Gay London: West End Boys and Girls

Home to Europe's largest gay and lesbian population, London remains a hot spot for the discerning international gay traveller. And with more than 300 languages spoken (though you'll need just the one) and nearly a third of the population born outside of the country, you don't get much more international.

The British capital's eight-million-plus population is marked by established Asian, South Asian, African and West Indian communities, partly the result of Britain's once vast empire. Yet for a city of such a scale, London feels convincingly intimate and unthreatening, much of it down to its village-like atmosphere spread across 32 boroughs, each with individual and local character. The city might lack the crazed energy of New York City and can't quite compete with Berlin's über-gay sexiness (who can?), yet it offers a unique cocktail of sophistication, understatement, spark and sufficient unbridled hedonism.

London's coveted résumé includes arguably the world's most celebrated live theatre, ten centuries of architecture, a restless and vital music culture, adventurous dining, shopping, shopping and more shopping, an unapologetic embracing of drink, formidable collections of art treasures, a serious but sexy contemporary art scene and round-the-clock outlets and distractions for gays and lesbians. And then there are the numerous elegant and, in some cases, woodsy parks, commons and heaths which have a sizeable pull with gays both during the day and after hours.

London does not have a gay ghetto per se but Soho comes closest with its mix of restaurants, patisseries, Italian food shops, specialty businesses and a frisky but waning straight red light district effortlessly rubbing up against dozens of gay bars, pubs and sex shops. Its main drag, Old Compton St., plays catwalk to uninhibited cruising and occasional outrageousness that the greater public have come to expect from the area, but not in a kitschy-obvious way. Appropriately the 17th-century origin of Soho's name appears to be a hunting cry. By the turn of the century the conveniently central Soho replaced Earl's Court as London's gay mecca (and in a big way), followed by south-of-the-river upstart Vauxhall, which possibly fancied itself as giving Soho a run for its money. But gay Vauxhall is predominantly nocturnal, with big sweaty dance clubs, pubs and leather and fetish dens pumping life into an otherwise barren area where in daylight cars far outnumber the traffic on the sidewalks. However, large-scale corporate development and plans for further commercial infiltrations are threatening the local gay stronghold. Scene stalwart The Hoist closed its doors in December 2016 following a 20-year run in which the club's pull with punters shifted from the leathered and rubbered to the naked, though clubs such as Union (with regular popular and strict dress-code nights such as Suzie Krueger's enduring Hard On) have assured a fetish presence in this quarter. And since 2017, east London has fully qualified as a gay scene offshoot, by turns indie, alternative, arty and trashy, though London's premier leather/rubber establishment, The Backstreet, in Mile End, has been nurturing a certain patina since 1985 (and in August 2019 made headlines when local council Tower Hamlets prioritised the bar over plans by a local developer).

Despite several high-profile venue closures in the past several years, London still boasts dozens of venues throughout the capital; one is seldom far from a gay pub, bar or club. And the city's comprehensive network of buses, underground trains (the Tube) and surface rail (London Overground) will get you there in comfort, though it is imperative to buy an Oyster travel card because paying without one for a bus or tube ride can at least double the cost. Daytime driving is rarely if ever necessary, and is penalised with a pricey one-day congestion charge fee throughout the city centre. The Tube shuts down between midnight/1am and 5:30am, but buses run through the night — from and to Trafalgar Square — and provide a reliable alternative to cabs, which London is renowned for but which will eat into your club cash (though Uber has survived an attempt at banishment). Pubs tend to stop serving at 11pm, but many clubs operate until the sun comes up and beyond. As of 2019 the Tube offers an all-night service (every eight or ten minutes) on five major lines on Fridays and Saturdays: the Victoria line — which serves Vauxhall — and the Jubilee line. Plus most of the Central, Northern and Piccadilly lines, with plans for the remaining four lines at some point.

London ranks among the world's more expensive cities, but it can be done on the cheap, with restaurant and café prices as varied as the weather, which, contrary to myth, is not all rain and fog. While the city's skies are often grey, you'll find pockets of beautiful sunshine and clear skies throughout the year, particularly between April and October. Admittedly the winters tend to be chilly, dark and damp, though not without atmosphere. Especially when a pint in the pub is involved. And at the end of a working day it is not unusual to find certain gay watering holes heaving with punters in no rush to get home.

In December 2016 a GayCities poll revealed London and Berlin tied as the top place to be LGBT and single.

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