Grosse Freiheit

sights / Other

Lonely Planet review

Just north of the S-Bahn station is the Grosse Freiheit . Grosse Freiheit literally means 'great freedom' street, an apt name with its bright lights, dark doorways and live sex nightclubs. Smarmy doormen try to lure the passing crowd into clubs; if you're interested, ask about the conditions of entry.

Admission tends to be fairly low, but it's the mandatory drink minimum that drives up the cost. Ask at the bar how much drinks cost; we've heard reports of people being charged nearly €100 for a couple of watery cocktails.

As for Reeperbahn itself, even those not interested in strip shows usually pay a quick trip to Hamburg's vast red-light thoroughfare of the Reeperbahn just to see what the fuss is all about. It slowly starts to awaken about 16:00, and over the next few hours crowds of thousands stream in. Sure, it's tamer than the Amsterdam scene, but it's still Europe's biggest - a kind of Champs-Elysées of sex shops, peep shows, dim bars, raucous clubs and in-the-gutter-looking-at-the-stars life stories. You can certainly imagine writers like Charles Bukowski (Post Office, Tales of Ordinary Madness) , Nelson Algren (Walk on the Wild Side) and Damon Runyon (Guys & Dolls) giving it the treatment. It has the seedy, lowlife quality needed.

On a busy night there might be as many as 40,000 people cruising the rip-roaring collection of bars, sex clubs, variety acts, restaurants, pubs and cafés collectively known as the 'Kiez'. The abstemious and celibate St Paul, for whom Hamburg's 'sin centre' is named, wouldn't have taken kindly to such displays, but the sightseers come from all walks of life.

Long established as a party place for incoming sailors, the area's popularity peaked in the swinging 1960s when the Beatles cut their musical teeth at the legendary - now defunct - Star Club. Prostitution boomed along the lurid, spidery streets spilling off the Reeperbahn. But then a wave of hard crime and drugs sent St Pauli on a downward spiral, and rip-offs became commonplace (with cheap wine served from expensive bottles, as just one example). Germany's Sündenmeile (Sin Mile) had to reinvent itself to survive - which it did.

The answer, as always in Hamburg, was greater commercialisation, as another layer of attractions was added as the No 1 attraction for tourists. In recent years, musicals like Cats and Mamma Mia have played to sold-out houses on the eastern edge, and stylish nightclubs, bars and even restaurants keep a hip, moneyed clientele entertained until dawn.

The sex industry is still in full swing as girls line up along some streets. However, some of the rougher edges are gone; for example, pimps no longer loiter and leer. With its flashing neon lights and raucous crowds, the Reeperbahn today seems nothing more than a nightly carnival to some visitors. For others, it's a place to observe the Taxi Driver underbelly of Germany's wealthiest city.