“When a man is tired of London,” proclaimed Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Dr Johnson, that pernickety old snark, had putdowns for pretty much everywhere else, but he was a fierce champion of his chosen city. When his companion James Boswell countered, “The only disadvantage is the great distance at which people live from one another,” the doctor was swift to rally to London’s defence, “Yes, Sir, but that is occasioned by the largeness of it, which is the cause of all the other advantages.”
London is certainly large; there are 7.83 million crammed into the city and more than 12 million in the metro area. The size and sheer human density can be daunting, but, as Dr J pointed out, such largeness does lead to an abundance of “other advantages.”
Sometimes ostentatious and stylish, sometimes honest and earthy, London has grandeur, grit and every gradation in between. Another great champion of the city, two-time prime minister and lifelong Londoner Benjamin Disraeli, proclaimed that his hometown offered “a roost for every bird,” and this collection of completely eclectic components gives the city its colourful, confident and often contradictory character.
This year, London is even more colourful — and it’s got a distinctly celebratory air as the city gays up for an exciting summer. The city hosts WorldPride from June 17 until July 8, with a crowd of more than a million expected for the celebration. And, of course, for those counting down the days till Antwerp’s Outgames in 2013 and Cleveland’s Gay Games in 2014, the city also hosts a small sporting event this summer: it’s London’s third time hosting the Olympics and Paralympics, July 27 to August 12.
On first visits, sashaying around major sites is obligatory. You have to cross those legendary spots off your bucket list — Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the London Eye and the wealth of world-renowned museums. The Underground makes this easy to accomplish in a few days. If the weather’s on your side, go “overground”; central sights are often closer than you’d think looking at the maps. But, lest you spend your time solely in the centre, London has plenty more to offer than just palaces, pomp and pageantry. Leave behind the traffic-clogged arteries, long lines of tired tourists and commuter-jammed Tubes and you’ll find a kaleidoscopic array of roosts for queer birds of every feather.
The River Thames has shaped London’s history, geography and personality since the first Romans settled here in the first century. On a nice day, or on a budget, an excellent way to take in many of the big sights, including the London Eye, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern, with bonus photo opportunities of Big Ben and Westminster, is to walk along the Thames’s South Bank. The laid-back bars at the British Film Institute Southbank (bfi.org.uk/southbank), site of the annual London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, make a perfect mid-saunter stop for a coffee or drink.
When it heats up, Londoners take to the slew of parks and gardens around the city. Gay-popular parks include Princess Diana’s former home, Hyde Park, and St James’s Park, a gay cruising ground since the 1700s (when it was noted that men would “signal to each other . . . then retire to satisfy a passion too horrible for description”). These days, London’s gays and lesbians also head north to Hampstead. Something of a local secret, Hampstead Heath’s separate men’s and women’s swimming ponds become a mecca for sunning, swimming and picnicking gay men and women whenever the sun shines. The spring-fed ponds are just two of 30 in the 320-hectare park. Nearby, in Hampstead Village, the 200-year-old King William IV (kingsboutiquehotel.co.uk) came out as a gay bar in the 1930s. Book ahead for Sunday lunch; it’s become an institution.
London offers a smorgasbord of eating experiences, from cheeky gastropubs, perfect for pints or a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding, to quintessentially British afternoon tea spots. It’s hard to choose between Devon cream scones at Ken-sington Palace’s Orangery, celebrity haunt The Berkeley’s (the-berkeley.co.uk) figure-conscious treats, or Fashion Afternoon Tea (with pink meringues and Royal Doulton china) at The Mandeville (mandeville.co.uk). The Mandeville also does a burly afternoon tea with whisky and games. Who said afternoon tea had to be delicate?
For something more substantial, Thursday through Saturday, stroll Borough Market (boroughmarket.org.uk), under the arches of London Bridge station, for an ostrich burger or fish and chips with mushy peas. The white-hot Dabbous (dabbous.co.uk), in Fitzrovia, is next to impossible to get into but worth the effort, with its stripped-back fine dining and strikingly modern décor.
Bars and Clubs
Nestled between Chinatown, Charing Cross Road’s dusty bookstores and the high-street shopping of Oxford St, Soho is London’s traditional gay hub. At night, the narrow streets around Old Compton St fill to overflowing with gay men, tourists, bicycle rickshaws and impatient cab drivers.
While Soho is London’s main gay village, there’s also a raunchy club scene in Vauxhall; in South London; various queer spots in North London, including Camden, home of the famed Black Cap (theblackcap.com); and Stoke Newington, where you’ll find several predominantly lesbian pubs. Increasingly, hip Shoreditch shenanigans pop up on the iCals of the city’s gay and straight scenesters. Try Dalston Superstore, home of über-cool gay nights such as Sissy Sports and Hot Boy Dancing Spot, achingly hip Jaguar Shoes (jaguarshoes.com) or Passing Clouds (passingclouds.org), situated in a former print works in Dalston, to get the ambiance of the east.
Women who time their visit right can coincide with the BFI’s Southbank Surfing (southbanksurfing.com) night, where, if you’re solo and let the hosts know in advance, they’ll introduce you to people. The rest of the month, Soho’s Candy Bar (candybarsoho.com) packs in the girls. For bar and club listings, check Gingerbeer (gingerbeer.co.uk).
The flamboyant Haymarket Hotel (firmdalehotels.com) pairs design and spacious rooms in a fantastic West End theatres–adjacent location. The Langham (langhamhotels.com) is a grand old meringue of a hotel where Oscar Wilde attended literary salons, 20 minutes’ walk from Soho. The Cadogan (cadogan.com) offers Green Carnation packages, in homage to the carnation-wearing Wilde, arrested in room 118 in 1895. Budget stays can be had from $60 at easyHotel’s six no-frills locations (easyhotel.co.uk) in Victoria, South Kensington, Earls Court, Paddington, Barbican and Heathrow. Another wallet-friendly option, Outlet (outlet4holidays.com), lists gay-owned/gay-friendly apartments and rooms, and, for those who really love London, long-term lets.