LGBTQI Travel Guide: Information for Queer and Gay Travel in Europe

Bennett Collins

“You Americans,” my friend shouted over blaring tropical house music, “You guys need a club to be designated as “gay” before you even go near it.” My Italian friend Matteo and I found ourselves comparing gay night lives between our respective homelands and between European countries in a packed London club at 2 o’clock in the morning.

We talked about off-the-path cities for gay travel in Europe and those with great LGBTQ scenes. Lamenting the decline in the number of both lesbian and gay bars in some European cities, we ultimately agreed that Europe could not, simply, be generalized as LGBTQI+ friendly, or unfriendly.

Living and traveling in Europe for six years, I learned never to generalize this continent. Diversity needs to be respected and understood; a lesson that can apply more broadly to anywhere and to anyone. So, in writing a piece for LGBTQI+ travelers heading to Europe, let me begin by saying, first and foremost, that the diversity of our community is not going to be found in the experiences of a single, gay, cis, male writer.

However, I hope through my own understanding of the challenges both sexual- and genderqueer people experience abroad, I can provide some helpful tips on how to remain safe and how to best enjoy the diversity Europe has to offer to a queer-identifying person.

Educate Yourself About LGBTQI+ Travel in Europe

My first tip: always do your own research. The various identities and intersectionalities in our community mean that we will likely differ in our perceptions of LGBTQI+ acceptance in a particular place. This is something that Darren Burn, founder of the LGBT friendly luxury travel company OutOfOffice.com recommends as well.

Ask for advice and do your research. It’s impossible to know everything about a destination and we often find the best way to find out about a place is via a LGBT specialist [travel] agent or LGBT locals.”

Although nowhere in Europe is it illegal to simply be homosexual or transgender, becoming familiar with any legal or cultural issues that may be ongoing in a country, before choosing it as a possible holiday destination, is wise.

For  example, for Trans and Gender Non-Conforming (TGNC) folks, it is important to know that, though this number has decreased recently, there are still 20 countries in Europe that require sterilization for gender recognition. For LGB people, a vast majority of Eastern Europe does not recognize partnerships or marriages.

For these reasons, many LGBTQI+ travelers prefer destinations, resorts, and hotels where they know they will not be treated differently.

Luckily, there are plenty of LGBTQ organizations out there to help you keep up to date with country policies, like the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association. In terms of European LGBTQI+ rights organizations, Rainbow Europe and TGEU: Transgender Europe are worth getting to know as well.

Choosing the Right City in Europe LGBTQI+ Travel

In queer-friendly destination cities like London, Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Paris, LGBTQI culture isn’t radically different. Usually, these differences vary based on the country’s or region’s cultural nuances. As Darren from OutofOffice.com says,

“Each city will have an area of gay bars, one or two large gay clubs and then an underground scene too. You’ll find, in places like Spain, that the nightlife doesn’t get going until much later in the evening. Whilst in London it wouldn’t be uncommon to head to a club at about 10pm, in Spain you’re probably not starting your dinner until that time and then hitting the club at 1am.”

Personally speaking, Vienna, Copenhagen, Manchester, and Cologne have been my absolute favorite cities for their LGBTQI+ nightlife, quarters, heritage trails, and even royal baths. In my own travels, I have found that the smaller the cities are more likely to have local and national cultures infused into queer scenes, making the relationship with city’s LGBTQI+ community that much more special and accessible.

Generally, the more off the beaten path you get, especially in Eastern Europe, the more you’ll need to rely on either locals, LGBTQ travel agents, or blogs, like Travels of Adam, to get you to the right locations.

Understanding Queerphobic Europe

Whether you find this surprising, or obvious, it’s important to note that Europe has homophobic and transphobic attitudes in all its regions. Of course, these are often found in more rural parts of countries. At the same time, cities are not immune to hate crimes either. Regardless of where you are, it is always important to be aware of your surroundings and have an exit plan in case the worst were to happen.

Be especially careful in Eastern Europe as much of it does not have a great track record for LGBTQI+ rights. Darren from Out of Office says “As you travel further east in Europe it can become more tricky for LGBTQ travelers.”

Why is this? First, post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe are, simply, more socially conservative. Politically speaking, the Russian influence in the region is profound, and since the implementation of the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda law, some countries in Eastern Europe have felt some pressure to do the same. On the shores of
the Mediterranean, Turkey has just recently banned all LGBTQI+ events in the capital of Ankara. I would recommend being extremely vigilant about your personal safety if you are going to Russia or Turkey right now.

Meanwhile, there are exceptions in the more progressive western portion of the continent, like Italy and Northern Ireland, where the fight for LGBTQI+ rights has run up against deep seated religious institutions .

A common misconception is that countries in the European Union are obligated to enforce LGBTQI+ rights. However, with the exception of employment discrimination, EU countries are responsible for their own hate crime legislation and LGBTQI+ protections.

If a hate crime were ever to happen in a country without hate crime or LGBTQI+ protection legislation, it would be important to get in touch with a local LGBTQI+ organization before contacting the police. Local organizations can be incredibly useful to help decide whether contacting the authorities is a productive course of action.

The Best Countries for Queer & Gay Travel in Europe

Now for the good news. Europe is becoming more and more LGBTQI+ friendly by the year, as reports show that the LGBTQI+ travel market is now estimated at 211 billion dollars and  the LGBTQI+ tourism industry is booming like never before. Of course, urban environments and beach resorts have often been, and still are, favorites of LGBTQI+ travelers, but with increased competition between destinations for the LGBTQI+ market, choice is expanding. Darren Burn states:

“The list [of Queer-friendly countries] is growing all the time which is great news. The welcoming atmosphere of an island such as Mykonos [in Greece] has a great reputation for being LGBTQ friendly. A good blend of luxury and with a vibrant restaurant and bar scene, the destination is increasing in price year on year as it becomes the go-to place over even destinations like Ibiza, Spain.”

Generally, Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula are where I feel the most comfortable and the regions I consider the best for my own peace of mind. From conducting my own research, speaking with fellow travelers, and my own personal experiences, I compiled a few recommendations for your next trip over to Europe:

Spain & The Canary Islands

Spain and the Canary Islands have also always been welcoming. Barcelona is a great city combining both beach life and a city break. Nearby, Sitges – about half an hour from the city – is a quaint town but full of great LGBTQ bars. Madrid’s nightlife is also a blast, speaking from personal experience.

Key event to attend: WE New Years Festival or Ella International Lesbian Festival

The Netherlands

The Netherlands was the first country in the world to pass same-sex marriage laws and is famous for its socially progressive populace. A friend once described the experience of being queer in the Netherlands as like being born left-handed. The Hague,
Rotterdam, and Utrecht are also great places to visit for their night lives as well.

Key event to attend: Amsterdam Pride (and in case you go here are some helpful Amsterdam packing tips)

Scotland

The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn. Doesn’t that say it all? This has also been my second home for four years and the country only continues to become more accepting of all letters of our community.

Key event to attend: Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve & January)

Iceland

While it may seem far from its mainland counterparts, Iceland remains a go-to destination for LGBTQI+ travelers looking for a break from urban life or the European mainland. The country also has its own queer-oriented tour group, Pink Iceland, which is dedicated to helping LGBTQI+ travelers feel safe and have fun in Iceland.

Key event to attend: Rainbow Reykjavik Winter Pride

Malta

Malta is, perhaps, the most under recognized queer-friendly country in Europe. Besides being a top tourist destination set in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta introduced the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC), designed “to ensure the right to individuals’ physical integrity, bodily autonomy and self-determination”.

Key event to attend: Malta Pride

LGBTQI+ Events for the 2017-2018 Winter Season

Nothing kills the motivation to travel more than cold air and the barren tundra that is the winter events schedule. Luckily, there are quite a few events, ranging from film festivals, to ski weeks, to Pride festivals, that are found throughout and around the winter months. Here are some to check out:

The Rainbow Ball Vienna, Austria – 27 Jan 2018

Teddy Awards – Berlin, Germany – 15 – 25 Feb 2018

Lou Queernaval – Nice, France – 25 Feb 2018

Ella International Lesbian Festival – Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Gay Ski Buddies Week – Meribel, France – 10-17 Mar 2018

European Gay Ski Week – Les Menuires, France -17 – 24 Mar 2018

European Snow Pride – Tignes, France – 17-23 Mar 2018

Arosa Gay Ski Week – Arosa, Switzerland – 20-27 Jan 2018

WE New Years Festival – Madrid, Spain

Sitges Gay Carnival – Sitges, Spain – 6-14 Feb 2018

Maspalomas Winter Gay Pride – Maspalomas, Spain

Rainbow Reykjavik Festival – Reykyavik, Iceland – 8 – 11 Feb 2018

Snow Gay Weekend – Barcelona, Spain – 1-4 Mar 2018

Scandanavian Ski PrideOslo, Norway – 8 -11 Mar 2018

10th Annual Gaywise Festival – London, England

Zine Goak Film Festival – Bilbao, Spain – 20 Feb – 3 Mar 2018

Ljubljana LGBT Film Festival – Ljubljana, Slovenia

9th International Queer Film Festival – Belgrade, Serbia

18th Mezipatra Queer Film Festival – Prague/Brno, Czech Republic

9th Leather and Fetish Pride – Antwerp, Belgium – 21 – 26 Feb 2018

TL:DR

Europe is becoming more and more LGBTQI+ friendly and accepting. More destinations are opening up all the time. Iceland, Malta, Scotland, Spain (and the Canary Islands), and the Netherlands are great choices for LGBTQI+ travelers. Consider the following in planning your trip:

Do your homework before traveling: Just because something is labeled LGBTQ friendly does not make it fun for all identities.

Consider a LGBTQI+ friendly travel agency: Like OutofOffice.com or Detours to help plan a trip that minimizes the stress of possibly encountering discrimination.

Know the laws: And how to contact a local LGBTQI+ organization, in case you find yourself a victim of discrimination or crime. Emergency contact information and an exit plan should also be prepared in advance if you are traveling to a less accepting destination. 

Take extra precautions in high risk countries: Take great care traveling to Eastern Europe as well as heavily religious places like Italy, Northern Ireland, and Turkey.

Hit up the festivals & events: The winter months in Europe do have LGBTQI+ events, ranging from film festivals to ski weeks to Pride parades.

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