In the late afternoon light, the large gold clock face glimmers on the Oude Kerk (Old Church) steeple. The gauzy yellow glow coats everything that surrounds the 13th century church, from the green-tinged flowing canal waters, the mothers coddling their children outside a nearby nursery school, to the neon-colored signs advertising magic mushrooms and the nearly nude women behind small glass doors backlit by red light. In this light, however, the windows of De Wallen look pink, a shade lighter than the night to come.
The Oude Kerk is the slightly-off center around which De Wallen, better known as the Red Light District, unfurls itself. Originally constructed as a Catholic church, its architecture is today distinctly Protestant, following the 16th century Reformation and the ensuing persecution of Catholics. While it’s easy to imagine that the sex and drug purveyors came with modernity, their proximity to the church happenstance, the sins are just as historically relevant to the area as the church. In fact, they once enjoyed a sort of causal relationship.
Amsterdam was a thriving port city in the 14th and 15th centuries, and De Wallen a sailor’s hub. Having spent months at sea, the men took comfort in the many vices available to them. Too much comfort, church officials hoped, as they were then in the practice of selling indulgences. Sailors would spend a week of debauchery in the city center, then absolve their sins for a fee on Sunday.
Weekend nights at the Red Light District find tourists doing their best sailors run amok impression, reveling in wantonness like they’ll have to pay to absolve it the next day. Marijuana smoke coats the thick, cold air while women shimmy in now deep-red windows, their breasts bouncing in barely-there bikinis. A few live sex theatres compete for tourist euros, cramming hungry eyes into tiny black compartments surrounding women and couples who give robotic sex performances. Despite signs posted saying “no couples” in the compartments, the theatre clerk hurriedly ushers my boyfriend and I into one, eager for our 2 euros a minute. We leave after two minutes, and a young British lad rushes into our open compartment so quickly that we’re all briefly trapped against each other.
Yes, 7 readers, Amsterdam’s Red Light District may be your Utopia. Dutch pragmatism has enabled such an abundance of (decriminalized and tolerated, not quite legal) cannabis and regulated sex work that you can get high for under five euro and an orgasm for about 50. Debauchery aside, however, Amsterdam is one of the loveliest cities in Europe, largely because the laid-back attitude applied to sin extends to all facets of local life.
The city breathes history through every neighborhood, somehow managing to stave off much of the anxiety of modernity. Foot and bike traffic replaces car congestion and smog. Open air markets and small, local grocery stores and bakeries fill the air with the scent of bread and cheese, rather than impossible-to-navigate supermarkets and their parking lots. Small business coffee houses and cafes dot every corner the way Starbucks dot an American suburb. Even the architecture, save for a few quarters of the city, is historically preserved and quaint. Indeed, the Dutch rioted to ensure it stayed that way.
Amsterdam boasts a gorgeous Museum Quarter, where you can explore Vincent Van Gogh’s mental decline in paintings at the Van Gogh museum or a celebration of the Dutch Golden Age (paintings of self-important white men) at the Rijksmuseum. Once you’ve had your fill of culture, head across the street to the House of Bols, a museum dedicated to the centuries-old production of Genever, the liquor predecessor to British gin. Cocktails and tasting shots are included in the price of entrance, making your liquor education cheaper than an actual visit to a bar.
If all this sounds romantic, that’s because it is. That’s not to say Amsterdam isn’t without its drawbacks: the Dutch are direct in a way that comes off as distant and rude to Americans used to compulsory small-talk, the hedonistic freedom of the Red Light District is tempered by concerns about exploitation and a seedy criminal underbelly, and woe betide the tourist who steps in front of a hurried bicyclist in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, a few days in Amsterdam will comfort your soul, be that comfort drug-induced or not.