As cool of a city as Amsterdam is, it’s probably best known for two things: prostitutes (legal) and marijuana (despite what you may have heard- illegal). Sure it also has cute wooden clogs, picture-perfect windmills, and colourful tulips, but let’s be honest; unless you live in a bubble of purity those aren’t the first things that come to mind. Of course, the best place to find these two vices is another Dutch icon, the infamous Red Light District; famous for coffee shops, live sex shows, prostitutes, and peep shows in Amsterdam.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually loved the Red Light District. Not because I’m into marijuana (or prostitutes), it’s just one of the quirkiest places I’ve been to. There’s something really funny about watching men get pulled into windows (especially at 10am on a Sunday morning) by scantily clad women. Maybe I’m a little juvenile, but the whole sex craze that is so apparent in this area tends to make me laugh. It’s so over the top and extreme that I can’t help but giggle at some of the things. Seriously though, who would buy a blow-up doll with a penis AND breasts?
But as entertaining as it was peeking into these sex shops with their interesting wares, I wanted to know more about what went on behind the scenes of the graphic posters and vulgar neon lights. As someone who used to work in the victim industry and studied human trafficking (which is so often for sec tourism), I wanted to know how the system here actually worked. So, when I saw that I could take a night tour of the Red Light District, there was no doubt I was signing up.
I expected a couple of hours of history and culture, with some great stories and further insight, and I wasn’t disappointed. I learned about the process of becoming a prostitute, the history, and how it is controlled and legislated. I learned about the old local church, and how it used to thrive thanks to needy sailors, and of course I got some great and hilarious stories of the prostitutes of old who were pretty bad-ass. But, the last thing I expected was to be encouraged to check out a live show, right then and there.
It wasn’t one of the ‘live sex’ shows that are advertised throughout town, according to our guide those are ‘only ok’ and though he was glad to have went once, he wouldn’t do it again. Instead we stopped by another large venue with a large neon sign flashing “2€=2minutes” with a possible viewing of: guy on girl, girl on girl, or solo girl.
“Go on” our guide prompted us, “you’re in Amsterdam, where else are you going to get the chance to do this?”
For some reason I decided this stranger and mother would be a great partner and I told her I’d go with her. And so we did.
All of three minutes later we squeezed ourselves into tiny, dark booth, shoved a 2€ coin in the box and watched as the little shutter over the window slid open, revealing a single woman on a round rotating bed. The top half of her was clothed; trying to disguise what I’m convinced was a pregnant belly, but she was nude from the waist down. She wasn’t drop dead gorgeous, but she was pretty enough and took advantage of her long, blonde hair as she rolled around in front of us touching herself for anyone in the booths to see.
What made it weirder was that not only would we see her and her us, but we could see across the room into the other booth windows and their viewers. The booths were set up in a circular fashion around the room, so we had a clear view of the working girl, and everyone else. It wasn’t too bad because everyone was in our group and clearly uncomfortable, but I imagine if you (or someone you saw) were really into it, it could be pretty weird.
Even knowing we were all part of the tour, it was awkward. Of course, my go-to in awkward situations is to laugh, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one. Not only were the other viewers stifling their laughs behind their hands but our ‘showgirl’ quickly realized what was going on and joined in. But instead of fading off I think it just encouraged her to give us more of a show as she tried to shock us. I won’t get into intense details but I definitely saw more than I wanted. But then again, what did I expect at a peep show in Amsterdam?
After what seemed more like 5 minutes, our 2 minutes ran out and as quickly as it opened, our black shutter slammed closed indicating our time was over. My viewing partner and I exited our booth and joined the rest of the group back in front of the theatre where our guide waited to hear about our experience.
Was I glad I did it? Yes I was. As awkward as it was, it was definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But would I do it again? Nope.
Tips for Visiting The Red Light District
- Do not take photos of the working girls (or men); it may be legal to be a prostitute in Amsterdam, but a lot of these women aren’t Dutch and it is illegal back in their home countries. Your ‘funny souvenir’ could actually land them in jail.
- Hide your cameras in the area, as mentioned above photographing the workers can be dangerous to them and they will protect themselves. This might mean smashing your camera or throwing things at you, like urine or worse. Consider yourself warned
- Be careful for pickpockets at night. The red light district is busiest between 11pm to about 2am and sticky fingers tend to come out with the crowds.
- Dealers also come out late at night, do not buy anything in the streets. Marijuana is technically illegal, but the law has some sort of arrangement with the cafes. Buying outside of these cafes will land you in a lot of trouble.
Want to take a guided tour of the Red Light District? Check out this one.
First time to Amsterdam? Here’s why the iAMsterdam city card is totally worth it.
**This post was updated Feb. 2018