The Red Light District (De Wallen) in Amsterdam is one of the major draws for tourists. It’s not far from the Centraal Station, centered around Dam Square as it has been for centuries, and it’s where a lot of people head as soon as they reach town. Later they find a coffee shop to take part in The Netherlands’ other unique feature: legalised cannabis at coffeeshops.
Nearly a quarter of the 4 million annual visitors to Amsterdam see the inside of a coffeeshop. These two things have put the city on the tourist map for years – since coffeeshops were first licensed in 1970 and prostitution was legalized in 2000 (though the Red Light District grew out of Amsterdam’s history as a major trading port as far back as the 17th century).
Organized tours through Amsterdam’s Red Light District are good with a guide, but it’s safe to just wander around without a guide. Do keep in mind that it is an area where pickpockets and drug dealers operate – and don’t take photographs. Early evening is the safest time to have a look around, before drunk tourists and buck’s parties take over the narrow streets. Also this can be a very expensive part of town – entry to some clubs will cost up to €45 but that includes free drinks and a show.
You can distinguish coffeeshops from genuine cafes: the coffeeshops have rather clichéd psychedelic signage and artwork on their exteriors. Don’t be startled when the bartender offers you a long menu of different types and strengths of cannabis, though all this is set to change with new laws coming in restricting service to card-carrying club members – membership will not be available to foreigners. The new laws are tied up in court right now but could be phased in from as soon as May 1, 2012. So what will happen to Amsterdam then? Hopefully, people will still go there and see all the other wonders this city has to offer a tourist.