It's bright, bold, and filled with color. San Francisco's Castro District is the heart of the city's LGBTQ culture, as well as a vibrant neighborhood brimming with restaurants, bars, and even a grand movie palace. Here are 10 ways to experience one of SF's most flourishing 'hoods.
Opened in 1922, the stunning Castro Theatre is a designated San Francisco landmark and one of the Bay Area's few remaining grand movie palaces. From the moment you see its flashing neon sign, you know you're in for something special. The theatre's exterior resembles that of a Mexican cathedral, while its interior is covered in specially-created classic motif murals and decor ranging from Spanish to Oriental. Repertory films, documentaries, and a host of exciting movie events—including monthly sing-alongs and January's Film Noir fest—are standard fare at the Castro. Be sure to pay attention to the theatre's working Wurlitzer organ that's played before every film.
Shopping for a Venetian mask? How about a French press coffee maker? Chances are you'll find something that suits your needs at Cliff's Variety, a landmark Castro Street store that's been drawing in patrons since 1936. From Rainbow Pride mugs, bright wigs, and wind-up toys to kitchenware and bed & bath products—it's all here. Cliff's is family-owned and operated and it is a treasured community hub. Being in here just feels good.
Whether it's the Michelin-starred Frances and its fresh California fare or the landmark Sausage Factory—a locally-owned casual Italian spot serving up homemade pizza and pasta since 1968—the Castro offers a myriad of dining options. Choose among spots that run the gamut from cozy and intimate like Fable, to Lark's buzzy wine bar atmosphere. Catch some sun on Starbelly's outdoor patio, or head over to Cafe Flore for sidewalk socializing.
Catch a Reading at an Indie Bookstore
One of two Dog Eared Books locations in the city (the other is in the Mission), the Castro Street storefront boasts the largest selection of LGBT+ books around, as well as best-selling literature, remainder books, and small press favorites. Spend some time browsing the selection, then stay for an evening reading by local authors like Kathleen Knowles, a historical fiction and lesbian romance novelist. This beloved independent bookstore is also home to a monthly LGBT book club that is open to new members.
Delve into the Castro's fascinating history and learn how it morphed from a working class Irish and Italian neighborhood into a prominent symbol for LGBTQ rights and activism. Volunteer-led SF City Guides lead free walking tours highlighting the neighborhood's changes over the years, while Cruisin' the Castro's excursions discuss the roles it's played in US LGBTQ culture and Civil Rights. There's even an Explore San Francisco “Castro District Food Tour” that gives an overview of the neighborhood's diversity of ethnic eats, including Spanish, Thai, Middle Eastern, French, and Japanese.
Raise a Glass to Acceptance
While there are plenty of places in the Castro to knock back a drink, Twin Peaks Tavern is one of the most iconic. This revolutionary tavern first opened more than 45 years ago, and became the country's first gay bar to install large plate-glass windows so everyone could see inside. Perched on the corner of Market and Castro streets, it's considered the “Gateway to the Castro.” It's an SF institution, attracting both long-time regulars and walk-in customers who stop by for the bar's laid-back atmosphere and a bit of history. Want to imbibe some more? Try Hi Tops, a gay sports bar serving up corn on the cob and soft pretzels alongside pints and TV soccer games; the warm and relaxing Moby Dicks, with its pool table and over-the-bar aquarium; or Blackbird, known for its creative cocktails. For dancing, don't miss The Lookout—a gay nightclub known for its wraparound balcony and fresh DJ spins.
“Mayor of the Castro” Harvey Milk founded this free funfest in 1974 and it's been going strong for well over four decades since. The bulk of festivities take place in and around Castro and 18th streets. Expect supreme people-watching, along with DJs and drag performers, country & western dancing, a curated artisan alley featuring works by Northern California artists and craftspeople, and plenty of food and drink for sale. The fair always takes place on the first Sunday of October.
Channel Your Inner Child
Tucked away in a mini park on a steep hill east of Castro Street, the Seward Street Slides are the perfect way to feel like the kid you really are. The brainchild of then 14-year-old SF resident Kim Clark, these two side-by-side concrete slides were built in the 1970s and have been bringing joy to all ages since (though the neighboring residents are happiest when you keep the noise down). They're steep, so bring along a piece of cardboard or something slick and get ready to go careening downhill. A couple quick rules: The park closes at sunset, and all adults must have a kid or two in tow.
Delve into Art and History
On the northwest corner of dog-buzzing Duboce Park, the Harvey Milk Center for the Arts is home to the largest community wet darkroom in the US, as well as art and photography exhibits on topics ranging from immigration to queer art. Take a workshop in visual storytelling, attend a lecture, or embark on a guided adventure to photograph the city's “sultry” Sutro Baths. The Castro is also home to the GLBT Historical Society and Museum, a 1,600-square-foot exhibit hall with three gallery spaces. Don't miss the museum's main exhibit, Queer Past Becomes Present, which documents local gay history and queer presence as far back to the Spanish explorers.
Celebrate Pride All Year Long
Up and down the streets of the Castro are bronze sidewalk-embedded plaques highlighting LGBTQ individuals. These are part of the Rainbow Honor Walk, the Castro's own Hollywood-style Walk of Fame. Each plaque highlights and honors an LGBTQ individual who made a positive difference, like novelist James Baldwin and artist Frida Kahlo. At the heart of the neighborhood you'll find rainbow-painted crosswalks and a massive rainbow flag, the first of which flew at the city's Gay Freedom Day Parade—now known the SF Pride Parade—in 1978. Just above Castro Street, the tiny Pink Triangle Park pays tribute to the many homosexuals persecuted by Nazis during WWII, while Harvey Milk's former camera shop is at 75 Castro Street.
Of course, June's annual Gay Pride weekend boasts the neighborhood's biggest celebration of the year. In addition to Sunday's main Pride parade, you'll find Pride events citywide, including the Pride party at City Hall and the Trans and Dyke Marches.