Our favourite places to experience gay France south of Paris

As much as Parisians might try to convince you otherwise, France is much more than the sum of its capital. While Paris will win your heart with its scenic arrondissements and stylish cosmopolitanism, venture south for a richer taste of rural France, where coastal cities bear both exclusive extravagance and sun-worn legacy. Among the nation’s numerous UNESCO-listed old towns, you’ll find pristine squares brimming with youthful energy, while beyond the city escape is easy; traverse world-famous vineyards and medieval castles before finding tranquillity in Mediterranean waters and white sand dreams. Gayer than you might predict, all major southern cities host Gay Pride festivities from mid-May to early July, with gay-friendly locals ensuring a welcoming atmosphere year-round. Discover our favourite places in gay France, all south of Paris.

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LGBT travellers in France

The thirteenth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage back in 2013 with same-sex activities legalised as far back as 1791, France has long been a torchbearer for LGBT rights, providing a safe and liberal environment for queer holidaymakers. Today, French attitudes towards homosexuality are decidedly laissez-faire, with a tolerance for unconventional lifestyles and the private lives of others. Major urban hubs of course see the largest LGBTQ+ communities, where the majority of gay and lesbian organisations are based. Outside of the big cities, you’ll find the dry-stone walls of the nation’s many towns and rural villages lean towards conservativism, but aloof tolerance remains. Those looking for active queer communities outside of Paris should consider the towns of Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse. If in doubt on arrival, download a national ‘rencontre gay’ app for a sneak peek at the local gay talent!

Photo: Nick Monica

1. Montpellier

As we travel south, straight for the nation’s best beaches, we reach the university town of Montpellier. Exceeding expectations with its warm fall weather and its dynamic young atmosphere, Montpellier brings laid-back, coastal vibes with a sophisticated student culture centred on eating, drinking and socialising al fresco with friends. Founded in the eighth century, Montpellier is relatively young in comparison to neighbouring towns like Arles, Beziers and Nimes, although it still holds its fair share of medieval culture. Now, Montpellier has blossomed into the nation’s most modern metropolis featuring bold avant-garde architecture to complement existing styles.

Beaten only by Paris, Montpellier Lesbian and Gay Pride is the country’s second-largest event of its kind, allowing Montpellier to win the title of gay capital of the south of France. Voted as the most preferred city to live among the French population, Montpellier lies just a short drive to the coast from the city centre and radiates sleepy town vibes across its harbour-side suburbs, parks and residential boulevards. At sundown, the city comes alive on cue when bistro tables become packed with al fresco customers seeking sundown grapes and the large student population eases into night-time revelries with various concerts, festivals and street parties.

Find Gay Montpellier within the historic centre around Place du Marché aux Fleurs, but venture outwards and you’ll soon find that neighbouring streets are also wholly welcoming to the queer community. Try Place de la Comedie and Place Saint-Anne, where bars spill out onto sunny terraces and crowds peak in the summer months. Depending on the event calendar, heading outside of the city can be the best choice for a party. Active gay beaches such as the Espiguette (beside Grau du Roi) and Le Grand Travers (beside La Grande Motte), as well as the gay-friendly Maguelone Beach, provide the ultimate sandy spots to mingle with like-minded locals, before or after joining the epic gay pride Montpellier parade held in June each year.

Photo: Louis Tricot

Montpellier | Photo: Ennelise Napoleoni-Bianco

2. Lyon

Boasting its own title as the foodie capital of France, Lyon needs no persuasion to visit. Discover the city in its strategic location on the island-like peninsula of Presqu’ile between the Rhône and Saône Rivers, a lively trading hub since Roman times. The entire Old Town (Vieux Lyon) is UNESCO-listed but the majority of commerce and nightlife lies to the north. Partygoers looking for Gay Lyon should try the Croix-Rousse slopes and the streets running parallel to Place des Terreaux and Cordeliers where gay bars, nightclubs, saunas and sex clubs compete most heavily. This area is also the starting point for Gay Pride Lyon, also known as Fierté festival held in June annually. Other noteworthy events include TIGALY (an international gay sports tournament held over Easter), Écrans Mixtes and Face à Face (two queer film festivals held in March and November respectively).

A popular base for Vietnamese, Algerian and Spanish settlers, as well as UK and US expatriates, surprisingly Lyon now has a minority French population. As a result, Lyon caters to the English-speaking population much better than elsewhere in France, with a large selection of bars, stores and associations making concessions for foreigners. Travelling through the city couldn’t be easier thanks to high speed ‘TGV’ trains connecting Lyon to the capital, as well as an impressive system of buses, trams and trains running within the city. Hire bikes from myriad locations across Lyon, with easy-to-follow bike paths winding through the Old Town and suburbs. Hop off your bike to explore Fourvière hill to the east, parking up in the epic public square known as Place Bellecour to walk with ease along the pedestrian-only Rue de la République, lined by the city’s oldest and most impressive buildings.

Lyon | Photo: Mitchell Henderson

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Moments away from the celebrity hotspots of Cannes and Monaco, Nice offers an equally elegant reprieve, with down-to-earth lodging, dining and nightlife options

3. Nice

Follow the winding Mediterranean coastline east, ignoring Marseille for the moment, and you’ll soon come to the welcoming city of Nice. Moments away from the celebrity hotspots of Cannes and Monaco, Nice offers an equally elegant reprieve, with down-to-earth lodging, dining and nightlife options. Gay visitors will quickly fall in love with the warm locals and colourful social scene, basking in the all-season sunshine on Sardinian styled streets. The vocal point of the city lies within Old Nice where meandering streets come lined with brightly coloured façades hosting over 600 boutique stores side by side with cosy eateries, art galleries and gift shops. If shopping is at the top of your to-do list, centre yourself on Avenue Jean Médecin with forays into the gold square near Alphonse Karr and Avenue de Verdun for high-end luxury brands. For shopping as a cultural experience, visit the morning market at Cours Saleya (open every day except Mondays and public holidays) for the best selection of local produce, flowers and crafts.

Gay Nice gets bigger and better each year, with restaurants, cafés and cocktail bars the mainstay of the local gay scene. Weekends are when Gay Nice really comes alive, peaking within the Old Town’s Rue Bonaparte and the Place du Pim square where the highest concentration of the city’s gay bars and gay-owned businesses can be found. During the day, Nice’s beaches provide the perfect spaces to socialise before leading into the numerous coastal villages for languorous liquid lunches among new friends. Of Gay Provence’s best beaches, Hi Beach and Castel Plage are chic meeting points for mixed crowds, while Coco Beach and St. Laurent d’Eze remain the most popular gay hangouts. Clothing is optional on St Laurent d’Eze but both have limited amenities so remember to pack some water and a baguette along with your birthday suit.

Nice | Photo: John Jason

Photo: Oliver-sjostrom

4. Bordeaux

We move next to the west coast’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine region where the heritage port city of Bordeaux awaits. Completely revamped in recent years, France’s sixth-largest city is more popular than ever thanks to its vibrant squares fringed by over 300 UNESCO World Heritage buildings and countless suburban vineyards. Fill your days in Bordeaux with trips to the city’s opulent museums, theatres and churches, with the option to take a tasting tour through the local wine districts learning about wealthy estates such as Château Margaux, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild.

Once ruled by the Romans in 60 BC and coming into its Golden Age in the 18th Century according to Victor Hugo, nowadays Bordeaux is a wine town through and through, with the industry generating 14 billion euros for the local economy each year. Besides wine, there are many other reasons to visit Bordeaux, especially for gay visitors who will find the city both liberal and open-minded with a large student population and relaxed café culture. Head downtown for Bordeaux’s gay scene, where a fair number of gay-friendly bars and clubs reside. The high point for Gay Bordeaux is, of course, Gay Pride in June kicking off in Place de la Republique. The Cinémarges LGBT film festival comes a close second with events and screenings running throughout the year. At all other times, find your gay family on the sand beside the Atlantic ocean across the region’s best gay beaches. Try Plage de Montalivet Vendays, Plage de la Lagune or take to the dunes on Le Cap Ferret.

Photo: Romain Six

Bordeaux | Photo: Franck Charles

5. Toulouse

Travelling south inland, we are greeted by the refined city of Toulouse, a place built in pink brick just north of the Spanish Border. Cosmopolitan and benefiting from the warm Mediterranean sun, Toulouse oozes downbeat sophistication and offers streets packed with regional restaurants and international bars. Otherwise known as the Ville Rose (or the ‘Pink City’), Toulouse hosts a large and welcoming gay community as well as the highest number of gay venues in France, spanning gay bars, clubs and saunas. Marche des Fiertés is the city’s annual pride parade, held in June when Gay Toulouse transforms into one big rainbow-hued street party.

In touch with its modern side as the French centre for aviation and business hub, Toulouse at its heart is a heritage town that embraces its past through the use of the local Occitan language. The Old Town hosts grand churches and vast public spaces which all come lovingly preserved by wealthy governance. The United Nations Heritage Site known as the Canal du Midi provides the perfect path through the city, running 150 miles past Toulouse’s best monuments, museums, boutiques and more.

Toulouse | Photo: Maison Manechal

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While commonly overlooked in favour of its more moneyed neighbours, Marseille is a multicultural hub offering a grittier, saltier version of Provence

6. Marseille

Another of the nation’s bustling port cities is Marseille, a southern gem nestled between Montpellier and Nice on the Mediterranean coast. While commonly overlooked in favour of its more moneyed neighbours, Marseille is a multicultural hub offering a grittier, saltier version of Provence. While crime rates are higher than in the cities above, Marseille is a cultural heavyweight with solid gay credentials. Once the host of EuroPride and European Capital of Culture, Marseille remains keen to outdo itself, hosting a fine array of open-air markets in its French-African quarter as well as various historic landmarks in the old port area (Vieux Port).

Gay Marseille is well established with an eclectic mix of gay bars, saunas and clubs leaning towards the cruisey side of things. An old city with 28,000 years of history, Marseille’s gay scene can feel slightly dated at times, but the local spirit of adventure will draw you in, particularly if you have a thing for rugged sailor types! Spend your days in Marseille wining and dining at port-side terrace bistros, strolling past unique architectural feats on your way to the oldest gay beach in France, Mont Rose Beach. Ever popular among both LGBT residents and travellers, Mont Rose is a nudist beach and popular cruising spot with rocky private areas and incredible views to boot. Not done in Marseille? Locate the best boutique hotels, cafés and bars with Mr Hudson’s trusty Marseille travel guide.

Marseille | Photo: Postcardtrip

Photo: Valentin B. Kremer

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