A lot has been said about the red light district in Amsterdam and it's no surprise that tourists from different parts of the world come to find out what all the fuss is about. I can honestly say that everything you have heard is probably true. From brothels to sex shops to museums, the Amsterdam red light district has quite a history and a story to tell.
De Wallen, Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade all form the 'Rosse Buurt' (red light district). This part of Amsterdam is filled with pubs, sex shops, restaurants and (loud) tourists having a fun time. It's actually the oldest part of Amsterdam and is quite safe despite what most people think.
Prostitution has enjoyed a long tradition of tolerance in the Netherlands and the country's law governing the red light districts is considered one of the most liberal in the world. It was passed in a bid to strengthen the rights of sex workers and give them access to health insurance and other benefits while preventing forced prostitution and sinister vices such as sex trafficking and violence against working women. In the Netherlands, sex-workers have their own union, adequate police protection and other benefits. There are also information centers for both sex workers and sex tourists in Amsterdam.
The Prostitution Information Center
The PIC (Prostitution Information Center) is an NGO, established by a former prostitute Mariska Majoor, to keep people informed about the world's oldest profession and gradually try to remove the stigma that comes with it. Their goal is to make people see prostitution as nothing other than a normal profession. Their shop can be found in the red light district (De Wallenwinkel). There they sell books that educate people on prostitution, organise guided tours around the area and also give lectures. The PIC, along with the union of prostitutes 'The Red Thread', have always fought for the rights of working women and have been instrumental in pushing the Dutch government to make positive changes regarding the working condition of prostitutes.
While prostitution may be legal in the Netherlands, the social stigmatisation is something that has not changed in the few years since the law was passed in October 2000. The passing of the law on the other hand, has helped strengthen the position of prostitutes and ensured that women, and men, are well protected.
How to behave in the red light district
While it's fun for a lot of tourists to visit the red light district, it is also important to understand that there are rules governing the area. It is strictly forbidden to take pictures or film women behind their windows. The reason is that sex workers are entitled to some privacy and a lot of them haven't told their families about what they do. They can get very aggressive if you're caught taking a picture of them, that's why it's advised to keep your phone or camera in your pocket while in the area.
Although there is 24-hour video surveillance in most parts of the district and police officers can be seen on bicycles or on foot patrolling the area, it is still advised to be wary of pickpockets. They tend to target crowds of distracted or drunk tourists, so keep an eye on your belongings or leave them in the safety of your hotel room if possible. The district is also home to a lot of Amsterdam locals and while tourists are encouraged to have as much fun as they want, they also need to understand that these residents are entitled to some peace and quiet. Respect the neighbourhood, and do not yell or cause disturbances.
Best time to visit the red light district
The best time to visit is at night when the red light district really comes to life. During the day, the district is less lively and tourists can be seen buying souvenirs, pastries and throwing glances at the prostitutes. Although there are women forever tapping on the windows even during the light hours, most of the action takes place at night, when the district is crowded and the red neon lights can be seen from afar illuminating the windows.
More to the red light district than just prostitution
While the red light district may be fascinatingly all about prostitution, there is also more to the neighbourhood. You can find some interesting souvenir shops, Irish, English and typical Dutch pubs, fantastic restaurants and some of the best pastry shops. Don’t miss the Nieuwmarkt square, the Gothic style Oude Kerk (Old Church) or Amsterdam’s very own Chinatown in the Zeedijk - a street where the Buddhist temple Fo Guang Shan can also be found. There's also the Museum of Prostitution, the Museum of Eroticism and the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum.
As long as you practice safe sex, refrain from buying drugs from drug dealers in the district and don't take pictures of prostitutes, you'll definitely have a wonderful time in the red light district.
Stay safe and enjoy.