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Named De Wallen (‘the walls’) thanks to its position within the old city walls, the red-light district’s medieval buildings are known for housing coffee shops (you know the ones) and also sex workers, who have been present in this part of Amsterdam since the 15th century. Prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands 2000, but mass tourism can have a negative impact on sex workers’ livelihoods. Genuine punters can be put off by tourists flooding the streets; and sex workers have to put up with behaviour such as unsolicited photos being taken of them.
The city has introduced radical measures to tackle the problem. Last year, Dutch officials announced a ban on group tours past the windows of sex workers in De Wallen from April, as well as the city’s medieval centre. The Netherlands tourist board will also stop advertising the country as a travel destination, instead focusing on tourism ‘management’. Outside the Rijksmuseum – the city’s main art gallery – the famous ‘I Amsterdam’ sign was removed, to stop it being a selfie spot.
How to behave in Amsterdam’s red-light district
De Wallen’s 800-year history offers tourists far more than hazy coffee shops and an insight into the Dutch sex industry. But if you decide to visit, respect for those living and working there is important – regardless of your views on the sex trade.
“People have to be aware of the fact that sex workers have a very good view on the street from behind the window,” says Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker and local resident who founded the Prostitution Information Centre in 1994, which provides information about the sex industry to workers and tourists. “If you want to check out the area then do so with respect. Don’t stare at sex workers, don’t photograph them, don’t hold still in front or close to windows and don’t act like an idiot.”
Although visitors may want to take photos of De Wallen’s historic architecture, it’s important to make sure there are no sex workers in the frame, warns Jackie, a host at the PIC. “I also realise the red lights at night can be picturesque, so it can be tricky, but I would advise people to leave their cameras or phones in their pockets,” she says. “Laughing out loud, shouting and pointing at windows is not appropriate. It’s okay to look, but they can hear you too – so don’t embarrass yourself.”
Despite the legions of worse-for-wear tourists, there are still rules regarding drinking to follow in Amsterdam. “Alcohol drinking in the area is prohibited, so it would not be very wise to be drunk at all,” Jackie says. “There are signs saying no alcohol, so it’s around the church and along the canal.”
If you want to visit the area with a guide, the PIC may be able to offer one-on-one or small group tours. Turn up to the organisation’s community centre, café and exhibition space a few minutes before the tour, or come earlier to explore the library and centre’s resources over coffee and cake.
“We are a small NGO and at this moment we are also offering tours, but when the new law comes into effect, we also have the possibility to do non-walking tours. So we can give talks inside our little building, where you can ask questions,” Jackie says.
What else is there to see in De Wallen?
It’s a misconception that the red light industry is De Wallen’s main draw for visitors. Located in the middle of Amsterdam, it’s an area of huge historic and cultural importance, hosting sights like the Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest building and oldest parish church, founded circa 1213.
Around the corner is the Ons’ Lieve heer op Solder, a 17th century canal house and museum. Built in 1663, this attic church was used by Catholics during the 17th century, when they were banned from worshipping after the Alteration.
Among the more modern attractions, the Brouwerij de Prael is a charitable brewery helping locals facing difficulties in the job market to find meaningful employment. It’s also a great place to sample traditional Dutch beer. The Condomerie het Gulden Vlies, founded in the 1980s to promote safe sex during the AIDS crisis, was the world’s first specialist condom shop. To this day, it serves as an information centre for safe sex and offers advice.
“I think it is very unique to have an area where you can find everything there is in life, all together,” Majoor says. “A living area with families, a church, a school, historical buildings and ‘normal’ shops, with a sex industry, coffee shops and homeless centres, all intergrated in the same area.”