An LGBTQ Traveler's Guide to San Francisco

SF Pride
SF Pride.

Meera Fox / Getty Images 

While there have been profound changes to San Francisco's landscape and identity since the turn of the century, it remains a haven for LGBTQ visitors and residents alike—especially its Castro District—and one of the most free-spirited, progressive, and dynamic cities in North America.

Statewide tourism entity Visit California boasts an LGBT-specific San Francisco destination page, while the local, member-based San Francisco Travel Association website is also rich with information and resources, plus interviews with locals (including Honey Mahogany from "RuPaul's Drag Race") about the city.

San Francisco LGBT Pride, one of the country's largest and most overwhelming, typically takes place during the final week of June, with the march held on a Sunday. Fall's Folsom Street Fair is the world's largest leather event. It takes place near the end of September, while the comparatively "vanilla" yet jubilant Castro Street Fair—founded in 1974 by Harvey Milk—features main stage entertainment and interactive games. Transgender and queer arts are celebrated at late spring's Fresh Meat Festival, founded in 2002 by transgender choreographer Sean Dorsey's Fresh Meat Productions. Cinephiles flock to San Francisco's Frameline—the Cannes of LGBT film festivals. The long-standing festival features more than 100 selections, including major premieres.

For other to-the-minute LGBTQ events and news, check San Francisco Bay Times and Bay Area Reporter.

Castro Street
 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Things To Do

Either upon arrival or departure from San Francisco International Airport, be sure to check out the brand new, permanent Harvey Milk installation—it opened to the public on March 24, 2020—located close to the American Airlines check-in area at the aptly named South Harvey Milk Terminal 1. Adorned with 43 photos from Milk's life and trailblazing political career, which was chronicled in two Oscar-winning films: a 1984 documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk," and the 2009 drama starring Sean Penn, "Milk."

Smack dab in the Castro district, the GLBT Historical Society Museum is an ideal starting point for a stroll through this iconic district where so many pivotal people and moments in the movement took place. While measuring only 1,600 square feet, the Museum's permanent exhibition "Queer Past Becomes Present" includes artifacts and memorabilia from those, including city supervisor Harvey Milk's bullhorn (when it's not on loan to prestigious museums like D.C.'s Smithsonian Institute) and early LGBTQ activist literature.

Speaking of Museums, San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, SFMOMA, reopened in May 2016 after a three-year closure, during which it was expanded and completely renovated. This latest iteration includes 45,000 square feet of free ground floor galleries, and the collection consists of work by many LGBTQ artists.

The Castro Theater
 Kimberly White/Getty Images

Check what's playing at the Castro Theatre, programming for which includes special event screenings, film festivals, premieres, and performances, including riotous horror and cult movie parodies starring local underground drag personality Peaches Christ. And check out the boutique shops along Castro Street, including the Human Rights Campaign Store, which occupies Harvey Milk's former camera shop space.

The National AIDS Memorial Grove, located at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park, was federally designated a national memorial by Bill Clinton in 1996. On World AIDS Day in 2018, the Grove saw the addition of an Artists Portal, paying tribute to all the musicians and artists lost to the AIDS pandemic, which includes an 8-foot-tall Emperor Chime visitors can ring in memory of friends and family lost.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus was the guiding force behind the Artists Portal, and their performances—ongoing for more than 40 years—are well worth checking out. If you love drag, check out one of the performances at Oasis, a gay bathhouse turned nightclub, and show venue, founded in 2015 by local drag stars Heklina and D'arcy Drollinger.

Meanwhile, fans of Armistead Maupin's beloved, iconically San Francisco "Tales of the City" books and TV adaptations (most recently revived on Netflix in 2019) can take one of the self-guided walking or driving tours on website Tours of the Tales. Alas, you also must provide your own Miss Madrigal.

The Best LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

These days, San Francisco's LGBTQ bars, clubs, and parties have spread beyond the Castro, but the iconic district is a natural place to at least start the drinking, mingling, and dancing fun. Opened in 1971, and one of the Castro's longest-running venues, today's Midnight Sun is a modern video bar with open windows, a street-facing lounge, and nightly events and entertainment, including drag queen Mondays and karaoke Wednesdays. Get literally in The Mix at this nearly all-day (early morning until 2 a.m. daily), all-types, 20-year-old neighborhood bar.

Suffering a fire in November 2019, and currently being repaired, Castro Street's QBar nevertheless persists with a series of monthly pop-up "QBar in Exile" parties at various venues listed on their Facebook page. 440 Castro, formerly called Daddy's, brings in some daddies, bears, and cubs, but also an increasingly diverse crowd of men who appreciate 440's underwear nights, cheap drinks (Tuesdays' offering is $2 beers), "Battle of the Bulges" contests, and a cruisy vibe. One of the country's first gay bars, Twin Peaks Tavern is a favorite of seasoned local gays, including S.F. Gay Mens' Chorus artistic director Tim Seelig, in part thanks to its large plate glass windows and people watching. (Fun fact: it was the first bar of its kind to not blackout its front as a privacy measure.)

The cozy Last Call Bar boasts the hood's longest daily happy hour, which runs from noon to 7 p.m.) and jukebox tunes, while the 25-year-old The Edge has been likened to a Bay Area "Cheers" and hosts the Castro's longest-running drag night, Thursday's Monster Show. Go-go boys do their thing here on Friday and Saturday nights. Just east of the Castro, along Market Street, Hi Tops is S.F.'s sole gay sports bar (it also has a sibling in West Hollywood) and features a tasty pub grub menu and, on Thursdays, go-go boys.

South of Market (also known as SoMa) is rife with bars, including the 31-year-old Lone Star Saloon, which is wildly popular with bears, cubs (especially during second Fridays' "Cubcake" party), daddies, and their admirers and allies. Things get downright naughty at Folsom Street's bear and leather Powerhouse Bar, where party themes can get incredibly niche—from nipple play to underwear to B.O.—while there's also some fun, alternative drag performances on Mondays and weekends. Although its name is oft associated with leather, the San Francisco Eagle brings in a diverse, eclectic crowd today with weekly events, performances, and dance parties (including the 10-year-old "Frolic" for furries). As for The Stud, first founded in 1965 in a different location, it hosts an incredible line-up of alternative drag, queer cabaret, and a first Saturday dance night inspired by the city's '70s and '80s disco scene.

Old school-style drag rules at the Tenderloin's dive-bar style Aunt Charlie's Lounge, while the Mission's 40-year-old Pilsner Inn is a conversation-friendly neighborhood bar offering 30 draft beers and a garden patio. And although Polk Street used to be a buzzing gay strip, its sole remaining watering hole is The Cinch Saloon, where you can take in a taste of a bygone era, plus an episode of "Drag Race" or sports game on the monitors.

Where to Eat

Among the world's best food cities, San Francisco is home to diverse international cuisine, plenty of vegetarian and vegan-friendly options, and incredible craft chocolate and confections (Dandelion Chocolate, which expanded to Asia's most LGBTQ-friendly country, Taiwan, is a must!), coffee and ice cream (Humphrey Slocombe!). Where to even start? If sticking to the Castro and indie venues, go crazy for Asian dumplings at Mama Ji's, get your oysters on at 43-year-old local institution Anchor Oyster Bar, savor French favorites at L'Ardois Bistro, amazing Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) at Dinosaurs, and decadent brekkies, brunches and lunches at Kitchen Story and Wooden Spoon.

Four Seasons San Francisco at Embarcadero
Four Seasons San Francisco at Embarcadero 

Where to Stay

You'll find welcoming, LGBTQ-friendly properties throughout San Francisco, although most hotels are concentrated in the downtown and Union Square districts. Opened in May 2020, one of the latest additions, the 155-room Four Seasons San Francisco at Embarcadero (formerly the Loews Regency, and now renovated with fresh Four Seasons luxury and modern tech), occupies and sports sweeping views from the top 11 floors of the 48-story 345 California Center building.

Founded in San Francisco, and now part of the IHG portfolio, progressive and boutique chain Kimpton Hotels boasts three local properties. The newest, the 248-room Kimpton Alton at Fisherman's Wharf, just opened in summer 2020.

Union Square's 416-room Kimpton Sir Francis Drake is a gorgeous Gothic Revival and Renaissance architecture-inspired grande dame property first built in 1928, acquired by Kimpton in 1993, and updated with a comprehensive $11 million renovation in 2019. Straddling the intersection of Little Tokyo, the Fillmore, and Pacific Heights, the 131-room Kimpton Buchanan is more residential in style with a dash of contemporary zen styling. The Buchanan was formerly known as the Tomo, part of another SF-born LGBTQ-friendly boutique hotel brand, Joie De Vivre, which maintains six properties in the city, including the extensively renovated (in 2018) Hotel Kabuki by the Fillmore district.

As for staying smack dab in the Castro District, the 21-room Parker Guest House is the city's top-rated bed and breakfast.