For all the tulips, canals, pancakes and art, Amsterdam can’t shake its reputation as Europe’s sin city. Forms of drug use and prostitution are legal in the Netherlands and crop up in Amsterdam as cannabis-serving “coffee shops” and the notorious Red Light District.
Although these elements are considered attractions for certain segments of the city’s tourism market, most tour groups would be well advised to steer clear of them.
The good news is that these areas are fairly easy to avoid. In Amsterdam, the term “coffee shop” denotes a seedy bar where most patrons go for the legal marijuana — and sometimes harder drugs. For a more traditional coffee experience — with delicious drinks, small pastries and leisurely conversation — look for the term “café.” You’ll find plenty of great places to stop for a break along the city’s canals.
Most of Amsterdam’s public prostitution is confined to the Red Light District, an area of about 10 blocks near the central train station. The name may sound cute or glamorous, but little is attractive about this depressing section of town, where marginalized young women from poor countries in South America or Eastern Europe sell themselves in windows on the street.
Some of the establishments where they work are suspected of ties to organized crime and human trafficking. A walk through the Red Light District will likely leave you feeling dirty and distraught.
For those reasons, most legitimate tour operators don’t include the Red Light District on their Amsterdam itineraries; the city offers more than enough wonderful sights to see. My advice is to ignore your curiosity about Amsterdam’s dark side and visit one of its fantastic museums instead.