What comes to your mind when I say, “Amsterdam’s Infamous Red Light District?” Ever wanted to visit? Think it’s all risqué and sexy? Well, there’s more to this neighborhood than its promiscuous reputation. Come along as I explain how we traveled to and from Amsterdam, recommend some super tasty treats we dined on, explain the rules of the Red Light District (yes, there are rules to be followed), and share some must-see museums we experienced.
This post is a continuation of our one-year anniversary road trip through Europe. We already wrote about the charming town of Volendam here and the best places to see tulips in the Netherlands here, and in the coming weeks, we’ll be writing about the rest of our unforgettable trip through the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain.
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Our Arrival into Amsterdam
While this was a road trip, we should note that we returned the car for the duration of our time in Amsterdam. Between having to pay nightly for parking and the fact that the city of Amsterdam is easily walkable (and a pleasure to do so, since you’ll see so much more beauty and history by walking), we realized that it was the best decision for us. Public transportation, although readily available into and within Amsterdam, wasn’t something that we took much advantage of either. As I said, we love walking around to explore, and there are always great finds along the way that you never would have stumbled upon had you not been on foot. Amsterdam is the perfect city for that.
The hotel we selected was Hotel Piet Hein which sits next to Vondelpark, close to Rijksmuseum, and only a 17-minute drive away from the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. It’s a three-star hotel, and we paid $210 a night in mid-April. The closer you are to the heart of the city, the pricier the hotels become. We stayed in a prime location to still walk everywhere, but we were just outside of the city center, so we saved a little. To me, that $210 a night was still a steep bill. Do keep in mind that mid-April is the peak flower season in the Netherlands, so you will pay more at this time of year than other months.
The hotel was modern-looking. The rooms were on the smaller side, which we expected since we’re in a big city. Everything was super clean and nicely furnished. The lobby common area was cozy with plenty of lounge seating, and there was a fantastic outdoor backyard dining area where we spent time having a meal one day. The hotel does have an elevator inside, but the front entrance has steps and no ramp, so if you are traveling with heavy bags like we were, or if steps are challenging for you, then you may have some initial access difficulties at this particular hotel or need to ask for help from the front desk.
Canals are the most picturesque part of Amsterdam. There are many hotels with canal views, since the waterways run throughout the heart of the city. It would have been lovely to have our hotel room look out over one of the canals, but the rooms that share the water views have rightfully inflated pricing. Our days were so jam-packed that we hardly spend enough time in the room for it to be worth the price difference for us. Plus, we walked around all day along the canal waterways. In the end, we didn’t feel like we missed out, so don’t feel just because you’re in Amsterdam that you need to splurge for that hotel canal view.
After we checked into our hotel and dropped off our bags, we drove back to the airport to return our rental car. The airport is a convenient public transit hub that connects directly to the Dutch rail network. If our trip had only been to the Netherlands and not also Belgium, France, and Spain, then it may have been worth it to take trains all over the country instead of renting a car (food for thought).
We found a train that would take us from Schipol Airport into Amsterdam Centraal in just 14 minutes. Amsterdam Centraal is the largest rail station in North Holland and was the perfect spot to begin our day. The atrium where you purchase tickets at the airport had self-service ticket kiosks throughout, with help readily available if you need it. Tickets were only €5.60 ($6.85 USD) each, so it was an affordable way to get back to the fun parts of our trip.
The train ride was above ground, and I loved watching the scenery of the city as we passed. It was such a wise decision to drop off our bags with the car earlier in the day because now we could just arrive into Amsterdam Centraal Station and freely explore for the remainder of the day. The station building was beautiful. The tube the train arrived into was made of a glass ceiling that you could see the sky through. The older part of the building was made of red bricks and white stone, and it had a grey roof. Very stately. The exterior of the building had loads of bicycles lined up. Something you’ll see all over Amsterdam are bike racks covered in locked-up bicycles. It’s a major form of transportation, as it’s such a small walkable city.
First order of business was a quick bite for lunch. Not too far outside of Amsterdam Centraal, we stumbled upon a busy and very instagrammable french fries shop called Mannekenpis Verse Vlaamse Friet. This shop was just a window where you ordered and picked up your food. They had a line out the front, so it looked promising. The premise is that you order a paper cone filled with french fries and you can select a sauce for them to pour on top. The selection of sauces included a very impressive 23 different flavors. This wasn’t a bad selection for a snack, because it’s grab and go. We were able to snack as we continued to stroll through the city.
The Red Light District
About five minutes later, we found ourselves in the Red Light District, arguably the most infamous part of Amsterdam. It was still daylight when we entered this neighborhood, and you could already see how the name originated. The Oudezijds Archterburgwal canal and roadway was lined with many storefront buildings with lit-up neon window signs. I’m sure it comes to life even more so in the evening. Along the road, we passed brothels, sex shops, peep shows, strip clubs, and cafés that serve cannabis products.
Although Amsterdam is pretty liberal and has acknowledged sex work and the use of light recreational drugs and legal behaviors, there are rules in place to keep the environment orderly and safe to protect both the workers and visitors.
- Taking pictures of sex workers is prohibited: This is a pay-to-play environment. Even taking pictures of a sex worker in a window is not allowed.
- Don’t disrespect the sex worker in the windows: This is a hard job, and no one likes being gawked at or laughed at. Be respectful and polite.
- Don’t block sex worker windows: Online advertising and street advertising is prohibited by the sex worker, so the window is their only way for the sex worker to showcase themselves.
- Street prostitution and prostitution hotels are illegal: There are plenty of sex shops and approved establishments available, so do not buy off the street as the fine is €115 ($140.74 USD) for each party involved.
- No drinking alcohol in the streets: Alcohol may only be consumed at approved establishments both inside and outside, and the fine is €95 ($116.27 USD).
- No purchasing of drugs from street dealers: Light recreational drug use is allowed at cafés, and some menus even offer such products for sale and consumption. You can carry a maximum of five grams of weed on you legally.
- Obligatory identification: Don’t forget to have a photo ID on yourself (especially if you look young). From age 14+ there are fines if you are asked for ID and cannot show one. Customers may be as young as 16 years old.
- Respect the neighborhood, and don’t litter the streets or canals: This lively neighborhood isn’t just fun and games. Above many storefronts, there are residencies and hotels. The fine for littering is €140 ($171.34 USD).
- Use designated public urinals: Urinating in the streets, alleyways, and canals is prohibited, and the fine for doing so is €140 ($171.34 USD).
- Don’t smoke under open windows: Be conscious where you light up.
- Walk on the right side of the street: In the past few years, pedestrian congestion has become more severe. When visitors follow the right-side rule, it assists flow and alleviates congestion.
- Sleeping in your car is prohibited: Fine is €140 ($171.34 USD).
There is much more to the Red Light District than just red windows. There are churches, daycares, homes, groceries, everyday shops, and culture that this neighborhood has to offer both day and night. Be respectful of people, space, sex, drug, and alcohol rules, as there are fines and plenty of enforcement in this neighborhood. As it goes for any city, you can have a lot of fun, but you just have to follow their rules.
We were visiting on our one-year wedding anniversary trip and elected to not take part in the sexier offerings the Red Light District has to offer. If you’re in the same boat as us and not feeling like you want to experience that part of it, then I’d suggest you still do a stroll through this famous neighborhood just to experience it. “When in Amsterdam,” am I right? We stumbled upon a couple museum attractions that caught our eye, and we did experience those.
The first museum we visited was the Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution. Tickets are €12.50 ($15.30 USD) per ticket. This is the world’s first prostitution museum. The museum was a walkthrough experience that took you through a day in the life of one prostitute, Inga, a Russian sex worker who has been working the Amsterdam Red Light District for 15 years. The experience showcased how she was a real person and had a life of family and friends outside of her job, that her chosen career is nothing to be ashamed over, answered questions people always have of sex workers, and was actually really tastefully done and informative. There are 12 free audio stories included in the walkthrough experience. There’s also a photo opportunity where you can take a picture from inside one of the red windows. I was impressed.
The second museum was the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum. Tickets are €9 ($11.01 USD) each. This museum is basically the history of marijuana. They have artifacts and art to educate on all aspects of cannabis and hemp including history, culture, fashion, and modern medicine. The museum itself consists of two sites: the original building and a newer addition a few stores down. When purchasing the ticket, you gain access to both buildings. Our ticket included a free audio guide so we could learn additional facts as we walked through the museum at our own pace. They say the average self-guided tour lasts about an hour. I actually think we spent over an hour here as by the time we were leaving it was now dark out.
I also want to highlight a few attractions that we didn’t experience but that are popular in the Red Light District:
- Erotic Museum: This is an attraction for those who may want to see what the Red Light District establishments look like, without actually partaking in booking a sex worker. There is an erotica shop, an exhibit on the history of the district, a wax figure of a girl working, photographs, and so much more. Tickets are €5 ($6.12 USD) each.
- Allard Pierson Museum: University collection of archaeological exhibits from Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
- Casa Rosso: Upscale theatre-style sex show with velvet seats and a stage. A combined ticket plus two drinks costs €55 ($67.31 USD) each.
- Banana Bar: A popular club for bachelor parties where waitresses perform party tricks.
- TonTon Club: Video game bar.
- The Bulldog: One of the first coffeeshops in the city and the first in the Red Light District.
- Hangover Information Centre: Purchase the secret tonic to cure your worst hangover.
- Cannabis College: This free experience educates visitors on both cannabis and hemp uses.
- Oude Kerk: Oldest church in Amsterdam. Built in the 1300s. I’ve read that the views from the bell towers overlooking the city are breathtaking.
- Condomerie: Novelty condom shop.
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Finishing our First Day in Amsterdam
We continued our walk back to our hotel and stopped into Van Wonderen Stroopwafel, which had been highly recommended by a friend. Stroopwafel is a dessert like chewy wafer cookies made from two thin layers of dough pressed with a thin lining of filling in the middle (most commonly a caramel or honey-like substance). We’d already had stroopwafel on our Netherlands trip thus far, but these were seriously gourmet and so scrumptious. They were hand-made to order, and then you could select toppings. Very decadent and the perfect dessert snack for our walk home.
The entire day, we were basically on a slow stroll from one side of Amsterdam back to our hotel. Though we could have walked from Amsterdam Centraal station to our hotel in about 30 minutes, all the sights and experiences we took in along the way were well worth it. There were also plenty of souvenir shops for us to pick up a few more trinkets for family and friends back home. We arrived back to our hotel in the dark, and the walk felt very safe. What a successful first day in Amsterdam!
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All in all, we had a really fantastic first day in Amsterdam. This was partially a travel day, so we didn’t have a full morning-to-evening in the city, but we sure did see a lot for the few hours of daylight we had left. The famous Red Light District did not disappoint. We definitely felt like we had the full Amsterdam experience with today’s itinerary, yet there was still so much more to see! We hope that you enjoyed going on this journey with us through the Red Light District. The next few Amarvelous Honeymoon posts will cover our next jam-packed days in Amsterdam!