Europe’s under-the-radar gay hotspot

Once a poor fishing town, Torremolinos became an unlikely LGBTQ+ haven in the midst of a fascist regime.

The walkway outside Mariquita Copas, a hole-in-the-wall bar in Torremolinos’ main “gaybourhood”, La Nogalera, glowed blue. The makeshift drinking terrace I was sitting at was surrounded by palm-filled squares in the heart of southern Spain’s Costa del Sol, a few blocks up from the Mediterranean. As I sipped a beer on my first night in town, I surveyed the scene: pedestrians holding shopping bags had stopped to chat; a man and woman sat entwined on a bench; and gay locals clinked cocktail glasses. In the midst of it all was a bearded drag artist, outlandishly tall in knee-length platform boots, leather cap and skin-tight camouflage bodysuit. This, I soon realised, was just another night in Torremolinos.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Until now, I’d been blissfully ignorant of Torremolinos’ important role in Spain’s LGBTQ+ history. But, as I was about to learn, not only did the country’s first gay-friendly bar open here back in 1962, it was also where Spain’s gay rights movement began – rather violently.

Why Torremolinos? Let’s start, as we Brits like to, with the weather.

Franco helped kickstart Torremolino’s transformation with a series of hotel developments (Credit: Ken Welsh/Alamy)

Originally a poor fishing village, Torremolinos’ sub-tropical climate – among the warmest in Spain – was key in its metamorphosis into a resort during the 1950s. With Francisco Franco‘s fascist government keen to encourage hotel construction to kickstart Spain’s war-decimated economy, by 1959 the town boasted the country’s first five-star hotel (Hotel Pez Espada). Celebrities followed, from Brigitte Bardot, Greta Garbo and Pablo Picasso to Grace Jones, Frank Sinatra and John Lennon – a golden era commemorated in the town’s Ruta del Murales street-art trail, which was unveiled in 2022. 

Aided by the rise of charter flights in the late 1950s, the increasingly cosmopolitan and liberal town began attracting artists, musicians, writers and queer visitors, too. Despite the fact that homosexuality was still considered a crime under Franco’s regime, in 1962, a British gay couple opened Tony’s Bar on the narrow L-shaped alleyway Pasaje Begoña.

“Although Tony’s cannot be defined as a ‘gay bar’ as we understand it today, it was a place where the owners were gay and allowed the clientele freedom,” said Jorge M Pérez, the president of Pasaje Begoña Association, which was founded in 2018 with the aim of “recovering the memory of this emblematic place and rescuing this forgotten chapter in the history of Spain”.

Tony’s was an instant smash and over the next few years, it inspired a slew of other establishments catering to the gay community. What was once a sleepy fishing community soon transformed into a queer hub known for its inclusivity and hedonism. There was, for example, the often-raided La Sirena (nicknamed “The Sissy Bar”); Bar Tabarín, the first to host nude shows; Pourquoi Pas, the town’s first lesbian club (still operating as an LGBTQ+ bar); and jazz venue The Blue Note, owned by the Dutch lesbian singer Pia Beck.

Torremolinos' recently unveiled Ruta del Murales pays tribute to the town's A-list heyday (Credit: Stephen Emms)

Torremolinos’ recently unveiled Ruta del Murales pays tribute to the town’s A-list heyday (Credit: Stephen Emms)

Torremolinos’ buzzy scene was also home to Manolita Chen, a pioneering trans woman who became the first Spanish person to legally change her gender and adopt children: “At that time, in 1962-63, I was working in a restaurant on Calle San Miguel,” Chen later said. “The Begoña Passage was freedom, it was another world. Those lights, for us, it was like we were in New York, we had never seen that neon in our lives.” 

In 1971, Franco’s government began cracking down on Torremolinos’ flourishing gay scene, which was centred around Pasaje Begoña. On 24 June that year, the police ruthlessly raided the area, closing and fining venues while arresting more than 100 people (some reports suggest up to 400) – the majority of whom were tourists.  

What became known as the Great Raid did not mean the end of the town’s gay bars, but it did differ from New York City’s Stonewall Riots, explained Pérez. “The Pasaje Begoña showed the world that sexual dissidents existed in the middle of the dictatorship – persecuted, tortured, imprisoned. And yet, there they were, [LGBTQ+] people showing they have the right to be happy. However, unlike the Stonewall Inn, in the Begoña Passage, the Great Raid was the end of the party for a while; and a tremendous scandal, as evidenced by protest press articles from other European countries.” 

Sure enough, the area emptied after the raid, and squatters, prostitution and drugs moved in – a trend that extended to the town as a whole. By the early 1990s, Torremolinos had become increasingly synonymous with tacky bars and a cheap escape for boozy British holidaymakers. But since 2018, its central squares and station have benefitted from a five-year, €10m regeneration scheme. The raid itself is now commemorated in an iconic mural at Pasaje Begoña, which pays homage to its fearless 1960s pioneers.

Torremolinos' Pasaje Begoña was home to Spain's first gay-friendly bar (Credit: M Ramírez/Alamy)

Torremolinos’ Pasaje Begoña was home to Spain’s first gay-friendly bar (Credit: M Ramírez/Alamy)

Today, those pioneers would likely be thrilled to know that this 68,000-person community is home to dozens of thriving queer bars, clubs and businesses. Marco America, founder of, explained that in the 13 years since he moved here, he’s seen Torremolinos change significantly, largely thanks to its Pride festival that attracts 50,000 people, as well as eight or nine annual other annual LGBTQ+ festivals, such as Infinity, Mad Bear Beach and Matrix.

Gill Douglas, owner of the gay bar Boomerang, swapped Scotland for Torremolinos two decades ago. “Over the years, there have been multiple venues for women, but the scene now is thankfully integrated,” she said. “You’ll find everyone sitting comfortably together in Torremolinos the way it should be. There are still a couple of monthly girls’ nights, and Boomerang has customers from across the spectrum and of every nationality… exactly the way I wanted it.”

After finishing my beer on our first night in town, my boyfriend and I left the drag bar and explored the scene, from La Nogalera’s lively wine bar El Armario Bodega to the capacious club Aqua and long-established Men’s Bar, home to an older crowd. Meanwhile, down on the seafront, there were LGBTQ+-friendly beach clubs like Eden and El Gato, where Pride flags flew high on breezy Playa del Bajondillo. Nearby was the LGBTQ+ hub, Hotel Ritual.

Torremolinos has had quite the cultural journey, and its story is still evolving. But according to Pérez, the one thing sure to resonate with visitors today is how “all can fully live their sexual orientation or identity without feeling discriminated or violated – in absolute freedom”.

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