Europe has many gay-friendly cities—notably Sitges, Spain, as well as Berlin, London and Paris. Yet Amsterdam is, by many accounts, the most gay-friendly European destination. With dozens of LGBT bars, restaurants, shops, nightclubs and even a few saunas and hotels catering specifically to gays, the Dutch capital is heaven for any non-heterosexual who’s ever lived in a repressive culture. In Amsterdam, we celebrate Gay Pride on the first weekend in August with buff bods floating down the Prinsengracht on festooned watercraft, Drag Queen Olympics and a plethora of street parties. This year’s Pride ’13 may be a rainbow-colored memory, yet you can walk down Reguliersdwarsstraat or Zeedijk any day of the year and see dolled-up queens lunching al fresco at sidewalk cafés or strolling arm in arm, hoping to see and be seen. Admittedly, canals, culture, windmills and coffeeshops bring millions to Amsterdam annually. A bigger draw for LGBT visitors may be the city’s tolerance for behaviors that don’t harm others. Like marrying your boyfriend. Or girlfriend. The Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize gay unions 12 years ago when then Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen married a same-sex couple on April 1, 2001. Four gay couples tied the knot that night; 382 followed that month.
In America, 13 out of 50 states now recognize gay unions. Around the world, same-sex marriage is legal in Argentina, Belgium, Uruguay, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Despite the leaps we’ve made in recognizing equality for all and even as gay rights are celebrated at Pride festivals around the world, homophobia persists. We see it in places like Russia, where legislation prohibits distributing homosexual “propaganda” to minors. According to new laws, holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can result in fines up to $31,000. I wonder what they’d do to me, a couchsurfing host who’s sheltered numerous gay and lesbian couples and even given them gay maps. All were thrilled they could be themselves in a city that turns a blind eye to sexual orientation—unlike their own home towns, where parents and co-workers might not recognize their friend as their romantic partner. Whatever your sexual preference, gay Amsterdam is colorful, lively and filled with folk who are comfortable in their own skins. Here are my tips for spending 24 hours in LGBT heaven:
1. Book accommodations. Wanna stay near many of Amsterdam’s most popular gay bars, shops, restaurants and saunas? Book a room at the 17-room Golden Bear on Kerkstraat, near Leidseplein. The city’s first gay hotel was founded shortly after World War II in two historic buildings dating from 1737. A top location, nice Dutch breakfast (bread, meat + cheese) and reasonable rates make it popular with LGBTs from around the world. The cozy hotel boasts its original Dutch stairs (read: insanely steep and narrow), so other digs may be more comfortable if you have heavy luggage. Also on Kerkstraat in the middle of the gay action, Bed & Breakfast 62 offers two romantic bedrooms in a 400-year-old townhouse that’s both a city and a national monument. Club Church, Thermos Sauna and a tram stop are less than a block away. 2. Visit Pink Point. This gay/lesbian information center is located at the Homomonument on Westermarkt. Open daily 10:00–18:00, it’s staffed by knowledgeable volunteers who can tell you about gay happenings, venues and support organizations. While there, choose from a fine selection of queer souvenirs and spend a moment at the world’s only gay monument. Opened in 1987 as a symbol against discrimination. the Homomonument commemorates all who’ve been subjected to sexual persecution. Look for three large pink triangles made of granite, set into the ground to form a larger triangle..
3. Lunch on Reguliersdwarsstraat, known locally as “Gay Street.” One of my favorite coffeeshops is on this quirky stretch between Leidsestraat and Rembrandtplein. In addition to a gezellig vibe, The Other Side offers good product at competitive prices. When the munchies strike, ethnic restaurants featuring everything from Italian (Garlic Queen) to Mexican (Rose’s Cantina), all-you-can-eat Japanese (Genki Garden) and Tibetan (Norling) cuisine dot the street, interspersed with trendy shops and gay bars.
4. Explore Zeedijk. A global feel characterizes this street on the edge of the Red Light District. Once a notorious port of call for sailors, it’s now a main drag in Amsterdam’s Chinatown, rife with Asian restaurants and home to the Netherlands’ first gay & lesbian bar, Café ‘t Mandje. Opened in 1927 by local lesbian Bet van Beeren, the bar closed in the early ‘80s but reopened in 2007. It remains a popular networking spot in Amsterdam’s gay scene. Other bars and clubs in Zeedijk include De Engel van Amsterdam, De Barderij and Queen’s Head, home of the infamous Drag Bingo. 5. Dinner on Warmoesstraat. Ah, Warmoesstraat, Amsterdam’s dark heart of darkness, the street that never sleeps (well, maybe…between 5:00–8:00, after the junkies leave and before tourists arrive). Set adjacent to de Wallen, the city’s most famous Red Light District, this lively straat is home to the gay leather/fetish scene at shops like Warehouse, The Eagle, Argos, Dirty Dicks, RoB and MrB. Have dinner at Getto, an informal establishment with a less in-your-face gay vibe, offering drag queen-inspired burgers and international specialties at reasonable prices.
6. Evening in the Jordaan. Escape the chaos of Warmoestraat and wander down to the Jordaan, a Bohemian-chic neighborhood on the western edge of Amsterdam. On tiny Elandsstraat, one of the city’s few original bruine kroegen (brown cafés) welcomes all “queer-minded people.” Whether you’re gay, straight or confused, Saarein is a comfortable place for drinks, snacks or a light meal. Inside, an early 20th century-inspired space features a full bar serving up draft and bottled beers, plus a large selection of wines and traditional Dutch liqueurs. Downstairs, join a pool game, enjoy a smoke and a bevvie, and soak in the soulful ambiance. Friday nights are especially lively, with Pink Radio broadcasting live from 18:00 till 22:00 in Saarein’s basement. No matter who you’re with, you’re bound to feel the love…and the beat! Find more information about Gay Amsterdam, including accommodations, restaurants, clubs, events and an interactive online map, at www.gayamsterdam.com.