Embracing the Taboo: World’s Top Red Light Districts

Many people prefer to sample the culture of the cities they visit from the safety of well-lit avenues, museums, and historical monuments. While there is a great deal to be learned from these things, cities often has a whole other side, perhaps a darker one, but colorful nonetheless, that is left unexplored. While venturing into the red-light districts of unfamiliar cities isn’t for everyone, for the more adventurous it can be an interesting and sometimes enlightening experience. Here are a few of the most famous and exotic red light districts you can explore on your next vacation.

De Wallen, Amsterdam – Netherlands

Amsterdam is home to what is arguably the most famous red light district in the world. De Wallen lies in the oldest part of the city, surrounded by medieval dam walls and crisscrossed by the city’s many canals. This network of alleys is home to several hundred small rooms in which women and some of more ambiguous sex sell their wares through glass windows and doors as well as to dozens of theatres, peep shows and sex shops. If sins of the flesh aren’t your thing, you’ll find plenty of other kinds of entertainment in De Wallen in the numerous coffee shops that sell marijuana or in the accompanying museums exhibiting the more taboo aspects of history. Unlike many of the red light districts you will encounter, Amsterdam’s is relatively safe and verges on being “touristy,” so it could be a good place to start your exploration of red light districts.

Rue d’Aerchot, Brussels – Belgium

 Also known as Aarschotstraat in Dutch, this street is known for being lined with brothels from beginning to end. Somewhat centrally located, this street isn’t hard to find as it is along one of the city’s main train stations and conveniently borders the business and financial district. Here you’ll find a much smaller version of Amsterdam’s picture windows where you can browse the local “merchandise” or take in some shows or shop the local sex shops. You’ll want to be careful at night, however, as Brussels’ red light district isn’t quite as tourist friendly as Amsterdam’s, but so long as you stay with a group and out of dark alleys, you should be alright.

Reeperbahn, Hamburg – Germany

Reeperbahn is home to not only Hamburg’s red light district, but also loads of other sinful nightlife indulgences as well. The street is colorfully known as “the sinful mile” and is lined with dozens of strip clubs, sex shops, brothels, and more. The racier part of the street, the Herbertstrasse, reserved for the most exclusive and expensive prostitution is blocked off, with a gate saying minors and women are not to enter. Unlike many other red light districts, browsing is not encouraged in the Herbertstrasse, and if it’s discovered you’re not buying you may be hassled by the working women. If you’re not interested in making a purchase of that nature, the street is also home tons of pubs, discos, casinos and lounges where you can taste some German beer, dance, or just meet up with some friends.

Soho, London – England

Soho is much more than a red light district of London. Long known as an entertainment hub of the city, Soho offers numerous eateries and theaters as well as loads of pubs. Of course, a big part of the history of the area is wrapped up in the sex industry as well. During the 1950′s the sex industry was at its peak, with over 250 sex shops and brothels lining the street. Crackdowns have since limited their numbers but prostitution is still fairly widespread in certain parts of the area. While generally not any more unsafe than other areas of the city, visitors should be wary of strip clubs offering cheap dances or other erotic entertainment. Often, these scams are meant to lure in unsuspecting tourists who are then charged exorbitant rates by force. Today, it’s home to notable sites like Soho Revue Bar, a gay bar and cabaret revue, and the site of the famous Windmill Theatre featured in the film Mrs. Henderson Presents, now a lap-dancing club.

Rue St. Denis, Paris – France

It’s only natural that a city known for lovers would have a notorious red light district as well. Pass through the arched entrance, and the Rue St. Denis is lined with ladies looking for customers and passersby, though recent regulations have reduced the amount of women openly displaying their goods. For the curious, looking doesn’t cost a thing, and you can walk up and down the avenue as much as you like, though you may be carefully watched by the ladies. Other parts of the street feature sex shops, ethnic eateries, and clothing stores, providing something for everyone. For a more upscale and tourist friendly red light experience, visitors might also want to check out the Pigalle, home of the famous Moulin Rouge.

Boy’s Town, Nuevo Laredo – Mexico

In the border town of Nuevo Laredo, those looking for the naughtier kinds of entertainment won’t be disappointed. Boy’s Town is a walled compound, within which there are several streets home to bars, cantinas, restaurants, and of course brothels. This part of the city is what is known as a Zona de tolerancia, or an area of a city where prostitution is allowed but often carefully controlled by the government. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful, as those operating under the radar are commonplace, and drug dealing and use is rampant. Visitors will find a wide variety of erotic entertainments, ranging from strip teases, to sex shows, to the company of working girls and transvestites. Of course, for those just browsing, there are bars and restaurants as well where patrons can listen to Cumbia and enjoy some tequila.

Kabukicho, Tokyo – Japan

Located in the commercial and administrative ward of Tokyo called Shinjuku, Kabukicho is home to many host/hostess bars, sex shops, love hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. It’s hard to miss this section of town, as it’s illuminated by scores of flashing lights and signs, so at least you won’t have to worry about not seeing anyone due to the dark. While there are numerous more erotic ventures in Kabukicho, it’s also home to some of Tokyo’s most famous restaurants and theaters which are often packed with tourists and locals alike. Known as the “sleepless city”, visitors looking for companionship or curiosity will find plenty of options with offerings including nude shows in private rooms, pornographic theatres and emporiums, peep shows, pantyless tea rooms, massage parlors, and soaplands which offer various bathing services. While prostitution is technically illegal in Japan, these businesses operate within a stone’s throw from local government offices, and though police can and do enforce the law, they seem to do so quite half-heartedly.

Soi Cowboy, Bangkok – Thailand

 Named after a cowboy-hat wearing foreigner, it’s no shock that this red light district of Bangkok has become fairly popular with tourists, especially those from Europe and America. Located near Sukhumvit Road, which is also home to two other red light areas, Nana Plaza and Patpong, Soi Cowboy is a typical red light district in Thailand. Visitors can patronize the many bars lining the streets where attractive young women will dance provocatively, usually clad in bikinis, as nude dancing is technically illegal. For a bar fine, visitors can choose a woman to accompany them back to their hotel room if they so choose. Those less interested in taking home a companion will find entertainment in the elephants paraded up and down the streets as well as restaurants featuring local and foreign cuisines.

Kamathipura, Mumbai – India

Kamathipura is both the oldest red light district in Mumbai and Asia’s largest. Originally created to cater to British troops away from home, today this region is so packed with sex workers there’s hardly a place to sit down. Perhaps one of the most distressingly dismal of the red light districts listed here, it’s still worth a visit just to see the sheer size and scope of it, as working women line the streets and hang out of upper floor windows looking for willing customers. While many brothels are well-run and reputable, child prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases are still common practice in others. Though it may be intimidating, your red light visiting wouldn’t be complete without seeing both ends of the spectrum.

Hira Mandi, Lahore – Pakistan

Hira Mandi in Pakistan has an interesting history behind the decaying but still noble facades of its buildings. Once home to a thriving diamond market, the area now largely brings in those looking to patronize sex workers who line the street calling to potential customers. Many women work as prostitutes under the guise of being mujra dancers, also a nod to the areas history, where back in it’s prime, royal courtesans danced the same dances, albeit in much more luxury than the women of today. Visitors will also find that during the day the district is full of colorful bazaars, local restaurants, and shops selling shoes and musical instruments. It’s worth a visit for the historical and architectural elements alone.

King’s Cross, Sydney – Australia

King’s Cross in Sydney is named after its equally seedy counterpart in London, and is one of the most densely populated regions of the city and Australia at large. Lined with neon signs and brightly lit storefronts, King’s Cross is a common destination for foreigners and natives alike who are curious to see how the other half lives. While recent years have seen some gentrification of the area, there is still a proliferation of strip clubs, topless waitresses, adult bookshops and sleazy nightclubs to keep the inquisitive visitor occupied. Be careful at night, as though Australia is a relatively safe destination, those wandering alone in the area are at risk of being mugged which could put a serious damper on your evening of fun.

Whether you are just satisfying your curiosity or perhaps more carnal appetites, no matter where you are, remember that red light districts are known as seedy parts of town for a reason. Even those controlled heavily by the government can be home to those who’d love to part you from your money, sometimes in ways that aren’t quite pleasant. So while you should enjoy yourself, make sure you do so carefully and responsibly so your walk on the wild side won’t turn out to be more than you’ve bargained for.

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