The Amsterdam Red Light District is over five hundered years old. Women sit openly behind windows, lit by red lights, attracting customers. The Red Lights area is part of the oldest part of Amsterdam. The beautiful historical neighbourhood attracts herds of tourists who are curious about this Dutch phenomenon of open prostitution. The Red Light District is one of Amsterdam’s biggest tourist attractions.
How to best visit the Red Light District
If you are interested in the old historical houses in Red Light District, it’s best to go in the morning. The streets will not be too busy then.
History of the Amsterdam red light
The Amsterdam Red Light District is an area of canals and narrow side streets between Central Station, Dam Square and Nieuwmarkt square. The Dutch call also call it the ‘warm neighborhood’ (‘warme buurt’), the ‘pink neighbourhood’ (rosse buurt) or ‘de Wallen’.
The Red Light District is the oldest part of Amsterdam. The area dates back to the origins of the city in the 12th century.
In those days, prostitution was the only way for women to make a living. Women sold their bodies at bars and shops and worked in hotels and brothels. There were many of them, all over town.
In 1578, there was an important change in Amsterdam, power shifted from Catholic merchant families to the Reformed/Protestant families. The protestants were much more conservative. Though brothels and prostitution were now banned by law, in practice they were tolerated. During the French occupation (1795-1813) this conservative period ended. Prostitution was even regulated to avoid the spreading of sexual diseases.
Start of the Red Light windows
In the 19th century, a new law stated it was not allowed to lure customers in the street or from the doorway. Some brothels, around the Oudekerksplein, now the heart of the Red Light District, were tolerated. The girls would sit behind the window glass, with the curtains closed and knock on the window to make contact with a potential customer.
Window prostitution in Amsterdam
From the 1960s prostitution in Amsterdam became much more widespread and ‘normal’. Women around the ‘Wallen’, prostituted themselves openly behind red-lit windows. Prostitution and brothels in Holland have legal status. Amsterdam is the only place in the world where prostitution is seen so openly. Though nobody wanted it, the Red Light District has become Amsterdam’s most famous tourist attraction.
Too many tourists in the Red Light District
Like everywhere tourists in Amsterdam are causing a lot of problems, especially in the red light district. In the afternoon, the narrow cobbled streets fill up with herds of tourists glancing in the windows where the women sit on their barstools to attract customers.
Young tourists use the Red Light District as an entertainment district, smoking and drinking on the doorsteps of residents, causing noise and leaving litter.
Illegal prostitution and human trafficking
In The Netherlands, the profession of prostitution might be legal, but it’s very difficult for the prostitutes to lead a ‘legal’ life. Reports say that the working women in the red light district did not voluntarily choose their profession.
Many prostitutes in Amsterdam are in fact victims of human trafficking. Most of them are from Eastern Europe and South Amerika. They are not working in The Netherlands legally, but are forced to work either for a boyfriend (a so-called lover boy), a pimp or a human trafficker. In general, the Red Light District attracts criminal activity.
Will the Red Light District close?
Amsterdam wants to improve life in the Amsterdam Red Light District for the people who live there and for the women who work there. In the last 10 years, the Amsterdam council already closed over 200 windows (of a total of 400+).
The makeover of the Amsterdam Redlight district is known as Project 1012 (or Coalitieproject 1012) (named after the postal code of this part of Amsterdam). The project started in 2008. The council wanted more insight into the activities of the dodgy brothels, money changers, gambling halls, coffee shops, mini supermarkets, and some bars. Many have been closed, the building was bought to change the destination of the buildings. Also, many coffee shops have been closed.
The Amsterdam council wants to make life better also for the people who live there. In 2019, tourist guides need a license to guide groups of tourists in the Red Light Districts. From 2020 guided tours in the Red Light District are no longer allowed. There are also new rules for Pub crawls.
The mayor of Amsterdam has given different options to change the area: closing all the windows, closing the red lights for anyone but customers, moving the red lights to another part of town and founding hotels/brothels.
Is the Red Light District safe?
About twenty years ago, the red light district was quite dangerous. Now, however, the red light area in Amsterdam is much safer. Especially because there are so many people on the streets, day and night. Though Amsterdam is safe, in the Red Light District, pickpockets are common.
Is there much crime in the Amsterdam Red Light District?
In September 2016 one man died after a very intense street fight in the Amsterdam Red Light District. As a consequence, more police are now visible in the area. It is recommended to visit the area during the day and early evening and stay away during the night.
RECOMMEND READ: Is Amsterdam Safe?
Drugs in the Red Light
Because there are so many tourists in the red light district, wanting to have a good time, there are small-time drug dealers wandering around trying to sell their goods to them. They will approach tourists with the words: ‘charlie, heroin, ecstasy. The quality is not good and often the drugs in the Amsterdam Red Light area are totally fake. You are getting high on aspirin! It is recommended to say no.
Respect the prostitutes
Treat prostitutes with the respect, they are just doing their job. Prostitution is legal and the women are registered to have their own ‘business’. So the Dutch prostitutes pay taxes. Dutch prostitutes have united to protect the rights of working women. PROUD is the Dutch association by and for sex workers.
Safe sex in Red Light District
All of the women undergo regular health checks. They do not practice unsafe sex, so you don’t have to bother asking them.
No pictures, please
The prostitutes don’t like it when you take photographs of them, so keep your camera in your pocket.
Red Light Prices
Prices in the Amsterdam red light district are about € 50 per 15 minutes.
Art in the Amsterdam Red Light District
To revitalize the Red Light District, the Amsterdam council and housing corporation IJmere bought several buildings in the area and changed their destination. Many new hip bars and art galleries are now found in the Red Light District.
At the heart of the ‘Wallen’, the square around the Old Church, for example, you can now find the art gallery Ultra de la Rue, a record shop, the radio station Red Light Radio, a daycare center for children and a gaming hall with lots of pinball machines and hotdogs and several popular and good restaurants.
Guide and app to the creative Red Light District
To find the new hotspots in the Red Light District, concept stores for fashion, hairdressers, art galleries, bookstores, record stores, there is a map and an app available that show the locations. The Red Light ABC has the map available at the Ultra de la Rue (Old Church square). Tales and Tours has made a digital guide to over 80 locations and gives a short description. The Red Light ABC app is free for download.