Neon lights may be a common fixture in any entertainment district, but the frequently name checked ‘red light district’ is a particularity not as commonly seen. Though the origination of the term is up in the air, it is believed that it could have come about from the existence of the Red Light House saloon, which sat amongst a prostitution district in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1890’s.
While red lights might not always be apparent in the sex districts of the world, the coined term has evolved to refer to places that feature adult entertainment, sometimes legal and sometimes not, which offers up services ranging from sex shows to prostitution. Though the extent of regulation in many areas exists in the gray, some red light districts around the world have become popular destinations for tourists and visitors who are lured in by the cultural and historical significance of their infamous appeal.
From the alleys of Patpong where one of the world’s most famous entertainment districts has continued to evolve, to the largely regulated, red-lit laneways of De Wallen, the sex industry has made an indelible mark on tourism and international repute around the world for a few cities. While the idea of red light districts may not appeal to every type of traveller, the following are some of the most well known in the world and attract scores of visitors in their own right.
5 Pigalle, Paris
Named after the 18th century sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and in distant relation to his legacy, Pigalle is located in France’s capital and serves as the city’s sex district. Set along Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle has acquired the bulk of its fame from the renowned Moulin Rouge cabaret theatre that was featured prominently in the paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and is known for popularizing the modern can-can dance.
While the area doesn’t possess quite the appeal of many other sex districts around the world, its focus on the nighttime crowd gave it the credible and clever nickname of “Pig Alley” by soldiers who frequented the area during World War II. With the Moulin Rouge as its centerpiece, the area also features a much more scandalous sex show at the Sex-O-Drome, in addition to the sex shops, strip clubs, peep shows and erotic museum the area is home to. Though Pigalle still serves as a popular tourist attraction for the city’s visitors with its proximity to the cobbled, narrow streets of Montmartre and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart atop them, it has become more of a beatnik haven in recent years with the smattering of fashionable bars and restaurants that have appeared in the area.
4 Kabukicho, Tokyo
Set in the heart of Shinjuku in Tokyo, Japan, Kabukicho is one of the country’s wildest red light districts. Named after a kabuki theater that was slated to be built in the 1940’s, Kabukicho existed as a swamp and a duck sanctuary before it was filled in 1893 and developed into a residential area around the 1920’s. While the area was destroyed in 1945 during World War II, the efforts to utilize the land led to the appearance of a cabaret theatre and a few bars, which soon transformed the district of Kabukicho into one profuse with nightclubs, love hotels, massage parlours, host and hostess clubs and sex shops.
Like many other entertainment districts, the area is relatively quiet during the day but amps up at night with its neon lights and diverse array of nightlife options. While Kabukicho is largely run by the organized crime circuit known as the Yakuza and is filled with closed circuit cameras as a result, the area is relatively safe for tourists and visitors and has even served as a filming location for movies including Lost in Translation and The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift.
3 Reeperbahn, Hamburg
Sitting in the city’s St. Pauli area, Reeperbahn Street is home to the largest and most well known sex district in Germany. Derived from the word ‘reep’, meaning rope, the name Reeperbahn references the street’s beginnings in the 18th century when it was a place where rope makers made their living close to the harbour boats that required their wares. As many forms of entertainment in Hamburg’s core were banned in the 19th century, a scene popped up along Reeperbahn Street that appealed to the transients and sailors stationed nearby, which was largely hidden from the prying eyes of the public and the city’s business centre. Soon, prostitutes began setting up shop and the area became an entertainment mecca full of nightclubs, discotheques, strip clubs and sex shops that now extends along Gunterstrasse, Erichstrasse, Friedrichstrasse and Davidstrasse, with the more expensive prostitutes located on the exclusive Herbertstrasse.
Hamburg’s sex district also had the distinction of being home to Germany’s only live sex theatre from 2007 on, The Safari, which closed in 2013. While the area remains one of Hamburg’s prominent tourist attractions, it has also played host to one of the world’s most famous bands, The Beatles, who played clubs like Top Ten and The Star-Club in the early 1960’s before they hit big.
2 Patpong, Bangkok
Patpong may be the most prominent of entertainment districts in Bangkok, Thailand, catering mainly to tourists and foreigners, but there are a number of red light districts within the limits of the city. With a name derived from Patpongpanich, the family who has owned the area since 1946, the district runs between Silom Road and Surawong Road in the city’s center, consisting of streets Patpong 1 and Patpong 2.
While it was formerly a banana plantation, Patpong started out primarily as a commercial district in the 1950’s before it began its transformation into a popular place for nightclubs and bars. With the area becoming a stomping ground for United States troops in the 1960’s, it adapted to the seeming desire for night entertainment and turned into a locale replete with go-go bars and dancing girls, with the development of the upstairs bars in the 1980’s giving way to much more explicit sex acts that have given the area worldwide notoriety. In the 1990’s, the area experienced change again when the open-air, family friendly Patpong Night Market was installed to offer souvenirs, handbags and jewellery to visitors, turning the district into a kitschier, less scandalous version of its former self. While many patrons gravitate to sex districts like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza that are more intent on the adult-themed experience, Patpong is still the only district to be sanctioned as an official entertainment zone.
1 De Wallen, Amsterdam
As the most notorious red light district in the world, De Wallen in Amsterdam, Netherlands gives meaning to the term ‘red light’. Made up of 6500 square meters of space that runs from Niezel in the north, Nieuwmkart in the east, Sint Jansstraat in the south and Warmoesstraat in the west, the area features myriad laneways and streets that are filled, largely, with one-room cabins where prostitutes stare out at their potential patrons from behind glass. Long an area frequented by transients and sailors because of its proximity to the city’s harbour, De Wallen began to evolve into what its now become in the 18th century when women were given their own small rooms to work from, instead of being forced to go out into the city to find clients or work out of dirty, decrepit parlours.
Nowadays, the area is rife with the famous red-lit rooms in addition to the sex shops, sex theatres and peep shows that line the streets. Though De Wallen is one of the most considerable draws for visitors to the city, there’s no doubt that Amsterdam has perceived problems with the area in recent years due to the emigration and exploitation of women from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe who have come to the city in hopes of a different life.