Many guides gloss over red-light districts - a huge shame in our opinion as they can provide unique and titillating insights into a city's character. Here, we examine the colourful underbellies of five very different cities.

The Reeperbahn, Hamburg

One of Hamburg's most popular attractions, the Reeperbahn is popular with both tourists and locals. It's the epicentre of Hamburg's nightlife and buzzes with theatres, cabarets, sex shops, prostitutes, strip clubs, bars and nightclubs. It's also home to Germany's only live sex act, which takes place in cabaret venue Safari.

The Reeperbahn is almost equally famous for its influence on the Beatles who played here frequently in the 1960s. John Lennon once said: "I might have been born in Liverpool - but I grew up in Hamburg." The Beatles Platz, opened in September 2008, pays tribute to the Fab Four.

Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom), was once the only street where Catholics could practise their religion in an otherwise Protestant Hamburg. The Catholic Saint Joseph Kirche, dating from the early 18th century, now sits side by side with the clubs and prostitutes. A large police station is located on Davidstrasse (where prostitution is legal at certain times of day), meaning there's a high police presence although you should be wary of pickpockets. The hardcore red-light activity takes place on the gated Herbertstrasse, where prostitutes sit behind windows. Women are discouraged from entering the street as, unsurprisingly, the prostitutes dislike being gawped at.

Did you know?
In German the Reeperbahn is also called die sündige Meile (‘the sinful mile').

The Reeperbahn is in Hamburg's St Pauli district. Take the S-Bahn to Reeperbahn.

Pigalle, Paris

Paris, the city of love, romance, sex and intrigue, wouldn't be complete without its own red-light district. Pigalle is the purveyor of Parisian sex and erotica. Unlike its European cousin in Amsterdam, there are no window brothels. You're advised to avoid the strip clubs, where many a tourist has been ripped off, and stick to the more established venues such as the famous Moulin Rouge cabaret venue and the clubbing and concert spot Divan du Monde, the former haunt of poet Baudelaire.

Despite the seedy way of life that thrives in Pigalle today, the area has a surprisingly cultured history. Artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh and Maurice Neumont all lived here and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had his studio here. The nearby Espace Dalí displays the works of Salvador Dalí. But most people don't come to Pigalle for art -that's what the rest of Paris is for. Instead head to the Musée de l'érotisme (Museum of Eroticism), near the Moulin Rouge. It takes the subject of sex seriously, tracing the history of erotica across the world. It's open until 2am.

Did you know?
Named after artist Jean-Bapiste Pigalle, Paris' red-light district was nicknamed ‘Pig Alley' by Allied soldiers who came here for some risqué entertainment during WWII.

The district is centred on Place Pigalle, between ninth and 18th arrondissements, adjacent to Montmartre neighbourhood. Take the Metro to Pigalle and you'll find yourself in the thick of it.

Kings Cross, Sydney

Slowly shrugging off its dangerously sleazy reputation, Kings Cross is undergoing a process of gentrification, which in this case is no bad thing. It's a 24-hour attraction, popular as a base for backpackers, where adult bookshops, strip clubs, topless waitresses, nightclubs and prostitutes exist alongside trendy cafes, excellent restaurants, cabaret, jazz bars and quirky fashion outlets. Bright and brash, ‘The Strip' is the most infamous area but don't miss out on seeing the El Alamein Fountain and the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Traditionally Kings Cross was home to Sydney's artists, deviants, criminals and bohemians, meaning there's a fascinating wealth of history to be explored. Much of it revolves around the very colourful characters who have inhabited the area, including Abe Saffron (also known as ‘Mr Sin' and ‘Boss of the Cross'), who dominated the area's organised crime scene in the boom years of the late 1960s, and Rev Ted Noffs, who provided a positive counter culture through The Wayside Chapel. People from all walks of life can be seen here, but try not to stare at the bizarre characters you're likely to encounter as it can cause offence.

Did you know?
Kings Cross was originally called Queens Cross and is the most densely populated area in Australia. It contains Sydney's oldest area, Woolloomooloo.

Located 2km (1.2 miles) east of the Central Business District, Kings Cross is made up of several distinct precincts and is easily accessible by bus and train.

Kabukichō, Tokyo

Tokyo's authorities are keen to turn Kabukichō into a family-friendly area, free of sleaze and crime, to aid the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics. A midnight curfew has already been imposed so go before the character is entirely eroded. Locals are fiercely opposed to the sanctioned blandification, cherishing the district's ramshackle architecture and all who inhabit it, and are understandably unwilling to give it up for the sake of yet more prime real estate.

Kabukichō provides some welcome light-hearted relief to Tokyo's business-oriented front. The atmosphere is fun and surprisingly diverse. Kabukichō is somehow slightly more genteel than most other red-light districts: instead of sex clubs, brothels and go-go girls, you'll find host and hostess bars, spas and love hotels. But this is still a red-light district, and it would be naive not to expect gangs, drugs and prostitution. Go after 6pm, when the area comes to life.

Did you know?
Kabukichō is named after a kabuki theatre which was planned for the site but never built.
Orientation Kabukichō, an area of just 600 sq m (6,460 sq ft), is located northeast of Shinjuku station.

Patpong, Bangkok

Lurid, gaudy and shocking, Patpong is Asia's most notorious red-light district. There are go-go girls, ladyboy cabarets, explicit sex shows, including the infamous ping pong displays, and hundreds of touts waving ‘menus' in numerous languages at both innocent and not-so-innocent passers-by. The area is renowned for tourist traps and scams so be aware of how much you're paying for drinks and never keep a tab behind a bar.

The place fizzes with energy and there's no need to go into a sex club to feel the buzz. The atmosphere spills out on to the streets, and everyone is treated alike, straight or gay, male, female or somewhere in between. In addition to sex, Patpong thrives on shopping, excellent restaurants, nightclubs and boxing bars. The hugely popular night market sells surprisingly sophisticated imitation goods, Thai products, arts and crafts and dodgy CDs and DVDs. Go prepared to haggle.

Did you know?
Patpong has been owned by a Chinese-Thai family, called Patpong, since the 1940s. It was originally a banana plantation but evolved into brothels and sex bars with the arrival of US servicemen during the Vietnam War.
Orientation Patpong 1 and Patpong 2, which run between Silom and Sarawongse roads, are the district's epicentre. The nearest BTS Station is Saladaeng; the nearest MRT station is Silom.

Author: Emma Field

Published date: 27 March 2009