If you're looking for sex, drugs and/or rock 'n' roll, you'll find all you need for a lost weekend in Amsterdam without much preparation. The Red Light District (known locally as De Wallen), sited in an approximate triangle formed by Central Station, Nieuwmarkt and the Dam, is at the very root of the city's international notoriety. It's currently undergoing a 'clean up', however. The city authorities are seeking to halve the number of prostitutes and marijuana-touting coffeeshops in the hopes of attracting a classier line-up of conventional cafés, shops and restaurants – and tourists. Culture, in all its forms, is deemed to be the answer. Hence a glut of hipster insurgents, from the retro arcade De TonTon Club to the Cut Throat Barber and Coffee store.
But while sex remains the main hook upon which the area hangs its reputation, it's actually secondary to window shopping. Even though people do buy an incredible amount of rumpy here – takings are estimated to be worth around €500 million per year – most wander around, gazing at the live exhibits and taking in the history of the area at the Erotic Museum or Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum. And yet, in the centre of this illicit activity rises up the Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam's oldest building, while the equally pious Museum Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder lies nearby.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District – a guide
The college, occupying two floors in a 17th-century listed monument in the Red Light District, provides the public with an array of information about the cannabis plant (including its medicinal uses). The place is run by volunteers and admission is free. However, staff request a small donation if you wish to wander around the indoor garden.
Cannabis connoisseurs will lose themselves ogling larger than life pictures of perfect plants and gleaming balls of hash in this museum in the Red Light District. But this shrine to skunk is not only for smokers and tokers. Straighter-laced visitors will be entertained by the long and illustrious history of the plant. There’s plenty of pro-cannabis propaganda here too, including information about its medicinal uses, the environmental benefits of hemp over cotton, and the cannabis culture of today. Don’t miss the indoor grow-op that showcases plants being lovingly cultivated for their seeds, guarded by a guru of ganja who offers advice on using a vaporiser.
While the Sex Museum benefits from its Damrak location in terms of passing trade, the Erotic Museum is in the more appropriate location: slap bang in the heart of the Red Light District. That’s not to say, though, that it’s any more authentic, or interesting. Prize exhibits include an odd bicycle-powered dildo and a few of John Lennon’s erotic drawings. Lovers of Bettie Page will enjoy the original photos of the S&M muse on display. Since 2009, it has put on temporary exhibits in the Sexy Art Gallery on the third floor, which raises the game (and, on occasion, the pulse). In general, however, the museum’s name is somewhat inaccurate: despite its best intentions and desperation to shock, it’s as unsexy as can be. All in all, you’re probably best off going to one of the many nearby sex shops for your kicks.
PIC will answer just about any question about the work, professional issues and political fights related to the City’s legalised prostitution industry. It’s run by Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute, and even offers a workshop (€65 including a drink and a photo) that offers punters the chance of spending an hour dressed in their own ‘working’ clothes, in order to experience what it feels like to ply the world’s oldest profession. PIC’s connected shop, De Wallenwinkel, sells souvenirs in sync with the neighbourhood, many of them handmade.
The entertainment at Casa Rosso leaves nothing to the imagination: onstage are striptease girls and couples having full-on sex, and there’s a soft-core S&M performance thrown in for good measure. A recent attempt to drag things out of the gutter with a safe-for-work matinee burlesque show seems to have been abandoned in favour of the time-tested ‘standard’ fare. It’s certainly worth a look, even though its famed marble cock-and-rotary-ball water fountain at its entrance has been removed, and particularly busy periods see the cyclical on-stage ‘action’ speeding up to Benny Hill tempos in an attempt to get you to vacate your seat.
Improbably dexterous female genitalia can be seen performing night after night – and, as the central part of their belief-beggaring act, spitting out an average of 15kg (33lbs) of fruit every evening. For €50 you get one hour to drink all you want but the appeal is the girls who, for another €50, will perform their speciality trick; oiling up their breasts for team grope or presenting a banana from their nether regions. A former owner of the Bananenbar once tried to stave off the taxmen – and get round the fact that his drinking license had lapsed – by picking Satan as a deity and registering the Bananenbar as a place of worship. It was a scam that worked for years – until 1988, when the ‘Church of Satan’ claimed a membership of 40,000 overseen by a council of nine anonymous persons. The tax police were called in to bust the joint, but the bar was tipped off and the ‘church’ disbanded. Now under the same ownership as the Erotic Museum, the Bananenbar has kept its name and returned to its roots as a purveyor of sleaze.
Originally known as the Museum Amstelkring, this place is a well-kept secret. The main attraction is upstairs, and goes by the name: ‘Our Sweet Lord in the Attic’. Built in 1663, this attic church was used by Catholics during the 17th century, when they were banned from worshipping after the Alteration. The altarpiece features a painting by the noted 18th-century artist Jacob de Wit. Meanwhile, the beautifully preserved rooms on the lower floor offer a realistic glimpse of what life was like during the 17th century.
The Oude Kerk began life as a simple wooden chapel in 1306, but today rates as Amsterdam’s most interesting church. It’s easy to imagine the Sunday Mass chaos during its heyday in the mid-1500s, when it had 38 altars, each with its own guild-sponsored priest. Now it serves more as a radical contrast to the surrounding Red Light District, but still holds lessons: the inscription over the bridal chamber states ‘marry in haste, mourn in leisure’. Keep your eyes peeled for the floor grave of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia, who died in 1642. Also note the Gothic and Renaissance façade above the northern portal, and the stained-glass windows, parts of which date from the 16th and 17th centuries. For shock value, check out the carvings in the choir benches of men evacuating their bowels – they tell a moralistic tale. Occasional art shows exhibit a range of fascinating subjects, from contemporary local art to the World Press Photo Exhibition.
When she was a child, Désirée Webers, founder of erotic store Webers Holland, wanted to be an inventor when she grew up. Instead of focussing on rocket science, the kooky designer (she sports rainbow-coloured dreadlocks these days) meandered down a slightly more erotic path, and her flagship store offers avant garde fashion, fetish gear, gothic lingerie, club and party wear. The store stocks Dutch erotic brands such as Tykaboom, Bizonder and Breathcatchers and attracts a great variety of customers including strippers, artists, dancers, students, tourists and even housewives. Want a one-off, made-to-measure PVC jumpsuit? Désirée is your woman.