San Francisco is one of the oldest and most celebrated epicenters of queer culture in the US. There’s been a whisper in the Barbary Coast wind saying “go West, gay man” ever since the 1840s and ‘50s when the Gold Rush enticed men to follow a yellow-brick road towards California. Nearly 95 percent of San Francisco was male at the time, and as the saying goes, if there’s a (man named) Will, there’s a way — and there was.
The real game-changer for the city’s queer community came during World War II when the United States Army issued “blue discharges” for men and women caught engaging in homosexual activity. Many were left in San Francisco, the last port of call before heading to war in the Pacific. This gave gay people the opportunity to connect, form relationships, and build their own communities. In 1955, the first national political and social lesbian organization, The Daughters of Bilitis, was founded in the Bay Area.
Then, in a 1964 Life Magazine article about homosexuality in the United States, San Francisco was named “the gay capital of America.” The whisper in the wind became a shout. Queer folks heeded the call and began escaping to the Golden Gate City in droves. It wasn’t long before SF’s Castro District took up the flag as one of the greatest gayborhoods America had ever seen.
LGBTQ pop culture in the city
Since then, San Francisco has played a dynamic role in LGBTQ activism. In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay official elected in the state of California, eventually paving the way for politicians like Gavin Newsom, who issued the city’s first same-sex marriage license in 2004, and Mark Leno, who became the first openly gay man in the California State Senate in 2008. When SF’s gay population was decimated by the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the city became one of the frontrunners in AIDS research and relief and continues to lead the call for new treatment and prevention.
San Francisco is so queer that its influence has literally been sewn into the fabric of LGBTQ life. You know the rainbow flag? SF native Gilbert Baker is responsible for making that synonymous with the community (a tribute flag to Baker flies on the corner of Castro and Market Street). The AIDS Memorial Quilt? You can thank San Francisco’s Cleve Jones. Books, television, and film? Queer San Francisco has infiltrated that sphere, too, and is immortalized in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, HBO’s Looking, and the Academy Award-winning movie Milk.
San Francisco today
San Francisco remains one of the most gay-friendly cities in the US, notable for its vibrant nightlife scene, leather enclave, and racially diverse communities. While the Castro is still the center of queer life, both gentrification and a greater acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles have spawned some Castro District residents to move elsewhere. Now, rather than having one gayborhood like an island, you’ll find queer cultural archipelagos taking root all around San Francisco. This list of SF’s best LGBTQ spots reflects some of those recent changes.
Bars and nightclubs
Twin Peaks Tavern is a historic San Francisco institution catty-corner to the Castro’s high-flying rainbow flag. The bar, which has been operating as a gay business since 1972, made waves in the Gay Liberation Movement when the owners decided to uncover the street-facing windows. In a time when being gay wasn’t okay, having a drink here became the ultimate expression of living out and proud. Today, the vintage interior, decorated with Tiffany lamps, is popular with an older clientele; locals lovingly refer to it as “The Glass Coffin.”
Where: 401 Castro Street
A cozy boy-bar near the literal edge of Castro’s LGBTQ-oriented businesses, this watering hole is notable for its Musical Mondays and Wednesdays. Belt out your favorite Broadway classics while accompanying videos play on TV screens overhead. It’s the gay equivalent of Football Sundays.
Where: 4149 18th Street
San Francisco’s only gay sports bar, Hi Tops is regularly packed with jocks and those who admire them. The bar gets rowdiest on game days but is still popular with pitchers and catchers most nights of the week. Considering this is a gay bar, Hi Tops serves surprisingly delicious burgers and chicken wings — though I’d suggest opting for the salad if you’re playing catcher in the evening’s big game.
Where: 2247 Market Street
Photo: Beaux SF 2 in artdrops
Beaux is one of the only Castro bars where people like to get down on the dance floor. The bi-level space tends to attract a younger crowd, particularly on Thursdays when the DJ spins tunes from the ‘90s and early aughts. Be sure to check the bar’s weekly schedule — RuPaul’s army of queens and SF’s homegrown divas regularly perform to packed crowds on Sunday nights.
Where: 2344 Market Street
The back patio is the best reason to check out this friendly neighborhood bar just off Castro Street. Less rowdy than some of the other bars in the area, you can grab a pitcher of beer and find enough seats out back to enjoy San Francisco’s cool evening air with friends. Pool sharks beware — the players here are fierce and will give you a run for your money.
Where: 4086 18th Street
Polk Gulch and The Tenderloin
Before the 1960s and ‘70s, Polk Gulch was the epicenter of SF’s queer community. Today, This no-frills saloon along Polk Street is all that remains. It’s worth paying homage to this laid-back establishment if only to check out the racy poster by Richard Roesner of a lion mounting a man, which used to hang at the now-closed Lion Pub.
Where: 1723 Polk Street
The only surviving gay bar in the dicey Tenderloin district, Aunt Charlie’s Lounge has been a safe haven for the queer community since the 1960s. Passing through the tattered curtain and into the pink-lit space is like traveling back in time, particularly during Thursday night’s Tubesteak Connection. The disco-themed party features video screens playing vintage porn, walls decked out in silver tinsel, and LPs of Grace Jones hanging from the ceiling. It’s a great two-for-one deal — cheap drinks plus a queerstory lesson — both served with a smile.
Where: 133 Turk Street
South of Market (SoMa)
This cruisy kink-and-leather bar harkens back to the pre-Grindr era when people met each other in person. You’ll find a wide array of gay bachelors interested in such intimacy — particularly during Thursday’s underwear party, JUNK, and Friday’s STANK, when the bar holds a ripe pit contest. With cheap drinks, a back porch where anything goes, and a dance floor that can get pretty libidinous on the weekends, this all-are-welcome hot spot is a gay man’s carnal carnival.
Where: 1347 Folsom Street
The Eagle is an elysium for SF’s leather community — you’ll find men here of all shapes, ages, and sizes hanging out in chaps, harnesses, and caps. The spacious outdoor patio is a favorite place to congregate during the Sunday afternoon Beer Bust, and the inside stage gets crowded with people living out their 1970s fantasies at the once-a-month Disco Daddy dance party. With locations in 15 of the 50 United States, The Eagle is a queer American institution not to be missed.
Where: 398 12th Street
The Stud is so beloved by San Franciscans that when rising rents threatened to close the bar in 2016, a consortium of 18 nightlife and business professionals banded together to keep the party alive. It’s now the first worker-owned bar in the US. In over 50 years of operation, it has welcomed an impressive roster of queer celebs and top-tier drag queens to the stage (including SF’s mother of drag, Heklina), and continues to attract an array of people to its weekly events, which include karaoke, lesbian parties, and burlesque shows.
Where: 399 9th Street
Home to SF’s favorite Friday night lesbian party, UHAUL, Jolene’s is a new queer establishment for ladies and other femme-identifying folks on the edge of the Mission. You can bump and grind all night long on the dance floor plastered with breast-filled wallpaper, or check out their gluten-free and veggie-friendly weekend brunch.
Where: 2700 16th Street
A largely Latinx crowd hangs out at Club 21, a nightclub with go-go boys, drag queens, and other live performances served up muy picante. The best night to check out the crowd is during Saturday’s La Bota Loca party, when Latinx cowboys outfitted in Stetsons and boots try roping steers on the prairie-sized dance floor.
Where: 2111 Franklin Street
The hipster crowd may have only recently caught on to Oakland’s awesomeness, but White Horse has been a popular LGBTQ establishment across the San Francisco Bay since 1933, making it one of the oldest operating gay bars in the country. Students from nearby Berkeley dance their weekends away in the back of the bar; pool players tend to congregate near the front near the game table.
Where: 6551 Telegraph Ave
Parks and beaches
Mission Dolores Park
The buttery scent of nearby Bi-Rite Creamery mixes with the faint smell of pot as you walk from the bottom of Dolores Parks’ steep slope to the top where the Castro begins. Here, on the corner of Church and 20th, you’ll find unobstructed views of downtown’s skyscrapers, and on a clear day, the bay extending beyond. Known as the “gay beach” or the “fruit shelf,” this area of Mission Dolores Park is neither a beach nor a produce market, but you’re still sure to see plenty of speedo-clad men hocking their bananas on sunnier days.
Where: Church Street & 20th Street
This thin strip of sand, backed by steep cliffs and sea-carved boulders, is a secluded step outside the hum of San Francisco. Here, underneath the eye of the Golden Gate Bridge, the buzz of cars crossing the mile-long stretch of steel is drowned out by waves crashing along the shore. It’s no wonder queer folks have a history of calling this spot their own. Long before a proper trail was built, they’d scurry down the dangerous cliffside to the beach below totally free from the constraints (and clothes) of the world above them. Luckily for you, a steep-but-safe half-mile trail now zig-zags from Battery Godfrey down to the beach. You don’t have to lose your long johns once you’ve arrived, but don’t be surprised to see an alternative crowd of nudists soaking up the sun. The closer you get to the bridge, the more likely you are to see some skin. Though predominantly gay, the company here is mixed. A beautiful view knows no prejudice.
Where: Batteries to Bluffs Trail — drive to the Langdon Center parking lot and walk from Battery Godfrey.
Black Sands Beach
You have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and drive through the Marin Headlands to access this quiet beach, but it’s well worth the trip. There are expansive views of San Francisco’s chalk-colored buildings rising across the bay as you descend to the water, and once you arrive, it feels like you’re on a far-away island, even though you’re only a half-hour drive from the city center. To access the clothing-optional gay section, take a right once you get to the bottom of the trail and climb over the large rock jutting into the sea. Like most SF beaches, swimming isn’t recommended, as the water is rough and usually shark-infested.
Where: Black Sands Beach Trail, Mill Valley — use the Upper Fisherman’s parking lot for access
There’s a 10-acre grove in Golden Gate Park where you’ll regularly find freshly laid roses adorning large stones inscribed with peoples’ names. There are too many names to count. A somber silence fills the air in this part of the park, but if you take a closer look at the memorials, the grove begins to sing stories of love, loss, and perseverance from the dirt ground below to the regal redwoods above.
San Francisco’s gay community was one of the hardest hit by the onslaught of AIDS, and in the late 1980s, a group of locals began drafting plans to turn this area into a memorial honoring those who lost their lives. In 1996, President Clinton made the site a federally designated national monument. It remains a sacred space for those affected by the epidemic.
Where: Nancy Pelosi Drive & Bowling Green Drive, Golden Gate Park
This Castro-based museum might be small, but it certainly packs a punch. A leader in the public history of America’s queer community, this museum covers Northern California’s GLBT history from the 1850s to the present.
Where: 4127 18th Street
The 15 granite pylons in this park represent the 15,000 homosexual men who were sentenced to work and death camps in Europe between 1933 and 1945. A pink triangle of rose quartz stones surrounds the site’s rose bushes, and visitors are encouraged to take the rocks and spread the memorial’s message of love wherever they go.
Where: 2454 Market Street
Built in 1922, this movie theater is both the most distinctive architectural feature along Castro Street and a San Francisco Historic Landmark. The venue hosts a rotating roster of drag shows and other live performances, along with new film releases, throwbacks to queer cult favorites, and occasional sing-a-longs to musicals.
Where: 429 Castro Street
Most of San Francisco’s queer-centric shopping can either be found in the Castro District, along Castro Street or Market Street. There’s a well-curated collection of LGBTQ literature at Dog Eared Books, gay-rights-themed clothing at Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store, and trendy queer clothing at boutique stores BODY Clothing and Rolo. It’s also worth stopping in Mr. S Leather. The warehouse-sized leather-and-fetish store for men is an iconic South of Market staple.
San Francisco’s annual Pride celebration, which began in 1970, is one of the most well-attended and highest regarded LGBTQ events in the US. For all of June, the city holds tons of queer-oriented parties and rallies, culminating in a weekend-long celebration at the end of the month. The festivities begin on a Saturday at the Civic Center Plaza; the Pride Parade starts on Sunday morning at Beale Street and ends downtown at Market and 8th Street. There’s a Dyke March and Trans March, too. They take place on Friday and Saturday, respectively, in response to the recent corporatization of Pride, honoring the original anti-establishment message of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Where: Castro District
The world’s largest annual leather event attracts nearly 400,000 BDSM-curious people to San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. The sex-positive block party, which began in 1984, takes place on a Sunday in the last week of September to cap off Leather Pride Week. Speaking of caps, you’re sure to see tons of daddies and dominatrixes in leather caps, chaps and everything in between — be it latex dresses, rubber puppy costumes with butt-plug tails, or people wearing body paint (or less, if you’re lucky). The best way to enjoy this everything-goes event is to wander around the booths hocking sex products and giving live performances. While the festival has gotten decidedly more tame in recent years, it’s still a delightfully ribald introduction to the BDSM lifestyle. The event is free; donations are encouraged.
Where: Folsom Street between 8th & 13th Street
This bawdy celebration of all-things BDSM makes Folsom Street Fair look like a day at Disneyland. Up Your Alley is for serious fetish lovers — you’ll see bondage, spanking, watersports, and some other things you should probably discuss with professionals before trying at home. The event began in 1985 as a way to bring the nighttime leather and cruising community into the light of day. Up Your Alley takes place at the end of July, and regularly attracts 15,000 visitors, mostly gay men.
Where: Dore Alley between Howard and Folsom
This charming boutique B&B, housed in two Edwardian homes, is a cozy, queer-friendly lodging mere steps from Mission Dolores Park. Along with a private room, guests have access to a communal front parlor and library, a sunroom, and outdoor decks and gardens. It’s the closest you can get to living like a local while staying in a hotel.
Where: 520 Church Street
Most reasonably priced hotels in San Francisco are either in or around Union Square. While far from gay nightlife, this area is centrally located in SF’s shopping district and an easy walk to many other neighborhoods. Hotel Emblem is one of the better options if you choose to stay in this part of town. The hotel rooms are quirky and colorful, and the lobby’s mix of modern art and vintage furniture makes it a chic spot to kick back a glass of California wine.
Where: 562 Sutter Street
This online social platform for homestays functions like Airbnb, only Misterb&b specifically caters to gay men. You can find everything from single rooms to entire villas, offered at a wide array of prices. It’s a great alternative to SF’s notoriously expensive hotels.