The UK has a dark history of oppressing its gay population, but that’s never stopped queer people from building vibrant underground communities. Those communities developed into resistance movements and made possible the abiding legal freedoms that are guaranteed to gay Brits today. At the center of this history is the city of London, which continues to be the heartbeat of queer life in the UK. Take a stroll through Soho, just one of London’s many gay districts, and it’ll be quite clear that this city has much to offer LGBTQ travelers. From riotous drag shows at upscale cocktail bars to gay history collections at some of its premier museums, LGBTQ culture is never more than a tube ride away.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably heard of slang words like butch, camp, and queen. But, little known to most, these terms come from the queer underground world of pre-1970s London. Back when Great Britain was a far less tolerant place, LGBTQ people used a secret language called Polari to communicate with one another. The language was a mixture of words from cockney rhyming slang, Romani, and Italian, and was popularized by drag queens.
Since homosexual acts were a crime, Polari enabled gay men to talk safely in mixed company. Like Ye Olde Grindr, it was also used to identify oneself as queer and available. The language was campy and playful: Bona to vada your dolly old eek, a common Polari greeting, meant “Nice to see your pretty face.” Dish meant “ass,” and bona dish meant “nice ass.”
Polari wasn’t just for gay men. It was also spoken by lesbians and transsexuals, and it was actively used until 1967 — the year homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK. As it was no longer necessary to hide, many gays and lesbians began speaking publicly in plain English about their private lives. Today Polari is a dead language, but elements of it continue to survive in drag culture and have even trickled into the mainstream. Tune into Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK or visit one of the city’s gay cabarets, and you’ll witness the remnants of old London’s underground LGBTQ legacy.
Neighborhoods and nightlife
Soho is the front-and-center premier gayborhood of London. It’s centrally located and surrounded by many of the city’s major tourist sites, including the West End theater district. Soho is the spot for fancy cocktail bars, drag shows, “after works” and more. With so much nightlife concentrated in one small area, it can’t be missed.
There’s no grunge at FREEDOM. This upscale gay bar looks like a Restoration Hardware showroom. Plush couches, modern light fixtures, and real floral arrangements dot the ground level. The ambiance is complemented by a signature cocktail menu that rivals London’s fanciest hideaways. If high society is not your thing, FREEDOM’s lower level is outfitted like a cabaret and hosts a drag competition show on Monday nights. Similar to Ru Paul’s Drag Race, judges critique the queens after they finish performing. The show is rip-roaring hilarious and showcases some of the best drag talent that London has to offer.
Where: 60-66 Wardour Street
Hours: Daily from 4:00 PM-3:00 AM
Like your tacky great aunt’s living room, Comptons is decked out with antiquated chandeliers and rickety furniture. Its creaky wood floors and random slot machines also contribute to that aesthetic. Outdated it may be, but Comptons is a neighborhood staple with a convivial atmosphere. It’s also the perfect starting point for those wanting to make the rounds as it’s conveniently located on the same block as three other bars.
Where: 51-53 Old Compton Street
Hours: Daily from noon-11:30 PM
Village is a modern gay club with a mix of chill and party vibes. The ground level is split into two lounge-style rooms, each with their own bar. The cellar is a foggy, neon-lit dance club where electronic music thumps all night. Also located on Compton Street and within steps of several other bars, Village is a solid spot to add to a Soho bar crawl.
Where: 81 Wardour Street
Hours: Daily from 4:00 PM-2:00 AM (3:00 AM on weekends)
If you’ve ever been to Friendly Society then you can imagine what Alice must have felt like when she tumbled down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. This bar is like taking an acid trip to a bizarrely magical place with garden gnomes and naked Barbie dolls at every turn. Come for the weird ambiance, but stay for the cocktails. Friendly Society has one of the best-rated drink menus in Soho, and its lounge setup is conducive for group conversation.
Where: 79 Wardour Street
Hours: Daily from 4:00 PM-11:30 PM
She is a bar for women. And being London’s only dedicated lesbian venue, it’s pretty militant about that (though it is trans-inclusive). Once inside, however, She is known for chill vibes and good music. DJs spin every weekend, and during the week there are kitschy themed event nights. The bar’s swanky, futuristic interior gives the feeling that you’re on a lesbian space ship. But remember, men are not welcome aboard.
Where: 23a Old Compton Street
Hours: Daily from 4:00-11:30 PM (3:00 AM on Saturdays)
Just like the name, what you see is what you get: a classic, no-frills gay bar. Everyone goes to G-A-Y. If you only had one hour to spend in Soho, you’d probably end up here. The bar trends younger and is typically a 50/50 split of tourists and locals. There’s a terrace on the second level that opens when tank top weather rolls around. And it helps that the drinks are cheap, even after happy hour ends.
Where: 30 Old Compton Street
Hours: Daily from noon-12:00 AM
Vauxhall is Soho’s badass punk rocker twin that lives on the south side of the Thames. It’s London’s original queer neighborhood, going back to when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. LGBTQ people pejoratively referred to as “mollies” at that time defied the law by congregating in secret “molly houses” in this hood. That illicit spirit of defiance lives on in Vauxhall’s institutions today, and it’s where you go for LGBTQ history and/or wild nights at unorthodox bars.
This iconic cabaret hall is nothing short of legendary. Among its many famous visitors was Freddie Mercury, who allegedly once snuck Princess Diana inside while she was disguised as a man. That was in the ‘80s, which is like last week as far as this institution is concerned. Dating back to 1860, Royal Vauxhall Tavern is London’s oldest standing LGBTQ venue, and it’s still showcasing some of the most entertaining cabaret in the city. Thanks to its new protected status as an Asset of Community Value, it will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
Where: 372 Kennington Lane
Hours: Daily, opening hours vary
Like its NYC and San Fran counterparts, Eagle London is a fetish bar for guys who like leather. Infamous for being a very cruisey spot, Eagle’s attempted to clean up its image in recent years. The newly renovated bar has a beer garden and hosts weekly parties with cult followings, like Horse Meat Disco every Sunday. Despite this, Eagle will always be synonymous with cruising, so be aware that you might encounter some hanky panky.
Where: 349 Kennington Lane
Hours: Tues-Thurs from 8:00 PM-2:00 AM, Fri-Sun from 8:00 PM-4:00 AM, closed Mondays
A self-described “Georgian tiki bar,” The Cock Tavern serves up delicious signature cocktails in a chic setting. Georgian because it’s originally a pub from the Georgian architectural period of London, and tiki bar because the owners attempted to convert it into one in 2003. Now it’s an eclectic combination of both that somehow works. Located on Kennington Road in a slightly more discreet setting than the other Vauxhall bars, it has a relaxed vibe where you can sip a rhubarb gin spritz in a plush leather loveseat.
Where: 340 Kennington Road, Oval
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, opening hours vary
The boundaries of the Greater London area keep pushing East as neighborhoods gentrify and prices rise. Birthplace of the cockney accent, the East End is now a mix of hipster havens, immigrant communities, and old school Brits. With a growing number of LGBTQ spaces, queer Londoners are the most recent addition to this cocktail of cultures.
Take the tube out to Zone 2 for queer brunch in the East End neighborhood of Hackney. Dalston Superstore’s rainbow storefront is a brand new LGBTQ outpost on a hectic street brimming with vendors and discount stores. The inside feels like a gay American diner, if such a thing exists. An average weekday scene is hungover club kids sipping espressos, and boho freelancers nose deep in their laptops. On Saturday and Sunday, boozy drag brunch is the vibe. Diner classics with an elegant twist are on the menu — think garnished eggs benedict and organic avocado toast.
Where: 117 Kingsland High Street
Hours: Daily, opening hours vary
Regal in name only, The Queen Adelaide is a strip club turned gay pub in Cambridge Heath. It’s a straight-up dive that attracts artsy types and gays looking for a good deal — a pint of beer is only $5 and change.
Where: 483 Hackney Road
Hours: Daily, opening hours vary
London pulls out all the stops for pride month. After all, it’s the biggest and most diverse one in the UK. London Pride is a month-long event consisting of parties and activities and culminates with a star-studded parade through Soho. With something happening almost every day, there will be no shortage of opportunities for you to wave your freak flag. Consult the official pride website for a calendar of activities.
This is major. UK Black Pride is the largest celebration for LGBTQ people of color in all of Europe, and it takes place in London. As much as it’s a party, Black Pride also seeks to promote and advocate for black and POC communities in the UK. It’s a truly grassroots event that encourages participants to volunteer, perform, or sell their products at the pride marketplace.
Channel your inner Elsa at UK Winter Pride, an event that’s taken place in London for the past five years. Every January, one of London’s mega-clubs is transformed into a super gay disco winter ball. With performances happening throughout the night, the lineup includes some of the city’s most notable drag queens and DJs. Consult the Winter Pride website for details.
This annual film fest takes place at the British Film Institute Southbank Cinema. The screenings highlight some of Britain’s best independent queer filmmakers. The lineups feature films that deal with aspects of the LGBTQ experience ranging from substance abuse to steamy lesbian romance and historic queer stories of protest and resistance. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the box office.
Museums and culture
The British Museum has created an LGBTQ Histories Trail that charts queer desire, love, and identity across the entire collection. This program helps LGBTQ people connect with queer history, going back to antiquity and earlier. Visitors can view, for example, an ancient Greek vase depicting the famous lesbian poet, Sappho, and better understand her impact on the classical world. History buffs, both gay and straight, will be impressed. Entry to the British Museum is free.
Where: Great Russell St, Bloomsbury
The Museum of London has a vast collection of archives documenting the city’s LGBTQ past. It also hosts queer cultural events throughout the year, especially during pride month. The museum intends to offer free pride tours highlighting the most significant moments in London’s queer history this year, though that may be put on hold for 2020 due to the coronavirus.
Where: 150 London Wall
Britain’s biggest (and gayest) boy band performs several times per year around London. With three upcoming events for pride month, you can see for yourself why the London Gay Men’s Chorus has a world-famous reputation. Tickets start at $60.
No London LGBTQ guide is complete without at least mentioning Brighton. Situated on the sandy shores of the English Channel, Brighton is to London as Fire Island is to New York: It’s where the gays go when the sun comes out. St. James Street in the Kemp Town neighborhood is where you’ll find most of the action. LGBTQ venues blanket this area, but virtually every place around here is gay-friendly at the very least. Less than one hour from London by train, Brighton is an easy day trip or weekend getaway. Read more on how to spend your time there in our ultimate LGBTQ guide to Brighton.
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