A wise – and rather witty – gentleman once said, ‘I can resist anything, except temptation’. Nowhere does this ring truer than with the temptation to travel. They call it wanderLUST for a reason and we’re lucky enough to live in a time when traveling is much easier than it once was. Cheap plane tickets and travel mile credit cards aside, it’s a more LGBTQ+ friendly world out there than, say, a hundred years ago. With the world so open to us we can also now choose to combine our travels with a discovering a little LGBTQ+ history.
From the ruins of a bisexual orgy enthusiast emperor’s villa to the death place of a Japanese feudal lord and his faithful till the end lover; from Freddy Mercury’s favorite bathhouse to the final resting place of Oscar Wilde, we look at four locations around the world to visit for LGBTQ+ travelers looking to sprinkle a touch of queer history into their travels.
Capri – Italy
Capri is a glamorous little island just a stone’s throw from Naples – well-known for its beautiful coastline, high-end hotels, villas and designer shops. However, besides being a playground for the rich and trendy it is also an island seeped in gay history. In the village of Capri, you can learn about the controversial bisexual Emperor Tiberius, who is said to have enjoyed the company of both men and women at his “events”. He might not be a sterling example of a queer hero by any means though, as rumors that his orgies also included his own relatives and children persist. Nonetheless, the ruins of his villa – Villa Jovis – make for interesting viewing, especially when accompanied by a guide to tell the whole story.
The island’s glamorous five-star Grand Hotel Quisisana is also notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s where Oscar Wilde stayed with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas when visiting from Naples before – infuriatingly – being kicked out after just one night. Luckily Wilde had an ally on the island in the famous cholera-epidemic doctor (and love of the Queen of Sweden) Axel Munthe, who invited them to stay at his Villa in Anacapri village on the other end of the island. This beautiful villa – Villa San Michele – is still open to explore and is surrounded by gorgeous sea view gardens, whose leafy arches resemble something right out of Game of Thrones.
Munich – Germany
In the modern age, Munich plays second fiddle next to Berlin as a gay city, but this hasn’t always been the case. Long before Stonewall, the gay rights movement began in Munich in 1867 when the first ever gay rights speech was given there by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, calling for homosexuality to be decriminalized. For an idea of the timeframe, this was before the word homosexuality even existed! From then until 1920, Munich was also seen as THE place to be for LGBTQ+ people – with a lively culturally rich scene including, of course, cabaret. Then, sadly, came the Nazis!
However, during the Nazi period, when LGBTQ+ faced horrific persecution, a brave resistance movement arose in Munich called The White Rose. The founder was gay man called Hans Scholl, who fought bravely alongside his sister Sophie – distributing anti-Nazi literature within the heart of the Nazi regime – until their execution. Now in Munich you can visit the White Rose Foundation, which pays tribute to their important legacy, right next the university atrium where they were captured – and also the Justizpalast, the palace of Justice where their farce of a trial was held.
For a lighter – and somewhat raunchier – moment in LGBTQ+ history, there’s the Deutsche Eiche – Central Europe’s largest bathhouse. The bathhouse was a frequent hang out of Freddy Mercury, amongst others, and one can take a walk through history while enjoying present day pleasures. Finally, the quintessential day trip from Munich is to a legendary fairytale palace just under the Alps, Neuschwanstein Royal Castle. The grandiose palace was originally built by the rather camp Mad King Ludwig ,who was frequently visited by one of history’s first divas, his cousin the legendary Empress Sisi of Austria. It was also the inspiration for the castle in Cinderella…you don't get more camp than that.
Kyoto – Japan
Jumping from Europe to Asia, modern day Japan has a conflicting relationship with sexuality…well, actually just with sex in general. As a conservative country, where any signs of affection in public are frowned upon and gay marriage is yet to be recognised, it might seem a strange place to seek out queer history. However, Japan used to be a lot more accepting when it came to homosexuality, with strong gay traditions in Buddhist monasteries, the military, and the world of the kabuki theater and tea-houses.
Kyoto is a beautiful city of temples that best encapsulates the timeless beauty of Japan’s traditions. Honno-ji Temple is a place that connects to the queer side of the Japanese past. Oda Nabunaga was one of Japan’s three great unifiers who was known for having a lover in his page, Mori Ranmaru. Nabunaga was a Daimyo – the Japanese feudal lords who ruled at the time – and head of the powerful Odo tribe until he was later betrayed by his own general. Honno-ji Temple is where Ranmaru held off his lover’s enemies long enough for Nabunaga to commit ritual suicide and to prevent capture. Ranmaru then set the temple on fire – killing all his troops in the process – to avoid letting the enemy capture Nabunaga’s body. If that isn’t love I don’t know what is!
These days the temple has since been rebuilt – albeit at a different nearby location – and is open to the public to explore. Kyoto also has many other spectacular temples worth visiting while there, such as Kinkaku-ji (the golden temple) and Ginkaku- ji (the silver temple).
Paris – France
A mission to uncover Paris’ extensive LGBTQ+ history sure makes for a fun romp around the city (it's also a great place to start an LGBTQ+ river cruise). However, one place that often gets overlooked by queer travelers is the Pere Lachaise. The cemetery is the largest in France and the intrepid explorer can find the final resting places of hundreds of queer historical figures within the labyrinth-like cemetery. There’s gay French authors Marcel Proust and Colette, gay aristocrat and second consul to Napoleon Jean-Jacque Regis Cambaceres, and the romantically shared tomb of Gertrude Stein and her wife Alice. Perhaps the most distinguished of its guests, however, is none other than the legendary Irish Poet Oscar Wilde himself. Here he lies, forever looking at the stars.
Oscar Wilde Tours
Throughout history LGBTQ+ culture has always existed; the trick is knowing where to look for it. Oscar Wilde Tours are experts at taking you to the places that matter while telling you the stories no one else will. Your guide, Professor Andrew Lear, is an acclaimed writer on LGBTQ+ history and university professor with years of experience raising the lid on untold queer stories. From Paris to Greece to Japan, he’ll be your guide through a world of eclectic and eccentric LGBTQ+ characters every bit as vibrant as Oscar Wilde himself!
This article was sponsored by Oscar Wilde tours.