The Rick Steves audio-tour is a free download which, like so many other Amsterdam walking tours, starts at the foot of the national monument on Dam Square. It begins with narrator Steves, advising against taking pictures, particularly photos of the women in the windows, advice I duly followed. The images here are therefore few in number. If you want to see what the place looks like, however, there are videos of walks online. The tour is basically a very simple 50-minute continuous narration given by Steves and co-guide Lisa. Whilst Steves did say there was always the pause button, for those who want to get more personally acquainted with what the area has to offer, I just kept on walking and listening, lapping it up like a National Geographic documentary.
The two narrators play a bit of a good cop/bad cop routine with the woman staying on the straight and narrow, while the man is interested in the sex, drugs and sleaze. The way they do this is, Steves relates mostly positive information about the coffee shops, prostitutes and smart shops, explaining what you can find, how much it costs, and finishing off with a line he repeats again and again, "and it is all perfectly legal!" Lisa, however, sticks mostly to giving directions to keep the audio-tour moving. She interjects, from time to time, "that's enough, we have to keep moving."
The tour is really very simple and that is one of its strengths: it tells the most obvious story clearly and it is easy to follow and not get lost. Steves has positioned himself as the American expert on European travel, and I can see how he can have some appeal. His audio tour has enough humour to make it feel relaxed, but he still does the bread and butter work of the tour guide of explaining the history and the life today. He sounds like a slightly risqué uncle who is basically very respectable, and knowledgeable too, but likes to joke around now and then. I am guessing that he probably represents the progressive side of middle America, as there are a number of times he talks very positively about Dutch pragmatism and the country's social security system. In this sense, he holds up Amsterdam as an example that America could learn from.
I took the tour around 8-9 PM, which seemed like a good moment; the streets were growing busy, there were women in most of the windows, and I saw several tour groups being led around. There was a Spanish group, a rather random mixed group of tourists getting a guided tour in English, and an older group of Chinese tourists with their own Cantonese guide. I can only guess they were all getting slightly different takes on the same basic story. Actually, as well as this audio-tour, I myself have also taken a walking tour which also passed through the Red Light District, and both that one and this related many of the same stories. Of these, the most particular is the peeing men falling into the canals story. On the walking tour I was told 10 dead bodies a year are pulled out of the canals, the corpses usually being men with their fly unzipped. Curiously, on this audio tour the number of men succumbing to this ignoble death swelled to 12. What the two tours seemed to agree upon, however, is that those in greatest danger of coming to this pitiful end are British men. With that in mind, it was time for me to heed their warning and leave the Red Light District, lest I should join their number.
Safely back home, I watched this Youtube video of the Ultimate Amsterdam Coffeeshop Tour. It is a record of another American visiting Amsterdam and taking a tour, but a somewhat less respectable one than Mr Steves. Call it age, if you will, but I think this is a tour I can best enjoy from the comfort of home watching it on my laptop. This guy smokes an astonishing amount of weed. It is painful to watch but, as Rick Steves says, "it's all perfectly legal!"