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The St. Pauli district (U-Bahn: St. Pauli; S-Bahn: Reeperbahn), just west of the center, is where it all hangs out in Hamburg. St. Pauli’s midsection—the “genital zone,” as it’s sometimes called—is the district’s main drag, the Reeperbahn, a 1km ( 1/2-mile) thoroughfare whose name literally translates as “rope street,” referring to the massive amounts of hempen rope produced here during the 18th and 19th centuries for ships in Germany’s biggest harbor. Hamburg’s first theater opened on the Reeperbahn in 1842, and from there it was all downhill into any manner of licentiousness. By the 1860s, the question, “Whatcha doing, sailor?” became the unofficial motto of an army of prostitutes who set up shop (with the legal sanction of municipal authorities) in the district. These days, by mid-evening the bars and theaters (legitimate and otherwise) are roaring away and you’ll find thousands of women and men in drag, strutting their stuff along the turf. German enterprise has honored these women (and their reputation for a good time) by naming one of Hamburg’s native beers in their honor—the famous “St. Pauli Girl.”

The most exclusive and expensive area is Herbertstrasse, where women display their charms to window-shoppers from behind plate-glass. By city ordinance, this street is open only to men 19 and over (women are officially banned, but this does not seem to be enforced). Less expensive rents can be found on the streets near Herbertstrasse: Gunterstrasse, Erichstrasse, Friedrichstrasse, Davidstrasse, and Gerhardstrasse. If it’s erotic theater you’re looking for, you’ll have to move a few blocks away to Grosse Freiheit, a street whose name appropriately translates as “Great Freedom.” Any act of sexual expression, with every conceivable permutation, except those that involve animals (bestiality is one of the few things expressly forbidden), is shown in these theaters. Be it joyful, be it disgusting, it’s all here, often performed by artists who can barely conceal their boredom.