The Amsterdam Red Light District has earned a world-famous reputation, which intrigues most visitors enough to pay a visit. Find out what to expect in this area -- some sights might surprise you.
Thick Crowds of Tourists
The close proximity of Amsterdam's Red Light District to the city's main train terminal, Centraal Station, means it's often the first stop for visitors who arrive having heard all about the famously provocative area. Expect the obvious groups -- herds of men celebrating a bachelor weekend, gaggles of girls embarrassing a bride, and college kids who've been planted in bars and coffee shops for hours on end -- as well as the more unexpected -- senior travelers fresh off a cruise ship, pointing and giggling at the fleshy sights all around.
The point is, this compact area is popular with curious tourists, so be prepared to rub shoulders with all types. High tourist season (roughly April through August) and weekends are especially busy.
Women Selling, Men Shopping
Amsterdam's Red Light District gets its name from the windows rimmed in rose-colored lights, glowing signs that prostitution is legal in the Netherlands. Scantily clad female sex workers perch in tiny anterooms with floor-to-ceiling windows (some are doors) to advertise their services, and it's nearly impossible not to stare at the spectacle. A bigger shock factor comes from watching potential customers negotiate with the women. Watch with incredulity all you like; what you absolutely shouldn't do is take a photo of the women. Some have been known to open their doors and demand that tourists hand over their cameras or delete the photos.
Curious about the industry? You might consider a tour of the area given by former prostitutes.
Sex Shops and Shows
Along with the sex-worker industry in Amsterdam come related Red Light businesses, namely sex theaters (yes, there are live sex shows) and shops hawking adult videos, sex toys, and accessories you've likely never laid eyes on. Perhaps the one shop that stops more people in their tracks than any other is the Condomerie, where colorful hand-painted cover-ups include all manner of animal species and hobbyists (bet you've never seen a scuba-diver or punk-rocker designed to protect such parts).
True, many of the sex shops and theaters aren't as cutesy as the Condomerie, and some are downright raunchy. But move beyond them as you would any other shop you're not interested in and you'll find they disappear into the background (almost).
Stunning Architecture and Treasured Museums
Some of Amsterdam's oldest and most beautiful buildings call the Red Light District home, as this area is the site of the city's original settlement from the 13th century. The spire of the Oude Kerk -- Amsterdam's oldest church -- towers over the heart of the area. Teetering canal houses along Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal (which makes my list of the city's most charming small canals) date to the 1500s. One of Amsterdam's most treasured museums, a hidden Catholic church called Our Lord in the Attic (also known as Museum Amstelkring), sits unassumingly amongst the secular vices of the neighborhood.
Women's Clothes Replacing Unclothed Women
Confused? In recent years, a movement to "take back" the oldest quarter of Amsterdam has arisen; one of the more fashionable approaches is leasing the windows formerly reserved for (and still directly adjacent to some) sex-selling women to style-hawking designers. "Red Light Fashion" gives new meaning to window-shopping in the area; some spaces feature the mode makings of big Dutch names like Bas Kosters and Daryl van Wouw, while others playfully tempt passersby with vending-machine jewelry.
Delicious Spots for Dining
Amsterdammers know that the Red Light District is full of redeeming qualities that have nothing to do with the red lights themselves. One of these is a selection of unique dining options ranging from a local-favorite artisanal bakery (De Bakkerswinkel, which also has a Westergasfabriek location) and a quaint, tucked-away tea house (Hofje van Wijs) to the authentic restaurants of the city's tiny Chinatown district and the romantic Zagat-rated Blauw aan de Waal for a fine Mediterranean meal.