Although urban destinations tend to be most popular with gay travelers because of their rich cultural offerings, vibrant nightlife districts, and chic shopping and dining, a number of the world's most gay-popular cities also enjoy picturesque settings on the water. From megacities with skyscrapers on the ocean to relatively smaller destinations on tranquil bays and lakes, here's a rundown of the world's 20 best gay urban beach destinations (population 150,000 or greater).
Set along a sweeping expanse of golden Mediterranean beaches in northeastern Spain, this dynamic and culturally rich metropolis of about 1.6 million is possibly Europe's top major year-round city for gay and lesbian visitors. With outstanding museums, distinctive architecture (including several treasures by Antoni Gaudi) a lively gay nightlife scene centered mostly around the sophisticated Eixample district, and an abundance of stylish restaurants and hotels, Barcelona is a terrific destination for urbanites, yet there's a sweeping and beautiful gay beach, Barceloneta, just minutes from the city center. Moreover, the hugely gay-popular beach resort town of Sitges is practically a suburb - it's just 30 minutes away by train.
With its temperate year-round climate and breathtaking setting beneath Table Mountain and overlooking a rugged stretch of the Atlantic Ocean along the fabled Cape Peninsula, aptly named Cape Town is friendly, vibrant city with a great mix of urban and outdoorsy pursuits. Within city limits, the cobblestone streets of De Waterkant district are lined with gay-popular businesses, including several fun bars and restaurants. It's just a short drive south along the coast to visit some of the Southern Hemisphere's most beautiful beaches, including swank Camp Bay, which lies in the shadows of the Twelve Apostle mountains, and Clifton, which has a scene-y gay beach. Many gay-friendly companies offer tours that combine Cape Town with a safari.
Chicago has surprisingly lovely beaches, given that it's a city neither on the ocean nor in the tropics. The Midwest's largest city laps against the shores of Lake Michigan, which feels and looks like an ocean. And this city famed for its dramatic urban architecture, outstanding fine and performing arts scene, and culinary delights (deep-dish pizza, hot dogs, and some of the most creative contemporary American chefs in the country) is home to nearly 30 scenic beaches that lie steps from urbane urban living. Near the city's uber-gay Boystown, also known as Lakeview, the GLBT set converged for many years at Belmont Rocks, an area that no longer exists. However, a bit farther north, Hollywood (aka Kathy Osterman Beach) is a hot spot for gay sun lovers all summer long.
As with some of the other northern cities on the list, Copenhagen doesn't always resonate with visitors as a beach locale - average high temperatures barely exceed the upper 60s during the summer months. But this historic, eco-friendly, smartly preserved and laid-out city is one of the most progressive, gay-welcoming cities in the world. And as it's set on the eastern shore of Zealand Island, on Øresund (a strait that divides the North and Baltic seas), Copenhagen is close to a number of pristine, windswept stretches of sand, including such gay hangouts as Bellevue and Ishøj beaches. Back in the beautiful city center, you'll find gay bars, saunas, clubs, and shops all in a compact and walkable area - many are along Studiestræde.
For many years known primarily as Florida's "spring break" capital, Fort Lauderdale began an ambitious transformation into a more sophisticated resort destination starting around the early 1990s, which coincided with efforts to court gay and lesbian travelers. Since that time, more than a dozen gay men's resorts have opened within a few blocks of the city's beautiful oceanfront beaches, as have several luxury high-rise hotels. A short drive inland away is the small town of Wilton Manors, where a vibrant restaurant and retail scene has mad the town the most GLBT-popular in Florida. Fort Lauderdale is also close enough to Miami and Palm Beach for quick visits to either place, making it an ideal base for a sunny and relaxing gay vacation.
Densely populated Hong Kong, over which China regained sovereignty in 1997, is one of Asia's leading gay destinations. The GLBT scene here is still relatively discreet, but this special administrative region with some 7.5 million residents—comprising the Kowloon Peninsula, New Territories, and Hong Kong Island—is nevertheless quite forward with regard to gay and lesbian issues when you consider the region as a whole. Much of the gay scene and nightlife is concentrated around the city's Central Business District on Hong Kong Island. Travel a bit farther afield, and you'll find several beautiful beaches with gay presences, among them Gold Coast Beach and Middle Bay.
When you think of gay-friendly, stunningly beautiful, tropical getaways, Hawaii leaps immediately to mind. And the capital city of Honolulu, with its vibrant though rather heavily developed Waikiki beachfront, contains the heart of the state's gay scene. This dramatically situated city on the island of Oahu has several gay bars, a great dining scene, and proximity to many notable attractions, from Queen's Surf gay beach to Pearl Harbor.
One of the world's leading gay and lesbian destinations, Los Angeles is much more than a single metropolis - rather, it's an entire collection of both sprawling and in many cases scenic neighborhoods and adjacent cities. The GLBT scene is focused mostly inland, in West Hollywood, Silver Lake, and the San Fernando Valley, but L.A. has beautiful beaches, and there's an especially gay section at Will Rogers State Beach, just north of Santa Monica. Here and in funky Venice Beach, to the south, you'll find quite a few restaurants, hotels, and bars with a mixed gay/straight following, along with one of the West's classic gay dive bars, Roosterfish. FYI: the nearby city of Long Beach is an inviting, gay-friendly, and underrated beach community in its own right.
Although it's cooler and decidedly less beach-centric than Sydney, the country's second-largest city is nevertheless home to several scenic waterfront communities overlooking picturesque Port Phillip Bay. One of the top neighborhoods for the city's highly visible and active gay and lesbian community is St. Kilda, which is home to a beautiful beachfront not to mention dozens of stellar - and decidedly bohemian - coffeehouses, nightclubs, restaurants, and boutiques. The city is especially popular as a gay destination during Midsumma Festival, a three-week LGBT arts and cultural festival held from mid-January through early February.
South Florida's most glamorous city, Miami, along with the thriving high-society scene of South Beach - just across the Venetian Causeway - are favorite destinations for sun worshippers, beach bums, models, artists, and bohemians. The region has been eclipsed by nearby Fort Lauderdale in recent year's as the state's top gay destination, but you'll still find plenty of gays and lesbians living and playing in these parts - and visiting during the several big gay circuit parties held in South Beach each year, from Winter Party to White Party to Miami Gay Pride. In Miami Beach, you'll find a pair of beautiful and popular gay beaches, including 12th Street Beach in South Beach, and Haulover Beach farther north.
The largest city on the famously swank and sophisticated French Riviera, Nice (population 350,000) is not quite a gay playground on the same plane as such Euro-queer hot spots as Ibiza and Mykonos, but this stylish city with an outstanding variety of tony restaurants and shops does have a growing gay presence (this is also true, by the way, of nearby Cannes, which is smaller but also is becoming increasingly popular with gay travelers). You'll find gay bars, saunas, and cafes mostly in or Old Town, and along the curving waterfront fringing the Mediterranean, rainbow flags denote a gay presence at Coco Beach as well as at Castel Plage.
With plenty of direct flights from major cities in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, the romantic Mexican Riviera resort of Puerto Vallarta makes for an approachable, relatively affordable, and infectiously fun and lively gay getaway from late fall through early spring (it quiets down here considerably during the hot summer months). The gay scene here has grown steadily over the past couple of decades, with the most popular GLBT beach and several welcoming hotels, restaurants, and bars centered upon the charming and historic Zona Romantica district. It's a great destination for relaxing, but you can also take Zip-lining, boating, hiking, and other adventure tours from several outfitters in town. The superb culinary scene is another big plus.
Host of the Summer Olympics in 2016, Brazil's second-largest city can be exciting, chaotic, dazzling, overwhelming, and sexy. Rio de Janeiro justly renowned for its sugary beaches, and a party-driven, festive gay scene that's concentrated chiefly around trendy Ipanema and the more touristy Copacabana areas, both of which front the ocean and are ideal for glazing, jogging, or playing in the sun and sea. Ipanema, with its colonial-style buildings and tree-lined streets, is especially charming; you'll find a number of LGBT-popular cafes and bars around here, as well as a stunning gay beach just off Rua Farme de Amoedo. This city of 6.3 million has a sultry tropical climate, with average temps in the upper 70s and 80s year-round.
Florida's leading gay and lesbian vacation destination on the Gulf of Mexico, the St. Petersburg region comprises a downtown fringing Tampa Bay that's undergone a significant renaissance as well as a string of eclectic - and often historic - waterfront communities from quaint Pass-A-Grille to artsy Gulfport to the tony resort of Clearwater Beach. One of the region's most beautiful beaches, Fort Desoto County Park, has a bit of a gay following, and there's also a great gay beach at Treasure Island, called Sunset Beach. Host each June to St. Petersburg Gay Pride, the largest in the state, the area is home to a diverse mix of gay-friendly lodging choices, from grand hotels to elegant bed-and-breakfasts plus Florida's largest gay resort. St. Petersburg also abounds with gay bars and nightclubs.
For easy access to beautiful beaches and an ever-growing gay scene, San Diego is the top urban destination on the West Coast. The city's bustling Hillcrest neighborhood is a hub of gay nightlife and retail, and you'll also find plenty of GLBT-frequented businesses in nearby North Park and University Heights. Head for the oceanfront communities of Pacific Beach and La Jolla, and you'll discover a gorgeous stretch of gold-sand beaches, with the gay-popular Black's Beach among the most spectacular. San Diego also has a rich cultural scene downtown, cool restaurants and slick hotels in the Gaslamp Quarter, and outstanding museums and attractions in leafy Balboa Park, home to the San Diego Gay Pride festival each July.
Among the top 10 largest cities in the Caribbean, sunny and vibrant San Juan (metro population 2 million) has the best gay scene and most welcoming attitude toward GLBT travelers. The capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has beautiful beaches, especially in the Condado District, which has many of the city's gay bars and accommodations. Charming restaurants and shops line the narrow, hilly lanes of nearby Old San Juan, an ideal spot to spend a romantic evening of dining and dancing. One great approach to visiting here is to combine your trip with a few days on Puerto Rico's gay-popular resort island of Vieques, which is a short flight.
Arguably the gay epicenter of the Southern Hemisphere, scenic Sydney is a major business and cultural center that just happens to be flanked by some of the world's most gorgeous beaches. The city's advanced network of ferries, buses, light rail, and trams makes it easy to shuttle back and forth between popular sunning spots like Bondi Beach and Manly Beach. Sydney's gay scene is focused traditionally around Oxford Street, a 20-minute walk from the much-photographed Inner Harbour and Sydney Opera House, but nearby inner suburbs like Newtown, Erskineville, and Glebe have sizable LGBT populations and many mixed bars and restaurants. Gay visitors will also find a wealth of welcoming hotels and B&Bs in this city renowned for its annual Gay Mardi Gras celebration.
Israel's second-largest city after Jerusalem, the Mediterranean-fringed metropolis of Tel Aviv (population 400,000) is also among the most secular and gay-friendly municipalities in Israel. It's long had a sizable gay presence, including plenty of cafes, bars, and boutiques catering to GLBT residents and visitors—Shenkin Street lies at the heart of the city's gay scene. But the city is also very much a beach destination, with an especially crowded and lively seaside from May through mid-September. Beaches here are clean and beautifully maintained, although none really qualify strictly as gay beaches. Still, you'll always see plenty of eye candy at such favorites as Gordon Beach and Metzitzim Beach.
San Francisco is undeniably one of the top few cities in the world for gay travelers. As a beach city, it's still a place with stunning, rocky beaches along a sweeping stretch of the Pacific, but it's not exactly a great choice for sun-bunnies hoping to swim and lie in the sand all day. The weather at the beach, even in summer, is often cool and windy, and the surf can be violent—even quite dangerous—especially around gay-popular Baker Beach, a clothing-optional patch near Presidio Park that affords visitors fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is nonetheless an outstanding place to live or visit if you want a balance of gay culture and gorgeous coastline that's great for jogging, beach hikes, and admiring the views. Back inland in neighborhoods like the Castro and the Mission, you'll find a slew of hip and interesting San Francisco gay bars.
On the one hand, Vancouver is far enough north and rainy enough during the winter months, that it's by no means a year-round destination for swimming and sunbathing. However, during those four or five months from late spring through early fall, this is one absolutely spectacular city for fans of beaches. There's the lovely beach at English Bay that's just steps from the gay-popular bars and restaurants of the city's West End, and Kitsilano Beach Park just across the water. And a little farther afield, Wreck Beach at the foot of cliffs near the University of British Columbia is a favorite of gays and lesbians (and is clothing-optional). Few cities in the world boast a more dazzling natural backdrop.