LGBTQ+-FRIENDLY LONDON: WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN THE UK’S CAPITAL CITY
London is one of the world’s most LGBTQ+-friendly destinations. Esteemed writer Dr Samuel Johnson once wrote if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life – but with so much happening in this buzzing city, visitors are thankfully rarely tired of London!
Culture aficionados love discovering London’s galleries (many of which are free), workshops and history around every turn. Fashionistas can max out credit cards at the high-end boutiques and hone their haggling at local neighbourhood markets. Foodies imbibe every global cuisine imaginable, washed down with a fine wine or craft beer. And night owls can party until all hours.
Fall in love with the city with our guide to what’s on in the city including LGBTQ+ hot spots in London.
Soho: London’s LGBTQ+ Heart and Soul
The spiritual home of the LGBTQ+ community in London, Soho has a rich history, having been known as a popular destination for gay men since the 1600s.
Opening theatres in the late 19th century brought a resurgence of people visiting the area, however this unfortunately brought increasing public pressure to ‘clean up’ the area by the 1920s.
Police began frequent club raids after World War One, with media outing Soho’s most popular sex clubs including the Hotel de France on Villiers Street – today home to legendary club Heaven. This pushed the community deeper underground and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Soho started to be more openly proud of its queer heritage.
Heaven opened in 1979 amidst a wave of Soho businesses declaring themselves queer-friendly, including the UK’s first dedicated LGBTQ+ bookstore (Gay’s the Word, opened 1979) and the Swiss Tavern revamping itself as Comptons a few years later in 1986. It’s not been all plain sailing: in 1999, the iconic landmark pub the Admiral Duncan was bombed, and gentrification and new public transport links have demolished a number of historic LGBTQ+ spaces in the last 25 years.
Bordered by Oxford and Regent streets, Charing Cross Road and Chinatown, Soho may be small in size but it’s worth wandering the streets to discover bars (head to Old Compton Street), shopping (Carnaby Street was once the hub of the Swinging Sixties and today is home to global brands, whilst Berwick Street is the place for boutiques) and the neighbourhood’s history. Soho is also home to London’s only exclusively lesbian venue; She Soho hosts comedy, burlesque and other entertaining shows, with male guests able to join only with female friends.
London’s most LGBTQ+ friendly neighbourhoods to visit outside of Soho
Home to around 9 million people in 48 different neighbourhoods, London is an incredibly diverse city and one that is always evolving. Even back as far as Roman times, London had a rich history as a city of entertainment. For today’s LGBTQ+ visitors to London, the following are our pick for most gay friendly neighbourhoods outside of Soho:
- Vauxhall: across the River Thames from the government’s seat in Westminster and the posh suburb of Pimlico, Vauxhall is home to some of the city’s best LGBTQ+ club nights. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a must visit; established in the 1860s, it’s now a Grade II listed building thanks to its LGBTQ+ heritage. In the late 1980s – Diana, Princess of Wales, dressed in drag to dance the night away with Freddie Mercury, and today the Tavern hosts a great event calendar including regular cabaret and drag performances.
- East London: run-down less than 25 years ago, East London is now a fashionable district. Tech bros inhabit the streets by day, but at night it’s a hotbed of culture and clubs. Dalston Superstore – a cafe by day and club by night – is a must, both for its vegan restaurant and its late night club scene, while The Glory has a lively calendar of cabaret, comedy, art and club nights. The Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Festival dominates venues in the area (previously November, now held in September), whilst a visit to Dennis Severs’ House provides a snapshot of London life from 1724 to 1914.
- Hampstead: the leafy inner-suburb was home to George Michael but its connections to the LGBTQ+ community run much deeper, mainly thanks to the men’s pond at Hampstead Heath. There’s also women’s and mixed ponds available, or you could head to Parliament Hill for one of London’s most iconic panoramic views – both are well worth exploring in summer when seemingly everyone in the city wants to go outside and get back to nature. Visitors should also head to King William IV pub – affectionately known as the King Willie – after a swim, one of the city’s oldest gay pubs.
Art and Culture in London
There’s 857 galleries and 192 museums in London so seeing them all is more of a life’s mission than one visit!
The extensive permanent collections at the likes of the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Tate provide free entry to all visitors and are a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. The V&A hosts a range of volunteer-led tours and events: themes change regularly, with recent activities including a 50 year celebration of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and an LGBTQ+ exploration showcasing vases by Grayson Perry, fashion from Alexander McQueen and the ultimate showgirl outfits worn by Kylie.
Beyond the headline names, there’s a range of niche interests covered at establishments such as the Sherlock Holmes Museum, the Old Operating Theatre, the Royal Academy of Music Museum, the Fan Museum, the Magic Circle Museum, and the Museum of Brands.
The Bishopsgate Institute’s Special Collections and Archive is also worth a visit. Started in the 19th century by Stef Dickers, be entertained and informed as you finger lesbian pulp fiction, flick through 90s gay magazines or study documents from the HIV/AIDs crisis and Section 28. Or head to King’s Cross for the country’s first dedicated queer museum; Queer Britain opened in 2022.
A trip to London truly offers something for everyone. With a long LGBTQ+ history in areas such as Soho and Vauxhall, it’s a city that offers a welcoming gay friendly travel experience.