Amsterdam's red light district is famous as a den of iniquity. Its streets - so the story goes - are awash with coffee shops and dope smoke, and scantily clad prostitutes parading in windows bathed in a scarlet glow. It's an image that is hard to live down. To hear some visitors talk, you would think the whole city was a kind of theme park of vice.
Now, the city has tired of its racy reputation, and is taking drastic action to reduce the number of window spots showcasing the working women - of an estimated 450 spots, more than100 are already gone, and more will follow. While the developers now in possession of the former brothels sit out the credit crunch, the municipality, which is partly bankrolling them, has moved in artists and fashion designers. Frequently, in recent months, the gleaming limbs on display have belonged to mannequins, as couture gowns replace prostitutes in lingerie. Where stag-night revellers once gawped at women for sale, the intriguing art installations of the Redlight Art project have moved in: It's voyeurism of an entirely different kind.
And if the new, gentrified red light district is still too much, stroll up the Zeedijk toward Nieuwmarkt and into Chinatown. Zeedijk used to be Amsterdam's most infamous street, but things have changed. Among the bars and Chinese eateries, there is even a new Buddhist temple, the beautiful and welcoming Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple: the perfect spiritual antidote to all those fleshly vices.
Red Light Design
Replacing the X-rated action in one of the pretty, gabled almshouses around the Oude Kerk, Red Light Design showcases work by young jewellery designers, including Ted Noten (who installed a snack machine that dispenses rings) and Susanne Klemm. Oudekerksplein 4; 31 (0)20 523-5050; www.redlightdesignamsterdam.nl.
17th century libations
The liquor distillery and tasting house Wijnand Fockink was opened in 1679 by its namesake, and it has remained the same ever since. A dazzling
selection of liqueurs, with recipes and names unchanged since the 17th century (try a "Bride's Tears" or a "Take off your Shirt") are served in tulip-shaped glasses in wood surroundings. Pijlsteeg 31; 31 (0)20 639-2695; www.wynand-fockink.nl.
To start the day
A great place for breakfast, lunch and tea, De Bakkerswinkel serves home-baked croissants, quiches, cakes and scones in a relaxed, funky tearoom setting. Warmoesstraat 69; 31 (0)20 489-8000; www.debakkerswinkel.nl.
Hidden away at the end of a little alley, Blauw aan de Wal is one of the city's best restaurants. The restored 17th-century brick warehouse is atmospheric and classily romantic, the Mediterranean-inspired food imaginatively delicious. Oudezijds Achterburgwal 99; 31 (0)20 330-2257.
A newcomer gracing a formerly dubious alley near the Nieuwmarkt, Restaurant Looks - as its name suggests - is big on style. The stunning retro interior, multilevel but unified by the use of mirrors and glass, is matched by an interesting Dutch/international menu. Binnen Bantammerstraat 5-7; 31 (0)20 320-0949; www.restaurantlooks.nl. Oysters at Nam Kee's
In the heart of Chinatown, the down-to-earth Nam Kee eatery is all tiled walls, Formica and strip lighting - but the food is great (and cheap). It starred in the Dutch film Oysters at Nam Kee's, named after one of its most famous dishes. Zeedijk 111-113; 31 (0)20 624-3470; www.namkee.net.
A concert with a view
Amsterdam's oldest church, dating from the 13th century, Oude Kerk is a beauty. The acoustics are excellent, so it's worth attending a concert here. There's a great view of central Amsterdam from the tower too. Oudekerksplein 23; 31 (0) 20 625-8284; www.oudekerk.nl.
A secret Catholic church
With marble checkerboard floors and classical carved wooden panelling, the Amstelkring Museum - a former merchant's house - is like entering a Vermeer painting. It is a hidden gem among the city's historic attractions. The attic is a secret Catholic church, dating from a time when Amsterdam was less tolerant. Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40; 31 (0)20 624-6604; www.opsolder.nl.
Code Gallery Store, a spin-off from the successful CODE fashion magazine, is a pop-up shop that stocks cutting-edge design - including affordable clothes by up-and-coming fashion designers such as Bas Kosters, EnD, LEW, Jeroen van Tuyl and Jan Taminiau - to name only the Dutch ones.
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 121; 31 (0)20 408-5511; www.code-mag.nl.
Cool and OntFront
OntFront is a cool new Dutch men's clothing brand that makes well tailored but edgily stylish pieces, often in black. The store OntFront x Friends stocks its own clothes, as well as fashions by "friends," such as Antoine Peters, Intoxica Jeans, Phat Oak, Kochu, Massuniqand Xhosa.Oude Nieuwstraat 23; 31 (0)20 778-4518; ontfront.blogspot.com.
Contemporary art of the conceptual kind is on show at W139 - and a recent renovation accentuating the building structure while increasing the amount of light has honed the squat aesthetic to perfection. Recent exhibitions have included unsettling landscape drawings by Geer van der Klugt and intriguing films by Dunn. Warmoesstraat 139; 31 (0) 20 622-9434; w139.nl.
Find your groove
Winston is a recently renovated but venerable boho drinking den, club and live-music venue. It looks louche and laid-back, with a lively crowd, and all sorts of music from rock to psychedelic electro folk - something for everyone.
Warmoesstraat 129-131; 31 (0)20 623-1380; www.winston.nl.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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