San Francisco in a Nutshell:
Since the 1950s, or perhaps even earlier, no city in the world has been more closely associated with gay and lesbian culture than San Francisco, which also ranks among the elite when it comes to scenic beauty, superb dining, sophisticated inns and boutique hotels, and provocative museums. The shopping and recreational opportunities aren't too shabby either, and you'll find plenty of gay nightlife as well.
This glorious city is great fun to visit whether for a weekend or several weeks, and although it has its share of pricey hotels and restaurants, it's also a terrific destination for travelers on a budget.
There's truly not bad time for a gay San Francisco vacation, although the city draws the most crowds during the busy summer months, which also see the least amount of rain but sometimes oppressive fog. Overall, the climate is pleasant year-round, and there are things to see and do throughout the year.
Average high-low temps are 56F/43F in Jan., 64F/48F in Apr., 71F/55F in July, and 70F/52F in Oct. Precipitation averages 3 to 4 inches/mo. in winter, an inch or less from spring through early fall, and 2 to 3 inches in late fall.
With one of the world's most visually alluring settings, San Francisco is wildly hilly in places, its peninsular shoreline sculpted by San Francisco Bay to the east and north and the Pacific Ocean to the West.
The landmark Golden Gate Bridge connects the city with Marin County to the north, and the Bay Bridge extends east to Berkeley, Oakland, and the East Bay. To the south, the U.S. 101 and I-280 highways lead down the peninsula toward San Jose and the Silicon Valley. From almost any point in San Francisco, you're able to view soaring hills or expansive water vistas.
Driving distances to San Francisco from prominent places and points of interest are:
- Lake Tahoe: 180 miles (3 to 3.5 hrs)
- Las Vegas: 570 miles (8 to 9 hrs)
- Los Angeles: 380 miles (5.5 to 6 hrs)
- Monterey: 120 miles (2 hrs)
- Napa Wine Country: 50 miles (50 min)
- Oakland: 10 miles (15 min)
- Palm Springs: 500 miles (7 hrs)
- Point Reyes National Seashore: 50 miles (75 min)
- Portland, OR: 640 miles (9 to 10 hrs)
- Reno, NV: 220 miles (3 to 3.5 hrs)
- Russian River Resort area: 75 miles (90 min)
- Sacramento: 90 miles (1.5 hrs)
- San Jose: 45 miles (1 hr)
- San Luis Obispo: 230 miles (3 to 3.5 hrs)
- Santa Rosa/Sonoma Wine Country: 55 miles (60 min)
- Yosemite National Park: 200 miles (3.5 to 4 hrs)
Flying to San Francisco:
A major hub of United Airlines, San Francisco International Airport is just a 20-minute drive or taxi ride south of downtown and is served by most major domestic airlines as well as numerous international ones. It's cheap and fairly easy to reach the airport using BART subway service; taxi fares to most downtown hotels run $40 to $50, and there are also several less pricey shuttle services.
All three major airports in the region are served by budget-oriented Southwest Airlines, plus many other carriers.
San Francisco Events Calendar:
- Late Apr. to early May: Annual San Francisco International Film Festival.
- Mid-May to early June: San Francisco International Arts Festival.
- Late May: Carnaval San Francisco Festival and Grand Parade (a festive Latin/Caribbean celebration in the Mission).
- Late June: Frameline/San Francisco International GLBT Film Festival.
- Late June: San Francisco Gay Pride.
- Late July: Up Your Alley (leather pride event similar to Folsom Street Fair and produced by same organizers).
- Late August: Silicon Valley Gay Pride/San Jose Gay Pride.
- Early to mid-Sept.: Oakland Gay Pride Parade and Festival.
- Late Sept.: Folsom Street Fair (world's largest leather event).
- Late Sept.: San Francisco Fringe Festival.
- Early Oct.: Castro Street Fair.
San Francisco Gay Resources and Links:
A number of resources out there offer extensive information on the gay San Francisco scene, including the popular weekly gay newspaper the Bay Area Reporter and biweekly San Francisco Bay Times. The San Francisco Chronicle-owned SFGate.com is the city's most comprehensive news source.
Also be sure to visit the San Francisco CVB's outstanding site on GLBT travel, and view my guide to San Francisco gay nightlife as well as San Francisco and Bay Area sex clubs and bathhouses.
Downtown San Francisco:
Many of San Francisco's top hotels as well as the bulk of its many high-end department stores (Neiman-Marcus, Macy's, Nordstrom) are near or on Union Square, downtown's anchor. Northeast is the Financial District, whose spine, Montgomery Street, is often called the "Wall Street of the West." Head west to approach Chinatown, one of the largest in North America, and you're at the edge of old-money Nob Hill, the site of several famous hotels as well as a good place to pick up one of the city's famed cable cars. The neighborhood is also home to several branches of the gay-popular hotel brand, Kimpton.
Gay San Francisco's hub, the Castro fans out from the intersection of Castro, 17th, and Market streets and includes countless funky shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, plus a handful of gay accommodations. The spectacular 1922 Castro Theatre hosts the city's well-attended lesbian and gay film festival.
More San Francisco Neighborhoods Popular with GLBT Visitors:
San Francisco has plenty of other intriguing neighborhoods - even the chiefly residential areas make for fascinating exploration, as they abound with offbeat cafes, unusual galleries, and distinctive architecture. Some, like Japantown and the Latin-influenced Mission District, retain strong cultural ties.
The Mission: This trendy, hipster-approved district due east of the Castro derives its name from the Mission Dolores, which has stood here since 1791. This diverse neighborhood is home to a many lesbians as well gay men, Hispanics, artists, and hipsters. You'll find cheap and tasty ethnic cuisine, left-leaning shops and galleries, and some of the city's queer and women's performance spaces. The Women's Building is a terrific resource. Nearby Bernal Heights and Noe Valley offer more queer-owned businesses and homes.
SoMa: The artsy SoMa ("south of Market Street") district, formerly a hub of light industry, now contains designer studios, nonprofit galleries, factory-outlet stores, and several big gay nightclubs. There are several worthwhile cultural attractions, including the seminal San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as an increasing number of hip, gay-friendly hotels.
The Haight and Hayes Valley: North of the Castro, Haight Street slices through the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, one of the world's most recognizable beds of counterculturalism. Progressive rockers, such as the Grateful Dead, lived here in the '60s, as did their thousands of acid-tweaked followers. It remains a land of slackers and alternative spirits, an easy place to score crystal jewelry, vintage duds, and illicit buds. Just east, the up-and-coming Hayes Valley contains several hip and gay-popular wine bars and restaurants plus a handful of cool shops. It's close to the imposing San Francisco Public Library, home to the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, a comprehensive collection of books, periodicals, and other artifacts of gay life throughout the ages.
Golden Gate Park: This leafy park stretches all the way from Haight-Ashbury to the Pacific Ocean. Meadows, lakes, and trails curve through the park, an idyllic spot for biking or blading. Especially moving is the National AIDS Memorial Grove, a clutch of cypress trees dedicated to those who have perished from the disease. The eastern half has several notable attractions, such as the recently and stunningly reborn de Young Museum, Strybing Arboretum and S.F. Botanical Garden, and the California Academy of Sciences.