De Wallen (Dutch pronunciation: [də ˈʋɑlə(n)]) or De Walletjes (Dutch pronunciation: [də ˈʋɑləcəs]) is the largest and best known red-light district in Amsterdam and consists of a network of alleys containing approximately three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. These “kamers” are the most visible and typical kind of red light district sex work in Amsterdam and are a large tourist attraction.
De Wallen, together with the prostitution areas Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade, form the Rosse Buurt (red light areas) of Amsterdam. Of these De Wallen is the oldest and largest area.
Being one of the oldest areas of the city, De Wallen has architecture and layout that is typical of 14th century Amsterdam, although many of the buildings were built more recently. The canal system here was contained within the former walls of the city, of which the Waag is a surviving example and is the oldest remaining nonreligious building in Amsterdam. The area is also bordered by a small Chinatown.
The area also has a number of sex shops, sex theatres, peep shows, a sex museum, a cannabis museum, and a number of coffee shops that sell marijuana.
The Rokin and Damrak run along the original course of the river Amstel. These two roads meet in Dam Square which marks the spot a bridge was built across the river in 1270. It had doors which were used to dam the river at certain times to avoid flooding. The Damrak then became a harbor and it was around this area that the red light district first appeared. The walled canals led to the names De Wallen and Walletjes (little walls).
Historically because of proximity to the harbor the area has attracted both prostitution and migrant populations and these are the features it is best known for today.
From late Medieval times the trade started to be restricted. Married men and priests were forbidden to enter the area. In 1578 during the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule a Protestant city board was formed with fornication deemed punishable. Working girls were banned and forced underground. They would work for a madam who provided room and board, protection and advice. Often the madam and girls would venture out at night visiting pubs and inns to pick up clients. Parlours remained illegal but tolerated if kept hidden. Trade remained small scale though spread across the city. Well known areas were De Haarlemmerdijk, De Houttuinen, Zeedijk and around the harbor.