- By Rick Steves
First-time travel to Europe can be intimidating — and maybe even more so for gay men, lesbians or same-sex couples.
Will you be harassed, denied a room at a hotel or made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe?
Fortunately, Europe is in many ways more supportive than the United States when it comes to gay rights.
The European Union specifically includes gay and lesbian citizens in its anti-discrimination laws.
The Netherlands — and Amsterdam in particular — has offered equal rights to gay men and lesbians for decades. The world's first legal marriage for a gay couple occurred in Amsterdam in 2001.
The Netherlands is the strongest example of an overall rule of thumb: Attitudes about homosexuality are more accepting in northern Europe, and less so in the south, east and/or in countries with strong conservative religious traditions. You'll find more tolerance in the cities than in rural areas.
Another useful guideline: Countries with the most legal rights for gays and lesbians are also most likely to be welcoming. If a country has laws explicitly covering gay rights and allowing for gay unions, you can expect to feel more comfortable and at ease during your visit in everything from dealing with hoteliers to being recognized as partners by doctors in the emergency room. Take the time to do a little bit of online research into various destinations so you'll know what to expect. See Wikipedia's handy country-by-country list of LGBT-rights laws in Europe.
In general, the best countries for gay rights — and for gay travelers — are the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia (especially Denmark) and Great Britain (particularly London), as well as Germany, Switzerland and cities in Spain and Portugal.
In other countries, the record is mixed, with fewer legal rights. Austria has a vibrant gay scene in its cities, and in conservative Catholic Ireland, readers report a generally welcoming environment even in country B&Bs. Paris has a gay mayor and a gay neighborhood (the Marais), but many rural French communities adhere to an unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" ideology of not flaunting your sexuality. Italy is a similar story of general acceptance but raised eyebrows — and possibly denied rooms — in rural areas and in the south. Some of Greece's islands are well-known gay destinations. Both Slovenia and Croatia have legalized civil unions between same-sex couples, and Eastern European capitals, like Prague and Budapest, have liberal attitudes on par with what you'll find in big Western European cities.
But the farther east you venture in the former Soviet Bloc, the less progressive things become. Particularly in rural areas of Eastern Europe, responses range from reasonably accepting to outright hostile. For example, Poland's current president called homosexuality "unnatural," and Serbia has banned gay unions. Even farther east, in such places as Romania, laws outlawing homosexuality were lifted in recent decades, but acceptance lags behind. Proceed with caution.
For every traveler, straight or gay, respect brings respect. Say "please" and "thank you" in the native language when talking with your B&B owner, and you may find that what initially seemed like surliness has faded — and had nothing to do with your request for a two-person bed. Some readers prefer to be upfront when they're making a booking, specifying that they are a gay or lesbian couple, while others prefer to keep their relationship private and hope for the best.
Bring a good guidebook. You can supplement your resources with gay-themed materials and research. Many publishers produce guidebooks specifically written for gay travelers, including Frommer's and Damron. Other books routinely cover gay nightlife even if they're not gay-themed, especially city guides like the Time Out series. For recommendations online, try such websites as OutTraveler and Purple Roofs. Lesbian couples can review Women Traveling Solo, since much of the same advice applies.
But what will your experience really be like as you travel? Before you go, ask other gay or lesbian friends about their European experiences. If you'll be traveling as a couple, sit down one night over dinner to discuss the kind of trip you want to have. Are you comfortable holding hands and being affectionate in public? When making reservations or introductions, will you identify each other as a "partner," "spouse" or "friend"? (Having a ready response is better than stumbling out your reply on the spot.) Will you stay in mostly gay neighborhoods and establishments? Just working through these things ahead of time can allay a lot of your concerns.
Consider your own comfort level as you plan your trip. Once in Europe, stay aware of your surroundings, and do what feels safe. If you run into trouble, the simplest solution is often just to move on. For example, if you get "attitude" from a waiter — whether you're alone or with your partner — it's often just a good idea to pack up and try another restaurant. Life is too short to hassle with those who treat you badly, whatever the circumstance, especially on your vacation.
When you get home, share your experiences with other gay and lesbian travelers. Don't let your worries limit what you're there to see. Trust your instincts, but most of all — travel. The world is waiting for you.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.