The San Diego gay nightlife scene manages that rare balance between being remarkably friendly and also rife with beautiful people—it's pretty much a reflection of this sunny Southern California city. Gay bars have also been pretty stable here over the years, with the most popular hangouts going strong for a couple of decades.
Most gay bars are in the trendy Hillcrest neighborhood, just northeast of Balboa Park and a short drive or cab ride from downtown. Several others are in the districts just to the east of Hillcrest: University Heights and Normal Heights.
- Cheers: A cozy, slightly off-the-beaten-path neighborhood spot in charming University Heights, Cheers is exactly what its name suggests: a laid-back spot where everybody knows your name, or, at the very least, even outsiders will be treated as friends.
- The Hole in the Wall: Famously popular with Navy and other military personnel, it's right in the heart of Point Loma and is renowned for its huge, atmospheric patio and legendary Sunday afternoon parties.
- The Loft: This laid-back locals bar is a fun place to shoot pool, listen to tunes on the jukebox, and nurse affordable, well-poured cocktails. Many regulars stop by for happy hour before heading out to dinner or some of the neighborhood's larger clubs.
- Flicks: Along a strip of gay-oriented businesses, Flicks gay video bar has long been a hub of schmoozing and socializing. It's a cozy space with the usual array of video monitors, a nice little patio seating area overlooking the busy sidewalk, and a variety of fun theme nights.
- Martinis Above Fourth: San Diego's favorite gay cabaret, Martinis features some tremendously talented performers—not just piano and singing, but comedy, magic, and more. The space is attractive, nicely lit, and comfortable, with a full menu of upscale, contemporary American fare. There's a good beer and wine selection, but martinis are, of course, the libation of choice.
- Number One Fifth Avenue: A great all-around neighborhood gay bar, it balances an intimate ambiance and friendly atmosphere without the tired, divey feel that sometimes dominates in smaller lounges.
- Pecs: Regulars tend to be of the local, bearish crowd and this bar is well-known for hosting a wonderfully long happy hour and a convivial staff.
- Park & Rec: Set in the space formerly occupied by the popular gay bar Bourbon Street, this is an expansive nightspot and restaurant that still draws plenty of LGBT folks and open-minded revelers.
- Eagle Bar: As bars with the name Eagle go, the Eagle is your classic dude's leather club, a place where real men cruise for real men. Leather, uniforms, military gear, and the like are the preferred attire.
- SRO Lounge: Known for its great jukebox, long history in the neighborhood, and a location that's much closer to downtown than the gay bars in Hillcrest, the SRO has a strong following among drag queens and their fans, but all kinds tend to drop by here, albeit not necessarily in large numbers.
As a largely gay-friendly city, San Diego has a good offering of general mixed night clubs. Although if you're looking for something more LGBT-specific, that's easy to find too.
- Club Fusion, Bar Caguas, and Extasis: On the U.S. border at the southern end of metro San Diego, the sprawling city of Tijuana, you'll find several gay bars in one. This large complex is also popular because you can reach it quite easily and cheaply from downtown San Diego without a car.
- Gossip Grill: A wonderfully inviting place: Gossip Grill, is a fun lesbian venue for dancing and other nighttime festivities, including evenings themed around karaoke, burlesque shows, and all kinds of music.
- Rich's: As San Diego's definitive gay warehouse-style disco, this club offers a good-sized space with an industrial, circuit-style vibe, and music supplied by some of Southern California's most illustrious DJs. This is the place to cut loose, admire the dancers, and prepare to pay a cover charge.
- The Brass Rail: The longest-running gay bar in San Diego, the Brass Rail deserves credit for always finding new ways to reinvent itself for the current times. Popularity varies according to the night, with the weekly Manic Monday parties, drag shows, and Latin tunes on Saturdays.
As plenty of trendy restaurants have come and gone in Hillcrest over the years, there are a few spots that have garnered a more loyal LGBT following, while turning out consistently tasty and reasonably priced food.
- Crest: The Crest is terrific for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and it's open nightly till midnight, making it a great choice for a late-night nosh.
- Extraordinary Desserts: Although primarily known for desserts and coffee, this sweet spot happens to stay open late on weekends and also serves a full restaurant menu.
- Redwing Bar & Grill: One of a handful of fun, friendly, and relaxed neighborhood bars, it keeps things interesting with theme nights and genuinely tasty, straightforward pub fare.
- Urban Mo's: With a friendly vibe and great happy hours, Mo's restaurant serves pretty good American and Southwestern-influenced food, all day long and in big portions.
- Baja Betty's: Exuding personality and camp, this is fun spot for fruity cocktails, weekend-afternoon people-watching, and consistently good Southwestern and Latin American fare.
Tips for Going Out in San Diego
- Overall, San Diego is a welcoming and open-minded city, but you'll find the heart of the city's gay nightlife scene in Hillcrest specifically.
- At most bars throughout the city, last call is at 2 a.m.
- Keep in mind that San Diego's trolley, if that's how you're getting around, stops service at midnight and resumes at 5 a.m.
- For something interesting to do before going out, check what's playing at the Diversionary Theatre, which happens to be the third oldest LGBT theatre in the U.S.