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September 2009 Email this to a friend


By David Walberg


Light up the night. The Glass Concert Hall at Tivoli Gardens was destroyed by Nazi sympathizers during World War II and resurrected by renowned Danish modern architect Poul Henningsen in 1946.

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NOTE: This is an archive article. For an updated and expanded Copenhagen article click DailyXtraTravel

The small, snug bar called Dunkel is quite literally packed to the rafters: On a makeshift dance floor, revelers clamber up one another's backs to perch atop shoulders, hooting and hollering as they engage in treacherous double-decker dancing. It seems the raucous spirit of the Vikings lives on, even in Denmark's more fashionable gay clubs.

Things are barely more subdued on the sidelines, where bulbous brushed-copper pendant lamps hover just above cocktail tables, like B-movie spaceships preparing to alight. Their warm glow reveals broad smiles stretching every pair of lips, save for those that yammer excitedly or mush against other pairs in passionate smooches. Cascades of laughter flow over the sounds spun by Djuna Barnes, the revered local lesbian DJ who has succeeded in raising the crowd to a fever pitch.

The rambunctious vibe spills onto the street outside. Partiers sit, stand and lie on the sidewalks, drinking beer, cracking jokes, dancing and making out. When Dunkel closes at 5am everyone agrees it seems way too early to go home.
The streets are full of the city's party warriors. They are mostly young but also old; gay, straight and in-between; men, women and in-between; all basking in the triumph of another night vanquished.

All-night party town
Deputy mayor Klaus Bondam tells me it's not just tradition that makes for Copenhagen's reputation as an all- night party town. It's also by design. The city encourages its citizens to fill the streets until the wee hours.
"We want more activity in the city, we want more energy in the city," he says. "The Lord Mayor and I last year launched a project which we called -- what would that be in English? -- something like 'Hit it, Copenhagen,' or 'Put the fire on, Copenhagen,' where we looked at all the things that made it more difficult to have some life on the street, have bar seats on the street, to play music, to put up concerts or other events in the small squares and so on."

Bondam and I are chatting at Oscar, a charming gay cafe which he invokes to make his point. "If the owner of Oscar wanted to make a small concert out there," he says, gesturing to the public square just outside, "he had to fill out thousands of applications and talk to the police and talk to that department and this department. I mean, he was exhausted before he had ended that. That's much easier now. We want to make it easier."
Representing such a lively city, it helps that Bondam enjoys a night on the town. "I've had some of my happiest moments in my life going out. I used to be quite a wild party boy," he says.
"What I like and what I miss a lot, having grown older," he confides, "is going to a bar or a disco, dancing and drinking all night and then walking home in the summer mornings when the lights are up and the bakery is open and you can go in and you can be drunk and buy a Danish pastry, and then go home, sleep for several hours, and then take the train to the beach."

Form follows function
Danish society is rare in that it is intrinsically progressive. Danes, it seems, are always on the lookout for doing things a better way, for living a better life. This quality expresses itself in everything from their approach to all manner of design - - for which they are deservedly famous for innovation, functionality and beauty -- to their approach to democracy, citizenship and human rights. They embrace change at precisely the points where other societies fear it. Their greatest fear, instead, is of being boring.
"I think it's a challenge that every big city faces these years is the scary face of constant normality," muses Bondam. "It's a threat for every society and especially I think it's a threat for city societies, because we're very close to each other, we live very close, we look at people all the time. And if we get too scared, we tend to [want to] look like the other ones. Then, 'I'm just like everybody else, and there's nothing wrong with me.'"

Bondam is channelling Soren Kierkegaard, the famous philosopher who lived in Copenhagen almost 200 years ago. Kierkegaard, too, counseled Copenhageners to shun the crowd and embrace freedom; in the process, he birthed the concept that would become known as existential angst -- the dreadful condition that afflicts us as we realize freedom's truly terrifying, endless possibilities.
"I'm not very sort of controversial myself in any sense," Bondam continues, "but what I really like about the city is the possibility of looking out on the street and seeing somebody who looks completely different from me, who lives a life which is completely different from mine, who takes completely different choices than I do.... They reflect my own choices: Do I make the right choices? Can I live my life in another way? And it makes me curious.
"The way I see it, it gives me also freedom to be gay in the city, the freedom to live my life."

Making history
"Copenhagen has a very special place in gay history," says Bondam from his cafe perch overlooking the city's main square through huge windows. He waves his hand toward city hall, an unlovely building that looms over the square. "It was this house over here that held the first registered partnership in the world. The law today is copied in a lot of other places in the world."

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Denmark way back in 1930, although attitudes waxed and waned in the following decades. In 1961, male prostitution was criminalized if the prostitute was under 21; the Ugly Law, as it became known, was repealed in 1965 and male and female prostitution were equally legal by 1967, the same year that pornography was decriminalized.
The age of consent for gay and straight sex was set at 15 in 1976 and registered partnerships became legal in 1989.

"Denmark was the first country where a pornographic law was liberated," continues Uffe Elbaek, head of the recent Copenhagen Outgames. "We were the first nation where you were allowed to have a partnership with your boyfriend or girlfriend. So for sure, it's been a long tradition for people to create their own lifestyle."

Jakob Hougaard is another of Copenhagen's gay deputy mayors and, at 33, is the youngest mayor. "Denmark is known for being a very cozy place," he tells me. "We don't have in the Danish culture a very divided image of each other, actually we have in Denmark a very egalitarian culture. Being on the eye level of other people, and being on the same boat -- those are metaphors for Danish culture, so that's important values in Denmark.
"The gay community is not as segregated as I experienced in Toronto, where there is a part of the city with rainbows all over the place and every store and every boutique and bar was gay," says Hougaard. "I think you will see it more mixed in Copenhagen and you will also see that as a gay you will also be going to straight bars with no problems."

But does this welcoming attitude extend to other forms of nightlife? Bondam tells me of the city's intervention in a gay cruising spot. "There's an outside cruising area in one of the parks ... and the city, they cut down some bushes, and there was a big roar in the gay community about that, because we were taking the 'erotic oasis' away from the city."

Digging deeper, I discover the city's intervention was perhaps somewhat workaday. "Of course you're allowed to have sex if you don't hurt anybody or you don't disturb anybody," explains Bondam. "But one of the problems up there in the park was also it is a playground during the day, and those guys, they left condoms out there. I mean, I don't want to look at used condoms on the street, and children shouldn't look on a used condom....
"If you want to have sex during the night, for Christ's sake, clean up after your act. I'm very much a politician who's into the responsibility thing. I mean, everybody has a responsibility for life in the city.... It takes millions and millions to pick this up. We could use this money for something else, if you just put it into the dustbin."

Equality and difference
Danes possess a sense of civic entitlement unique to Scandinavia. Even casual conversations reveal a profoundly democratic culture; people from all walks of life are active and engaged in shaping their society and social barriers seem relatively few.

Everyone -- even the most perverted of homosexuals -- assumes the right to be free, not just behind closed doors, but openly. It's widely accepted that everyone ought to participate in public life and that even unconventional attitudes and activities ought to be represented in the public realm, with a share of public recognition, public funds and public space.
Danish queers have somehow managed to achieve both equality and difference -- both sides of what remains, even for many of the world's most liberated gay communities, a brutal trade-off.
A trip to Copenhagen allows visitors to bask in a unique environment of warmth and freedom, in a culture that inspires with its refreshing outlook and achievements.

Walk this way
Copenhagen is a great walking city, with car-free streets and squares and expansive waterside boardwalks.

The Tivoli Gardens amusement park contains rides, gardens, bars, restaurants and numerous performance venues. The site has the feel of an old-fashioned, leafy park and it was cleverly designed to feel intimate and quiet in most areas. The Tivoli's outdoor stages host everything from puppet shows to big rock concerts. Its indoor venues include the Glass Concert Hall, destroyed by Nazi sympathizers during the second world war and resurrected by renowned Danish modern designer and architect Poul Henningsen in 1946, and the Tivoli Concert Hall, a mid-century modern masterpiece.

Stroget, Europe's longest pedestrian shopping street, begins modestly at the Town Hall Square. About 10 minutes along, the shops become more interesting and soon the street transforms into a design district anchored by Danish design houses Georg Jensen, Royal Copenhagen and the department store Illums Bolighus.

A stroll on the lengthy boardwalk along the inner harbour takes you past Amalienborg Palace to any number of art museums. Vestindisk Pakhus, home of the Royal Danish cast collection, houses thousands of plaster casts dating back to antiquity. A full-size replica of Michelangelo's David stands out front. At the end of the boardwalk you'll discover the Gefion Fountain, an impressive depiction of the mythical Norse goddess Gefjun harnessing oxen to plow the land. According to myth, when Gefjun was promised as much land as she could plow in one night, she turned her four sons into oxen. The displaced earth was plowed into the sea, forming the island Zealand, where Copenhagen is located.

Hidden in dense greenery lies Christiania, the famous Copenhagen quarter that declared itself a free state in the 1970s and exists to this day as a social experiment in anarchy. "It's a completely functional city in the city. It's like the Vatican," says Elbaek. Christiania has few rules of its own design and makes decisions collectively. The area has a wild, ramshackle vibe, with sprawling outdoor patios, spontaneous music and performances and makeshift DIY buildings covered in colourful graffiti. It's a breezy contrast to the rest of the city's tendency to tidy or sleek architecture and it exemplifies the Danes' preoccupation with freedom and innovation and their corollary distaste for the normal.

-David Walberg

On the Town: Where to Go

Most gay nightlife is contained within one-square kilometer of the old city adjacent to City Hall (Radhus) Square, so walking or a cycle-cab will get you most anywhere. Bicycles are free to take from racks throughout the city (with a 20-kroner deposit) to use within the central district, and the city is well served by frequent buses, a metro, and regional trains. The main rail station is also at the city center.

Among the gay bars in the old city Oscar (Radhuspladsen 77) bar and cafe is the easiest to find, just to the north of City Hall clock tower. Open daily from noon, it's a great start for a tour of gay Copenhagen. They have a full bar, sandwiches and omelets, wi-fi access, and a young, friendly, smiling staff. Their information corner has local gay and arts periodicals and maps, events listings and business cards. Weather permitting, they have outdoor tables too. On weekend nights it's standing-room only as they fill up before everyone heads out to dance, and the guys who work here can fill you in on the hottest dance club of the moment.

Just around the corner, Centralhjornet (Kattesundet 18) is the oldest gay bar in town, with pleasant old-fashioned pub ambiance, and a friendly, older clientele. The nearby Can Can (Mikkel Bryggers Gade 11) is a small establishment, also with an older but welcoming crowd. Code (Radhusstrade 1) is a sophisticated lounge bar, and Gimmick (Istedgade 24) is a new bar and cafe for men and women both.

Men's Bar (Teglgardstroede 3) is just that, a place for men -- just guys -- young and old, of all kinds. A tradition persists here of buying a drink for someone who catches your fancy across the bar, and it's an easy- to-meet-people kind of place. Each first Sunday afternoon there's a big spread laid on here for their customers, friends, and visitors.

Jailhouse (Studiestroede 12) is a playful lock-up look-alike and the staff dresses the part in uniform. The basement bar is long and usually packed with guys, and the dining room upstairs is popular with locals, too. Scandinavian Leather Men or SLR (Lavendelstraede 17), a fetish membership club for men, has a strict dress code.

Masken (Studiestroede 33) is a bi-level hang-out, mostly young guys, with internet access. Directly across the street, Cosy (Studiestroede 24) is a small gay dance club -- so small and narrow it does indeed get quite intimate in the crush.

Cafe Intime (Mikkel Bryggers Gade 1) is a small mixed clientel piano bar in Frederiksberg.

Many of the big warehouse-size dance clubs have given way to more intimate spaces, but Be Proud (Jernbanegade 9), across from Tivoli, has young and energetic Friday and Saturday crowds of up to 500 until 6am. Dunkel (Vester Voldgade 10) is another lively dance alternative, as is Never Mind (Norre Voldgade 2) with drag shows and after-hours dancing until late. Amigo Nightbar (Schonbergsgade 2) is a straight-friendly late night dance club that gets busy after 2am and goes until 6 or 7am.

Besides the many Turkish doner kebab shops, there's a home-grown alternative to the American fast food joints. The first polsevogn (sausage stand) appeared in Denmark around 1910, and today more than 130 million red polser are consumed annually. Just watching people eat them can spark the imagination. Restaurants of assorted ethnicities offer varied food options, and many buffets and smorrebrod at lunchtime offer good value for the price. RizRaz (Kompagnistraede 20) is one such, with veggie options, and it's open until midnight daily. For sumptuous deserts try Konditori La Glace (Skoubogade 3), serving sweet treats since 1870.

Amigo Sauna (Studiestroede 31a) is the largest sauna in Copenhagen with steamy facilities on three floors, a maze, and cabins for a romp with new- found friends.

Copenhagen Gay Center (Istedgade 34) has a porn shop, four cinemas, dark- and playrooms, and a dry sauna. Body Bio (Kingosgade 7) has gay and bisexual recreation and cruising with a store, a sauna, and play spaces. Shop 6 (Gasvaerksvej 6), also sells DVDs. Mens Shop (Viktoriagade 24) is another sex shop with play spaces.


Carsten's Guesthouse (Christians Bygge 28) has rooms from singles or dorms, to larger suites -- all at reasonable rates. There's a kitchen, a breakfast option, free wi-fi internet, a roof-deck garden, and cable TV, plus the use of phones, computer, bicycles, DVD movies, and laundry facilities for a little extra. Carsten is helpful with info on sights and city nightlife.

Copenhagen Rainbow Guesthouse/B&B (Frederiksberggade 25c) is above the central pedestrian shopping street, Stroget, and near City Hall Square and all the bars and restaurants.

Hotel Windsor (Frederiksborggade 30) is a gay hotel on the other side of Orsted's Park. Amagerhus (Skovmarken 4a) is a small gay-friendly B&B near the airport and Amager Beach. See more hotels listed on our website.

Other attractions, events, information

Orsteds Park is the gayest of green open spaces. It's been a cruising area for over a century, maybe inspired by bronze replicas of classic Greek male nudes that adorn paths circling the central lake. The park is open 24 hours, but the local gay press advises caution after dark. Bellevue and Tisvildeleje beaches are gay-favored swimming areas.

New city: The Black Diamond, as the Royal Library is known, is one of Copenhagen's many newer iconic buildings, which include a playhouse, an opera house and a concert hall.

Museum row. A string of museums and galleries line a lengthy stretch of pedestrian boardwalk. A full-size replica of Michelangelo's David stands in front of Vestindisk Pakhus, home of the Royal Danish cast collection, which houses thousands of plaster casts dating back to antiquity.

Light up the night: The Glass Concert Hall at Tivoli Gardens was destroyed by Nazi sympathizers during World War II and resurrected by renowned Danish modern architect Poul Henningsen in 1946.

Free and easy: Copenhagen's fun and funky Christiania neighborhood declared itself a free state in the 1970s.
See Christiana Hangs On, our October 2007 article.

Blast from the past: In Copenhagen, the past and the present peacefully coexist.
Two of the majestic buildings gracing the skyline are the turn-of-the-century Kobenhavns Radhus (Town Hall) and the vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior's Church).

See website Visitcopenhagen.com for more on the city's tourist charms.

Websites Copenhagen-Gay-Life and Gayguide, and the magazines Pan Bladet and Out & About have more information. Gay maps can be found online and around town.

From July 25 to August 2, 2009, Copenhagen was host to the World Outgames. See Copenhagen2009 for a wrap on this big gay sports event.

Dunst, a group of queer activists, briefly residents of Christiania's Gay House, did music, radio, parties, performances, and community consciousness- raising in Denmark and beyond from 2002 until 2006. Closely associated is the Queer Festival of these past several years, involving local artists, musicians, DJs, performers (drag and otherwise), and workshops seeking "alternatives to heteronormative culture, politics, and spaces." The 2009 theme was "Fuck Money." The upcoming dates are July 26 through August 1, 2010. You'll get the flavor at Queerfestival and Myspace.

The Copenhagen Gay & Lesbian Film Festival will screen October 22-31, 2010 and the Norrebro Theatre has stage presentations of gay interest. Radio Rosa has broadcast gay radio since 1983, at 98.9 FM (from 9:30pm daily, except Sunday 4 to 6pm).

Other annual gay dates include: the annual Midsummer Night celebration each June 23 at Amager Beach, by the Helgoland Baths (pools with segregated same-sex nude swimming); and Gay Pride, each August.

Copenhagen Background

The capital of Denmark, Copenhagen is Scandinavia's preeminent city. Hans Christian Andersen gave the world fairy tales and lived a bittersweet and likely bisexual life here. Long before there was a Copenhagen, the far- ranging Vikings ventured from here to leave their mark across Europe and beyond. Later Danes established colonies in India and the Caribbean. The former Danish West Indies are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, and their sugar plantations are gone, but blond-haired descendants and place names remain from the Danish years.

Founded in 1167, Copenhagen become the Danish capital in 1443. The period of greatest growth was during the Danish Renaissance when much of the most interesting architecture was built by King Christian IV. Notable legacies from this time include Rosenborg Castle, the Round Tower, and the Stock Exchange. They survive today, despite the great fires of the 18th century and the British naval bombardments of 1801 and 1807 which devastated much of the city.

Greater Copenhagen has grown to a population of around 1.9 million today -- almost one-third of all Danes. English is almost universally spoken; Danes learn it from an early age. Because most movies and much of the TV are in English, Danes share a good deal of popular culture with Americans, Canadians, and Brits, while retaining their distinct national identity.

Gay history

Until the 1830s few Danes were officially punished for sex with men or boys. Rapid urban growth after the 1860s brought a discernible "sodomitical" subculture, but it took tabloid sensationalism of the 1890s and homosexual prostitution scandals for a 1905 law to be passed forbidding the practice. From 1906 to 1911 there was massive press coverage, and homosexual suicides, round-ups, and exiles became frequent. Two early noted gay celebrities -- critic and teacher Clemens Petersen and actor Joakim Reinhard -- fled to the U.S. to avoid scandal.

Changes came with the general radicalization of the 1930s, which helped the passage in 1933 of a law decriminalizing homosexuality for those over 18. But in a backlash after World War II, police began arresting men for sex in public places, and age-of-consent laws were more strictly enforced. In response, the "League of 1948" homophile organization was launched and began publishing Pan in 1954 -- now the world's oldest continuously published homosexual magazine.

In the 1970s, as elsewhere in the world, organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front were formed with a more confrontational agenda. The League, renamed the National Association of Gays and Lesbians, later re-assumed leadership of the movement with an assimilationist approach, advancing the position that Danish queers see themselves first as Danes, an interest group -- not a separate minority apart from the larger society. The very success of integration helps explain what is, for such a large city, Copenhagen's relatively small gay subculture.

Parliament in 1987 forbade discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and in 1989 introduced "registered partnerships," which the Lutheran state church began blessing in 1997. Gay-parent adoptions were legalized in 1999, and many politicians and other public figures are now openly gay.

Author Profile:  David Walberg

David Walberg is publisher and editor at large at Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Guide magazine.

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