All of us would have heard of it, most of us would have walked by it and some of us might have strolled through it: we are talking about De Wallen in Amsterdam, one of the oldest neigbourhoods in the capital, more commonly known as the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
For those of us for whom it is not an everyday occurrence to see sex workers doing their jobs, the Red Light District in Amsterdam can seem like a daunting experience. But it doesn’t have to be: I kid you not, I was in De Wallen for nearly an hour before I even noticed a sex worker’s window brothel. Of course, I wasn’t exactly looking for them nor was I surprised by them. I only had an inkling of what to expect as the Red Light District’s reputation precedes itself. But any wise old cracker knows that you need to see it for yourself to know it.
So there I was, a young Indian girl pretending to be that wise old cracker, ready to explore the oldest part of Amsterdam. In this article, I touch upon Red Light District etiquette, if you can take tours here, and things you can see in De Wallen. What this article will not tell you, however, is how not to be a creep (although I do get some punches in), so I’m sorry evolution might’ve skipped you.
Where is the Red Light District in Amsterdam?
The Red Light District has been around since the Middle Ages and is not restricted to just the one in the old city centre. In fact, Amsterdam’s Red Light District has three major neighbourhoods – De Wallen, the largest and oldest one near Oude Kerk; Singelgebied, part of the Singel canal that runs from IJ Bay to Muntplein Square; and Ruysdaelkade, a canal in De Pijp in Amsterdam-Zuid.
The most well-known and perhaps the most visited for tourist purposes would be at De Wallen. It is right in the middle of Amsterdam and is very close to the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city. Whenever you hear someone say the Red Light District in Amsterdam, they probably mean this one. It is right in the centre of Amsterdam and is probably the most crowded.
How do you get to the Red Light District in Amsterdam?
If you’re looking for De Wallen, it’s not that far away from Amsterdam Centraal. You can take a 10 to 15-minute stroll along the canals, walk through the narrow streets and take in the sights as you make your way to the most crowded part of the city. If you’re feeling particularly lazy, or if Dutch weather is not on your side (when is it ever?), it’s only a short 10-minute tram or metro ride away.
Do’s and Don’ts in the Red Light District in Amsterdam
Some of these etiquette rules might bore those of us who are decent people, but bear with us! There are points in there that you might not have been aware of. If you want to be a part of the solution and not the problem, then definitely read on.
DO go in with an open mind
When you’re walking through the Red Light District in Amsterdam, remember to go in there with an open mind. You will see things which you may not encounter in your daily life. Acknowledge that and move on.
DON’T be a damn creep
I don’t even know how to begin writing this section, but it has to be said. You would think that in this day and age, you wouldn’t have to emphasize how not to be a creep with people, regardless of their profession. But unfortunately, we’re far away from that.
Don’t whistle at them, don’t harass them, don’t antagonise them. They’re just trying to do their jobs and tolerating bullsh*t like that should not be a part of it.
DO treat sex workers with respect
Sex workers are people who are just trying to do their work in the Red Light District. They are people who deserve the same level of respect you do (unless you’re the type of creep I mentioned before).
DON’T take photos of sex worker
Sex workers in the Netherlands come from diverse backgrounds. Some of them might need to have their identity protected in order to safely carry out their work. I hope you’re not the kind of person who is okay with being the reason why someone gets killed or assaulted.
Also, would you really want completely random people coming to take pictures of you while you’re at your workplace without your consent? Probably not. Sex workers probably don’t want that as well.
DO secure your bag
The Red Light District, despite the reputation that surrounds it, is safe during the day and the night. The biggest threat in the neighbourhood would be pickpockets. If you have decided to brave the hordes of tourists crowding around the area, be sure to put all your valuables into your bag, and have it safely tucked underneath your arm.
DON’T drink or smoke weed on the streets
It is against the law in the Red Light District in Amsterdam to consume alcohol or smoke weed while you’re walking through the neighbourhood. Amsterdam has already been trying to curb the consumption of alcohol in the neighbourhood as it leads to sloppy drunks creating a public nuisance for everyone.
DO ignore street dealers and street prostitutes
Always, always, always avoid buying anything from anyone when you’re walking through the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Sex workers are legally required to work from behind their windows, so street prostitution is illegal. They are not allowed to offer or promote any of their services on the road or in any public buildings. If found out, a fine of 115 euros will be imposed on the sex worker and the customer.
Apart from that, you might also run into street dealers trying to sell you drugs. Never buy from them. You never know what they might be selling you so be vigilant! Remember, there are coffeeshops, and they are all trusted sources for your weed.
DON’T stare or stand in front of the windows for too long
Going back to my point of not being a creep – seriously, should I spell it out for you? If you have no intention of going in, don’t stop and stare at a sex worker while they’re trying to do their job. You’re probably blocking the way for potential customers, and really, who wants someone weird leering at them while they’re working? That’s not what they’re there for.
Things to do in the Red Light District in Amsterdam
Now that you’re all equipped with the Red Light District etiquette, you might be wondering what you can do there if you’re just looking to explore.
Obviously, the Red Light District is not just sex workers, prostitution, and drugs. It is a vibrant neighbourhood with people living and working there. The Red Light District and De Wallen has a lot of offer: there are plenty of bars, restaurants, and coffeeshops in the neighbourhood. All you have to do is walk around, and you will be able to find something you would enjoy.
Can you take tours in the Red Light District in Amsterdam?
If you’re someone who is genuinely interested in the history of sex work in Amsterdam, the sex industry, and learning more about the plight of sex workers, you might want to take tours of the Red Light District. You better hurry because Amsterdam has been clamping down on these tours in an effort to curb tourism and handle the hordes of people who crowd around the sex worker windows. Starting from January 2020, all tours through the Red Light District are banned.
Right now, tours are still happening, but they have been given time until the end of this year to wind down their businesses. Until then, the tour guides should have a permit, should not have groups larger than 20 people, and they need to take the group through the neighbourhood without blocking the windows. They also have to make sure that no one is taking pictures and they are behaving respectfully.
These rules are already in place, but apparently they don’t help solve the problem of leaving the sex workers vulnerable. They believe that these tours are a thing of the past, and think only people who want to treat sex workers as objects would attend them. They believe these tours only help facilitate these kinds of people and hence leave the sex workers vulnerable.
It is true that there are a lot (if not some) bad seeds out there, but are all of them the same?
Sex workers in the area are worried about what this would mean for their business. Groups like Red Light United and the Prostitution Information Centre are against it for obvious reasons: these tours gave sex workers the opportunity to dispel some of the stigma attached to prostitution.
Apart from banning these tours, Mayor Femke Halsema has other plans in store for them. She is exploring to implement one or more of the following four policies: making sex workers shut shop and move elsewhere, expanding the number of window brothels in the district, banning all window brothels, or allowing the window brothels to operate but behind closed curtains.
With the announcement of these rules, groups like Red Light United rallied against them. They claim that 93% of sex workers are against these policies. The New Yorker quotes them saying, “any measure aimed against tourism is a measure against sex workers in the Red Light District.” They do agree that some of the current rules are good and should be enforced, but they also want the government to work with sex workers to seed out the bad guides from the good ones. It would only seem logical to include their voices in these conversations. One can only wonder who the government is trying to please if their policies are not drafted by including sex workers in the process.
Hidden gems in the Red Light District in Amsterdam
If you don’t want to take any tours but are still in the area to explore, we have made a list just for you. It might skip a lot of people’s radar because they’re so overwhelmed (or perhaps underwhelmed?) with the reality of the Red Light District. So here are our picks so you don’t miss out!
Museum of Prostitution: Red Light Secrets
Where: Oudezijds Achterburgwal 60, Amsterdam 1012 DP
Red Light Secrets might be the only museum of prostitution in the world. Hear stories about the history of prostitution, intriguing exhibits about working as a sex worker and get an insight into the sex work industry in the Netherlands. This should be high on your list because you will be hearing from current or former sex workers. Who better to tell you all you need to know about sex work in the Netherlands?
Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder
Where: Oudezijds Voorburgwal 38, 1012 GD Amsterdam
Discover this special gem of a museum: a perfectly preserved canal house from the 17th century with a clandestine church in the attic. This remanent of Dutch history gives you a taste of how Catholics continued holding their services when they were not allowed to practice their religion in public spaces during the reformation.
Allard Pierson Museum
Where: Oude Turfmarkt 127-129, 1012 GC Amsterdam
Named after one of the leading and most progressive art historians in the Netherlands, the Allard Pierson Museum‘s vision is to make the University of Amsterdam’s heritage collection as accessible as possible for everyone. Take a peek into classical history, learn more about the history of the performing arts or even get an insight into the history of book trading! This museum is a must-see in the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
Where: Oudekerksplein 23, 1012 GX Amsterdam
Visit the oldest building in Amsterdam: the Oude Kerk or the Old Church. Today, it is a Calvinist church but that wasn’t always the case. Before the Reformation, it was just a wooden chapel erected in 1213. This little wooden chapel was replaced by a stone church and was consecrated in 1306. A church that has evolved with time, it has undergone multiple renovations, survived the great fires in the 15th century, the Beeldenstorm of 1566, and is now a place that brings the old and new together. You can see permanent exhibitions about the history of the church and Amsterdam, and temporary exhibitions of contemporary art installations by famous artists.
Prostitution Information Centre
Where: Enge Kerksteeg 3, 1012 GV Amsterdam
The Prostitution Information Centre is the brainchild of Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute herself, wanted to have the opportunity to educate the public about sex work in Amsterdam. They organize walking tours (oftentimes conducted by someone from the sex work industry and they’re not the only ones), have an easily accessible area full of resources, and a very helpful and kind listening ear for sex workers who might need their assistance.
The bronze statue of Belle
A statue to honour all sex workers around the world, “Belle” was erected in the Old Church’s square. It was unveiled in March 2007. Created by Els Rijerse, the plaque reads: “Respect sex workers all over the world”. It is hard to miss!
And with that message on the plaque, we are signing off and going to let you tell us your thoughts.
Did this article help to make it less daunting to venture into the Red Light District? Are there any more do’s and don’ts that we might’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below!