Red Light District Tours

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Red Light District History

Amsterdam Red Light District History

The beginning of the Red Light District

This section of town is lively, cheerful and can be a bit noisy. Maybe it was also back then, when it all begun. And since it’s the oldest profession, sex for money was already there in 1200, when Amsterdam was no more than two lines of wooden houses, together forming the first canal. With at one end of it the harbor, exactly where now is the Central Station. From then on trade began what made Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: De Wallen - Oudezijds Voorburgwal 1670
Amsterdam, Red Light District (“De Wallen”), Oudezijds Voorburgwal, year 1670.

De Wallen of Amsterdam

Did you know that the Dutch don’t call this area the Red Light District? In Holland, this area is known as “De Wallen”. In ancient times Amsterdam was enclosed and protected by earthen walls. That is the origin of the word “De Wallen” for this area. De Wallen immediately refers to sex and prostitution not only now, but since ages. It’s an euphemism: “To say Wall when you mean paid sex.”

A few street names in the Red Light District: Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal. As you can see, these street names end on “wal”. The Dutch plural for “wal” is “wallen”.

Amsterdam Oudezijds Voorburgwal 1895.
Amsterdam, Red Light District (a.k.a. De Wallen), Oudezijds Voorburgwal, 1895.

Amongst other things, in the early beginning of the town, fishery was bringing in a lot of money. Later shipping of timber and even later the trade in Far East  spices (cinnamon, pepper, clove etc.) and tea and coffee brought in huge amounts of money. Amsterdam stored all that in the famous ware houses, which were part of the living quarters of such a trader. One can see those at the Brouwersgracht for instance. They are recognizable by their characteristic wooden hatches at the front.

The Red Light District History: Street names

Amsterdam Gebed zonder End in the year 1892.
Amsterdam, Prayer without end street, year 1892.

Street names like Prayer-Without-End [Dutch: Gebed zonder end] and Monk street [Monnik straat], pretty contradictory to the scenes you get to see.  The Monks Street is named after the Grey Monks Monastery that used to be located in the Red Light District.

Bloedstraat in Amsterdam (Blood street)

Amsterdam Red Light District History - The Blood Street (Bloedstraat) in 1890
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Blood Street, 1890.

The Blood Street (Dutch: Bloedstraat) is a short and narrow street in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The street is located between the New Market Square and Oudezijds Achterburgwal Street. Amsterdam used to have 20 monasteries.

Since 1464, the Franciscan monastery and the so called “Vroedschap” church of the Gray Monks were located on this street. The Franciscan monastery was the biggest men convent of Amsterdam. It was destroyed in 1578 and then on January 7, 1588 the town council decided to tear down the church too. Therefore, the Blood Street arose on the perimeter and next to it the Monk Street (Dutch: Monnikenstraat). The Blood Street in the Red Light District refers to the former blood chamber of the monastery which might also have served as a torture chamber.

According to historian Melchior Fokkens, Alva – a Spanish general and governor of the Netherlands –  kept his “blood counsel” on what’s now The Blood Street.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Alva had his blood council on the Blood Street
Amsterdam, 1573. Alva’s last ride through the city. 

Amsterdam was very religious city back then. But it was also a trade point, a raw place with prostitution, sailors and criminality. Nowadays, the Blood Street is filled with window brothels which have red and blue lights. Wanna know who uses the blue lights? Join our tour and our local guide will tell you.

Cripple Alley

The Cripple alley [Dutch: Kreupel steeg] is named after the cripples who came here hoping to be cured. It’s located in the heart of the Red Light District.

Warmoes Street

Amsterdam Red Light District History: The Warmoes Street now and then
Amsterdam’s Warmoes street in 2015 & 1900. 

At the flanks of the Warmoes Street, Amsterdammers had kitchen gardens (Moes literally means vegetables). But since say the year 1600, it’s all houses at this place. Ground had more value with a house on it since the city was growing and the need for houses was high.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Warmoes street in 1905..

The photo above was taken in 1905. It shows the back of a house that was located on the Warmoes street. Around this time, lots of houses were in really bad shape. Like the one on the photo. These house weren’t properly isolated and very unhygienic.

The Red Light District is the oldest part of town and the Warmoes Street is the oldest street of Amsterdam. The Old Church (De Oude Kerk), the oldest still existing church of Amsterdam. It dates from 1200-1300. It’s located in the middle of the area, just next to the Warmoes Street.

The Miracle of Amsterdam

Amsterdam has its own true miracle. Around 1350 there was a fire. A catholic wafer [hostie] was in the midst of that, but didn’t burn: The Miracle of Amsterdam was born. Many came here as a pilgrim, even a Pope and an Emperor. Amsterdam was a holy place.

Oudezijds Kolk or Kolksluis (Kolk Sluice)

Amsterdam Red Light District History Oudezijds Kolk
Painting from 1839 inspired on the Kolk Sluice in Amsterdam.

This is one of Amsterdam’s oldest, still functioning, locks – dating from the Middle Ages, first half 14th C. Technically, the ‘kolk’ is the area between both pairs of sluice doors. In times past the ‘Kolksluis’ was part of a system of locks, that had two main functions: a. protect against high tide; b. help refresh the water in the canal system.

The Red Light District History: between 1500 and 1600

Until 1578 the area known as Oude Zijde was characterized by the many monasteries. After the Alteration in that same year the convents were given a new destination by the city government, like prison or orphanage institute. The alteration meant that  Holland threw off the reign by Emperors or Kings {Philip II of Spain was the Landlord of the low countries as from 1555} and went on as a Republic. The Netherlands had to fight for 80 long years to achieve this. In 1648 Holland was acknowledged as an own, separate Republic by the rest of Europe in the Treaty of Munster, where by all of continental Europe was rearranged.

Hidden catholic churches

The building “Our Lord At The Attic” [Onze Lieve Heer Op Solder] on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40 has a complete hidden catholic church in the attic. It was a house that was build in the year 1550 and owned by a true catholic, who freed the whole floor to be dedicated to the service of God. Complete with chairs for the rich (the poor had to stand up) and pulpit for the priest. Now it’s a really nice museum. One can also see how life was in such a house around 1600.

Hidden church in Amsterdam's Red Light District
This is what the hidden church in the attic looks like. Amazing!

The Red Light District History: The Netherlands in the 17th & 18th century

From the year 1666 the Netherlands turned protestant when the so called Statue Storm (Dutch: Beeldenstorm) took place all over Southern and Northern parts of the low lands. The south was formed by now Belgians cities like Antwerp, Brussels and Brugge. From then on Catholicism had a hard time, it was even forbidden. But like always in Holland, it was winked at, and the Catholics could have their service at secret places. As long as they didn’t make fuss.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Casanova visits the Netherlands

In 1758 the famous Italian fraud and womanizer Casanova visited Amsterdam and also “De Wallen”, the Red Light District, since he was obsessed with sex.

The Red Light District History: from 1850 till 2013

The year 1850 till 1900

In Victorian times, prostitution was not allowed. Still, of course the men could get their satisfaction secretly, in brothels, inns and taverns. There was always was a woman, known for her easy ways.

Amsterdam Red Light District History. "De Wallen" in 1886 in front of the Old Church.
January 1886.  Amsterdam’s Red Light District, just next to The Old Church.

The picture above was taken 129 years ago. You see two women and a man with a derby walking through the neighborhood. What’s interesting to know about this photo is that all the buildings in the back are still here this very day.

The Red Light District in 1894
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Old Church Square, 5th of May in 1894. 

The Old Church is the oldest building of Amsterdam. It stands in the heart of the Red Light District and is surrounded by window brothels, cafes, restaurants and normal residential houses. The picture above was taken by a famous Dutch photographer in that time: Jacob Olie. He shot this photo on a sunny day in 1894, as you can see by the man in the back who tries to block the sunlight with his hand. In that time, people had to stand very still to guarantee a sharp picture.

The year 1901 till 1910

The Old Church Square in Amsterdam around 1900
Old Church Square between 1900 – 1910. This picture was shot by Tavik Frantisek Simon.

The Old Church Square is one of the highlights during our tours. Get to know more about this fascinating area and see how the church is surrounded by brothels, cafes and even a kindergarten!

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Prostitutes and a pimp in 1905
Amsterdam, year 1905. Two prostitutes sitting in front of a house waiting for customers.

Fun fact: Another word for street prostitute is ‘street daisy”.

The picture is above is very unique and special! It took us quite a long time to find this photo. The reason why it’s so special is because it really shows how prostitution took place back then. The prostitutes worn long dresses, sat in front of houses and waited for customers. In those year, these ladies were also known as ‘street daisies’ (Dutch: Straatmadeliefjes). The man on the picture is most likely a pimp, which was quite normal in that time. He took care of the customers and handled aggressive customers when necessary.

Fun fact: Another word for pimp is ‘souteneur’. It’s a French word and stems from ‘soutenir’, meaning ‘support’ or ‘defend’.

The Red Light District History: In the port of Amsterdam

The famous Flemish singer Jacques Brel sang an evenly famous song  “In the Port of Amsterdam” describing the raw atmosphere and actions of the sailors and prostitutes. The song was a true tribute to them. The port was adjacent to Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

In the 30ties of the 20th century, window prostitution appeared. Before it were brothels or whores picked you up in an inn to go elsewhere or to a room in the inn. Prostitutes were not allowed by the police to lure clients in the door-opening, but were allowed to sit behind the window and do the same, with the curtains almost closed.

Amsterdam Red Light District. Oudezijds Achterburgwal. 1951
A beautiful picture of the Red Light District in the winter of 1951. Lots of snow!

Amsterdam Red Light District Prostitute 1957

As from the sixties prostitution grew and grew in Amsterdam’s Red Light District (“De Wallen”) and became even bigger; more window brothels and more prostitutes.

This is how the Red Light District in Amsterdam looked like in 1968.  Photo by Elliott Erwitt
This is what the Red Light District in Amsterdam looked like in 1968.  Photo by Elliott Erwitt.

In those years, a lot of window brothels had a painting of a crying gypsy boy. The sex workers believed it would bring luck, fortune and happiness. The picture above shows a painting like that.

Amsterdam Window Prostitute 1960's
A window prostitute called Parijse Leen. Amsterdam, Red Light District, late 1960’s. Pic by: C. Jaring 

The interior of the window brothels in Amsterdam looked like small living rooms, as you can see on the pictures above. Mind the paper-hangings, lamps, paintings and curtains. Nowadays, the window brothels have a very modern look. They are still quite small though. Usually it just has a bed, a washing table and a chair.

Amsterdam's Red Light District History.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District in 1978. Most sex shops sold porn magazines back then.

One famous brothel in Amsterdam was Yab Yum, founded in 1980, for the rich people. It was very luxurious and had a fine interior. It still exists, as a museum though.

Amsterdam's Red Light District History. April 3th 1984
A window prostitute presents herself in the Red Light District. 3th of April 1984.

Police agents in Amsterdam's Red Light District. This picture was shot in the 80's on the Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam.

Prostitution, euthanasia and gay marriage were legalized in Holland. That happened around the year 2000. Coffeeshops were condoned from the year 1970 onwards.

In 2009 the city council accorded to label window prostitution as a criminal activity and a criminal branche. Next to that the the City government decided in 2011 to chase the window brothels [mostly consisting of one tiny room] from for instance the Saint Annen street and the Old Church square [Oude Kerks plein]. The City of Amsterdam thinks to help women this way who are forced to prostitute themselves.

Since 2010 the city of Amsterdam campaigns to drive human trafficking out of town. The city buys properties and houses to this end. These actions will take years.

The Red Light District History: Belle

At the open day of the Red Light District on 31 march 2007, for the first time male sex workers stood in the windows. On that day a bronze statue of the female artist Els Reijerse was revealed as an honoring to the prostitutes. It was an initiative from the well-known Mariska Majoor, an ex-prostitute and advocate for sex workers. He statue is named “Belle” and looks like this:

Belle, a statue which stands in the heart of the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Old Church Square. Belle – Respect sex workers all over the world.


A prostitute in Amsterdam's Red Light District
In 2006 a prostitute showed herself outside in the heart of the Red Light District.

Would you like to know more of the Red Light District history? During our tours we’ll tell you even more interesting facts.