Gay Hamburg: There's something about Germans

In addition to the seedy possibilities that a port town invariably offers, and for all its chart-topping wealth and provincial-cosmopolitan feel, Hamburg has a definite air of sexiness about it. Germans have a certain reputation for an indefinable, lust-inducing Old World confidence, and gay-positive sex-embracing Hamburg has it in spades, though admittedly it's not the buzzy destination it once was. However, it ranks as Germany's second largest city after Berlin, and like its southeastern neighbour boasts an impressive CV of gay history and culture.

A key player in the Hanseatic League trade alliance between the 13th and 17th centuries and the town where the Beatles played hard for their reputation in the early 60s, Hamburg is now perhaps best known for its industry, its print media business and its standing as a hugely affluent and liberal place with a tradition of foreigners, partly attributable to the dominance of its harbour (Europe's second largest). More than 30% of inhabitants are immigrants (from 180 different countries), and the number of outsiders skyrockets on a Saturday night, when the iconic Reeperbahn red-light district in St. Pauli ― aka die Sündige Meile (the sinful mile) ― opens its club, restaurant and brothel doors to hungry visitors from across Europe. And St. Pauli is not without its fair share of gay bars and clubs.

But it's around Hamburg's now watered-down secondary red-light district St. Georg where gays have colonised and organised a league of their own, with the Lange Reihe serving as its catwalk and also as a reference point for the several bars located not more than a five-minute walk away. Each summer the Christopher Street Parade (Germany and Switzerland's equivalent of Gay Pride) starts here, and the strip's most prized gay establishment, Cafe Gnosa ― conveniently located just around the corner from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) ― is the first stop for many a new gay arrival. However, in recent years the Lange Reihe's profile has shifted to accommodate fashion and tourists in a way not previously all that marked.

True to much of Deutschland there's a great and established culture of gay leather in Hamburg. It was here in 1973 that massively influential erotic draughtsman Touko Laaksonen (better known as Tom of Finland, 1920–91) chose to stage the first ever exhibition of his now-iconic ultra-manly imagery, though apparently all but one of the works on show were stolen. Hamburg's most famous bar, Toms Saloon, opened in 1974 and now houses a gallery displaying photographic prints of original Tom drawings, though these days the choice selection of leather-clad men framed on the walls far outnumbers those who bother to turn out in gear on a Saturday night. Like everywhere, it seems, the scene has since evolved into something more casual, adapting to newer generations, interests and sensibilities, with Toms now more leather-friendly than leather mecca. And it seems like an eternity since the demise of one of the city's other claims to leather fame, the GLSM, which thrived as an unrivalled and unrepressed, no-holds-barred leather sex group until the turn of the century. Still, Hamburg's annual Leatherparty, begun in 1973, continues to thrive to some degree every August, with MSC Hamburg – who oversaw the event's glory years of the 1980s and 90s ― taking control once again following the 2013 demise of local organisers SPIKE. 2014 also saw the return to the harbour of party-friendly MS Stubnitz following two years of hiccups. its gargantuan predecessor Cap San Diego hosted its last August leather spectacular in 2005, after which it became a museum.

While not quite a party town on a par with Berlin (but where is?), Hamburg has its place. Food, art, culture, shopping and sex are all valued here in a big way, and gays and lesbians are a vital part of the equation.

Next Big Things: The Hamburg International Queer Film Festival [formerly Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg]
― the biggest and longest-running of its kind in Germany ― takes place Tuesday 19 to Sunday 31 October 2021.

Restaurants to check out