Amsterdam's Disneyland of vice: a tour of the Red Light District

When you think of the nether-regions of the Netherlands, the first place that springs to mind is Amsterdam’s Red Light District (aka De Wallen). Not even Google’s Street View will go there, and if you do, prepare to be shocked by... by the prettiness of its swan-bedecked medieval canals! Sure, there are pot shops and sex theaters, but there’s also some of the city’s most high-end real estate, five-star restaurants to match, and even a kiddie daycare. Seriously. The RLD is not what you'd expect. Here’s your walking tour of Amsterdam’s Disnefied land of vice…

A couple of lifesaving notes: This is one of the best-patrolled and monitored ‘hoods in the city, but do watch out for pickpockets. Also, if you don’t want to die a slow, not-at-all-sexy death, DO NOT TAKE PICTURES OF THE WOMEN IN THE WINDOWS.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user Andrea Schaffer

Stop #1: Dam Square
What you expect: A dam
What you get: Open space ringed by looming feats of medieval and Golden Age architecture plus shopping and food and sometimes even a carnival.

The dam and this part of the Amstel river are long buried, but this is still the literal and historical heart of Amsterdam. It’s massive and easy to find, and it’s right next to the Red Light District. No, the large phallic structure is not part of the tour -- it’s the country’s main WWII monument. But it is where we begin. 

Next move: Facing the Krasnapolsky Hotel with the WWII monument behind you, turn left to walk up the Warmoesstraat. Stop in front of the Condomerie, about two blocks up on your right.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user littlehuw

Stop #2:Condomerie
What you expect: A condom factory? An all-male brothel?
What you get: Quirky condoms of all shapes and sizes, for him and for her!

This you will want to get a photo of. Even if the shop is closed, the window provides tens of minutes of hilarious prophylactic fun in the form of Bart Simpson, the Eiffel Tower, random animals, and other crazy packaging for your junk.

Next move: Continue in the same direction and pause at the third street to the right (Enge Kerksteeg). On the way you will pass chocolate-and-ice-cream shop Metropolitan Deli and posh new(ish) Restaurant ANNA, if you’re already feeling a little light-headed.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user b1mbo

Stop #3: Gay Warmoesstraat
What you expect: Assless leather pants.
What you get: Dudes who dig dudes come here for supplies, but it’s easy to miss if you’re not in the know. Farther up, this street is actually tourist party central.

As most of the clubs on this block lack windows, it’s easy to miss that what you’re walking through is actually Amsterdam’s gay BDSM zone. The alternating rainbow and black, white, blue, and red-heart flags are kind of a tip-off, though.

If you’re looking for some toys for her, even your girlfriend will feel comfortable exploring the crazy-welcoming Nana Amsterdam sex shop. Bar-restaurant Getto, up the street, may be very gay-oriented, but its crazy-good, over-the-top burgers keep it packed to the gills with people of every orientation. The rest of this street is tourist central, with bars and hostels and more galore.

Next move: Head into the Wijde Kerksteeg alley and stop at the end of the block; you’ll see the PIC & Wallenwinkel (“red-light district store”) on your left. (That kiddie daycare, btw, is straight ahead to the left of the church, next to the Red Light Radio station.)

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Wikimedia Commons

Stop #4: Prostitution Information Center
What you expect: A den of sin and wanton women.
What you get: A space to ask questions, buy books, and follow tours.

Everything you wanted to know about the Red Light District can be found out here. Mariska Majoor, something of a local celebrity, runs the place, and knows the ins and outs (ahem) of the business from personal experience. If it’s Saturday or Wednesday, take the English tour for a literal glimpse behind the curtains.

Next move: Starting here, you will see scantily clad women standing in red-lit windows. Remember: do NOT try to take photos of them! Walk around the back of the Old Church. Pause at the back for a photo opp of Belle, the prostitution monument instead. 

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user Nina J. G.

Bonus: Detour toward the entrance of the church, keeping your eyes open for a sculpted breast being groped on the ground, placed here one night by an anonymous artist. Take a pic and head back toward Belle, turning left into the alley at Restaurant ANNA (Sint Annendwarsstraat). Stop at the first gap between the buildings to the left.

Stop #5: Trompettersteeg
What you expect: That probably looks like gibberish to you.
What you get: The world’s (?) narrowest alley... with windows.

You’re now in the thick of things. The women you see around you engaging in Amsterdam’s most celebrated form of prostitution are independent European freelancers over age 18, who rent out these windows by the hour and set their own rates. (A 15-minute visit starts around €50, if you’re curious.) Brothels and escort services also exist in the city, but street walking is illegal. Well, except the kind you're doing.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user sherpas428

Next move: Watch the alley close in on you as you reach the end (foot traffic goes both ways), and squeeze out past the Bulldog Coffeeshop, often called (but generally debunked as) the city’s oldest. Turn left and walk up the canal past the church, stepping onto the second bridge you come to. Stop here.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Wikimedia Commons

Stop #6: Catholic Amsterdam in evolution
What you expect: Nothing. This is the Red Light District.
What you get: Three churches (one hidden) that offer more history than religion.

First of all, this is a pretty sweet view. Plus, you have Catholic history laid out in front of you. First, the Catholics were kicked out of that beautiful brick Frankenstein known as the Old Church (now an exhibition space). Then they went into hiding in the Our Dear Lord in the Attic Museum right in front of you -- you can’t tell, but there’s a massive church inside the house. Finally, when it was legal again, they built the giant St. Nicholas basilica whose towers you see ahead in the distance now.

Next move: Continue straight the way you were going, down the Korte Niezel alley. Stop on the next bridge.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user Bert Kaufmann

Stop #7: Postcard photo opp
What you expect: Something resembling Dante’s second and third circles of hell.
What you get: One of the most photo-friendly spots on the main drag. Get the bird-dotted length of canal on film (bathed in a red glow after dark) without offending any window workers.

The view you’ll see on most postcards, this canal is where the RLD really climaxes. (See what we did there? Of course you do.) If you’re ready for a break, right behind you is the highly unseedy Mata Hari café (named after Holland’s famed erotic dancer/spy). To your left is sex theater Moulin Rouge, but we’ll be making a stop at its more famous competitor in a moment.

Next move: Walk down the left side of the canal. On your way, you’ll pass the eternally popular Black Tiger Bar, if you need to refuel. Stop just before the next bridge.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user Bicycle Bob

Stop #8:Bananenbar and Erotic Museum
What you expect: Banana acts and erotic exhibitions.
What you get: In this case, you’re right.

Across the canal is the Erotic Museum, where porn literally goes Disney (the even more famous Sex Museum is located nearby on the Damrak). One of the best exhibits of the Erotic Museum you can see right from the street: a Dutch girl riding a very special kind of bicycle. To experience the Banenenbar on your side of the canal, on the other hand, you’ll have to go inside. As the name suggests, the star of the frequent bar-top shows is often a banana, which is held by something other than the hands or mouth while guests take turns munching... yup. 

Next move: Walk another block or so, pausing at the Bloedstraat and Barndesteeg when they appear on your left.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user Christopher Elison

Stop #9: Stop #9: Bloedstraat ("Blood Street") & Barndesteeg
What you expect: On Blood Street? Oh God, I don't want to know.
What you get: More windows… with a twist.

So named because it used to get a blood bath every time there was an execution in the nearby Nieuwmarkt, the “Blood Street” and the parallel Barndesteeg alley have windows with blue lights in addition to the red, which means that the, ahem, lady dancing behind it is anything but.

Next move: Walk to just before the next bridge. Stop.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

Stop #10:Casa Rosso
What you expect: There’s an elephant on the front of the building, so... some kind of circus?
What you get: A circus... of sex!

Amsterdam’s most famous sex theater offers an experience more awkwardly amusing than actually arousing. But, yes, if you attend one of these shows, you will witness live sex on stage, banana acts, and all your other favorite sex-focused party tricks – plus a few new ones. If you’re feeling brave, audience participation is always requested. In sharp contrast, on your side of the canal, hidden in a gated courtyard just off the street is one of the city’s fanciest restaurants, Blauw aan de Wal.

Next move: Cross the bridge and continue down the other side of the canal, stopping just before the next bridge.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user jabberwocky381

Stop #11:Hash, Marihuana, & Hemp Museum
What you expect: A museum about pot.
What you get: A museum about the history of pot... plus cannabis growing in action.

This stop is purely as advertised on the tin... when it’s not being raided for overstepping its grow-room allowance. Don’t want to pay the €9 entrance fee? Head back to the Cannabis College, which you just passed. There you can ask all the questions you want for free, or pay just a couple of euros to visit their garden... and have a free go at the Volcano Vaporizer.

Next move: Go to the corner and turn right on the Oude Doelenstraat. If you want Chinese, stop at Oriental City or the Golden Chopsticks on this block. Otherwise, take the following left (Oudezijds Voorburgwal) to reach the Green House Centrum or Bridges.

Red Light District Tour Amsterdam
Flickr user meiburgin

Final Stop: Food and/or “coffee”
What you expect: Cheap Chinese or fancy seafood, or a visit to one of the city’s best/most popular coffee shops.
What you get: Cheap Chinese or fancy seafood, or a visit to one of the city’s best/most popular coffeeshops.

If you’re feeling "inspired" after your last stop, the best spot in the area to partake in your own herbal refreshment is the canal-side Green House Centrum, the RLD location of one of the Cannabis Cup’s biggest heroes. If you’re more inspired by eating, just past this is Bridges, one of the city’s best seafood restos. For something more low key, check out the huge and popular Oriental City or Golden Chopsticks restaurants, which mark the beginning of Amsterdam’s Chinatown.