Gay London: a pink tour of the British capital

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London, with over 8 million residents and a strong liberal tradition, has historically been the place for gays and lesbians to take refuge from prejudice and discrimination. In the last 20 years, its gay community has proudly stepped out of back alleys and underground bars into the main streets, making the city one of the world’s leading destinations for gay and lesbian tourists. Here is a selection of spots you shouldn’t miss on your ‘pink tour’ of London.

Soho

Once the epicentre of gay clubbing, this London neighbourhood has blossomed into a gentler, more poised alternative to the amyl nitrated excesses of other hardcore party areas like the Vauxhall Gay Village. The historic smuttiness of Soho has also been toned down in recent years with the closure of the landmark Soho Revue bar, making it the wind-down destination of all Central London media darlings after a hard day's work.

Located just a stone’s throw away from the theatreland of the West End, Soho houses dozens of gay bars catering for all ages and music preferences: you can kick-start your evening at the friendly, Spanish-flavoured Edge bar, conveniently located between Oxford Street and Soho Square, then move from the poppy, twinkly atmosphere of the recently relocated Ku Bar to the more mature, pub-like nature of staples like Comptons of Soho or The Duke of Wellington.

You will have to dig a little deeper for lesbian bars, but a good starting point is the Candy Bar. Many other bars in the area are also Sapphic-friendly, like uber-cool The Friendly Society or post-punk Retro Bar (2 George Court, just off the Strand). The Admiral Duncan on 54 Old Compton Street proudly displays the commemorative plaque and memorial chandelier to honour those who lost their lives in a 1999 homophobic bomb blast, a poignant reminder for the gay community of the long road still ahead.

East London

If the flashy and garish West End is not your cup of tea, travel east towards Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Hoxton to experience the city’s hipster side. East London is the place where proud blue-collar meets gender-bending art student, meets debit-card punkster, and nowhere is this better encapsulated than bo-ho social hubs like the Dalston Superstore. Although not a gay joint per se, this bar-cum-art gallery draws a very mixed and embracing crowd who couldn’t care less which way you swing. The Superstore opens every morning at 10am for breakfast and brunch, and slowly fills up throughout the day with perfectly-trimmed beardy nerds and fabulous 21st century Sally Bowles impersonators asking for the free wi-fi password for their MacBook Air. With photo exhibitions of oiled Turkish wrestlers, live performances by cult bands such as The 2 Bears and club nights hosted by DJs from some of the most current gay clubs like Horse Meat Disco, the Dalston Superstore is the perfect hangout to meet some of London’s alternative scene.

Heading east after sunset? Have a pint with the trendy regulars of The George & Dragon, a deceivingly-looking working man’s pub from the outside that revels in kitsch extravaganza on the inside. A Nelson’s bust with Ziggy Stardust make-up? Check. Pink walls decorated with old black & white pictures? Sure. Kate Bush/Britney Spears mash-ups blaring out of the speakers? No worries! And if you think you haven’t had enough after last orders, follow the trail of skinny jeans down the road to the Joiners Arms, East London’s most (in)famous gay late-night haunt, where you can booze up, talk down and even play some pool with ‘it kids’ and random celebrities (Jon Savage, Kele of Bloc Party fame and even Lady Gaga have been spotted in this place). Just remember not to upstage them in the wardrobe department.

The N1 Gay Mile

Also known as Islington, this quiet, middle-class London neighbourhood claims to have the highest number of cohabiting same sex couples in the whole of the United Kingdom. A step away from the hustle and bustle of central London but not too quiet that it becomes too dull, you can see why this is a prime location for settling down. Sadly, due to the economic downturn, two of its most famous gay bars (The Green and King Edward VI) have closed down very recently, however Central Station still stands strong. Previously known as the legendary 70s gay bar and political activism haven The Prince Albert, Central Station owners Duncan and Martin have carried on with the legacy of the venue, fostering local LGBT social groups while at the same time expanding the business into other areas. Nowadays, you can spend the night in one of their hostel rooms, enjoy a selection of the best of British food on its roof terrace, a drag act in its Cabaret Bar and a bit of cruisy fun in what they tellingly nickname “The Underground Club”, located in the basement of the building. If this proves too much for your faint heart, you can always try other mixed but gay-friendly late night Islington venues like Scala or Fabric, where the emphasis is on the music rather than the bodies on the dance floor.

Islington also offers a small piece of gay history – a small plaque in a disused lavatory in Highbury Fields was unveiled in the year 2000 to pay respect to the first gay protest held in the United Kingdom, on 27th November 1970, as a result of a prominent Young Liberal, Louis Eakes, being arrested for cottaging in the area.

Don’t miss...

Hampstead Heath Ponds. While there are plenty of alternatives for getting wet in central London, nothing beats a trip to Hampstead Heath’s ponds in the summer time. Hampstead has men-only and women-only ponds located just off Highgate Road, in the eastern side of the park. The water is, for better and worse, untreated, which means chilly temperatures and the occasional ‘what was that thing I felt on my left toe?’ moment, but it also gives you the chance to swim right next to a raft of ducks in a totally unique setting. The ponds are open all year round and many locals frequent them, but sunny summer days up the gay quota considerably as the nearby grassy hills fill up with men in swimming trunks that would make Michael Phelps blush. The attitude, however, is relaxed and friendly, with lots of frisbee-throwing, towel-minding and extremely well-groomed puppies creating havoc in picnic baskets.

Gay’s The Word. London’s only gay bookshop, located in the heart of Bloomsbury, has provided queer culture fanatics with a real treasure trove for more than 30 years. This independent shop is full to the brim with aisles displaying everything from Gore Vidal or Virginia Woolf classics to gay magazines, psychology works, coming out stories and gay-friendly children’s books. There is also an Erotica section (cheekily tagged ‘Naughty books’) with your standard Tom of Finland compilations and a shelf showcasing rare first editions of queer fiction from the 60s and 70s that would make any gay bookworms squeal with delight. Crucially for the traveller, Gay’s the Word not only offers the chance to order books online but also the ability to send books bought in-store all over the world for a small fee, so friends of Dorothy needn’t worry about exceeding the weight allowance limit with their four copies (for friends, you understand) of a Wizard of Oz coffee table book.

Javier Panero is part of Lonely Planet's online editorial team. Follow him on Twitter @jspanero.

This article was first published in January 2012 and was republished in July 2012.