We love walking tours – there is nothing better than exploring on foot, taking in all of the new sights, smells and sounds of a new city as you walk around. We have already written about our great experience with Hidden City Tours in Barcelona, where formerly homeless guides provide tourists with an incredibly unique insight into life on the streets. Since then, we have always been on the lookout for walking tours that would give us a different understanding of the place we were visiting. We were thrilled when we heard about Amsterdam Underground – an Amsterdam walking tour with a difference!

An Amsterdam walking tour with Amsterdam Underground

Amsterdam Underground are the only non-profit provider of tours with ex-homeless guides in the city. It is an initiative by De Regenboog Groep (The Rainbow Group), an organisation that cares for people who are homeless and those who suffer from psycho-social problems or addiction. They aim to prevent these people slipping into social isolation by getting them actively involved in society.

Because we believe that every human life is valuable and every human is worthwhile, we want to give people whose (social) poverty has had dire effects on their lives a chance of participating in our society according to what they want and what they are capable of. – De Regenboog Groep

Homelessness is somewhat of a hidden problem in Amsterdam. Despite an initiative between 2006 and 2008 to get people off the street by offering accommodation and treatment, figures indicate that homelessness in Amsterdam has continued to rise – probably the result of the financial crisis and an influx of refugees. However, vagrancy laws in the city make sleeping on the street at night against the law and homeless people will be moved from the street to temporary shelters or treatment centres. Therefore, it is not particularly common to see homeless people on the street of the city. However, it is these ‘invisible’ people that are at risk of slipping through the cracks and becoming even more disengaged with society. This is something that Amsterdam Underground is trying to prevent.

Amsterdam Walking Tour with Amsterdam Underground
The Salvation Army provides beds for homeless people in Amsterdam

Amsterdam Underground tours give the guides the opportunity to take part in a meaningful activity on a daily basis, and the interaction with tour guests helps them develop their social skills, dignity and self-confidence. On the other hand, guests can gain an understanding of the city from a very different perspective and learn about the life of someone whose experiences are usually very different from their own.

We want to give those who attend the tour an inside view into the lives of people whose lives went a little different from most others. – Amsterdam Underground

Our tour with Sonja

On a cold afternoon in December we met our tour guide Sonja, for what was one of the most emotional tours we have ever experienced.

Rather than focusing on the Red Light district’s many tourist attractions and fascinating history (there are many other tours for that), Sonja’s tour focused on her life – on how she developed her addiction to drugs, how she turned to crime and prostitution to fund her addiction and how, 25 years later, she found the strength and determination to get clean. No question was out of bounds and Sonja answered everything with a refreshing openness. She was so incredibly honest about her life, about the choices she had made and the damaging impact that these choices eventually had. Sonja explained to us that she was not proud of what she had done in her former life; but she said ‘it’s my story‘. And she told us her story beautifully.

Sonja is such an inspirational person and an amazing example of the impact that initiatives such as Amsterdam Underground can have on people’s lives. Amsterdam Underground has not only helped Sonja regain her confidence and develop her social skills – it has allowed her to save for her own home. Sonja also spends her time helping others in need – she works at a local homeless shelter, helps in refugee centres and goes to schools to talk to children about the dangers of drugs. Sonja has not only turned her life around – but she is now helping others do the same.

Amsterdam Walking Tour with Amsterdam Underground

How you can help?

Book an Amsterdam Walking Tour with Amsterdam Underground – tours cost €12.50 per person and run 7 days a week. Reserve via Amsterdam Underground’s website at least 72 hours in advance. There is also a tour every Saturday at 14:15h which does not require a reservation – simply drop into Brouwerij de Prael (a wonderful brewery that supports people recovering from mental health problems) and buy the ticket on the day.

Donate to De Regenboog Groep – money donated to the group will go towards care for homeless people and support for former addicts and people living in poverty and / or social isolation.

Volunteer with De Regenboog Groep – if you are in Amsterdam for a longer period of time, you could consider volunteering at De Regenboog Group. You could become a buddy to someone in need and help them reintegrate back into society. Training is provided. If you are interested in volunteering, send an e-mail to vrijwilligerswerk@deregenboog.org.

Spread the word – the work done by De Regenboog Group, including the amazing Amsterdam Underground tours, is really worth supporting.  If you know anyone who is visiting Amsterdam, encourage them to sign up for a tour!

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