Austin is a lot of things, but it's mostly young, progressive, musical, creative, and gay—all in the best possible way. It's home to a slew of universities, is a magnet for starving artists, has a strong tech presence (hence the youthful populace), and is perhaps the most LGBTQ+-friendly place in Texas.
It's no secret that gays and lesbians are welcomed here more openly and enthusiastically than in most other regions of this primarily conservative state. Austin is a little liberal bubble that sits just southeast of the very center, surrounded by some 200,000 miles of cornfields and cacti. It is renowned for hosting the annual South by Southwest Festival and for its thriving music scene.
For a city of more than 900,000, though, Austin doesn't actually have as many gay bars as you might expect (about a half-dozen, all told). Rather than being concentrated in just one "gayborhood," though, Austin's LGBTQ+ scene is dispersed throughout the entire city. Straights and gays are more apt to socialize together than on their own. In any case, there are a few night spots that are more gay-popular than others.
Cheer Up Charlie's walks the line between bar and nightclub, but let's call it the latter for the sake of it being the first mentioned. If you only go to one gay bar in Austin, make it this one. Cheer Up Charlie's is bright, jovial (as the name suggests), inclusive, and inviting. Its regular drag acts and live music sets provide endless entertainment for revelers of all sexual orientations. To put it simply: It's the iconic venue you don't want to skip. Additionally, no serious clubber should visit Austin without making an appearance at Oilcan Harry's. This always-crowded bar—featuring a small dance floor, a stage that seems to always be occupied by a drag queen, and a genial patio for summer evenings—is right in the heart of the hip downtown Warehouse District. While Oilcan Harry's is rather friendly, out-of-towners might do better with making friends at its neighbor, Rain on 4th, boasting a similar club vibe without all the attitude and scene.
A bit north of downtown, you'll find 'Bout Time II, an updated version of the original, now-defunct Bout Time. It isn't abnormal to find the latest sporting event being broadcasted in this gay club. It's a popular hangout for Austin's north side crowd and is also more frequented by the over-40 set than some of the youthful downtown clubs. Expect a lengthy beer list, a happy hour crowd, and themed evenings.
Just across the street from Rain is the gay-popular Halcyon, a hipster-infested coffeehouse, bar, and lounge that draws a wide mix of folks from all walks of life (gay and straight, that is). It's a nice place to sip wine or cocktails, nurse a vanilla latte while you type on your laptop, make conversation with erudite locals, or relax at a sidewalk table overlooking the colorful street action.
Although it can get quite clubby at night, downtown Austin's Highland Lounge airs more on the side of a cocktail bar. It has more space than any other gay bar in the vicinity and that includes a sprawling dance floor and outdoor patio, too. For a more divey vibe, rather, head to The Iron Bear—the "bears' lair," as some might call it—where you can play pool and darts with the beefy types. Lastly, sandwiched between the two most popular gay clubs in town, Sellers Underground is the perfect place to start the evening with a snazzy cocktail before heading to Oilcan Harry's or Rain.
Austin's gay nightlife exists beyond the popular clubs and bars. LGBTQ+ events are happening all over the city, nearly every night of the week. Elysium, an "alternative"—or gothic, you might call it—dance club, regularly hosts drag shows courtesy of Poo Poo Platter. Barrel O' Fun holds Queer Film Theory 101, a movie night with an LGBTQ+ theme. Keep an eye on DJ Girlfriend ATX for his queer nights, held in various venues throughout the city.
The mother of all LGBTQ+ advocacy events in Austin is, of course, Pride. Every year, the Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation picks a theme for the summertime celebration (held in the dog days of August, usually). Past years' themes include "revolution" and "boogie wonderland." More than 400,000 people flock to Fiesta Gardens for Austin Pride every summer. The festival encompasses a very colorful parade and festival which features carnival rides and Drag Queen Story Time. There are events happening all Pride Week leading up to the event, too.
This quirky metropolis is also home to the annual Austin International Drag Festival, a volunteer-run event that brings dozens of widely-known drag queens (some you might recognize from RuPaul's Drag Race) to the Red River Cultural District each November.
Tips for Going Out in Austin
- Most of Austin's gay bars are within walking distance of each other (and dozens of other mainstream bars). Plan your nightlife around the hip Warehouse District that's between the Texas Capitol building and the Colorado River (i.e. Town Lake).
- Austin's long-running gay bathhouse, Midtown Spa-Austin, may have closed, but you can get a clothing-optional experience at Hippie Hollow Park, a very popular and scenic gay sunbathing area 30 minutes northwest of downtown on the rocky-but-scenic shore of Lake Travis.
- While some dance clubs stay open until 3 a.m. (like Oilcan Harry's), no bar is permitted to serve alcohol past 2 a.m. in the state of Texas.
- Stay away from Sixth Street—also known as Dirty Sixth—unless you love sticky bar floors and doing shots of fireball with college students. Linger instead around the Warehouse District for clubs or the Red River Cultural District for live music.
- Check Do512's event calendar for gay happenings while you're in town.