The 4 Most Famous Red Light Districts in Europe Are Not for the Faint of Heart

Amsterdam, shot by Cedric Puisney; Flickr Creative Commons

Hidden behind (yet often in plain sight of) the historic landmarks, revered museums, and renowned entertainment centers of every tourist destination, there almost always exists a seedy (but sometimes in a good way?) underbelly of a city, tempting visitors to come have a peek. The risqué lure of these lewd, neon neighborhoods often poses quite a thrill for some travelers -- and understandably so. Without necessarily indulging in the vice, visitors can find plenty of fun amidst that ruby glow of lights that spells "sex." No matter your freak number, there's no need to feel embarrassed or shy -- everyone visits these neighborhoods for basically the same reason. So without further adieu, here’s where to find Europe’s four most famous Red Light Districts.

1. De Wallen, Amsterdam

Photo Credit: vittorio sciosia

Amsterdam has built its reputation as one of the world’s most notorious party cities in part thanks to its Red Light District, known as De Wallen. But the thing about Amsterdam is that the city is changing in a bid to attract tourists looking for a less salacious slice of fun. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The coffee shops and rented sex windows are still very much part of Amsterdam’s triangular Red Light District, but a slew of hip bars and businesses are offering the area something new. Forget the boozy, boorish image of Amsterdam that is all too readily propagated and take in the hip, up-and-coming businesses found in between smoky hazes and curious walks in the streets of sex.

Stay at the RHO Hotel, where the understated and noise-free rooms make it a welcome base to escape the action of De Wallen just a short walk away.

2. Reeperbahn, Hamburg

Photo Credit: Martin Abegglen

Having been, er, "dragged" through both De Wallen and Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, we can attest that the German city takes the award for sleaziness. From the "No women allowed" signs on the raucous Herbertstraße to the plentiful strip clubs and sex theaters that fill Europe’s largest Red Light District, the Reeperbahn has to be seen to be believed. And it was thanks to all that seeing and not enough buying on its nefarious side streets that the signs prohibiting women and minors from entering were initially erected (for want of a better word).

Besides sleaze, Reeperbahn also happens to be the center of Hamburg’s nightlife, which makes it some kind of drunken paradise for many. At the very least, a weekend spent exploring Reeperbahn is certainly an experience you won't forget in a hurry. 

Hip and upscale, The Madison Hamburg puts you within close walking distance of St. Pauli and Reeperbahn with its great location near the city’s port promenade.

3. Pigalle, Paris

Photo Credit: Neil Howard

If you want the romanticized version of the Red Light District then look no further than Paris’ Pigalle. Immortalized in song by the likes of Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, and once home to Van Gogh, Picasso, and Andre Breton, the district has a history as bohemian as it is bawdy. The present-day Pigalle remains the center of sex in Paris, but to go along with the XXX shops, peepshows, and brothels, you’ll find speakeasy bars and clubs. The neighborhood is located at the foot of Montmartre, and you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the windmill of the notorious Moulin Rouge. This isn’t the safest part of Paris by night so once you’ve walked those seedy streets, head to the super-hip SoPi -- South Pigalle -- for drinks and dancing at Le Mansart.

In an area where red velvet curtains are de rigueur for businesses, Villa Royale is a highly appropriate pick. With plush, grandiose, and ostentatious rooms, it fits in perfectly in Pigalle.

4. Schipperskwartier, Antwerp

Photo Credit: Amaury Henderick

Located across a three-block "tolerance zone," Antwerp’s red light district actually achieves its famous reputation for being the antithesis of the seedy, violent neighborhoods usually associated with this type of nightlife. Legalizing prostitution in the specific area of the city known as Schipperskwartier meant taking a large chunk of power from the organized crime gangs who had muscled in on the city’s vice trade. The three blocks themselves are clean and even relatively peaceful, attracting nowhere near the levels of bachelor party debauchery as other European Red Light Districts. Adopting the Amsterdam model of shopfront windows, the area allows the curious to take late night neon-lit walks without the fear of trouble and enjoy some excellent nightlife at the same time; Cafe d'Anvers is a favorite bar of ours.

Martin's Patershof is a historic neo-Gothic church converted into a scenic upper-middle-range hotel with 79 cozy rooms.

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