howling, just a few feet away, but the lady of the night was not amused. She sent me away, but I did get my free rijstafel dinner later that night.
We ended up in a Kasbah, the famous Milky Way, that night as well, again a first for me. Upon returning to the hostel that night, we had the munchies. So, we bought some grapes, and headed back to the room. We had upper bunks, so we placed a trash can in the center of the room. We tried to spit the seeds into the trash can, with many laughs and giggles, until we passed out!
I don’t plan on doing any of those things on this trip. But I think you would be somewhat curious about it, its history, and its atmosphere.
Lonely Planet calls the Red Light district a carnival of vice, with skimpily clad prostitutes in brothel windows, rowdy bars, coffee shops, strip shows, and mind bending museums. I think that is a rather generous description of the place. It is safe, with lots of police visible, and certainly not rowdy, as you might expect.
In reality, the biggest problem are the pickpockets. The Red Light District is known as De Wallen, just southeast of Central Station. So how did this start? Since the Middle Ages, Amsterdam has been a major port. It made Amsterdam a magnet for the world’s oldest profession. Curiously, I am a member of the world’s second oldest profession, pharmacy. From the 1300’s, women started carrying red lanterns and met sailors near the port and in bars.
Yet, prostitution did not become legal until 1810. Brothels became legal in 2000. But in 2007, city officials have made an attempt to clean up the area, reducing the number of red light windows, as well as pimps, money launderers, pick pockets, and human traffickers. Project 2012 (the postal code) encouraged fashion studios, cafes, and galleries. In 2013, the minimum age of prostitutes was raised from 18 to 21. Windows had to close from 6am to 8am.
But 290 red lit windows remain. The industry rakes in over $650 million Euros annually. I wonder if there is a Dutch mafia? They do pay taxes.
But in the center of the area is the 14th century Oude Kerk (Old Church) with a golden torso pavement plaque of a hand groping a breast. Nearby is another bronze statues, Belle, a prostitute with the inscription, “Respect sex workers all over the world”.
Whatever you do, do not photograph the red light windows, or your camera will end up in the canal. A quieter venue would be in another neighborhood de Pijp, a smaller district with fewer stag parties and rowdy drunks.
The area also houses the Red Light Secrets brothel turned museum. It provides a behind the scenes glimpse and insight into the profession. For more education, try the Erotic Museum for bondage exhibits, and eyebrow raising displays. Even raunchier is the Sexmuseum Amsterdam. To complete the quartet is the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum.
The ubiquitous coffee shops are found all over the city, with two of the most popular in the Red Light District, the Greenhouse and Baba. Cannabis is still technically not legal here, hard to comprehend. But you can have up to 5 grams of soft drugs (less than 15% THC) , widely tolerated, and not subject to arrest. Should you need further information, head over the to Cannabis College, also located here.
The seedy dive bars and rowdy pubs also promote Dutch gin (jenever), and a variety of breweries. Should you need munchies, try the frites (smothered in mayo), pancakes, and FEBO outlets (fried foods dispensed from automat windows). Nearby Zeedijk is home to Amsterdam’s Chinatown, full of eateries of course.
And to top it all off, go shopping at Condomerie Het Gulden Vlies, where they sell condoms of all sizes, shapes, colors, flavors, and design. I will bring you back a souvenir condom!
Yes, it is a must see for any tourist. Can you imagine Bob and Mary from Des Moines, telling the folks at the Friday church pot luck all about the Red Light District? Me neither! But I plan to see if it is any different from my visit back in 1971.
Not sure if I have time to see it again, but I wanted to tell you about it anyway. I did cycle through a part of the Red, but everyone was sleeping. The sex shows are really not much more than burlesque, done topless for women, and bottomless for men. Ozzie and Harriet can make these characters look like the Mickey Mouse Club!!