Many guides gloss over red-light districts, which is a shame because they provide unique and titillating insights into a city's character. We take a peek at the colourful underbellies of 10 very different cities.
1) Patpong, Bangkok
Spread out across Patpong Soi 1 and Patpong Soi 2, Asia’s most notorious red-light district is an overwhelming mecca of neon-dazzling bars, go-go girls, ladyboy cabarets and famed ping pong performances.
Overpriced and often shocking, the area rose up after the arrival of US servicemen during the Vietnam War and has since been overcome by shows that range from gyrating dancers to turtles being thrust from fannies to fishbowls.
From soapy ‘happy ending’ massages to blowjob bars and gay discos; Patpong offers it all, even stalls of hefty dildos, boxed fleshlights, bulbous buttplugs and dubious-looking Viagra, which should sate any appetite for post-Patpong alone time.
2) De Wallen, Amsterdam
The world’s most illustrious red-light district is also one of the prettiest, though past the tree-crowned canals and gabled houses, visitors will find prostitutes swaying hypnotically inside rose-hued windows.
Among the labyrinth of medieval alleyways are sticky-boothed peep shows (don’t touch the walls) and coughing perverts in their macs (yup, in the Sexmuseum) – and that’s before the brothels, condom shop, and legions of dick lollipops to blow your cash on. Certainly, post-visit, you’ll never look at a banana in the same way again either.
For a unique tour, join the 73-year-old Fokkens, twin prostitutes ready to take you round and reveal all for a few (k)nicker(s).
3) Antwerp, Belgium
As tidy and tasteful a red-light district as you’ll ever encounter, Antwerp’s three-block ‘tolerance zone’ has made paying for a bunk up a more civilized affair than in your average city.
This well-kept pedestrianised thoroughfare resembles an upmarket shopping precinct, and shenanigans are kept in check by a notable police presence. Policies such as working ladies having to show EU passports to ensure against people-trafficking and facilities such as panic buttons and local on-call doctors are all also intended to make working conditions here as safe as possible.
While not the visual street-side spectacle of other far gaudier red-light districts, Antwerp is regarded by many as a world-leading example of safety and security in the sex industry.
4) Kabukichō, Tokyo
Beyond its incredibly rich history and culture, Japan is also a land of wild eccentricities – from vending machines selling used underwear to themed love hotels specifically designed for, well, lovemaking.
In Tokyo, you’ll find plenty of that and more in the city’s infamous red-light district: Kabukichō. But don’t come here expecting traditional sex clubs, brothels and go-go girls; Kabukichō is somewhat more subdued than most red-light districts.
Delve deep and you’ll uncover a string of hostess bars, love hotels and ‘soaplands’. Now, the latter is Japan’s pricier but allegedly more refined take on the soapy massage parlour: erotic bathhouses where Japanese girls give you (amongst other things) a helping hand with all that washing.
5) Soho, London
London’s bohemian district, Soho, has been at the racing pulse of the city’s sex industry for over 200 years. During the climax of the area’s infamy, in the early 1960s, prostitutes prowled the alleyways and over 100 makeshift brothels lined the streets, hanging signs declaring “large chests for sale”.
Inevitably, Soho’s louche culture was quashed, and in the following decades its sex industry withered, replaced with trendy wine bars and luxury apartments.
Today, a small collection of seedy establishments (primarily around Brewer Street) and a handful of dirty bookshops, strip clubs and paraphernalia stores are all that’s left of the area’s infamous legacy, though the neighbourhood’s hedonistic vibe continues to live on (for those who can afford to sample it).
6) Pigalle, Paris
Pigalle is the purveyor of Parisian sex and erotica. Named after sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Paris‘ red-light district was nicknamed ‘Pig Alley’ by Allied soldiers who came here for some risqué entertainment during WWII.
Unlike its European cousin in Amsterdam, there are no window brothels here. Avoid the strip clubs and stick to established venues instead, which include the world-famous Moulin Rouge cabaret club 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 – Picasso, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec all lived or worked here. But if it’s sleaze you’re most interested in, head to the Musée de l’Érotisme for a detailed history of erotica across the world.
7) Amargosa Valley, Nevada
The desert lands of Nevada, a dusty empty expanse with few trees, fewer buildings and long, lonely roads; perhaps not the place you’d expect to stumble across a bordello?
Arguably the remotest red-light district on Earth, the small historic settlement of Amargosa Valley – really a cluster of buildings on the junction between US Route 95 and State Route 373 – has been able to carve itself a unique niche thanks to Nevada being the last US state where prostitution remains legal.
Next to Jackass Aeropark (genuine name), intrepid nymphomaniacs can find an intriguing spattering of brothels, including the Alien Cathouse that plays on its proximity to the mysterious Area 51 by dressing its female staff as aliens poised to give customers a probing.
8) The Reeperbahn, Hamburg
Known locally as ‘the sinful mile’, Hamburg‘s Reeperbahn is a neon-lit deluge of bars, cabarets, sex shops and strip clubs.
The hardcore red-light action takes place on the gated Herbertstrasse, where prostitutes sit behind windows.
More wholesomely, the area is also famous for its association with The Beatles who played here frequently in the 1960s. See them immortalised via contemporary statues in the Beatles Plaz.
9) Geylang, Singapore
By day, Geylang is an atmospheric district on Singapore‘s east coast bristling with great period architecture and some of the best local food on the island.
By night, its edgier, seedier side comes to life, with everything from tacky brothels to posh pleasure dens opening their doors.
Head to Geylang Road and its surrounding ‘lorongs’ (lanes) to find yourself in the thick of the action – the even-numbered lanes are where all the brothels are located, while the odd-numbered ones are lined with restaurants serving some of the best food you’re likely to find in a red-light district.
10) Kings Cross, Sydney
Steadily shrugging off its dangerous reputation, Sydney‘s popular backpacking base Kings Cross is undergoing a process of gentrification.
It’s still got a sizeable dose of edge and sleaze, but these days adult bookshops, strip clubs, topless waitresses, nightclubs and prostitutes sit alongside trendy cafés, excellent restaurants, cabaret, jazz bars and quirky fashion outlets.
Bright, brash and more than a tad seedy, ‘The Strip’ is the most infamous area – think strip joints and greasy takeaways – but sights and attractions for the browsing visitor also include the El Alamein Fountain and the Sydney Jewish Museum.