5 things that surprised me when I visited Amsterdam’s Red Light District for the first time


Mikhaila at Amsterdam’s Red Light District.Mikhaila Friel/Insider

  • Back in October, I visited Amsterdam’s Red Light District for the first time.

  • While there, I interviewed a resident of the area and a sex worker, and toured the area.

  • I learned there are plenty of misconceptions about one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world.

I visited Amsterdam’s Red Light District for the first time in October.

Mikhaila at Amsterdam's Red Light District

Mikhaila at Amsterdam’s Red Light District.Mikhaila Friel/Insider

Last year, I embarked on Cunard’s western Europe cruise — the cruise line’s first cruise to leave the UK since the pandemic — which stopped in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for two nights.

Amsterdam was voted the second-best city in the world by Time Out in 2021, and around 2.5 million people from across the world visit the city every year, according to Dutch Art Institute.

The city is arguably best known for its Red Light District. This neighborhood is often visited by “nuisance tourists,” which the city’s government website says are often British men between the ages of 18 and 34, according to The Independent. They’ve been known to visit the neighborhood for bachelor parties or to visit sex workers in the famous red-light windows.

But I found there’s much more to the RLD than its reputation.

There’s more than just one Red Light District.

Amsterdam's RLD

I visited Amsterdam’s De Wallen RLD.Mikhaila Friel/Insider

It wasn’t until I stepped foot in Amsterdam that I was told there are actually three red light districts in the city. The district I visited, De Wallen, is the largest and most popular of the three.

The second-largest red light district, Singelgebied, has the highest percentage of blue light windows in the city — which are used instead of red lights by sex workers who are transgender — according to Last Night of Freedom.

The third red light district, Ruysdaelkade, is much smaller and doesn’t share the same nightlife. It is therefore considered a more discreet place to visit, the website added.

There’s a Prostitute Information Center, where sex workers inform the public about their profession.

Inside the Prostitute Information Centre.

Inside the Prostitute Information Centre.Mikhaila Friel/Insider

During my time in De Wallen, I visited the Prostitution Information Center (PIC), which is run by sex workers who want to inform the public about sex work in the Netherlands and to end the stigma that surrounds it, according to its website.

While there, I interviewed Brenda, a woman who says she quit her job as a nurse to become a sex worker. When she’s not working, Brenda said she spends her time at the PIC, where she speaks to the public, journalists, and women who have an interest in starting sex work.

There is a high police presence and strict rules in place to stop people from mistreating both the sex workers and the neighborhood.

RLD

Amsterdam’s Erotic Museum in the RLD.Mikhaila Friel/Insider

Both Brenda and a woman who is a resident of the RLD told me that there is a high police presence in the neighborhood.

While I didn’t see many police officers myself, I did notice several signs in the area, which warned people that they would be fined for certain behaviors such as urinating into the canals or drinking on the streets. There were also signs telling the public not to take photos of the sex workers.

During a group walking tour of the city, I was told by the tour guide that tour groups are no longer allowed to enter the RLD, likely to protect the sex workers’ privacy.

There are around 4,000 residents.

we live here exhibition

Free postcards from the “We Live Here” exhibition.Mikhaila Friel/Insider

Before visiting De Wallen, I had no idea that the RLD was a residential area. I had assumed it was reserved for the windows, clubs, and bars.

Around 4,000 people live in the De Wallen district, according to Amsterdam RLD tour, and a handful of them have taken part in “We Live Here,” an exhibition to promote respectful behavior from visitors.

The exhibition, which is next door to the PIC, was commissioned by the city council and has photos of some of the residents, alongside printed interviews where they explain why they enjoy living in the area.

The RLD wasn’t always a popular tourist area.

Amsterdam's Red Light District

Amsterdam’s Red Light District.Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

During my visit, the RLD was filled with both locals and tourists, who were either in pubs, at the windows, or just exploring the neighborhood like I was.

Yung Carmiggelt, a local resident and participant in the “We Live Here” exhibition, told me it wasn’t always this popular. She said that when she first arrived 23 years ago, the area was considered dangerous as it was known as a hot-spot for drug dealers and knife crime.

Carmiggelt said it was both the increase in police cameras and “nice trendy shops” that made the neighborhood popular.

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