10 ideal travel destinations for gays that aren't a 'gay holiday'

Jun 25 2019, 12:01 am

This article was written by Bastiaan Ellen, co-founder and CEO of Mr Hudson: Travel guides for the discerning gay man.

Not all gay travellers are in search of a ‘gay holiday.’ An emerging set of queer explorers is looking for experiences that are authentic, exceptional, and of course, stylish — always stylish. And these gay go-getters are becoming more ambitious and adventurous than ever in their travels. 

What’s driving the changing map of queer travel? A few factors are at work: Gay voyagers in the not-so-distant past were limited to a handful of safe and welcoming destinations. But now, more and more countries are beginning not just to recognize same-sex relationships, but to actively court gay tourists. 

The second piece is that gay men don’t necessarily need to hang out at gay clubs to hook up because apps like Grindr have eliminated the need for that. These dynamics are dramatically changing the way gays socialize. More and more, the gay and straight scenes merge together as gays go out with their straight friends, straights with their gay friends and every other possible combination in between. 

The cities where this is unfolding in a real way also happen to be some of the most creative, forward-thinking and fantastic places on the planet to explore. Here are ten city standouts, highlighted in my new book, Mr Hudson Explores: The Gay Man’s Travel Companion.’

Lisbon, Portugal: A city of contrasting charms 


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Urban beauty Lisbon is blessed with year-round sunshine. The bright light allows for thorough full appreciation of her endless Tagus River, a string of seven pastoral hills, cobblestone streets and canary-coloured trams that putter alongside majestic squares. While Catholicism retains a tight hold on Portugal, the gay community has enjoyed a steadily increasing acceptance since homosexuality was decriminalized back in 1983. 

Tel Aviv, Israel: A mixed mecca of openness 


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At the edge of the Mediterranean, in a conservative Middle Eastern region, a queer mirage rises from the desert. Arguably gayer than even San Francisco, an estimated 25% of Tel Aviv residents identify as queer. While it’s true the capital city does not have a lot of gay bars, it’s equally evident that the LGBTQ communities have effortlessly blended into the local scenes. No need to look for the gay neighbourhood when in Tel Aviv, because chances are you’re already standing in it. “Gay life is very normalized. If you want to pick up a guy or get to know someone, you can do it in any bar,” said Itay Blaish, a creative director and graphic designer from Tel Aviv. 

Shanghai, China: The far out, far east temple of indulgence 

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Shanghai. (Denys Nevo Zhai)

Shanghai is as heady as they come. It’s a city that can surprise and delight even the most world-weary traveller. As it’s been said: “If NYC is the city that never sleeps, Shanghai is the city the city that doesn’t even sit down.” The Chinese metropolis can feed your love for art and architecture, your gourmet palate, and provide retail therapy. It’s an intoxicating blend of futuristic attitudes welded onto ancient culture. And while you won’t find rainbow flags fluttering it in Shanghai, it is home to a vibrant queerness. The up-and-coming generation of LGBTQs feels more at home in underground clubs than gay bars because queerness is so entangled with youth culture and those places are the most accepting of diversity.

Stockholm, Sweden: A modish mix of minimalist mirth 

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Stockholm. (Karine Germain)

Stockholm somehow manages to have one foot planted in medieval history and the other foot firmly in the cutting-edge present, all while leaning deeply into the future. Its unique multi-island landscape is an ancient natural wonder sprinkled with up-to-the-second design. As for the gay thing, these forward-thinking Nords decriminalized same-sex relations three generations ago, back in 1944. Stockholm doesn’t even have a need for designated gay districts; the rainbow flag flies everywhere across the city. 

Tokyo, Japan: Where traditionalism and modernism merge


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Electrifyingly modern, with sweeping skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, and dizzying metro stops, in Tokyo, there is opportunity for quiet reflection and wild antics in equal measure. In a country known for its strict social mores, Japan has somewhat surprisingly emerged one of the leaders of gay rights in Asia. Tokyo is home to a thriving LGBTQ community, which locals accept with characteristic humility. Shop, roam, dine at Michelin-starred restaurants (Tokyo has more than any other city on the planet) and find your Zen in the peaceful Buddhist and Shinto shrines dotted across the city. 

Portland, USA: Leading the way to a greener future 

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Portland. (Andrew Collins)

If you’re looking for a 21st-century model city for healthy urban living, look no further than Portland. This one-time logging town lures young creatives to begin their new lives in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, much like the sparkling flecks in a river once sent a generation to California in the Gold Rush. The region’s vast wilderness, a relaxed progressive culture committed to social equality and DIY entrepreneurial spirit are just a few of the draws. (Not to mention its robust queer ballroom culture scene.)

Vienna, Austria: Where tradition and modern values meet 


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Homosexuality is nothing new to the Viennese. The brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I was publicly out. Sexually liberal Vienna is home to some of history’s most trailblazing homosexuals, including composers and political leaders who worked to overthrow Viennese orthodoxy from inside the system. The city’s rich cultural legacy is alive at every turn. Arts, culture, cuisine, architecture, and nightlife are only the beginning of what makes the former capital of the Habsburg Empire worth visiting. And while Paris has Le Marais, New York’s got Chelsea, and San Francisco has the Castro, Vienna doesn’t limit itself to one gay area. Here, you will feel free and accepted in every corner of the city with nary even the occasional side-eye. 

Vancouver, Canada: A Pacific urban paradise 

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Vancouver. (Matthew Sleeper)

When the morning mist hits Vancouver’s glass skyscrapers, the city shines like a kaleidoscope. Or a gay rainbow, depending on which way you look at it. With the liberal, free-thinking attitude found amongst most Vancouverites, queer visitors will feel welcome throughout the entire city. Explore the urban forests, dramatic mountains, and stunning coastlines of Vancouver. And eat. A lot. Check out Davie Village, the city’s gayborhood, home to Canada’s first permanent rainbow crosswalk 

Mexico City, Mexico: North America’s complex, ever-changing megalopolis 

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Mexico City. (Jezael Melgoza)

Mexico City, aka CDMX, is where high culture meets horn-honking squalor, and also where, beneath the dominating shadow of the Catholic Church, gay visitors will find an open-minded queer mecca. It’s gotten a bad rap for its crime and traffic, but make no mistake, this is an intoxicating city whose buzz won’t wear off until long after you’ve returned home. Mexico City is in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Amble through reinvigorated neighbourhoods and public spaces that showcase its rich, storied past. Don’t miss the home of Frida Kahlo, the Madonna of her time, who is for many, an icon in the LGBTQ+ community for her openness around female sexuality. 

Chicago, USA: The midwest’s smoking-hot, eternally cool city 


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Home to the first leather bar, and located in the first state to remove sodomy from its list of forbidden acts back in 1961, Chicago has earned its solid reputation as one of the most inclusive LGBTQ+ communities in America. On top of that, the Windy City boasts cutting-edge architecture, world-class cuisine (including the definitive Deep Dish Pizza) and Lake Michigan’s scenic shores. It’s enough for Chicagoans to catch a smug attitude, but these good-natured souls wouldn’t dream of it. They are a blend of New York chic and Midwestern warmth and will greet gay visitors with open arms.