San Francisco is home to the highest percentage of LGBTQ people in the United States (6 percent in the metro area), so it's really no wonder why it's repeatedly called America's most gay-friendly city.
The Bay Area is absolutely teeming with gay bars, strip clubs, dance clubs, bathhouses, and sex clubs. Much of it is concentrated in the Castro, a neighborhood whose crosswalks are painted with rainbow colors, but the LGBTQ influence is also apparent in the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood, which has been a hub for San Francisco's gay community since the '60s, when it led its leather scene. Both of these areas are located around Folsom Street, home of the famous, annual BDSM and leather block party, the Folsom Street Fair.
Additionally, you'll find a smattering of gay hangouts along Polk Street (San Francisco's earliest gay 'hood) and in the Mission.
San Francisco's gay bar scene is indicative of its straight bar scene: It's vastly diverse, welcoming, and accompanying of every age and taste. Pick a part of town and stick to it.
- Aunt Charlie's Lounge: In the gritty, unvarnished meatiness that is the San Francisco Tenderloin District, this beloved drag bar is an SFO institution of considerable acclaim. Just a few blocks east of Polk Street, the tiny bar has been known to host weekly parties that rake in a dizzyingly eclectic mix of old-school queers, hipsters, drag aficionados, and the occasional curious tourist.
- Beaux: With big windows facing a busy stretch of Market Street, Beaux—French for "boyfriends"—is attractive and contemporary, with plenty of seating up front (a part of the bar that's especially popular for weekday happy hour and on weekend afternoons) and a compact-yet-energetic dance bar in back. It's a little easier to mingle while bumping and grinding here than at some of the bigger nightclubs around town.
- The Cafe: The Cafe was once the Castro's main lesbian dance bar, and while it continues to attract a fair number of women, it has beckoned a more mixed bunch in recent years. DJs here spin a nice mix of hip-hop and dance tunes, and a pair of pool tables are nearly always in use. Unlike a lot of bars in the Castro, this two-story haunt offers plenty of space for busting a move.
- Lone Star Saloon: Veterans of San Francisco's Folsom Street-area leather and bear scene have long been cruising and carousing at the Lone Star Saloon, which remains somewhat infamous for its "friendly" trough urinal in the men's room. Highlights here include the generous drink specials, good-sized back patio, and attractively designed interior.
- The Pilsner Inn: What started out as a somewhat sleepy neighborhood bar has developed into a very popular (but still local-feeling) gay hangout that draws a varied crowd. This conversation bar is set along the Castro's bustling Church Street Corridor, close to the Mission and Hayes Valley. Its long bar and backyard garden patio are perfect for mingling with friends.
- The Cinch Saloon: Many, many years ago, Polk Street, roughly between the Castro and downtown, is thought to have been the heart of San Francisco's gay nightlife scene. Gradually, the LGBTQ presence has waned but The Cinch is one of the only gay bars remaining. It's worth a visit to watch amateur strip contests and partake in some serious drinking.
- The Mint: It's true that you'll find some great karaoke nights at gay bars throughout the Castro, but The Mint—on the edge of Hayes Valley—is San Francisco's most hallowed ground for fans of the genre. Whatever your talent level, you'll encounter a consistently friendly and encouraging bunch here. The crowd is mostly gay, depending on the night, but all are welcome.
- Powerhouse Bar: This industrial-strength bar throws some of the best parties and theme nights in California: underwear parties, "steam" (you check your clothes and don a towel), "bulge," "stank," and the list continues. Tatted guys, bears and cubs (etc.), leather daddies, bikers, and people of all stripes and styles pack the rafters on weekends.
- The Edge: Comfy, cheerful, and low-keyed, The Edge is one of those "Cheers"-like hangouts with a gay influence. It's a fun place to include in an 18th-and-Castro bar crawl, and there's a very popular happy hour.
- El Rio: Straddling the Mission District and Bernal Heights, this bar ranks among the best mixed-queer venues in San Francisco. It picks up some of the lesbian crowd that used to frequent the now-defunct Lexington Club, plus gay guys, hipsters, gender-benders, pool players, and all sorts.
- The Lookout: You won't find a better spot for people-watching in the Castro than the extensive balconies at the aptly-named Lookout. This airy and open space has the feel of a sports bar with its packed happy hours and tasty pub food. Its busiest time is afternoon and early evening.
- Midnight Sun: The Castro's classic gay video bar continues to be a mainstay of the neighborhood's bar crawlers. The happy hour (held from 2 p.m. to close on Mondays) is quite popular, and when you're up for watching "Project Runway" or "RuPaul's Drag U," this is where to do it.
- 440 Castro: Back in the day, this place (formerly called Daddy's) drew a predominantly leather-and-Levi's crowd, but 440 has since broadened its reach. On any given night, you'll find all kinds here, from gymgoers to rugged bears. One thing you can count on, though, is a cruisy vibe, especially on Monday Underwear Nights.
- Hole in the Wall Saloon: This long-running SoMa leather-daddy-bear bar has always been a good bet for cruising and conversation. The interior is dark and adorned with industrial-motorcycle-themed decor (as well as a pool table and jukebox).
- Hi Tops: A hipster-queer take on a gay sports bar, Hi Tops is set along a busy and cruise-y stretch of Market Street. Theme nights like Thursday "Gym Class" and Wednesday "Bottoms Up Bingo" play on this oft-packed bar's sporty theme, and there are several TV monitors for watching games.
- Q Bar: This place is generally packed during happy hours and draws a rather stylish crowd of San Francisco gay A-listers. It, too, has a number of fun theme nights (go-go and beer busts, for instance). Signature cocktails include the Anderson Cooper and the Pamelmousse 415.
- SF Badlands: Thanks to festive decor and a young crowd, Badlands has been able to maintain its status as one of the city's de rigueur gay cruise-and-schmooze mainstays despite plenty of competition from newer hangouts around Castro and elsewhere. There's a video dance bar in back and a somewhat mellower lounge area up front.
- SF Eagle: One of the most famous gay leather bars in the country for more than three decades, SF Eagle draws a more eclectic bunch these days (bears, otters, hipsters, and so on). You'll still get the occasional guy in leather and fetish gear, though.
- The Stud: Another of San Francisco's most fabled gay institutions, The Stud opened many years before the majority of its patrons were born, in 1966. What you'll find going on at this rocking SoMa club depends entirely on the night of the week.
- Twin Peaks Tavern: One of San Francisco's venerable gay-nightlife icons, Twin Peaks Tavern is said to have been the very first gay bar in America to have clear (as opposed to opaque or covered) glass windows, something unheard of back when it opened in the early '70s. Two lesbians opened the bar, but it's had a mostly male following over the years.
Nobody can argue that the folks in San Francisco love to drink and when they drink, they dance. These LGBTQ-specific nightclubs are where you'll want to end up at 3 a.m.
- The EndUp: This legendary spot began as a bathhouse and has been going strong—give or take a few booms and busts—since it opened in 1973. The EndUp is San Francisco's gay afterparty bar. If you love to dance, you won't want to miss it.
- Oasis: Oasis is a downright dazzling 6,000-square-foot theater and cabaret that hosts some of the Bay Area's best drag shows. Drag legends Heklina and D'Arcy Drollinger are behind this ambitious venture. Shows include everything from comedy nights to high-camp shows and revues.
- Divas: This San Francisco transgender bar is another of the few LGBTQ hangouts still located along the Polk Street strip (it's a half-block east of Polk, near another gay neighborhood bar, Mark's Bar). The sprawling, attractive space draws both queer and straight patrons to watch the highly entertaining shows.
Even some of the restaurants have a gay theme. Most of them are concentrated in the Castro and SoMa districts, of course.
- Harvey's: Named for the legendary, late gay activist Harvey Milk, this quintessential gay brunch restaurant doubles as one of the most popular queer bars in the Castro. Whether you go for evening cocktails or dinner, or to partake in the delicious brunch (served until 3 p.m. daily), Harvey's is a must-visit icon of gay San Francisco.
- Gary Danko: Among San Francisco's culinary elite, the chef-proprietor of the eponymous Gary Danko is one of the top names around (and is also one of the most acclaimed LGBTQ chefs in the country). His snazzy restaurant near Fisherman's Wharf is an ideal destination to celebrate a special occasion with snazzy dishes.
- Sightglass Coffee: Near to the gay and mixed bars of SoMa, this handsome roastery is as noteworthy for its coffee as it is for its gorgeous and airy loft interior. It's a lovely place to while away an afternoon on your laptop or remedy your Sunday morning hangover.
Events & Festivals
Having such a robust gay population, it's only natural that San Francisco holds some of the most over-the-top LGBTQ events in the nation. If you like big crowds in costume, you will not be disappointed.
- San Francisco Pride: San Francisco's pride festival is one of the oldest in the country, commencing just one year after the historic Stonewall Riots that took place in New York City in the 1970s. The two-day festival attracts more than a million visitors each June. You can expect one of the biggest parades on the West Coast and big-name concerts.
- Folsom Street Fair: This is officially the world's biggest leather event. Every September, nearly half a million gays in leather costumes—or nothing at all... yes, people do attend completely naked—take to Folsom Street, covering 13 whole blocks! There will be fetish booths, BDSM demos, a performance stage, and a separate stage for music.
- Castro Street Fair: The first weekend in October brings a street fair founded by Harvey Milk himself, right in the middle of the Castro district. It features everything from arts and crafts to dance parties and the proceeds from it go to local charities.
- Frameline43: It shouldn't come as any surprise that San Francisco hosts an international LGBTQ film festival every summer. Join in on the fun by seeing one of the more-than-100 film screenings taking place around the city.
- Fresh Meat Festival: This event, hosted by the queer and transgender arts organization Fresh Meat Productions, is a wildly eclectic performance arts festival that can showcase anything from opera singing to hula hooping, all followed by alcohol and dancing.
Tips for Going Out in San Francisco
- The Castro is one of the safest districts in San Francisco, even at night. Even so, you should never let your guard down while walking around the city and be especially cautious during big festivals like the Folsom Street Fair.
- You very well might encounter people walking with beers in-hand on the sidewalks, but don't follow suit. Drinking alcohol in public is illegal, even though some locals do it anyway.
- If it's cruising and hooking up you're interested in, then the Bay Area's gay bathhouses and sex clubs might be more your scene.
- Traffic can be quite congested in parts of the city (even late at night, if on weekends), so opt instead for San Francisco's best after-dark public transport option, the AllNighter bus.