Interesting Cities to Visit in England
Frequently named one of the world’s top LGBTQ+ destinations, London has an unrivalled variety of gay and lesbian venues, complemented by a rainbow-coloured calendar of cultural events and festivals. In the heart of central London, the famous Soho neighbourhood has been the pulse of London’s gay scene throughout history. Once home to secret and somewhat seedy gay hangouts, there’s now a kaleidoscope of smart LGBTQ+ bars, shops and cafes, while the surrounding streets provide world-renowned shopping, dining, theatre and culture. Vauxhall in south London is a flourishing gay quarter that’s home to some of London’s most hedonistic and most historic gay venues. Once down-at-heels, London’s East End has evolved into a hip and artistic hub, whose bars and clubs provide an alternative LGBTQ +experience, including strutting-edge drag, naked literary salons, even tomato wrestling.
A gritty and determined city in England’s northwest, Manchester prospered during the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian era. Now some of its cobbled streets sparkle with glitter, because Manchester is home to one of England’s best-known gay villages. Focused around historic Canal Street, this LGBTQ+ Elysium buzzes with lively venues that welcome every shade of the rainbow. Manchester’s gay village found fame as location of the original British version of groundbreaking TV series Queer As Folk. It plays host to one of England’s biggest LGBTQ+ events, the annual Manchester Pride, as well as the Sparkle Weekend, the world’s largest free-to-attend celebration of gender diversity, attracting over 18,000 attendees annually.
Located on England’s south coast, the seaside city of Brighton & Hove has long been the preferred weekend getaway for London’s LGBTQ+ community—Oscar Wilde and his aristocratic young lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas were regular visitors, as were Sapphic couple Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. There’s a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene in the Kemp Town neighbourhood, an official nudist beach with a gay-frequented area, and a year-round events calendar. Brighton Pride attracts massive headline acts, including The Pet Shop Boys in 2017 and Britney Spears in 2018. Even the street art celebrates same-sex liaisons: in 2004, famous graffiti artist Banksy painted two policemen sharing a passionate kiss on a Brighton wall. Although the original work has since been removed and sold at auction, it remains evidence of Brighton’s alternative outlook.
England’s second largest city, Birmingham has a long-established association with a favourite leisure activity: shopping. Birmingham was home to England’s first indoor city-centre shopping mall (although the original 1960s concrete complex was demolished in 2000 and replaced by a shiny new version), and the city’s Jewellery Quarter has the largest concentration of jewelry traders in Europe. Located in the Southside area around Hurst Street, Birmingham’s LGBTQ+ quarter also sparkles like a diamond—or more accurately, like a disco ball. Popular venues include Nightingale Club, known locally as the Gale, a 1,000+ capacity club that’s been a gay scene stalwart since 1969.
In England’s northeast, the city of Newcastle was once an important centre for industries such as coal mining and shipbuilding, but has since reinvented itself as one of England’s top leisure destinations. The Angel of the North, a metal sculpture with an epic 54m-wide wingspan by Antony Gormley, greets visitors as they drive into the city. Known as Geordies, the locals are just as welcoming. The LGBTQ+ scene is concentrated in an area nicknamed The Pink Triangle, connecting Newcastle railway station with Scotswood Road and Westmorland Road, and includes traditional-style gay pubs, hip lounge-bars, drag cabaret, and dance clubs with top DJs.
Interesting Attractions to Visit in England
A world apart from the hustle and bustle of city life, the softly undulating hills of the Cotswolds are known for their honey-hued cottages and sleepy country pubs. This green and genteel corner of southwest England is ideal for LGBTQ+ visitors wanting a discreet yet discerning country escape. The historic town of Tetbury is an excellent choice for antique shopping. Daylesford Organic farmshop and Bamford haybarn spa are part of a stylish rural empire that also has stores in exclusive London locations.
A UNESCO World Heritage City, historic Bath is renowned for its Roman baths and its handsome Georgian architecture. A fashionable spa resort in the 18th century, Bath is once again a major spa destination thanks to its world-class facilities. One recommendation is the impressive Thermae Bath Spa, where everyone including LGBTQ+ visitors can enjoy the therapeutic bathing rituals and mineral-rich waters. Although lacking gay venues, Bath does have a Gay Street. The novelist Jane Austen once resided at 25 Gay Street, and today at number 40 is a small museum chronicling her life. The street even has its own ghost: described as a well-dressed Regency-era dandy with long hair tied back in a ribbon, this eerie apparition is said to only appear to other men! Take a Ghost Walk to learn more about this and other ghosts of Bath.
The lovely seaside town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk has artistic LGBTQ+ associations. Born in Suffolk, renowned composer Benjamin Britten returned here with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. This regarded classical music festival is held annually at nearby Snape Maltings, a series of Victorian maltings that have been converted into a concert venue. Discover more about Britten and Pears by visiting their former Aldeburgh home, the Red House, now a museum. Another renowned local LGBTQ+ artist, Maggi Hambling created Scallop in 2003, a steel sculpture dedicated to Benjamin Britten that stands on Aldeburgh's pebble beach.
KEIGHLEY, HAWORTH AND SALTAIRE, WEST YORKSHIRE
Described as England's Brokeback Mountain, the critically acclaimed film God's Own Country explores the brooding relationship between a young sheep farmer and a Romanian migrant worker in rural Yorkshire. The raw and rugged moors of West Yorkshire provide a dramatic backdrop. Filming locations include the picturesque towns of Keighley, whose attractions include a heritage steam train line, and Haworth, once home of the famous Brontë sisters and now a literary mecca thanks to iconic novels like Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Nearby Saltaire will also appeal to LGBTQ+ visitors—the village is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its Victorian textile mill now converted into shops and cafes as well as a gallery dedicated to Yorkshire-born gay artist David Hockney.
A centre of academic excellence, Oxford's prestigious university dates back to the 12th century, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Its ancient colleges, medieval lanes and canal paths are enchanting places to explore. Former students took inspiration from every corner of Oxford: the idyllic picnic spot Christchurch Meadows inspired Lewis Carroll's novel Alice In Wonderland, and The Eagle & Child pub is where Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein held regular meetings of their literary group, The Inklings. As well as this and other historic pubs, Oxford has a handful of LGBTQ+ inns and lounge-bars.
Another of England's iconic university towns, Cambridge University was established here in 1209. Famous LGBTQ+ alumni include Sir Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry. The town's attractions include the neo-gothic Bridge of Sighs—named after its Venetian counterpart, it was built in the 19th century as part of St John's college. Punting is a favourite leisure activity with Cambridge students and visitors alike. These flat-bottomed boats are propelled by a punter, who pushes against the riverbed with a pole. Boats can be hired with a punter, or you can have a go yourself. The majority of punts navigate the River Cam in central Cambridge, but the more adventurous can punt all the way to the village of Granchester, stopping for a pub lunch before heading back.
SISSINGHURST CASTLE GARDEN, KENT
Fans of costume dramas may have Highclere Castle on their must-see list—this handsome country house is instantly recognisable as the setting for Downton Abbey. However, the world-renowned Sissinghurst Castle Garden has more potent LGBTQ+ heritage. Planted as a series of floral “rooms” divided by hedges and ancient brick walls, it was created in the 1930s by Vita Sackville-West—an English aristocrat known for her passionate affair with the writer Virginia Woolf. Now maintained by the National Trust, these stunning gardens intoxicate with purple delphiniums, magnolias and pink Spanish bluebells, and are around one hour southeast of London by train.
There’s something for every taste and appetite on England’s menu. Starting with a traditional Full English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, and grilled tomato, other iconic dishes include fish ‘n’ chips as well as the classic Sunday lunch of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and vegetables. The multitude of regional specialities includes Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese, Devon cream tea (scones with jam and cream) and Bakewell tart (shortcrust pastry layered with jam, frangipane and flaked almonds). Popular tipples range from craft ale to gin, plus today there are several vineyards producing fine English wine. England has an abundant natural larder, providing locally sourced seasonal fare including fresh fish and shellfish, ripe strawberries and crisp apples. There’s also a plethora of international cuisines, from affordable takeaway food to Michelin-starred fine dining. Those with specific dietary requirements are also catered for in cafes, bars and restaurants throughout England.
Safety Considerations for LGBTQ+ visitors to England
England is one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly places in the world. The government and opposition parties are fully supportive of LGBTQ+ equality, whether that’s at home, in schools, in the workplace, or in the military. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is forbidden by law. However, as with any country in the world, traces of homophobia can still exist, so remaining aware and observant is always advisable.
LGBTQ+ Travel Tips & Events
England has a comprehensive year-round calendar of LGBTQ+ festivals and events. The month of February is LGBT+ History Month, a nationwide initiative that includes exhibitions, literary salons, film screenings, plays and events to champion England’s LGBTQ+ culture and people. In March is the British Film Institute’s annual LGBTQ+ film festival BFI Flare, with a programme of gala film premieres that screen at the BFI’s home in London’s Southbank. England’s colourful and epic Pride season takes its first steps in May with Birmingham Pride and London Bear Pride. Pride continues to be celebrated in June (Pride In London), July (Bristol, Newcastle) and August (Brighton, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester), while many of England’s other towns and cities show their pride colours with parades and events throughout the summer. Liverpool’s regarded Homotopia Festival celebrates LGBTQ+ art and culture annually in November, as does London-based arts festival GFest, and East London’s alternative film showcase Fringe! Queer Art & Film Fest.
Stuart Haggas is a writer and publicist focusing on travel, arts and entertainment. He was deputy editor of British gay youth lifestyle magazine Fluid, and has contributed to numerous titles including the U.S. LGBTQ+ travel magazine Passport, the UK gay magazine Attitude, and British gay health and sex magazine FS (his article “Hard Sex: Exposed” was nominated for the Rosemary Goodchild Award for excellence in sexual health journalism at the SHUK Awards in 2014). He also writes copy for VisitBritain and VisitWales. As a publicist, he works freelance on film and arts festivals, having previously worked for an international PR agency with clients ranging from West End musicals to celebrities including Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and Queen. He lives in London and Suffolk.