Many Layers – Seeing Past the Red Light District, Amsterdam

Travel is as much a part of my life as family and friends. When I’m on a plane, a train, or a bus heading toward a new location, I’m on an adrenaline high. All I need to do is think about exploring a new country or culture and my heart speeds up. After visiting 33 countries, it’s safe to say that I can’t write about them all and I most certainly can’t write about every experience in every city. So, when I posted about Amsterdam, I wrote about what surprised me the most: The Red Light District. Everything about it was new to me. I don’t normally walk down the street and see prostitutes or strip clubs; smoking anything is not done publicly; and a “coffee” shop sells coffee.  I was in no way uncomfortable with the Dutch tolerance and public display of sexuality; in fact, I might actually think it’s a better system, but it was definitely a notable experience. I left out the twinkling canals, the cleanliness of the city, the bikes that filled the streets, and the Anne Frank Museum that I imagined touring since learning about her in grade ten. Beautiful, open-minded, and filled with something new around every corner, Amsterdam is a delight to visit, even if you skip the Red Light District. 

The moments I spent strolling through the merchants’ villas, the charming lanes, and the lush Vondelpark were magical. The city was bustling with life; families enjoyed canal trips, bicycles, and playing in the park.

With more than 50 museums and Europe’s largest historical inner city, there’s no shortage of sights to explore in Amsterdam. The Anne Frank House is dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank, who hid from Nazi persecution with her family and four other people in hidden rooms at the rear of the building. I read her famous diary so much of the tour was familiar to me, but the facility was large enough to hold displays that told not only the whole story of the Frank family, but also highlight other forms of persecution and discrimination. Every corner, every door, every stairway, every detail brought the harsh realities of war to life.

From the most idyllic canals and must-see museums to the city’s best shopping streets and places to catch a band, Amsterdam extends well beyond the Red Light District.

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76 thoughts on “Many Layers – Seeing Past the Red Light District, Amsterdam

  1. You have brought back memories of the first time I visited Amsterdam – many years ago with an ex husband and 2 young daughters in tow. We got lost and ended up in the Red Light District. What do you say to Miss 5 when she asks why the ladies are sitting in the windows?

  2. i really must add this place to my ‘bucket list’…my daughter finished her schooling in Amsterdam and says much the same about it as you. In fact from your photo, I’m certain she once owned that bicycle parked about halfway back, about 10 in from the right. :)

  3. Although I have not made a trip to other countries yet, the travel to and visiting many places in the states is like a blood-thirst for me. My life started as a Navy brat, which meant traveling from the time I was born up and down the northeast coastal area. The desire to see more and just be in many different places didn’t stop when my father retired. I found a way to keep moving. This blog provides me with even more inspiration to get back on the road or plane or ship.

  4. I loved reading this great article, and being reminded of the two trips I’ve made to this amazing city. I would love to go back – I feel at home there, and alive, and interestingly, never get lost. (I have no sense of direction at home.) Maybe my Dutch ancestors guide me? :)
    And thanks for liking my most recent post on my blog!

  5. My husband and I were in Amsterdam around this time last year and were similarly delighted with the Red Light District. During a twilight stroll around that district, the streets were filled with people and some of the best street musicians (buskers) I’ve ever seen. The band was playing some Cajun-esque brass folk that gave the neighbourhood a carnival feel.

  6. Amsterdam is such a great city – I remember my trip to Amsterdam a few years back very well. We stayed in a Catholic (by accident, we had not planned on it) youth hostel, which was oddly enough located right in the middle of the Red Light District. ;-)

  7. This looks like such an amazing city! I just read “The Fault in our Stars” by Jeff Green and part of the book takes place here so it was very interesting to get to see what the city looks like from all of the pictures you took!

  8. I have the same feeling being in the travel process, not yet there but not anymore home. I think my favourite transportation is train. Tanssiberian is on my bucket list :)

  9. My wife surprised me with a trip to Amsterdam for my birthday a few years ago. This was long before I even contemplated starting a blog about traveling with kids, so I didn’t see it through the lens I would now. I loved the city, but while I have a philosophical and moral openness to both red lights and dense sativa smoke, I didn’t know exactly how to feel about either. We partook of more than coffee at the coffee shops, but women in windows smacked of a level of exploitation with which I wasn’t comfortable. In short, it gave me the creeps. Not in a moralistic, sex-is-bad kind of way. More in a sausage-and-clothes-should-hang-in-windows-but-not-people sort of way. It felt like the slave trade, and I didn’t like it. I read a few years ago, maybe in 2007 or 2008, that the city was moving the whole red light district to somewhere in the suburbs. I like the thought of Amsterdam without women in windows. I don’t like the thought that those windows will now just open out to low-density housing.
    Anyway, I really enjoyed this post and the photos. It makes me want to write a piece about the city, but I’m not sure I can. Not without going back, anyway. Well, shite, we’ll just have to go back. This time with kids on the back of our bikes.

  10. Amsterdam is a beautiful and tolerant place although I thought I read they were considering cracking down on some of the drug use and sex shops. I agree in a way too that it was possibly a ‘better’ system since places were regulated and drug ABUSE seemed to be less than what I see in some major US cities. It seems like once they legalize and regulate things (drugs/sex) the market becomes somewhat efficient and thus the fighting over corners/turf whatever that happens in the US doesn’t carry on over there. I went a few years after college and since I have never really done any drugs it is the place I was least looking forward to among Belgium and Ireland as well in a two week span. However, I’d have to say that after going there it may have been my favorite place of the whole trip. The bikes, vontabel park and relaxed atmosphere to everything was great.

  11. You know you do a wonderful service for all of us, Leslie. If we’re stuck at home, we get to travel vicarously with you, and if we’re traveling, we get to relive it. A great mind-widening, eye-opeining experience. BTW, I LOOOOOOOOve your headliner photo.

    • Thank you for the kind words. Without sounding too conceited, I too love the header photo. It always puts a smile on my face and reminds me that every day can be an adventure. :)

  12. Stunning photography! How do you get your photos to be so indescribably beautiful? They make me feel like I was actually standing there next to you.

  13. I saw Amsterdam as a student many years ago, and found out I’d violated local etiquette by trying to lock my rented bicycle to a signpost outside one of the windowed storefronts in the Red Light district, provoking an interesting encounter with a prostitute who didn’t want my bicycle near her place of business. It was also where I got my first taste of smoked eel, rijstaffel, and Dutch beer. What a charming city! Warm, friendly people, great food, civilisation in miniature–you brought it all back. Ken

  14. My grandparents recently went to Amsterdam. They said it was nice, but they wouldn’t go back. It is nice to see another point of view!:) I admire Anne Frank very much. I would love to go to the museum. You are very lucky! I hopw one day I can do what you do!

  15. there’s no education like travelling – can’t learn this is a classroom.
    makes every day and every moment interesting and alive.
    life on the edge.
    that’s why i love it.

  16. Lesley: I hope this finds you and yours well.As always, thank you so very much for sharing these beautiful representations of our magnificent planet. Stunning! I hope your trip to N.S. continues to be a positively memorable one. Make it an “Ollin” weekend my sister. Alan (aka the rabbi).

  17. Amsterdam is one of my favorite places in the world. Anne Frank Haus and the Van Gogh museum being two of my favorite memories. I would love to get back there someday!

  18. I have just returned from Italy and hoped I could make my yearly visit to AMS but I just couldn’t fit it in the schedule. Sigh… fond memories! :)

  19. I was in Amsterdam yesterday and it is a nice city with lots of different kind of things to see and do. Some years ago I visited the Anne Frank museum and it is impressive. And a canal tour is also always fun to do.

    Funny is the bike photo, although this is something you see in more cities, especially close to the railway stations. But it is always a good thing to put on a photo.

  20. Pingback: Many Layers – Seeing Past the Red Light District, Amsterdam | Today In The News |

  21. Pingback: Many Layers – Seeing Past the Red Light District, Amsterdam | Rabbits Vox Home

  22. When I was in Amsterdam, I traveled down the canal in one of those boats. I was sketching the guy piloting the boat. He was so focused on watching me draw that he steered the boat right into the wall of the canal !

  23. And I thought Davis was the Bike city! Wow! I guess they just need a bit more population! We had some kids do a History Day project on Anne Frank’s step-sister. Anne’s dad remarried after he was released, and married her best friend’s mom. Her name is Eva Schloss. Her biographer became very close to the students that interviewed her.

  24. I went to Amsterdam last year and felt it was a city I could happily live in. Went to the Red light district and was pretty surprised at how it works. I was expecting something more discreet, not the ladies in the shop fronts at pavement level.

  25. Hey, so nice to see an article on the great city I’ve lived in for 10 years (and even now I’m still as close as a 20-minute bus ride from Central Station)!

    It’s funny to see how the red light district and the ‘coffee’ shops are always amazing to people from abroad – to us, they’re really a non-issue. Prostitution is actually a legal profession; they pay taxes and everything ;-) (OK, so I still think that’s quite funny, too. But there’s the Dutch for you, we love rules and regulations!). Answering the questions of small children about the ladies in the window is simple: you tell the truth.

    Smoking weed is something some people do when in their teens or as a student (like everywhere around the world) and I personally don’t think it’s any better or worse than drinking alcohol. For the majority of Amsterdam’s inhabitants, the ‘coffee’ shops are a bit sad and just for tourists!

    All in all, I feel very fortunate to be Dutch and to live in a relatively open-minded country. And I wouldn’t know what to do without my bicycle!

  26. I loved the article. It brings back memories as I was born in The Netherlands and have many memories of Amsterdam. The Red Light District is something different and unique to the city. The Dutch are very tolerant on a lot of things. You can also just get coffee at a “coffee” shop. I think it’s something special to have travelled so much and seen so many different places and met people from other cultures. That’s the beauty of travelling! I wish you many more joys in your future endeavors.

  27. The last time I went to Amsterdam was back in 2006. I can still remember the vibrant color of the city. My sister and I actually lost our way in the city, but luckily was shown the way by a nice old lady. Some parts of the city are somewhat similar to Venice too, a city I have yet to reach myself.
    I am glad you shared these photos with us Lesley! Slightly jealous but glad mostly.
    Keep it up!

  28. Loved this post. Couldn’t agree more. There was something just happy and nice about Amsterdam even though we visited on a very cold week, the spirit was sunny. there’s more to it than freely available *stuff*, there is a sense of freedom in regular people that I really liked.

  29. Great post. Its a great city. Heading over there to visit some friends in November, can’t wait. A perfect place to wander around and take it all in.

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