Here it is then, the Sündermeile (Sin Mile) counterweight to the Kunstmeile on the opposite side of the city. Hamburg’s citizens are miffed that the Reeperbahn’s red lights still attract so much attention abroad. While the “Kiez” (the local term for the Reeperbahn area) is a far cry from the road where immigrant ropemakers weaved hemp warps for the docks (Reep is rope), and its seedy underbelly attracts more than the usual quota of dubious characters – a few don’t seem far removed from those in Tom Waits’s lowlife bar ballad, Reeperbahn – the area has come a long way from the rough dockers’ quarter where sailors spent shore leave. Gone are the excessive prostitution and hard drugs that characterized the late 1970s to be replaced by theatre venues that trade on tourist-friendly titillation. A few grungey bars and clubs hark back to a counter-culture past evident in the arts-squat communes along Bernhard-Nocht-Strasse/Hafenstrasse, but nowadays they sit alongside a five-star hotel. A no-nonsense police force keeps crime figures among the city’s lowest, too, despite the legion of stag parties.
The street-spanning neon along Grosse Freiheit recalls the area’s rollicking Sixties prime, popularized during The Beatles’ residence. The street’s name – Great Freedom – alludes to a liberal area of free trade and religion in the seventeenth century, rather than loose morals. Spielbudenplatz, on the other side of the Reeperbahn from Grosse Freiheit, is the hub of the area’s regeneration. Its latest incarnation as home to musicals in the Operettenhaus, Spielbudenplatz 1, and waxwork figures in the Panoptikum, Spielbudenplatz 3, follows the pattern set two centuries ago when tightrope walkers, snake charmers and acrobatic riders performed stunts. Nearby on the corner of Taubenstrasse, a condomerie (noon–midnight; free) that peddles saucy tourist tat as a pseudo-museum typifies the area’s makeover.
The focus of local boozing is the seedy streets south, principally Friedrichstrasse and Gerhardstrasse. Where the former meets Davidstrasse, the small St Pauli Museum presents a concise history of the area’s unsavoury past. Its present is the Amsterdam-style red-light district a block south on Herbertstrasse, screened off at either end. Women, though not expressly prohibited, are strongly discouraged from visiting.