Sunny and spectacularly situated San Diego is one of the great playgrounds of the West among gay and lesbian travelers. The city's once-staid downtown now abounds with hip hotels and lively restaurants, while such gay-friendly neighborhoods as Hillcrest, North Park, and University Heights are hot spots for gay clubbing and bar-hopping, dining, and shopping. Head out to the beaches to catch a glimpse of the city's laid-back, friendly surfing and sunning spirit. Here's a visual tour of this inviting city.
Although San Diego has become increasingly eclectic in terms of where gays and lesbians live and socialize, the heart of the GLBT scene still centers on the bustling Hillcrest neighborhood, which is just a few blocks northwest of Balboa Park, and a 10-minute drive north of downtown. Many of the city's gay bars, as well as gay-popular restaurants and shops, are in Hillcrest, generally along University Avenue as well as intersecting 4th and 5th avenues.
Just northeast and east of Hillcrest lie two more San Diego neighborhoods with strong gay and lesbian followings, University Heights and North Park.
Note that in summer 2011, the vintage sign pictured here was replaced with a new LED Hillcrest sign, but the old sign was purchased by the owner of beloved GLBT shop Obelisk, who plans to display it there.
North Park neighborhood, along University Avenue at 30th Street
With Hillcrest to the west, North Park is one of San Diego's most diverse - and quite gay-popular - neighborhoods. This area just northeast of Balboa Park has a couple of notable commercial sectors, including University Avenue and the blocks just off of it, especially around 29th and 30th streets (this is where the North Park sign, pictured here, spans University Avenue). Another area with a few very good restaurants is farther south 30th and Upas streets. North Park has a handful of gay bars, and many of the shops, coffeehouses, and restaurants in this neighborhood have a sizable GLBT following.
The neighborhood is also well-regarded for its abundance of handsomely restored bungalows and cottages from the early 20th century, many of them in the Craftsman style. Walk or drive along 30th, 29th, Granada, Ray, and parallel streets, between Upas and University, to see an especially high number of these. I-8 forms the neighborhood's eastern boundary, and the neighborhood extends west to Park Boulevard, where it gives way to Hillcrest. The North Park Main Street business association play a vital role in preserving the neighborhood's historic integrity and wealth of engaging, independently owned businesses.
Mingei International Museum of design, crafts, and folk art, in Balboa Park
Among the several prominent museums clustered on or near El Prado in San Diego's "green lung", Balboa Park, the Mingei International Museum (1439 El Prado, 619-239-0003) ranks among the most distinctive, and it's a worthy stop for aficionados of design, crafts, and folk art. The museum opened in 1978 but moved its current airy, stunning building - itself a work of art - in 1996. It overlooks the park's central Plaza de Panama, right by the similarly esteemed San Diego Museum of Art and Timken Museum of Art.
The Mingei contains some 20,000 objects, representing nearly every one of the world's nations, and intended to reveal traditions of often quite humble folk and primitive arts, crafts, and design traditions, from Chinese wood carvings to New Mexico and Arizona Navajo rugs to Indonesian ancestral monuments. Of course, much of the work contained in the collection is highly sophisticated and ornate, while beautifully simple forms are shown, too. The works also span eons of design styles, from pottery dating back thousands of years to contemporary jewelry and furniture crafted just a few years ago. The Mingei stages superb exhibitions throughout the year, most of them lasting several months at a time, so even if you've visited in the past, there's likely to be plenty new here.
The Mingei, as well as the park's other key museums, are just around the corner from San Diego's most gay-popular neighborhood, Hillcrest - in fact, it's only about a 15- to 20-minute walk and a quite pleasant one at that.
Torrey Pines Gliderport, by Blacks Beach - north of La Jolla
As you drive to the parking area for San Diego's gay-popular Blacks Beach (just north of La Jolla), you'll pass the Torrey Pines Gliderport (858-452-9858), from which hang gliders and paragliders depart throughout the day. It's fun to watch them glide over Blacks Beach, and if you've ever wanted to try this, this renowned facility offers lessons and rides. There's also a casual restaurant on-site, which is a nice spot for refreshments before or after hitting the beach.
Downtown San Diego skyline, looking northwest from the Hotel Palomar
The skyline view of downtown San Diego, viewed from an upper floor of Palomar Hotel. This view is facing northwest, with the US Grant Hotel on the very far-right edge of the photo, Horton Plaza shopping center taking up much of the central foreground, and San Diego Bay, Sunset Cliffs and Point Loma, and the Pacific Ocean in the background.
Black's Beach, north of La Jolla
One of the nation's iconic nude beaches, San Diego's majestically situated Black's Beach is also a favorite hangout of gay men and lesbians - clothed, partially clothed, scantily clothed, unclothed, and all permutations thereof. This 2-miles stretch of soft sand lies at the base of 300-foot cliffs near University of California-San Diego, just north of La Jolla and about a 15- to 20-minute drive north of downtown San Diego.
The beach can be a tiny bit tricky to locate - here are directions from downtown, but also check out the location of the parking area via this aerial photo and map overlay at google maps. From downtown, take I-5 north to exit 28B, and head west (toward the ocean) on La Jolla Village Drive, which curves north and becomes North Torrey Pines Road. After less than a half-mile, note the signs for the glider port and make a left turn onto Torrey Pines Scenic Drive. Follow this to the end, driving onto the dirt road and following it north to the parking lot (beware all the bumps and potholes), where there are plenty of spaces. You'll almost always see a bunch of gay guys parked here checking out the scene and each other. Note that public sex and nudity is not sanctioned here or down on the beach, but this is a relatively unregulated beach, because of its seclusion, and it's safe to say that as long as you're not causing anybody any trouble, you will generally be left alone down on the beach.
Be very careful around the cliffs on the edge of the parking area, as it's easy to lose your footing here, and a major slip could end tragically - it's a long way down. Stay away from the edge, obey the signs warning of unstable areas, and follow the established natural pathways that lead down to the beach. Step carefully and deliberately. Black's Beach is a stunning place to watch the sunset - bring a flashlight if you're planning to stay for this, as it's not easy feat climbing back up to the parking area in the dark. Yes, lots of warnings and precautions here (just to be on the safe side), but this is a splendid spot for beach lovers, naturists, and gay folks just wanting to be themselves out in the sun. Have fun!
Brown Pelican colony on the edge of La Jolla Cove
One thing you can always count on seeing as you descend down one-way Coast Boulevard from the commercial village of La Jolla into La Jolla Cove is this enormous colony of California brown pelicans - they live along these craggy rocks, which jut out into the ocean a bit up the coast from the small beach and grassy Ellen Browning Scripps Park. You get a nice view of these distinctive birds from the outdoor patio at Brockton Villa. Here's the City of San Diego webpage on La Jolla Cove park and beach.
University Heights Business District, along Park Boulevard north of Hillcrest
One of San Diego's most gay-popular neighborhoods outside of Hillcrest, University Heights is an attractive, mostly residential area just north of Hillcrest and west of Normal Heights, on a bluff above and just south of Mission Valley. Filled with attractive wood-frame bungalows and houses, many of them from the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhood does have one notable commercial section, running north-south along Park Boulevard (and also a bit along intersecting Adams Avenue).
Park Boulevard has an increasingly trendy mix of restaurants, cafes, and shops, plus the highly popular gay bar, Bourbon Street, and the GLBT-oriented independent performance space, the Diversionary Theatre (the nation's third-oldest queer stage). As with many of San Diego's most established neighborhoods, University Heights has a historic sign and archway (pictured here) over its main drag (Park Boulevard).
Flicks video bar, on University Avenue in Hillcrest
The Hole in the Wall, Point Loma
Crest Cafe, on Robinson Avenue in Hillcrest
Number One Fifth Ave., a gay neighborhood bar in Hillcrest
Hotel del Coronado, the legendary architectural icon on Coronado Peninsula
Inn at the Park, formerly Park Manor Suites, in Hillcrest
Baja Betty's, a campy gay restaurant and lounge in Hillcrest
Brockton Villa restaurant, overlooking La Jolla Cove
SRO Lounge, an old-school dive-y gay bar on Bankers Hill
Cheers gay bar, in University Heights
Saltbox restaurant, at Hotel Palomar San Diego
SummerSalt Rooftop Pool & Lounge, at Hotel Palomar San Diego
Brass Rail Nightclub, in Hillcrest
Hotel Palomar San Diego, standard guest room
Redwing Bar & Grill, in North Park
Extraordinary Desserts, a European-style pastry shop and cafe near Hillcrest
Rich's gay dance club, on University Avenue in Hillcrest
Hotel Palomar San Diego, 5th Avenue in downtown's Gaslamp Quarter
Urban Solace restaurant, on 30th Street in North Park
San Diego Eagle, a popular gay leather bar in North Park
The Loft gay bar, in Hillcrest
Urban's Mo's gay bar and restaurant, on University Avenue in Hillcrest
Numbers, a gay dance club on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest
Big Kitchen Cafe, in Golden Hill, just southeast of Balboa Park
Club San Diego, gay bathhouse on 4th Avenue in Hillcrest
Bourbon Street nightclub, on Park Boulevard in University Heights (closed)
Obelisk GLBT Bookstore, on University Avenue in Hillcrest (closed)
San Diego's well-established LGBT bookstore, Obelisk (1029 University Ave.) has closed.
Eden, an upscale gay restaurant and nightclub in Hillcrest (closed)
Urban Grind coffeehouse, on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest (closed)
Urban Grind (3799 Park Blvd.) has closed
The Flame nightclub, in Hillcrest (closed)
Martin and Wall menswear boutique, on 5th Avenue in Hillcrest (closed)
Martin and Wall, San Diego, has closed.