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). Also see my list of the 20 gayest beach towns and smaller cities (population 150,000 or less).
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 a terrific destination for urbanites, yet there's a sweeping and beautiful gay beach, Barcelonetta 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 slick, luxury high-rise hotels. And a short drive inland in the small town of Wilton Manors, a vibrant restaurant, Georgie's, and retail scene has become 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. Here's a gay guide to Honolulu through pictures. Other useful resources include GayHawaii.com and the Hawaii Convention & Visitors Bureau.
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.