Amsterdam Red Light District Walking Tours
This free, self-guided walking tour will introduce you to the historic sites and the modern attractions of De Wallen, Amsterdam’s original neighborhood and red light district.
This is an abbreviated version of our audio tour of the neighborhood, which you can download for a more in-depth experience.
We can also recommend pay-what-you-will guided tours of Amsterdam: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/free-walking-tours-amsterdam/
The route is a little less than 2 kilometers or just over a mile. If you just walk and listen, you’d be done within an hour.
A few of the museums and historic sites we pass along the way are included in tourist passes. The most common all-inclusive pass, I Amsterdam, includes the Nieuwe Kerk, the café In De Waag, the Red Light Secrets Museum, the Oude Kerk, and Our Lord in the Attic Church, as well as many other attractions in other parts of the city.
Some of these passes offer free or reduced public transit, too. We have a blog post breaking down your options here: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/amsterdam-city-passes/
And we can also help you with more ideas for things to do in Amsterdam, including boat and bike tours, live music, free activities, food, music, and museums: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/things-to-do-amsterdam/
It’s easy to think that anything goes in the Red Light District. But there are some rules worth knowing. As with many tourist neighborhoods, watch out for pickpockets.
Cannabis and alcohol are both easy to find here, but it isn’t legal to consume them outside or to walk around under the heavy influence of either one.
Sex work is legal, but taking pictures of sex workers is strongly frowned upon. And while there’s a lot to look at, do check the ground once in a while to make sure you aren’t walking in a bike lane.
The tour begins in Dam Square, near the Royal Palace. Lots of public transit options can get you here. It’s less than a ten-minute walk from Amsterdam Central Station, and the Rokin stop on the North-South Line of the metro is even closer. Lots of tram and bus lines can drop you off in Dam Square itself.
NATIONAL MONUMENT AND DAM SQUARE
You’re in the oldest and one of the most active parts of Amsterdam, and it’s with this central location that the people of the city chose to honor their war dead.
The National Monument is a cenotaph – an empty tomb – representing Dutch people killed during multiple wars, beginning with World War II, and it’s a gathering point on the annual Remembrance Day on May 4th.
The space that surrounds the monument is Dam Square. It’s named for a dam in the Amstel River that was built at the site around 1270, giving the city its name.
The Amstel used to run through this square, but that part of the river was filled in, and the water today disperses between the neighborhood’s canals. Because of the river, trade in the area first gathered around this spot.
The largest building in the square, on its west side, is the Royal Palace, built as a city hall in 1655. At that time, Amsterdam was the center of business, technology, and art in Europe.
This period, the Dutch Golden Age brought about many of the Netherlands’ most famous contributions to science and art. Amsterdam in that era also became the home of the world’s first stock exchange and of the largest company in the world.
You can explore most of the palace on weekends. It’s open Friday from 12-5pm, Saturday and Sunday from 11am-5pm. Tickets are 10 Euros, 9 for students, and free for under 18. Audio guides are available for free. https://www.paleisamsterdam.nl/en/
To the right of the palace is the Nieuwe Kerk, or the New Church. It’s Nieuwe because it was completed in 1408, compared with the Old Church or Oude Kerk, built in the early 1200s, which we’ll see later.
Today it’s mainly an art and concert space. Current events are listed on their website: https://www.nieuwekerk.nl/en/
This street, Warmoesstraat, is De Wallen in a nutshell – a mix of historic buildings, tourist amenities, gay and leather bars, sex shops, and an art space (W139, right next door).
And nothing says Red Light District like a boutique condom shop. You’ll see a frankness and positivity about sex here – think cute smiling condom mascots – that’s par for the course in the neighborhood.
The shop opened in 1987 with a mission in mind. The AIDS crisis was under way, and access to and good information about condoms could save lives.
Employees here are trained and ready to have an unabashed conversation about customers’ specific needs in terms of fit, allergy, personal taste, and more – something you can’t expect from a typical pharmacy clerk.
This is one of De Wallen’s many smart shops, which carry smoking paraphernalia, health food items, and resources for growing cannabis (which residents of Holland can legally do, up to five plants per person).
The name of this particular shop is a little misleading. Places like this can sell some naturally occurring mind-altering substances, like peyote, mescaline, salvia, ayahuasca, and magic fungi – but not magic mushrooms. As of 2008, they’re categorized as hard drugs, alongside things like cocaine and LSD.
But the specific wording of the law left out what are commonly called truffles – underground fungi with the same active ingredient and similar effects to their mushroom counterparts.
The philosophy of Dutch drug law is a harm reduction approach, categorizing certain substances as “soft drugs” and regulating them much like what you’d see for alcohol in many countries. The idea is that this separates the markets for soft drugs and hard drugs, making it less likely that people will find their way from the less dangerous to the more dangerous stuff.
This alley is one of the areas where window prostitution is practiced. If you’re here during work hours, please bear in mind that taking pictures of the people working in the windows is will get you dirty looks at the very least.
Window prostitution is one form sex work can legally take in Holland. A sex worker who operates out of one of the windows rents the window for a shift, for something in the area of 100 to 150 Euros. In the course of a day, she may make much more than that or barely break even, depending on the season.
If a prospective client approaches the door, she can open it to discuss prices and services. A closed shade means the room is in use.
A red light over the window indicates a cisgender woman; blue lights indicate transgender women. Male sex workers tend to operate online, outside the legal framework, and as of 2020 there’s one all-male brothel in the city.
Legal or at least unpunished sex work has a much longer history in De Wallen than legal drugs do. In some periods it’s been regulated, while in others it’s been officially banned but tolerated in certain forms. As of 2000, the law recognizes sex workers as a legitimate part of the work force.
The current system, as with drugs, is mainly about harm reduction. Legalization and regulation, the notion goes, help to separate consensual sex work by people who have chosen it as a career from the kind of international human trafficking that exists outside the law in cities around the world. The same law that legalized sex work in 2000 also increased penalties for coercing someone into it.
This is a coffee shop in the Dutch sense of the term, meaning a place that sells small amounts of cannabis. That’s separate from a coffee house or a café, where you can actually buy coffee.
This one is the oldest coffee shop in the country, and its founder, Henk de Vries, is responsible for the potentially confusing choice of names. He chose the name “coffee shop” for the ambiance it suggested – a cosmopolitan place to meet, hang out, and talk.
He started by selling matchboxes of cannabis at a music festival in the 1970s, before it was decriminalized. He noticed that with enough popular support and the Dutch culture of soft enforcement, police could be persuaded to leave him alone.
A few years later, he opened this business and relied on the same gentleness to keep his doors open. While the business was running, Dutch law changed to list cannabis as a soft drug, to decriminalize possession of small amounts, and to allow establishments like his to sell it under highly regulated conditions.
As of 2020, “small amounts” means under five grams, so that’s the maximum purchase and the most it’s legal to carry. It’s meant to be consumed on the property and they aren’t allowed to sell alcohol or tobacco or other drugs.
And customers must be 18 or older. It’s also illegal to advertise cannabis – so if you visit one of these establishments, you have to ask for the menu.
As you walk toward the next destination, you’ll pass by a few of the Bulldog’s sister locations offering drinks, food, and souvenirs.
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 124,
1012 DT Amsterdam
At Cannabis College, you can find the same easygoing, informative attitude we saw earlier at the Condomerie. It’s a nonprofit information center, free to enter, and operating since 1997.
They have a small public library of cannabis-related material; you can take a quiz and receive a cannabis diploma; they offer workshops to train coffee shop staff and non-professional enthusiasts; and they maintain an indoor garden, where growers can talk about nutrients, pest prevention, and anything a different kind of gardener might think about for roses or petunias.
Current law allows possession of five plants, so the garden here consists of five very large plants. Their website lists any events or talks they may be holding. https://cannabiscollege.com/
The college is open from 11am-7pm daily.
HASH MARIHUANA AND HEMP MUSEUM
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 148
This museum consists of two buildings, located a short walk apart from each other, each with the museum’s name on the front.
The one further from Cannabis College is the main part of the museum and its home since 1987. That part covers the history of cannabis as seen through art, culture, science, business, religion, law, and medicine.
You’ll see exhibits about popular misconceptions, smoking devices from many times and places, and again, live plants.
The other building, just a few doors down from Cannabis College, is the Hemp Gallery. Certain types of the plant produce some of the toughest natural fibers in the world, used in clothing, modern plastics, and the rigging of ships.
Ships powered the Dutch Golden Age, and hemp kept ships moving, so it’s safe to say that without the cannabis plant, Amsterdam wouldn’t be nearly the city it is today.
Tickets are 9 Euros. Audio guides are available for free and are an essential aid to understanding the museum. It’s open 10am-8pm daily. https://hashmuseum.com/en/amsterdam/
VOC/DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY
This is the former corporate headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. It’s a large building, especially for Amsterdam, and between 1602 and 1799, the company inside became larger than any that had ever existed before it.
In Dutch, the company is referred to as the VOC, the initials of its full Dutch name. You’d see those letters on nearly anything the company created. The company had its own corporate logo (one of the first in the world), along with its own flag and its own military.
It was also the first company to officially issue shares to the public. In many ways, it was a predecessor to the huge multinational corporations of today.
The company financed expeditions to various parts of Asia for trade goods, especially spices, but also silk, coffee, and porcelain. It also financed wars to seize land and build plantations, and it built cities, installed governments, and tried and executed people who undermined its interests in the lands it controlled.
This made the Netherlands one of Europe’s major colonial powers. Dutch holdings at the peak of the Dutch Empire included parts of modern Canada and the United States, South America, the Caribbean, southern Africa, and south and southeast Asia.
You can find Dutch place names in New Zealand and Australia. And the Dutch were the only Europeans who could trade with or even visit Japan for over 200 years.
A couple of notable buildings stand on either side of this canal. On one side, at number 29, is the Trippenhuis, the largest residence in Amsterdam, today the home of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
From the street you can see its long, Classical stone façade with decorative cannons at the top and chimneys shaped like huge, ornamented mortars. The Trip brothers, who originally shared the house, were arms dealers.
Local popular legend has it that after this house was built in 1662, someone wished aloud that they could have a house as wide as just the front door of the Trippenhuis. And on the other side of the canal at number 26, you can see that very house, a white building slightly shorter than its neighbors and only two and a half meters wide.
The canal here is called the Kloveniersburgwal, a name meaning “city wall of the Kloveniers,” who were municipal guards. Many of Amsterdam’s canals used to be moats that bordered city walls, which gave the red-light district the name De Wallen or “the walls.”
As medieval Amsterdam slowly grew, new walls were built and new canals dug, while the old walls were torn down and the old canals came to be used for transport.
In the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, the city saw massive growth, and most of the modern canals were built within a single century. Today about a quarter of the city’s surface is water.
Besides defense and transport, the canals have served other purposes: they help prevent floods, they’re home to more than two thousand houseboats, and they provide a place for boat tours. We have some recommendations here: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/amsterdam-canal-cruises/
The Dutch word “waag” is related to the English word “weigh,” and this building was a weighing house. It’s the oldest secular building in Amsterdam, begun in 1488.
Originally, it was one of the gates allowing passage through the city walls. In the 17th century, when the walls along the Kloveniersburgwal canal were torn down, the gate house was left behind to become the place where goods brought into the city were weighed for taxing. The filled-in portion of the canal around it became this square, called Niewmarkt.
Today Nieuwmarkt is mainly restaurants, coffee shops, and cafes, but on the weekend, the old street market atmosphere still comes back to life. Throughout the year there’s a Saturday food market from 9am to 5pm, and if you’re here between the same hours on Sunday between May and October, you’ll find an antiques and crafts market.
The Waag also became the home to several trade guilds in the 17th century. You can find signs over three of the entrances indicating which trade occupied the portion that door led to.
The building has been restored to its 17th-century design, and you can experience it with the help of In De Waag, the restaurant and café located inside. For the price of an upscale meal or just a coffee or a drink, you can get some historic atmosphere, including lighting mostly by candles in the evening.
FO GUANG SHAN HE HUA TEMPLE
This is a Buddhist temple, the largest traditionally built one in Europe and a hub of Amsterdam’s Chinatown.
While the Netherlands have a long history with trade in Asia, it was only in the early 20th century that Chinese people began to live here, most of them arriving in connection with the shipping industry.
These new arrivals settled into a neighborhood that at the time mainly served sailors – you can still see some old seedy sailor bars further along this street.
The temple includes classic design elements, like the three-arched gate – a central arch for clergy and two outer arches for lay people – plus the Chinese zodiac figurines along the gate’s roof and a statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin inside.
On the less traditional side, if you look to the left and right of the main building, you’ll see twin structures, built as part of the temple complex, that combine traditional Chinese decoration with the basic shape of a Dutch townhouse.
Visitors are welcome during open hours. Those are Tuesday through Saturday, 12-5pm, and Sunday, 10am-5pm. Half-hour guided tours are offered, with no reservation necessary, on Saturdays at 2, 3, and 4pm. Events, including celebrations of Chinese holidays, are on their website: http://ibps.nl/home-2/
RED LIGHT TAX
Red Light Tax is what it sounds like – a tax office for sex workers.
Even in a place like Amsterdam where sex work is legal, life in the industry is financially complicated. Each sex worker is their own small business, they have complex regulations to follow, and moral attitudes can make it hard for them to get bank accounts and other financial services.
On top of that, most sex workers are not native Dutch, so they carry on business in a language that isn’t their first. Translation is one of the popular services Red Light Tax offers.
Take a moment to appreciate the garish neon sign that says “Erotic Museum” on this building. Then look further up and a little right of center and you’ll see a small plaque with a caption reading “God is mijn Burgh” – God is my castle. This combination of historic piety and present notoriety is classic De Wallen.
As for the museum behind those signs, it doesn’t always live up to visitors’ expectations of “erotic,” or “museum” for that matter.
It’s a collection of curiosities – ancient erotic art, vintage sex toys from various parts of the world, modern art in the vein of a topless Mona Lisa, a collection of drawings by John Lennon, and a room decorated like Alice in Wonderland where you can watch a sexualized Snow White cartoon.
It’s open Sunday to Thursday 11am to 1pm, and Friday and Saturday 11am to 2pm. Admission is 7 Euros.
RED LIGHT SECRETS – MUSEUM OF PROSTITUTION
Red Light Secrets is a museum about sex work. The building is a former brothel, including the bedrooms, S&M spaces, the office, the red-lit windows, and the lost and found, where you can see items that customers left behind – like dentures.
Visitors to the museum are guided by twelve audio stories, first-person accounts from sex workers about their time on the job.
This is the only place in the neighborhood that welcomes photos of the red-light windows, and visitors are offered the chance to pose in them.
Another popular feature is a confessional where visitors can write down fantasies or embarrassing secrets – with the possibility that they’ll be posted on the museum’s Instagram page (anonymously, of course).
Tickets are 12.50 Euros. It’s open Sunday through Thursday, 11am-6pm, and Friday and Saturday 12-8:15pm. Last admission is fifteen minutes before closing. Minimum age of admission is 16. https://www.redlightsecrets.com/en/tickets/
This small metal structure near the canal is one of the Amsterdam’s public toilets. They were installed in the mid-19th century to accommodate a small number of male public workers, and the system hasn’t been updated much to reflect the very large number of visitors of multiple sexes exploring the streets today.
This kind is known as a pee curl. The kindest thing that can be said about them is that they save lives. Men out on the town can be tempted to do to what Amsterdammers call “wild peeing” – that is, using the canals for one of their oldest purposes.
Besides being illegal, wild peeing is dangerous. A few people drown in the canals every year, and inevitably, a portion of that number is men with their pants unzipped. A pee curl may not be inviting, but it’s better than death.
For women, though, neither the canals nor the pee curls have much to offer. A small number of modern public toilets, a few pee curls with some special hardware to accommodate women standing up, and the toilets in businesses – which you generally have to pay to access – is the extent of what’s available.
For some added entertainment, the online reviews of this particular pee curl are worth a read.
BRONZE BREASTPLATE SCULPTURE
This one is easy to miss – it’s a small bronze sculpture, flat on the ground, among the cobblestones near the wall of the church, of a hand on a breast. Even here, in the halo around Amsterdam’s oldest church, the Red Light District is still the Red Light District.
This may seem like the stuff of pranks, but the fact that it’s been here undisturbed since 1993 is a hint that the city knows and permits its presence. In fact, it’s part of a series of bronze sculptures by an anonymous artist, mostly located in Amsterdam.
Another one is a large sculpture of a violinist coming up through the floor of the local opera house – something that would have been hard to place without permission and collaboration.
The official line is that the artist is a medical professional who prefers anonymity, but plenty of theories are out there as to the identity of the real creator, including former Queen Beatrix, who is a sculptor.
THE OLD CHURCH
The Oude Kerk or Old Church is the oldest building in Amsterdam, begun in the early 13th century. Since that time, it’s been given many renovations and expansions in various styles.
It’s much simpler inside than outside. Apart from some beautiful stained glass, the graves that mark the 10,000 burials in the church floor, and some impressive musical artifacts – 39 bells and four organs – you wouldn’t see the richness that’s typical in churches of this age.
That’s because of the Dutch Reformation, which turned this from a Catholic church to a Dutch Reformed church in 1578. Reformers raided churches and destroyed objects they considered unholy, including saint icons and elaborate altars – anything that might distract from the language of the sermon.
In some places, pipe organs were among the things destroyed. But this church became famous for organ music and for the career of a particular organist and composer, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
Organs in Dutch churches were often paid for by cities, sometimes with taxes that were still strong in the memory of the very citizens stripping the icons from the church.
And after the Reformation, cities went on to maintain organs and organists at their own expense, even when clergy weren’t always fond of the fact.
Today, the church is an art space, used for installations and music events. It’s open Monday through Saturday, 10am-6pm. On Sundays, the church holds services in the morning and is open to the public from 1-5:30pm.
Tickets are 12 Euros for adults with discounts available. Access to an audio tour is included with the cost of entrance. Their website can tell you what’s on right now: https://oudekerk.nl/en/
PROSTITUTION INFORMATION CENTER
This is one of many buildings around the church, and not the most obvious one – you’ll know it by the letters PIC in the window.
The Prostitution Information Center is a bit like the Red Light Secrets Museum we saw earlier – a place that offers a calm, humanizing, insider perspective on the real lives of sex workers. Staff at the center are usually current or former sex workers themselves.
It’s founded in 1994 by former sex worker Mariska Majoor. She’s also responsible for the installation of Belle, the statue you may have seen on the side of the church, not far from the bronze cobblestone, of a woman standing in a doorway, with a caption reading, “Respect sex workers all over the world.”
Inside, the PIC has a café atmosphere – there are drinks on offer and sometimes pie – with some space to sit down and peruse their reading material.
There’s also a model room, to offer a sense of the spaces Amsterdam’s sex workers spend their day in. And there’s a shop with books and other educational materials for sale, along with t-shirts, condoms, magnets, and miniatures of Belle.
They’re open Wednesday through Saturday, 2:30-5:30pm. At 5:30 on those same days, they offer a tour of the neighborhood focused on the subject of sex work. It’s 25 Euros per person, with no reservation required. Special presentations are also held here intermittently; you’ll find those and more information on their website: https://pic-amsterdam.com/
ONS’ LIEVE HEER OP SOLDER (OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC MUSEUM)
Our Lord in the Attic is a museum, a home, and a church at the same time. The museum office is the modern building on the right; the home and church are in the building on the left. The home was built in 1630, and the church was added in 1663, the year Catholic services were banned.
Even after the ban, Catholics didn’t all convert or disappear, and it’s still a major religion in the Netherlands today. Rather than comply, Catholics went underground, or rather overground – in this case, into an attic.
The word “attic” might give you humble expectations for what waits upstairs. But the church occupies not just the attic, but also the top two floors. It’s large enough to fit an organ, a living space for the priest, and 150 people.
While the entrance was behind a secret door, it would have been impossible to hide this many people coming and going from the house every Sunday, not to mention the conspicuously missing top two floors. As with soft drugs and sex work in their own eras, Catholicism became a thing that was officially banned by the state, but in a way that went unenforced as long as it was kept inconspicuous.
The house is still furnished as it would have been in the 17th century when it was the home of a rich merchant. The exhibits introduce a visitor to the daily life of the era as well as the history of religious freedom in the Netherlands.
It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday from 1 to 6pm. The museum also includes a shop and café. Admission is 8 Euros for adults or 4 Euros for 18 and under. https://opsolder.nl/en/museum-our-lord-in-the-attic/