Amsterdam. The very name stirs sexy and forbidden images from deep within the cerebral cortex of every young traveller. It’s the basement of every 15-year-old boy’s imagination come to life, sans the bolt on the door and the open window to allow ventilation.

The Playboy magazines of our youth, or some of the saucier National Geographic editions, are live and in living colour in the “Damage”, a place where prostitutes with barely a leather strap covering their modesty co-mingle with Bob Marley-wannabes, Rastas drug ringers and a heavy contingent of dark Eastern European types.

The latter are either watching their girlfriend perform in one of the dozen s$x shows or simply superimposing themselves on stage wearing a beret, aviator sunglasses and ass-less lederhosen. I can never tell which.

The bright neon lights of the numerous “coffeehouses” — deliberately misleading to maintain the soft on soft drugs status quo — aren’t enough to keep some stoners awake. Those that do remain conscious after sampling the local ganga make beelines for the numerous snack shops conveniently located. Febo is their favourite, the love child of McDonalds and a vending machine, where burgers, chips and deep fried blocks of something sit tantalising behind a glass window and €1.50 coin slot.

Others take to their bikes, only stopping to puff long enough to elicit a barely legible “Get the f-ck out the way” to us tourists who dare clog the cycle ways.

Of course this isn’t really Amsterdam. De Wallen, or the Red Light district, is merely a 6500 square block of the city containing more than 300 cabins, rented by the ladies at €100 a night and subsequently to their customers for €50 for 20 minutes. It’s not really Amsterdam, but it’s the only Amsterdam 95% of travellers know.

A former Dutch prostitute, now a city councillor, perhaps summed up De Wallen best in 2009: “There are people who are really proud of the red light district as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are.

“But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There’s a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.”

Still, as it was my girlfriend Tam’s first visit (I’ve been here nine times before), I felt obliged to give her the tour. First stop was Mannekin Pis, a chip shop on Damrak curiously named after a famous landmark in Brussels which serves possibly the best fries with mayonnaise in the world. Heading to the heart of the red light district, we dodged the drug pushers, stag dos and pub crawls for a glimpse of the red-tinted windows that make this place so notorious. It was even filthier than I remembered. Gliding through this quagmire on a mucky river of silt, shit and beer swills was a single swan, seemingly oblivious to the filth around it. We named it the White Swan of Purity.

Of course, we weren’t here for the hookers and weed. Tam and her friend Sarah were also attending the World Physical Therapy conference for a few days, while I was left to my own devices, a somewhat scary proposition. In between conference sessions, we saw the side of Amsterdam that I fell in love with: anything but the red light district.

Heading south to the museum quarter presents the vastly different face of Amsterdam; beautifully restored 17th century homes sit on tree-lined canals, where house boats bob gently on the waves and locals sip beers on cafe terraces. The museums in Amsterdam are world class, from the depressing, yet uplifting story of Anne Frank House, to the glory of the Dutch Golden Age at the Rijks Museum and the insane genius of Van Gogh. We found out a day after we viewed a famous self portrait of the 19th century painter it was actually a portrait of his much beloved brother Theo, which would explain the halo around the subject’s head, courtesy of a press release from the museum.

East of the museum quarter is the De Pijp region, one of my favourite places for an authentic beer/cafe experience. Some of the patrons are pure euro trash; blond manicured quiff, Ray Ban sunglasses and jeans rolled three quarters up their legs, but at least they are local.

While Tam had her first day at the conference, I spent an afternoon in De Pijp downing beers with Guangzhou colleague and Dutch local Boudewijn (pronounced Bood-a-varn), who incidentally is anything but euro trash. A sports nut and top bloke, Boudi and I waxed lyrical about Barcelona (one of the best football teams of all time), strategy poaching across sporting codes and Aussie Rules, which he’s never seen but is keen to view after my enthusiastic selling.

The rest of our time in Amsterdam was relatively low key; bike rides around the canals with some Brazilian lads we met the night before in a coffeehouse, a boat cruise through the canals and plenty of top meals. We smoked a bit of weed — my virgin lungs and poor technique again reducing me to a choking mess — drank lots of wine and waited for the weather to turn sunny.

Ben Oliver is freelance journalist and former tour guide taking an extended holiday, or mini retirement if you will, across Europe until the money runs out or his girlfriend gets sick of him. Whichever comes first. He blogs at Five Travel Rules, where this post first appeared.