Red Light, Green Light: Travel to Amsterdam

Amsterdam at Night
Amsterdam at Night

We were a diverse group assembled that warm Friday evening for a tour of Amsterdam’s “Wallen,” the Red Light District. A mother and daughter from South Africa, a youngish couple from Scotland, a service man on leave from Morocco, plus a smattering of Canadians and Americans had one common denominator – curiosity.

My husband and I had toyed with the idea of visiting the area on our own, but decided against it. An organized tour would hopefully reveal more about this unusual place. There’s only so much you can learn walking up and down the streets or reading in a guidebook. Even more intriguing, the brochure mentioned the tour would stop at the Prostitution Information Center. Now, that did catch our eye.

As darkness fell, the red neon reflected across the murky canal in undulating waves, as they have done for decade upon decade. More neon lighting in yellow, green and blue stood out against the night. We walked past scantily dressed ladies, perched in windows and looking for customers to a nondescript brick building. Engraved on the front glass window was “Prostitution Information Center.” In hindsight, I realize I should have taken a picture of that extraordinary sign.

Inside, according to our guide, was a former prostitute who ran the establishment. We quietly filed in. I can’t speak for the others, but I was feeling awkward.

The corn-fed, conservative Hoosiers from my home state of Indiana would certainly look askance at this! We were offered drinks of beer, wine or juice. Since there were only a few seats, most people stood. Still, I wouldn’t say we looked like a relaxed group — we were more pensive and unsure of ourselves. The evening and the setting had a surreal quality about it.

Mary Ann, the “proprietor,” proceeded to discuss “the business.” Her talk was casual yet, informative. The center was meant for everyone, she explained, the girls themselves, their clients, the public or anyone with questions.

We learned of the special alarm systems devised for the girls’ protection, and how the ladies band together if any trouble arises. Baseball bats, she commented, make great deterrents. She spoke of their typical work schedules and how they rent their small rooms. The average time spent in this occupation is about seven years, and most of the girls range in age from 18 to 26. Occasionally, a married woman will work for only one or two weeks, just long enough to pay for a nice vacation. There was a short question and answer session at the end.

One small room in the back was set up as a replica of a working prostitute’s room. It was tiny — just a twin bed, a porcelain sink and barely room for a chair. We all dutifully poked our heads in, as if looking at some exotic animal on display.

Twenty minutes quickly passed, and our visit was over. The young man from Morocco bought a T-shirt from the rack next to the condoms; we finished our drinks and filed out again.

As we walked away, the word “attitude” kept sticking in my head. Whether it’s marijuana or prostitution, the Dutch have a straightforward, no-nonsense attitude. I found this both strangely refreshing and disturbing at the same time. Though we are all the same under the skin, our attitudes can make a world of difference.


Our two-hour walking tour, “Dark Amsterdam,” was arranged through Lindbergh Excursions, 26 Damrak, 012 LJ Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Fax +31 (0) 20 – 622 27 66, Phone: +31 (0) 20 – 622 27 69; The cost is 14.50 Euro (about $17 US). Children under13 are not permitted. Reservation is compulsory.

The visit to the ‘Wallen” – the Red Light District – is perhaps the most interesting part of the tour. It’s here that you will learn about the oldest profession of the world. The tour continues past some interesting monuments and through old streets, one of which is the well-known ‘Zeedijk’, which was once one of the most dangerous streets of Amsterdam, where Seamen could be found looking for local amusement. Nowadays, this is a safe area, full of lively Dutch pubs and restaurants. Now the shady bars of yesteryear are long gone. Safety during this excursion is not a concern, as you will be accompanied by a reliable guide throughout the tour.


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Janna Graber

Senior editor Janna Graber has been covering travel for more than a decade. She has traveled to 38 countries -- and counting.
Janna Graber
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