De Wallen, Amsterdam's Red-Light District

Netherlands, Amsterdam, De Wallen, Oudezijds Achterburgwal at twilight
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Amsterdam's Red Light District, also known as "De Wallen", is both one of its most popular, and most misunderstood, areas. For visitors, it offers more than just sex for sale: nestled in Amsterdam's Oude Zijde (Old Side), its lattice of narrow streets also contains museums, restaurants, and boutiques, as well as the medieval Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam's oldest parish church. Some Amsterdammers even call it home: believe it or not, De Wallen doubles as a residential area, with families happily ensconced in its historic rowhouses.

So while the district owes its international fame to the sex workers who beckon from its red-lit windows, even the most prudish visitor can appreciate its tamer side - and even the most debauched visitor should, too!

01 of 04

Museums & Monuments in De Wallen

Canal in Amsterdam with the Old Church in the background; Amsterdam, Holland
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  • Oude Kerk (Oudekerksplein) - Consecrated in the 14th century, this former wooden chapel is now an iconic cathedral that casts its shadow over a square, the Oudekerksplein, filled with cafes, bars and coffeeshops. The site where the World Press Photo launches its annual exhibit, not to mention the venue for scores of concerts each year thanks to its renowned acoustics, the church usually has one event or another to offer the public - but is just as worthy of a visit on its own merit.​
  • Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40) - The zolderkerk, or attic church, is the star of this monumental canal house, where Catholics worshiped in secrecy at a time when the Reformation prohibited any faith other than Protestantism; the name translates to "Our Lord in the Attic". From its consummate symmetry of form (a faux door was even installed in one room to preserve the symmetry) to the restored mauve walls of the attic church, Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder has an appearance to match its incredible history.
  • Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 148) - Make no mistake: this museum has a serious mission to educate the public about the history and uses of the Cannabis sativa plant. Learn how versatile cannabis can be - from its promise as "wonder fiber" to medicinal properties - in the museum's informative exhibits.
  • Erotic Museum (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 54) - This erotica museum, one of two in the Dutch capital (the other, the Sex Museum, is located on Damrak), offers a three-floor exhibit that touches on the district's history, the erotic art of John Lennon, and more, but its desultory focus makes it feel rather like a stash of random odds and ends with sex as their common denominator.
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02 of 04

Shops & Boutiques in De Wallen

Condomerie Het Gulden Vlies novelty condom shop.
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While it isn't as overloaded with shops and boutiques as retail hotspots like P.C. Hooftstraat and Kalverstraat, quite a few of De Wallen's retailers stand out for their uniqueness and quality.

  • CODE Gallery Store (Oudezijds Achterburgwal) - The CODE store features Amsterdam-based couturiers as part of the Redlight Fashion Amsterdam project, whose bid to turn De Wallen into a fashion hotspot has been met with ambivalence since 2008.
  • Condomerie het Gulden Vlies (Warmoesstraat 141) - The first specialist condom shop in the world, the "Golden Fleece" opened its doors in 1987, and since then has attracted the curious stares of passersby. The variety of sizes, colors, textures, and flavors reminds me of the motto of my favorite eyewear store in Manhattan: "If you have to wear them, make it fun!"​
  • Geels & Co. (Warmoesstraat 67) - Rarely can I resist the lovely scents that waft from Geels, a coffee and tea specialist that's even older than it looks; founded in 1864, its industry experience makes it the ideal curator of the modest coffee and tea museum on its premises (museum hours Saturday, 2 - 4:30 p.m.; entrance free).
  • Jouw Stoute Schoenen (Oudzijds Achterburgwal 133) - This modern-day artisan shoemaker revives a lost art with her hand-made footwear, made to order based on each customer's individual whims. Courses and workshops are also offered at the boutique-cum-studio, from leatherwork to DIY pumps and boots.
  • ROOD (Warmoesstraat 137a) - ROOD, the Dutch word for "red", lives up to its name with an assortment of red merchandise, but not just any red item makes the cut: each piece is more covetous than the next on the store's adorably curated shelves.
  • W. van Poelgeest (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 43) - While this frame maker and antique dealer arrived in De Wallen only in 2001, its history extends back to 1920, when it traded in the art of local Zaandam painters and etchers. Today, the store specializes in fine prints of Old Amsterdam and maps of all scopes, from small Dutch towns to the world.
  • WonderWood (Rusland 3) - WonderWood far surpasses its prosaic description as a store that sells plywood furniture (mostly chairs); it elevates its craft to an art with its replicas of plywood classics and unique silhouette sculpture, not to mention a fine selection of retro plywood finds.
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03 of 04

Cafes & Restaurants in De Wallen

De Prael Brewery
hmmmayor / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
  • Blauw aan de Wal (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 99) - For a spot of calm in the midst of De Wallen, there's no better sanctuary than this restaurant nestled in a former courtyard of the Bethaniënklooster (Convent of Bethany). The continental menu takes French cuisine as its basis, which it splices with Italian and Spanish elements.
  • De Prael - De Prael Brewery connects its two public faces, a retail store (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 30) and pub (Oudezijds Armsteeg 26) located just around the corner from one another. The only brewery in the heart of Amsterdam, beer lovers can take a tour of the plant, browse their beers and beer-laced products such as cheese, mustard, and preserves, or knock back a few of their small-batch brews, each one named after a Dutch crooner.
  • Kapitein Zeppos (Gebed Zonder End 5) - Tucked into an alleyway just outside De Wallen's boundaries, Kapitein Zeppos is worth the detour outside the debauched district for some decadence of its own: from its over-sized lunch sandwiches (pictured) to its classic fish soup and other seafood dishes that dominate its seasonal menu.
  • Metropolitan Deli (Warmoesstraat 135) - This all-weather winner doles out inventive and intensely flavorful ice cream, from delicate cactus to potent black cherry, as well as velvety-smooth hot cocoa and other chocolate treats.
  • Restaurant Tibet (Lange Niezel 24) - Restaurant Tibet offers a hybrid menu of Tibetan and Han cuisine, and never has a dish been a disappointment. Intricately painted beams and vivid Tibetan textiles lend the restaurant an attractively homey feel.

Just outside the boundaries of De Wallen, but a world apart in atmosphere, is Amsterdam Chinatown, with a cornucopia of cafes, restaurants, and bakeries to choose from: for a midday refreshment, try the timeless Hofje van Wijs for exquisite coffees and teas, Latei for a cozy, informal lunch with artisanal bread, or De Bakkerswinkel for their lavish lunchroom fare. Both Hofje van Wijs and Latei also serve dinner (traditional Dutch and Indian, respectively), or check out the popular Thai Bird - their snack bar location for a quick, cheap bite or the restaurant next door for a more formal meal.​

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04 of 04

Vice in De Wallen

Theatre Casa Rosso in Red Light District in Amsterdam
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Thousands of tourists pour into De Wallen in search of the stereotypes - window brothels, escort services, erotic boutiques and more. While some opt for private encounters with city sex workers, others - especially couples and bachelorette parties - prefer to enjoy them from a distance, at one of De Wallen's live sex shows:

  • Bananenbar (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 37) - Open daily, 8 ​​p.m. - 2 a.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 3 a.m.); admission is € 50 per person, per hour and includes unlimited drinks. The new Bananenclub offers a tamer strip club routine for a € 10 cover (drinks not included).
  • Casa Rosso (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 106-108) - Open daily, 7 p.m. - 2 a.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 3 a.m.); admission is € 35 per person, per hour plus drinks, or € 50 with four drinks included.
  • Moulin Rouge (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 5-7) - Open daily, 2 p.m. - 3 a.m.; admission approximately € 35 per person, per hour, two drinks included.

For those who want to learn about the reality of the sex industry, there's the fantastic Prostitution Information Center (PIC), an initiative to educate sex workers, their clients, and the broader public about sex work - a profession shrouded in popular myth. The PIC's Wallenwinkel (Enge Kerksteeg 3), a modest storefront just beside the Oude Kerk, sells souvenirs and other merchandise, as well as literature about the sex industry. The PIC even offers tours of De Wallen with former sex workers, where visitors can take a look behind the scenes of the world's oldest profession.​

For all the vice De Wallen has to offer, check out Amsterdam XXX, the most complete resource on the web, whose exquisitely detailed maps list all the district's amenities down to each individual window brothel.