24 hours in Amsterdam

Shaney Hudson finds that there's more to Europe's most infamous red-light district than meets the curious eye.

Forget the UNESCO heritage-listed canals, ignore the grandeur of the diamond trade and disregard the priceless art. When people think of Amsterdam, they think vice.

The Netherlands's liberal attitude to prostitution and cannabis consumption has led to the image of an adult Disneyland, particularly its tiny red-light district.

The area is not for the easily offended. However, spending a little time in the city's oldest and most historic district is an eye-opener, in more ways than one.


Known as De Wallen to locals, the centuries-old canal houses in the area fetch millions. Second-hand bookstores, cafes, a five-star hotel and a weekly farmers' market all add character.

Zeedijk is one of Amsterdam's oldest streets, lined with old brown bars (so called for their nicotine-stained walls), bakeries and Chinatown. Stop at FGS He Hua Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Europe.

White swans along the canals are unofficial mascots for De Wallen. When the canal freezes over in winter, you'll see even the most hardened locals making an effort to feed them.

He Hua Temple, Zeedijk 106. See ibps.nl/en /hehuatempel.htm.


Amsterdam's oldest building and church, Oude Kerk, was consecrated in 1306. Today, used as both an exhibition space and as a place for worship, the landmark remains an interesting juxtaposition to its surrounds. Keep an eye out for artwork - including a monument to sex workers and a brass hand grabbing a breast embedded in the cobbles.

Oudekerksplein 23. See oudekerk.nl.


A block from the Oude Kerk is the Cannabis College. Acting as an information point for curious tourists, the college lays bare many myths about cannabis.

It's a great way to catch a whiff of the city's smoking scene while you can. After years of liberal laws, new restrictions concerning coffee shops could take effect this year.

Open daily 11am-7pm, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 124. See cannabiscollege.com.


Fifteen minutes' walk from the Cannabis College is the newly opened Amsterdam Tattoo Museum. Founded by famous tattooist Henk Schiffmacher, the three-story museum offers a surprisingly in-depth look at the phenomenon of body art.

Open daily 10am-7pm, Plantage Middenlaan 62. Entry €10 ($13). See amsterdamtattoomuseum.com.


Just around the corner, you can wet your whistle at one of Amsterdam's last-remaining wooden windmills. Built in the 18th century, the De Gooyer grain mill has been standing in its present location by the Nieuwevaart Canal since 1814. At its base is Brouwerij t' IJ, an organic microbrewery popular for its beer garden.

Open daily 2pm-8pm, Funenkade 7. See brouwerijhetij.nl.


Head back to the red-light district in time for the Prostitute Information Centre's weekly walking tour, which offers a straightforward look at the business, legality and practicality of the world's oldest profession.

It's a brisk business explained by guides who are often former sex workers themselves. There are 300 "red-light windows" rented by sex workers in a two-block radius, with the average worker on an eight-hour shift seeing between five to 30 customers and charging about €50 for 15 minutes. There are strict regulations and all income is taxed.

There is no opposition to legalised prostitution in the city, but curiously, the biggest threat to the area is tourist traffic: the amount of people looking but not buying.

Tours run Saturday 5pm or by appointment. Open Saturday 4pm-7pm, Enge Kerksteeg 3 (behind the Oude Kerk). See www.pic-amsterdam.com.


Zeedijk is home to a number of bargain Asian eateries and quality restaurants. Pick of the bunch is Latei, with its retro knick-knacks, '50s-style Formica tables and resident cat.

Although popular, it's worth waiting on Thursday to Saturday evenings, when they serve up authentic Ethiopian food. The homestyle dishes vary (and often run out) but there is always a vegetarian option, along with traditional Injera bread.

Open Monday-Wednesday 8am-6pm, Thursday-Saturday 8am-10pm and Sunday 11am-6pm, Zeedijk 143. See www.latei.net.


Just a few steps away is the historic Cafe t'Mandje (the Little Basket). Opened in 1927 by the flamboyant Bet van Beeren, it was one of the world's first openly gay bars.

Open Tuesday-Thursday 4pm-1am, Friday-Saturday 2pm-3am, Sunday 2pm-1am, Zeedijk 63. See cafetmandje.nl.


At midnight, head back towards the red-light district, where the circus is in full swing.

Spruikers sell sex shows of wide-eyed wonders in six languages, while a rowdy buck's party dressed in superhero outfits pose for photos. A tourist who has had a little too much cries in a gutter, consoled by friends in matching pink fairy wings. Behind them, a recent customer tries to discreetly slip back into the bustling crowd, not realising his fly is still undone. And on the canals, a pair of white swans sweep along indifferently.

It's just another night in the red-light district, and the tourists are the real sideshow.


Getting there Etihad (EY) has a fare to Amsterdam for about $1910 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr) and then to Amsterdam (7hr 30min); see etihad.com. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for an accumulative stay of up to 90 days in a six-month period in the Schengen states.

Staying there The Grand is a short walk from De Wallen. From €320 ($416), 197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal; see sofitel-legends.com.

More information iamsterdam.com.