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So many visitors are curious about the Red Light District in Amsterdam. A former resident of Amsterdam, I have quite a bit to say about the Red Light District (known as de Wallen), which is one of the most debated neighborhoods in Amsterdam. This post will include etiquette for visiting the Red Light District, the history of De Wallen, and hidden gems of De Wallen.
- History of de Wallen
- Etiquette for visiting the Red Light District of Amsterdam
- Tips for visiting the Red Light District, including safety
- Streets in The Red Light District worth seeing
- What to do in De Wallen besides party: Hidden gems in the Red Light District
The History of De Wallen and prostitution in Amsterdam
De Wallen is one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam. The Damrak area is said to had prostitutes selling their services since the 13th century. At this time, the canals were walled off to prevent the Amstel river from flooding the city, so the neighborhood was named for the walls (De Wallen). (For reference, there are other smaller red light districts in Amsterdam, but de Wallen is generally referred to as “the Red Light District.”)
In medieval times, married men and priests were not allowed to enter the area, but the trade was never fully illegal. Only after the Protestant Revolution did fornication become illegal in Amsterdam. Prostitution still persisted, but it went underground. During this time, the Netherlands had created an empire with countless ships, which only fed the Red Light District. Only in the 18th century did large-scale brothels become more common in Amsterdam. Finally, under the rule of Napoleon did prostitution become legal with the condition that prostitutes were checked regularly for health. A red card would be given after a clean exam.
Although attempts at banning prostitution all together have been attempted over the years, it has survived the test of time. That said, there are more regulations today than in the past regarding regular health checks as well as increasing the legal age for sex work to 21. De Wallen has survived although
Despite this legal status, prostitution within the Red Light District is often still debated in the Netherlands. Many people believe that prostitution should be tolerated, regulated, and taxed, but the debate at the moment is focused on whether the Red Light District is an acceptable environment for sex workers as many sex workers have been harassed by tourists. Fewer sex workers are choosing to have windows within the Red Light District due to the harassment of them and their clients. As a result, you’ll see a lot of vacancies within the windows when walking around. This is why it is so important that you do not take photos of the windows as sex workers also have the right to privacy.
Tours within the Red Light District have now been banned (2019) and there’s a sense in Amsterdam that the neighborhood has turned into something that nobody wants anymore. The city has instituted a ban on new tourist-oriented stores within the center of Amsterdam, regulated short-term housing better to force people to book proper hotels (rather than
Etiquette for visiting the Red Light District of Amsterdam
Now that the history of De Wallen and the current debate is explained, I have quite a bit of etiquette and tips for visiting the Red Light District for the first time. This is an area of Amsterdam that has been plagued with issues related to overtourism, crime, and harassment, so you need to be mindful of people who work and live here.
Sex workers are people too.
Regardless of how you feel about sex work (e.g. prostitution), sex workers are people too. These are jobs and they have lives outside of these contexts. There’s no need to point or gawk when you’re walking by a window in the Red Light District.
Do not take photos of the women in the windows!
Unless you want your photo or camera broken often by bouncers, don’t take photos in the Red Light District. Not all of the family or friends of the “painted” ladies in the windows know about their work and publishing photos of these women online puts them at risk. You’ll see clear signs along Trompettersteeg telling you not to take photos. There are plenty of other things to take photos of within the Red Light District and Amsterdam in general. (Click for the best photo locations in Amsterdam.)
Avoid any “tours” of the windows
The city of Amsterdam has officially made any tour that goes past the windows of the Red Light District as part of a tour illegal. If you’re walking and someone offers you a tour of the Red Light District, this is illegal and should be avoided. Going forward, evening tours of the Red Light District will be illegal. There are plenty of other tours in Amsterdam to choose from!
If you’re curious about what happens behind the scenes, you can head to the “Red Light Secrets” museum, which discusses the history of prostitution and gives you a peek behind the curtain from within a former brothel.
Avoid shouting and littering. This is still a neighborhood that people live in!
This is a big one. As someone who has friends who live in the Red Light District, I really urge you to be quiet until you’re within a bar or
It’s illegal to carry around alcohol
A new law that is enforced within the Red Light District is that you are not allowed to carry around alcohol. It used to be that you could carry around alcohol, but you will get a 95 euro ticket that must be paid immediately. If you see the sign “0.0% zone,” you’re in a zone where drinking in public is illegal.
Keep your joints within the coffeeshop
Although many people seem to think that marijuana is okay everywhere in Amsterdam, it’s not okay to smoke on the streets of the Red Light District. Stay indoors at the coffeeshops as you’ll have plenty of choices to ensure your smoke without disturbing the locals who don’t always want to breathe in smoke!
Tips for visiting the Red Light District, including safety
Avoid street dealers
I can’t condone drug use, but I urge you to use caution if you choose to use drugs in Amsterdam. Only marijuana and magic truffles are tolerated. The rest is not. One of the most dangerous things that you can do is to engage with street dealers. For a while, street dealers were selling heroin to tourists instead of cocaine, which killed people. You have no idea what you’re getting. Don’t be afraid to call the police (112) if you get robbed or need assistance.
Ensure that you have a bag that zips securely.
There are quite a few pickpockets in the Red Light District who look for intoxicated and distracted tourists. I recommend ensuring that you have a bag that zips well. I personally prefer a crossbody purse, but I’d also encourage you to move your wallet somewhere less expected.
Keep a close eye on your belongings and don’t leave them alone.
A lot of pickpockets target tourists within coffee shops, cafes, and bars within the Red Light District. Don’t put your items down while you’re busy doing something else or leave them unattended!
If you choose to indulge in marijuana, do not mix substances and don’t overestimate how much you have.
One of the most common mistakes that tourists make is mixing marijuana with alcohol without knowing how marijuana affects them. Similarly, they really underestimate how potent
Watch your drinks and do not leave your drink out while going to the bathroom.
As a general precaution, it’s important to not leave drinks that are unfinished out if
If you’re traveling to Amsterdam solo, consider going out with a group
Before moving to Amsterdam, I traveled solo to Amsterdam and I generally don’t recommend visiting the Red Light District sober and alone. It’s weird. I’d recommend finding a group via your accommodations or a tour to go out with. It’s safer and more fun. (You can click for a solo female travel guide to Amsterdam.)
Don’t be afraid to say something to the bartender if someone is making you uncomfortable or feel unsafe. Many bars have security.
This is a big one. Most bars within the Red Light District have security, so if someone is harassing you or bothering you, don’t be afraid to call the bartender over. The bouncers are often happy to kick out creeps!
Beautiful spots of the Red Light District
Although this might shock others, you can still a lot of beauty within the Red Light District. One very picturesque street that I always love to wander down is Heintje Hoekssteeg, which is close to Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (one of my favorite museums in Amsterdam). Similarly, Oude Hoogstraat 24 is the sight of the former V.O.C headquarters, now owned by the University of Amsterdam.
The end of Oudezijds Achterburgwal close to 208 is a surprisingly quiet and beautiful spot away from the crowds of the Red Light District. You’ll also find the entrance to Oudemanhuispoort, which is a small covered passage filled with book stalls. I also love wandering into the picturesque and quiet Walenpleintje and down the ivy-covered street of Bethaniënstraat.
Hidden Gems of De Wallen
Despite the crowds in the Red Light District, you’ll still find some hidden gems that make the area more tolerable away from the crowds! These are my favorite spots in the Red Light District.
Wynand Fockink Distillery
For those who drink alcohol, jenever is a well-known Dutch liquor that you’ll want to try within Amsterdam. Not surprisingly, you’ll find a number of great spots to try jenever in Amsterdam, but one of my favorites is the small and intimate Wynand Fockink Distillery. (You can click for more information about visiting here.)
Browsing for used books at Oudemanhuispoort
It’s easy to pass through Oudemanhuisport without giving it a second glance. This small street with a beautiful archway is where a courtyard used to be located, but it’s now filled with book stalls where you can buy secondhand books. Bring cash and enjoy!
Stepping into a cozy brown bar
One of my favorite small delights of the Netherlands are the atmospheric brown bars where you can always step inside for a beer. Most are filled with gorgeous wood. You can click for my favorite brown bars in Amsterdam although I’d definitely recommend Proeflokaal de Ooievaar for the atmosphere.
Having a beer at de Prael, one of Amsterdam’s best craft breweries
For a beer, head to de Prael. This cozy Amsterdam bar has a cozy cafe where they serve their namesake beer at a reasonable price within a convenient location within the Red Light District. I prefer their Weizen (white) beer the most!
church at the centre of it all and people watching at the cafe around the corner
The Oude Kerk is at the center of the Red Light District (ironically) dates back to the 13th century can be toured for a few euros. Otherwise, head to De Koffieschenkerij for a nice cup of coffee in the picturesque church garden. On a nice day, this is a great place to sit outside and people watch.
Seeing a hidden church in the attic of a building
One of my favorite spots in the Red Light District is Ons
Finding the former V.O.C headquarters
One of the most beautiful buildings in the Red Light District has to be the former headquarters for the Dutch East Indies Company (V.O.C.). You can’t go inside, but you can admire it from the courtyard as you pass Oude Hoogstraat 24.