Amsterdam's Red Light District is the subject of much fascination, but it isn't all about prostitution.
This post will tell you what the district is all about, things to do, available tours, and dining options.
Folks have many questions about Amsterdam's Red Light District, and we've answered some of them here.
What is the Red Light District?
Amsterdam’s Red Light District is famous for the line of windows and doors surrounded by red lights - red lights that signify legal prostitution.
You can walk down the street and see barely-dressed women sitting behind the windows and waiting for customers.
Of course, it's so much more than that. You'll find churches, palaces, museums, restaurants, hotels, bars, and coffee shops there.
See below for 13 things to do in the Red Light District.
How Did the Red Light District Come About?
Because of the nearby harbor, since at least the 14th and 15th centuries, and likely further back, many sailors and visitors came into the city.
Some were looking for entertainment, which often led them to sex workers.
Rules changed from century to century when under Catholic and then Protestant rule. Sex work was at various times legal, then not legal, then legal again.
At times sex workers were banned, and at others men in certain positions (the clergy, for example) were forbidden from entering the neighborhood.
Finally, in 1811 the ban on street prostitution was lifted, bringing with it health checks to prevent the spread of disease. Healthy sex workers were given a red card that indicated they were disease free.
Brother owners then installed red gas lamps that signaled to customers what kind of business was taking place.
Today anyone over the age of 18 can legally become a prostitute as long as they pay their taxes and do not leave their windows.
Where is the Red Light District Located?
Also known as De Wallen, this district is the oldest part of the city and is full of things to do, see, and eat.
The neighborhood is located in the center of Amsterdam, just a minute away from Dam Square and a short walk from Central Station.
What is the Most Famous Street in the Red Light District?
Something few tourists know is that there are 3 red-light districts in Amsterdam.
The most famous one is in De Wallen. This is where hundreds of windowed brothels line the streets. You'll find this on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Oudezijds Achterburgwal, and some connected alleys.
The second largest, which has about 65 windows, is Singelgebied, near the corner of Spuistraat and the Singel Canal. This is in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood and is much less lively than De Wallen.
The smallest is Ruysdaelkade. This one, which has about 40 windows, tends to be frequented by locals. You won't find many tourists there.
Are There Rules in the Red Light District?
It’s easy to think that anything goes in the Red Light District (De Wallen). But there are some rules worth knowing.
As with many tourist neighborhoods, watch out for pickpockets. They are likely the biggest threat to tourists.
Marijuana 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.
In fact, in March of 2023, new rules were introduced meant to crack down on the "nuisance behavior" caused by drunken tourists. There is currently a curfew that closes the doors of sex businesses at 3 am rather than 6 am, something sex workers are currently protesting.
There is also a proposal that would restrict alcohol sales and smoking on the street.
Sex work is legal, but taking pictures of sex workers standing in brothel windows is strongly frowned upon. You don't want to take out your camera and get in trouble.
It's also considered rude to tap on the widows, to stand and stare at the workers, or to shout out insults.
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.
Especially at night, there will be loads of bouncers calling out to you to come inside and enjoy the 18+ entertainment and attractions (things such as peep shows, live sex shows, and strip shows). Some shows are rather dodgy though, so feel free to ignore the calls and keep walking.
You may also find street dealers offering to sell you drugs. The city has launched a campaign against dealers, and many arrests have been made in recent years. There's too much chance of getting bad drugs, robbery, and getting scammed by dealers to risk getting involved in a transaction
How Does Prostitution Work in the Red Light District?
Promoting the services of a sex worker out on the street is illegal, and can carry a fine for both the worker and the customer.
To hire a Red Light District sex worker, one goes to knock on a woman’s window or door to negotiate a price.
Once the service and price are agreed on, the sex worker and customer can go back into a room behind the glass-covered viewing area.
Customers must be 16 years old or older, according to the country’s age of consent laws.
Do You Need Cash in the Red Light District?
For those visiting sex workers, yes, cash is needed. They do not tend to accept credit cards.
Other than that though, there's no cost to walk through the streets of the Red Light District.
What is the Best Time to Visit the Red Light District?
The answer to this question has many answers.
A walking tour past many of the sites listed in our audio tour can take place any time of day. Note that the later it gets, the more likely you'll run into rowdy groups of bachelor parties and people who have been imbibing. However, an afternoon or early evening tour works just fine.
For those wanting to partake in other activities in the area, many sex workers start their job at midnight. There's a current regulation that closes them at 3 am, but historically they have been open until 6 am.
Sex shops tend to open around 10 am and noon and close between 8 pm and 9 pm.
Sex shows have varying hours. The Moulin Rouge is either open between 2 pm and 2 am, or 8 pm and 2 am. Cassa Rosso opens around 7 pm and closes between 2 am and 3 am. You'll want to check online for the most recent schedules.
Is the Red Light District Safe?
Yes. Many people live and work there so there are always loads of people around. There are often many police officers as well.
As mentioned above, pickpockets are likely the biggest threat to tourists.
Can Anyone Go to the Red Light District?
Yes. These are normal streets, along canals, surrounded by homes and businesses.
The streets are full of tourists. Some are interested in the tourist attractions in the neighborhood. Others in hoping to see the famous red windows. Others are there to hire sex workers and go to shows.
Can You Avoid the Red Light District?
Absolutely. However, if seeing sex workers is what bothers you, you might find it better to walk through the area during the day.
As mentioned below though, there are many sites worth visiting that have nothing to do with the sex industry.
From museums and coffee shops to churches, you might be surprised at what the district has to offer besides the red windows.
Below is a list of things to do and see in the neighborhood.
BONUS: Audio Tour
We offer an audio tour of the Red Light District, researched, written, and recorded by one of our own tour guides.
The positive of this kind of tour is that it can be done at your own pace. You can stop in at various sites of interest along the way, and then continue the tour again when you are ready.
- Purchase an audio tour – $2.99
- Get a confirmation email with .mp3, .pdf, and embeddable Google Map
- Enjoy the tour(s).
We can also recommend pay-what-you-will guided tours of Amsterdam: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/free-walking-tours-amsterdam/
1. See a Museum
There are multiple museums in the Red Light District.
Those interested in archaeology should head to the Allard Pierson Museum run by the University of Amsterdam.
They hold Egyptian, Greek, and Etrian artifacts, among others. Check the website to see what exhibits are on.
From the history of cannabis use to hemp fashion around the world, you can learn a lot at the Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum.
Since cannabis is legal in The Netherlands, this is a fascinating subject for many visitors.
Red Light Secrets is the only Museum of Prostitution in the world.
You can learn about Amsterdam’s history with prostitution as well as get a look at what it’s like to be a window worker.
The Erotic Museum in Amsterdam is located in an old warehouse and has plenty of exhibits about the Red Light District itself. You can even legally take pictures in front of the museum’s window replicas.
Tip: To see as many museums as possible and save money, we recommend the Amsterdam Museum Pass.
2. Go to a Strip Club or Show
Many visitors might want a closer encounter with the Red Light District worker without actually purchasing their services.
For that reason, the District has quite a few strip clubs and sex shows.
The Banana Bar is one of the more famous clubs in the area and is often the location of bachelor parties. Waitresses serve drinks and perform party tricks.
For a more upscale sex show, Casa Rossa is set up theatre-style with velvet seats in front of the main stage.
The acts onstage rotate and repeat throughout the night, so there is no need to arrive at a certain time.
3. Attend Cannabis College for Free
New to Cannabis or want to learn more?
The Cannabis College has knowledgeable employees who can give you advice for safely using Cannabis - whether for recreation or medicinal purposes.
They give tours of their indoor Cannabis garden and educate visitors about Cannabis Activism.
They’re active in pushing for legislation reform all over the world.
4. Learn at the Prostitution Information Center
The Prostitution Information Center was started in the ‘90s by a girl who became a prostitute at the age of 16 and wanted to help reform the laws around prostitution.
Her goal was to educate the public about industry conditions for the workers. Now the PIC defends prostitutes’ rights.
There is also a PIC store that sells books about prostitution, legislation, and guides of the Red Light District.
5. Enjoy a Coffeeshop
Coffeeshops are integral to the culture of the Red Light District.
They began popping up in the 1970s and are now synonymous with Cannabis Dispensaries.
You can read more about guided coffee shop tours and coffee shop etiquette here.
The Bulldog is one of the first coffee shops in the city - and the first to open in the Red Light District.
If you want to experience smoking, make sure you ask questions about what the staff recommends and start slowly.
And don’t forget to try their coffee and desserts :).
6. See an Attic Church
You might not expect to find one of the most interesting churches in Amsterdam in the Red Light District, but On's Lieve Herr op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic), previously called Amstelkring, has some fascinating history.
When the area became Protestant by law in 1578, Catholics had to go into hiding.
The Catholic church was hidden inside multiple canal houses, covering the top floor, and was built by a wealthy merchant.
You can see the entire house preserved as it was in the 1700s - including lavish furniture and an impressive art collection.
7. Visit the LGBTQ+ Friendly Warmoesstraat
Right on the edge of the Red Light District is one of the most well-known districts for gay bars and LGBTQ+-friendly spaces.
Amsterdam is known for building Europe’s first gay club, and today has a vibrant queer community.
You can find multiple gay clubs on Warmoesstraat.
One of the most popular is Getto, which serves food in the early evenings and proceeds to host cabaret shows later in the night.
Other popular spots include Queen’s Head and Eagle Amsterdam.
8. Play at TonTon Club Centre
Head to The TonTon Club to play some classic arcade games, foosball, air hockey, or Mortal Kombat.
This "barcade" was opened after a popular crowdfunding campaign to the delight of video and board game enthusiasts across the city.
The bright colors and decor really set the mood for a Dance Dance Revolution competition.
Don’t forget to sample their craft beer. And if you get hungry, you can sample their nostalgia-inducing nachos, hotdogs, and other snacks.
9. Browse the Nieuwmarkt Market
The city’s oldest and most popular Market is located just next to the Red Light District.
While it holds a daily market, the reason Nieuwmarkt is popular throughout the day and into the evenings is the collection of restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops that line the square the Market sits on.
You can find some excellent coffee and pastries or have lunch on a terrace. Or you can join the evening crowd for dinner and cocktails.
Of course, if you’re here between May and October and you love browsing a lively market, make sure to arrive on a Saturday morning to see the produce. Antiques are sold most Sundays.
10. View the Oldest Church in Amsterdam
This beautiful gothic building is Amsterdam’s oldest building, which also makes Oude Kerk the oldest church in the city.
You won’t be able to miss this architectural masterpiece if you walk past it.
It was built in the early 1300s and is now home to an impressive collection of art. Check the website to see what exhibitions are on.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go around to the back of the building for the (paid) guided tour up into the bell tower.
It is quite a steep climb to the top, but the views of the city are worth it, as is getting up close and personal to the bells!
11. Visit the Condomerie
This novelty shop usually features a crowd of onlookers outside its doors taking pictures of the display.
The Condomerie sells a multitude of condoms, souvenirs, postcards, and other items.
You’re not allowed to take photos inside the shop, but anything set up in the window can be photographed.
12. Winston Hotel
The Winston Hotel and Nightclub isn’t just a conveniently-located place to party and sleep on the edge of the Red Light District. It is a local piece of popular film history.
Many movie lovers are excited to pass by and take pictures of the building where Quentin Tarantino spent several months in isolation working on the script of Pulp Fiction.
While it was set in Los Angeles, he wanted to be halfway around the world for a chance to concentrate without any distractions.
13. Madame Tussauds Amsterdam
Right in the middle of the Red Light District is an internationally-recognized name: Madame Tussauds.
In the Amsterdam location, you can find music stars like Ariana Grande, Zayn Malik, and Afrojack as well as famous film scenes.
Kids will love the Marvel Avengers room, and everyone can enjoy the TV broadcaster's room where you can read from the teleprompter and experience life as a news anchor.
Note: Madame Tussauds is included in some Amsterdam City Passes.
Want some more information as you walk through the Red Light District? You can get the history and interesting facts narrated to you on a walking tour.
We have an in-depth review and comparison of various Red Light District tours here.
Tours through the district are most often offered in the evenings to give you the full experience of seeing the glow of the red lights.
You can take your pick of walking tours from those that focus heavily on the history of the area, the prostitution, or the neighborhood’s food and pubs.
- On this walking tour, you can learn about the District and experience a coffee shop with your guide, and even learn how to roll a joint.
- Another walking tour includes a visit to a distillery with a complimentary drink.
- You can also see more of Amsterdam from a boat on a canal tour.
- Enjoy a self-guided mystery game covering several notable sites in the Red Light District and Amsterdam in general.
We have an in-depth review and comparison of various Red Light District tours here.
Find both takeaway meals and sit-down restaurants in the Red Light District.
Here is a list of some of the most popular places to eat in the Red Light District.
Wok to Walk
This made-to-order Asian restaurant offers stir-fries, and noodle bowls, and has vegan options.
They have a hole-in-the-wall atmosphere with a front window facing the glow of the Red Light District.
Van Kerkwijk is a small cafe and restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike.
The menu changes depending on what seasonally-fresh ingredients are available and the waitstaff verbally informs customers of the day’s available dishes.
Brouwerij de Prael
Brouwerij de Prael is a 13-year-old microbrewery that has become well-loved for its beer selection and vibrant atmosphere.
The crowd that frequents De Prael is generally younger. They serve lunch, dinner, late-night snacks, and their in-house brews.
Amsterdamsche Vishandel is an old-fashioned fish shop, the perfect place to try some local specialties.
The Dutch store’s specialty is fresh herring. The quaint decor adds to the atmosphere and they get their fish fresh daily from the market.
Stach is a quiet little shop that is home to some delicious pastries and other baked goods. If you’re looking for a snack, this is the place to go.
They also serve smoothies and full meals in addition to pre-packaged healthy snacks.
Breakfast is a perfect meal any time of day, which is how they like it at Pancakes.
This is the perfect opportunity to taste Dutch pancakes, which range from sugar-dusted to bacon and banana gourmet toppings.