If you know anything about the Netherlands and Amsterdam, it's likely that you've heard of the red-light street. We will tell you what really happens there and where exactly it is.
And if you want some stories and legends from the red-light district, download our audio guide of Amsterdam at night!
Is it legal?
Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 2000. Brothels are legal but are under strict governmental control. This doesn't extend to street prostitution, which is still illegal. The sex industry is fairly profitable: in 2010 it brought the country about 100 million dollars.
What was the primary reason for legalizing prostitution? It was to protect the sex workers and fight against human trafficking. In the modern Netherlands, it's not the most common profession, but it's socially accepted. Sex workers have the same rights and responsibilities and obey the same laws as other workers, and since 2011 they pay taxes on their income. They have the right to receive unemployment and disability payments. People can begin a sex work career when they turn 21.
Many tourists are confused and think that prostitution is only legal in the Netherlands and the only red-light district is in Amsterdam. But prostitution is actually legal in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Latvia, Greece and Turkey and they have their own red-light districts. Each country has its own laws, regulations and "quirks," so be sure you understand the laws if you will be patronizing these businesses.
Medical examinations for prostitutes are not legally required in the Netherlands because the government doesn't want to propagate the stereotype that all sex workers carry STIs. But don't worry, the brothel owners and the workers themselves monitor their health.
No one can give you a 100% guarantee though, so use your own best judgement.
How can I find the red-light district?
The red-light district is in Amsterdam's historical center, De Wallen. You can easily get here from the city's main square.
A red-light district tour
We've made an audio guide of the red-light district. For just 5 Euros, you'll see the liveliest areas in the district and learn a ton of stories about them. Download it here.
There are also tours available with in-person tour guides where you can learn more about the history of the district. They are a bit more expensive.
Is it worth staying in the red-light district?
It seems the natural answer is no, but it's not so easy. The red-light district is the cheapest area to stay in Amsterdam. That's because the city center's hotels are very expensive (see for yourself here), and this is the center with more or less affordable prices. It's full of hostels and 1-star hotels. Of course, you'll have to make your peace with many discomforts like people walking around all night, guests having a good time and hotels that sometimes have smoky rooms. But if you want a real Amsterdam adventure without paying out the nose, then the red-light street isn't a bad option.
What's the best time to visit the red-light district?
The peak visiting time is from 11 pm to 2-3 am. That's when you can see the biggest number of girls, although many of them will be busy. That's also when the various sex events, sex bars and sex theaters open. The Peep Show costs a couple Euros and you'll go inside a room where you'll see a show through glass for a couple minutes. The shows vary from extremely open ones to a gorgeous prostitute sitting on a chair sweetly taking off her tights.
You can take a look at the district and its residents during the day when it's calmer too.
Are you having trouble deciding where to go yourself? Then get an experienced guide to help.
Facts about the red-light district
- The red-light district's name comes from the red neon lights that mark prostitutes and sex shops.
- Only 25% of the prostitutes are Dutch. Many of the girls are from Eastern Europe like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.
- There are streets for clients with specific tastes, like streets with transgender people, elderly women, Latina women and African women. A red light in the window means that the girl is offering her services, and a blue light means that the prostitute is a trans woman.
- A prostitute's workday doesn't last more than 12 hours. The girls themselves choose their clients and how long they work. They also usually pay for renting their rooms, often called a "window," for a night. There are about 400 "windows" for rent in the district. The rent is about 200 Euros a night. The prices are lower during the day and start at 85 Euros. Every girl has a passport, a work allowance and a residence. Since their taxes can reach 70% of their income, most of the prostitutes have a tax consultant that takes care of all the administration.
- The starting price for 15 minutes "behind the window" is 50 Euros. On average, a visit lasts from 10 to 15 minutes. Each room has an emergency button that the girl can press to call security. The girls make 5 to 10 thousand Euros a month gross.
The most important thing is the girls' safety. Don't yell or be disrespectful. We also recommend never taking their pictures. If they notice, there could be big problems up to and including a fight and destruction of your property.
There's a stereotype that the district is the most dangerous and crime-filled part of Amsterdam. However, the number of police and security is so large that the district is actually quite safe. We do want to add that due to the huge amount of inattentive tourists there are pickpockets here and you can find suspicious people in dark allies that sell illegal goods and stolen bicycles. While walking through the red-light district, keep an eye on your things and don't buy anything sold in alleys or you could end up on the wrong side of the law.