De Wallen (or De Walletjes, literally translated as ‘the walls’) is Amsterdam’s largest and most famous red-light district and consists of a network of medieval alleys, along which there are about 300 ‘room-cabins’, rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a glass door, usually lit with red lights.
The dating houses and strip clubs are located in one of the oldest areas of Amsterdam and it is impossible not to stumble upon them, even by accident, while a minute before you were admiring the typical 14th century architecture and picturesque canals. Moreover, the area is not exclusive to prostitutes: in recent years, numerous families and young professionals have moved to live in this district.
Amsterdam’s red light district is historically famous for being a place that already centuries ago was populated with brothels and brothels that sailors used to frequent, precisely because of the area’s proximity to the harbour. As early as the 1300s, women wandering the alleys with red lanterns would secretly meet up with sailors passing through the harbour and then go to bars, clubs and daring entertainment venues.
There were periods when the girls found themselves working underground, as prostitution was considered illegal; other periods when attempts were made to regularise the system, in an attempt to have more control over it, given its unaccountable spread.
De Wallen, together with the other prostitution areas of Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade, form Amsterdam’s largest Rosse Buurt (red light district).
The district is home to a number of sex shops, sex theatres, a sex museum and even a cannabis museum.
The Red Light Secrets is an interactive museum dedicated to the history and culture of prostitution in the city, dating back to the 15th century.
The museum offers visitors the opportunity to explore the different facets of the sex industry in Amsterdam, including the workplaces of prostitutes and their clients, the laws and government regulations on prostitution, the culture and daily life of prostitutes and more.
It is important to emphasise that the museum does not promote prostitution or seek to justify its existence, but rather seeks to educate the public about its history and the social and cultural implications associated with it.
In De Wallen there is a high concentration of coffee shops. Serra and Baba are two of the most popular; the area also has some wonderful jenever (Dutch gin) tasting houses, charming Bruin cafés (historic Dutch pubs), and an independent brewery, Brouwerij de Prael.
There is also a Prostitution Information Centre in the district, which not only provides information on the environment, but also offers organised tours to explore the area, precisely in order to bring visitors closer to respect for workers in the sector.
There is only one rule in the red light district: the girls in the shop window must not be photographed or filmed under any circumstances.
It may sound strange, but in the heart of the red light district stands Amsterdam’s oldest church, the Oude Kerk. Known for its impressive architecture and numerous works of art, including a series of stained glass windows, an 18th-century organ and a large Baroque pulpit, the church is also famous for being the burial place of many of Amsterdam’s illustrious figures.
Today, the Oude Kerk is still in use as a place of worship and regularly hosts concerts and other cultural events– be sure to visit it during a tour of the district.
The best way to visit the red light district is by taking part in a guided tour. There are many stories linked to this part of the city with its long and complex history.
Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, unless it is practised on the street, as long as the person practising it is an EU citizen or a foreign permanent resident in the Netherlands, over the age of 21. In doing so, the government tries to control this occupation by imposing strict health checks on girls and boys in the sector. The job is also taxed.
In recent years, Amsterdam’s red light district has been at the centre of public debate, as there has been an increasing incidence of crime, mostly related to the exploitation of women and money laundering.
The line taken by the city administration has been to reduce activities: starting in 2007, the city council decided to close 51 ‘shopfronts’, and directly purchase the premises in order to promote the opening of fashion-related establishments with high-end companies; the initiative is known as Project 1012, from the number indicating the postal code of the area.
The intention of the policy is to gradually reduce the number of establishments, so as to better detect illegal phenomena.
The red light district (De Wallen) is located in the centre of Amsterdam, just south of the central station.
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