From a fishing village to a sprawling city with a skyline that rivals Hong Kong, perhaps one of the most enduring examples of how the package holiday business has changed not just Spain, but the whole of the Med. Benidorm has a particular reputation. Its fame is for being rather cheap and trashy; one of the main destinations for a certain type of British tourist, the typically unadventurous package holiday customer - with buffet meals and alcohol included, so carefully scripted in the successful ITV series Benidorm, now in its ninth season.
But on my recent visit to Benidorm for its Pride Festival I dropped some of the preconceptions and actually found a rather pleasant experience. Despite the negative publicity, the city is clean and has a well maintained seafront. The 'Old Town' may not be as stunning as some other Med locations, but it is pleasant to walk around. Overall I found that the town is really trying to shake its reputation and to launch its credentials as a very gay-friendly centre in Spain.
Benidorm is arranged between two long stretches of sand, the Playa de Levante to the East and the Playa de Poniente to the West, with a rocky head in the middle – above which is the old town. There is no gay beach per se in Benidorm, though it seems that the area where most gay guys go for a dip is the stretch in front of the Plaza de Torrejó, at the old town end of the Playa de Levante. Bear in mind though that the beach gets shady in the late afternoon because of the cliffs on its side.
If looking for an option to take your kit off, then your best bet is the Raco Conil cove, which is a nudist gay/mixed beach. There is quite a bit of cruising as well. It's about 6 Km out of Benidorm towards Villajoyosa and you can get a taxi there for about 15-20 Euro, or a bus (board no 2 to La Cala in front of the Mar Blau hotel on Poniente Beach) and walk over the headland. There is a summer bar on the beach for liquid refreshments!
Where to Stay
There are literally heaps of hotels in Benidorm, but if you want to be in a location that is convenient for the gay bars then the best location is to be in or close to the old town, as almost all the LGBT venues are clustered around a handful of streets there. On my trip I stayed at the 3* Bilbaino Hotel, right outside the old town on the Levante Beach. This hotel claims to be the very first hotel to open in Benidorm in 1926 and the place is literally full of captivating pictures showing the town in the old days, when there was just a handful of huts and tiny houses along the seafront. There is no pool, but the hotel is right in front of the (unofficial) gay beach - and who can beat a proper swim in the sea? Close by is also the budget 2* Queens Hotel, which is also popular for its busy bar (see below). This hotel is basic but has a great roof terrace with some impressing views.
Many people think that food in Benidorm is pretty awful, all fish & chips and badly cooked full English breakfast. But that is not actually true. Yes, there are some places catering for those looking for an unadventurous holiday experience, but you never have to look too far to find good places to eat.
Punto De Sal - This beachfront restaurant (right in front of the unofficial 'gay beach') has a lovely outside terrace, which is a gorgeous spot to spend the evening. It's difficult to describe the food, which is Spanish/Mediterranean with some subtle Asian influences. Chef Tomás Arribas really lifts the bar – and still the prices are very reasonable.
TaloTako - There are heaps of dining options on the Calle de Santo Domingo – a.k.a. Tapas Alley. But if you fancy tapas with a twist, head for TaloTako which serves tapas but with a Mexican flavour. And do not miss the Margaritas!
La Cava Aragonesa - Of course when in Spain… Tapas are an irresistible temptation, especially with a chilled beer. A place with an incredible array of delicious pinchos & tapas is La Cava Aragonesa, which has been around since 1980. You can't miss its extensive and amazing range of delicious treats in its long bar display.
Gay Bars & Clubs
I was absolutely amazed by the sheer number of bars in Benidorm. They are mostly small but very diverse and they do not have cover charges, so you can go from one to the next and spend the evening sampling the variety on offer. They are also very close to each other, so there is never too far to walk - which is a good thing when one has had a few large Spanish measures… The below are my top picks:
A small but quite stylish bar. A mirror at the back gives the impression of there being more space, however the illusion is quickly revealed. Although, as mentioned before Benidorm is a town of small but busy bars, so make People one of your stops. Upstairs you will find the toilets and then further on is a cruising space, with a small video lounge in the middle.
Mercury is another small bar, also with a stylish atmosphere. Again, mirrors make the space feel a bit wider; nevertheless it's a great stop for a drink and a look at who's around. Just like at People, the gents and the cruising space are both upstairs. Which I guess make it easy to use the toilet excuse to have a quick browse and fondle… ?
This bar is absolutely minuscule but it has one of the best locations in town as it has some tables outside (as opposed to other bars just offering standing space along the street) and a great elevated position from which you can check people walking up and down the road. Sharing the same square is the Royal Queens Bar, part of the same hotel - which also serves food and has some pretty good drag shows.
Another small bar, this one at the corner of two of the busiest gay thoroughfares, Calle Santa Faz and up from Plaza de la Constitution. It's quite a good place to start the evening and meet people before going continuing elsewhere.
As the name suggests this is a place for furry guys and their friends and admirers. This is the sister bar of the homonymous venue in Sitges. There is a busy bar upstairs but the action is downstairs, where punters can find a large maze, dark spaces and play areas.
I visited in 2016 during Benidorm Pride, which may not yet be one of the best known in Europe, but it is crucially timed towards the end of summer, when Northern Europe starts seeing the first signs of the new season and the warmth quickly starts fading. So it's no surprise that the events touts itself as the last Pride of the Summer season. One last burst of rainbow colours…
And perhaps this is why it's an event that is growing in popularity – we are told that the attendees numbers are doubling every year. However it's pretty obvious that Benidorm has a vibrant LGBT scene all year round, so you will find plenty to do even when Pride is not on. Perhaps it's also a way for the local Tourism Board to repaint Benidorm in a different light: not just a place for elderly tourists, but a really inclusive and diverse resort.
The 2016 edition saw four main parties, starting with the White Party on the Thursday night. Held at the Mirador del Castillo, a stunning piazza literally perched above the sea, it featured some excellent music and PA's with an amazing background. Just ideal for a relaxed and informal start to the festivities. The Friday night event, the Black Party, had a different flavour – more 'intense' and darker than the previous night. It was also held at a different venue, the open-air Auditorio Julio Iglesias, just outside of the centre. This party was not as busy as the one the previous night, but still managed to have some fun. The good thing is that at both events most people did make an effort to come dressed 'in theme'. In fact we saw some elaborate costume, especially on the Thursday night!
The main event was held once again at the Auditorio and this one was not ticketed, so it did attract a very varied crowd. Even children! I say this because in many other places you would not get to see young children at a gay party and at night time, when in the UK most kids are safely tucked in bed - but this is Spain and perhaps this is why I love this country so much! And it was all toped off by the Closing Party on Sunday.
And yes, there is a parade, on the Saturday afternoon! After all can it be Pride without a parade? Small, but quite colourful and stretching along the seafront and then back to the auditorium where the Black Party was held the previous night. The floats are simple and the outfits may be home made, but one should really appreciated the effort. And people seem to have flocked to see the parade.
We really liked Benidorm Pride. I have been to many Pride events but this one really hit me for its inclusiveness and its relaxed character. Other events may boasts bigger things, bigger PA's, bigger muscles (literally) and bigger budgets. But to be in a place where you see everyone, tall or short, gay or straight, male or female, wearing jeans or in full drag, side by side and having a good time is a real bonus! They should change the event's tagline in 'come as you are', because it was – truly – a lesson in inclusiveness and unpretentiousness. I look forward to visiting again in 2017!