No gaycation bucket list is complete without San Francisco. The city by the bay is a classic vacation spot between sunny parks, waterfront treasures, great food, and better nightlife, plus the title of the gayest town in America. With one of the most famous pride parades worldwide and some of the richest gay history when it comes to civil rights, how have you not considered San Francisco already?
The city has so many classic sites and sounds ready to be explored. Spend a day by the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf, take off on a boat in search of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge or go for a picnic in front of the Painted Ladies. Be sure to check out San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown and learn all about the city’s spot and legacy as “the gayest town in America” in the Castro.
During the mid-to-late-19th century, San Francisco exploded, during the age of exploration and western expansion. It was during this time that many historians say gave rise to the massive LGBT culture that exists today, due to the fact that it was seen as a place where anything goes. By the time the 20th century began, the first gay bar had opened its doors in San Francisco. By the 1920s, the city’s LGBT community was already in full swing. The LGBT community is said to have grown due to the number of servicemen who were said to be gay were discharged from the Navy in port cities such as San Francisco. Despite the growing population and growing number of gay and lesbian bars, the mid-20th century brought a crackdown on homosexuality.
By the 1950s, the city saw a huge counterculture develop and many people move into San Francisco, giving rise to the LGBT community. During this time, one of the US’s earliest LGBT organizations, Daughters of Bilitis, was formed in San Francisco. By the 1960s, San Francisco was the destination for hippies and queer folk looking for a more open, more accepting environment. In 1964, the city was dubbed the “gay capital of America.”
By the 1970s, San Francisco already began holding a pride parade, first as a march and strike, then as the Gay Liberation Parade, and later it became the San Francisco Pride that is so famous today. Gay bars began trading in their blacked-out windows in favor of clear glass windows and visibility, as more and more LGBT rights groups began popping up. By 1977, the state had its first democratically elected openly gay politician when Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
By the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, there was a significant change in San Francisco. In 2004, gay couples were granted marriage licenses in City Hall and that same year, the first Trans March took place in the city, specifically honoring trans* rights. In 2008, California Prop 8 invalidated the city’s same-sex marriages until 2013 when the proposition was knocked down by the US Supreme Court. The city has an estimated 29% of the population identifying as a member of the LGBT community, high above the national average. Gay marriage is once again legal and depending on what part of the city you visit, you may be likely to see more queer folks than cis straight folks.
The little area south of market street, known as The Castro is a top destination for anyone in the LGBT community, of course. Harvey Milk’s former home emerged as a top gay destination in the 1970s as many queer folks across the country left their homes in search of an accepting environment. Now, the main streets of The Castro are lined with little rainbow flags hanging from every lamppost and LGBT hotspots dotting the shopfronts.
Take a walking tour of The Castro and learn about the area’s history. Tours will take you to Harvey Milk Plaza, Castro Camera, Mr. Milk’s original store, which now houses the Human Rights Campaign shop, Castro Theater, the GLBT History Museum and more. The museum is a definite “can’t-miss” spot if you want to learn about LGBT civil rights and how far the movement has come. The GLBT History Museum was opened by the GLBT Historical Society and contains extensive archives of queer history. The main gallery houses historical artifacts on queer events throughout history from the late 19th century to today. Other exhibits include collections honoring the life and works of Angela Davis, queer black activist, and an exhibit showcasing LGBT media and publications through the ages.
Stop at hot cookie to satisfy your sweet tooth. The interesting shapes and delicious recipes make it The Castro’s most popular bakery. You can’t miss The Castro Theater, either. The iconic building in the middle of Castro Street is a registered historic landmark. Catch a film or check out the events calendar to see what specials are happening soon. The Castro Theater has an emphasis on queer and multicultural films. When the sun goes down, stick around the colorful streets of The Castro for some of San Francisco’s most popular and oldest LGBT bars.
Set right beside Castro, San Francisco’s Mission District isn’t as iconic as its neighbor but is become a more and more popular queer-friendly destination in the city. Mission District is largely known as the city’s home to the Latino community since the first Latino immigrants began moving in the early 20th century. In the later half of the century, more queer non-Latinos began moving in alongside the existing Latino LGBT community and general Latino community. By the 1980s, the Mission District had one of the biggest lesbian neighborhoods in the US.
Check out the neighborhood’s unique and multi-cultural heritage. Visit the historic Mission Dolores, the historic heart of San Francisco set right in front of Mission Dolores Park. The park is perfect for great views and better picnics. Shop for your next read at Dog Eared Books, or hop in and out of the galleries, shops, and cafes all around. The streets are lined with colorful murals and artwork, so even just walking down the neighborhood’s streets can be a fun activity.
Things to Do
San Francisco is jam-packed with beauty and adventure. You can’t miss out on the classics, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, built in 1937, or a ride on one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. Head to into Chinatown (the largest in the US) and pick out the best restaurant, or check out the authentic Latino food in Mission Dolores. Check out the famous collection of pastel-colored Edwardian homes affectionately called The Painted Ladies, wander in and out of the quirky shops in Haight-Ashbury, take tour of the old prison island of Alcatraz, or get outside the city and stretch your legs — San Francisco and the surrounding area are home to beautiful hiking trails.
Check out a performance from the Grammy-award winning San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The historic group began in 1978 as a way to bring gay men together in a chorus that was out and proud. Now, the group is not exclusive to gay or bi men, accepting anyone who identifies as male and can also carry a tune. The group often performs at events, tours, and several big annual concerts, including the Holiday Concert and the Pride Concert.
Check out San Francisco’s world-renowned pride festival. The parade happens each June and draws in an approximate 1.8-2 million attendees. This year’s events will take place on June 23-24 with a celebration and rally, concerts, speakers, performers, family-friendly spaces, and of course the famed parade on Sunday, June 24. The parade route will travel down Market St from Beale St to 8th St. Look out for some of the many celebrity appearances during the parade! Castro Pride Pink Party happens every year the Saturday before pride to kick off the weekend’s events in the city’s most historic LGBT spot and during the weekend, the Main stage, at Civic Center Plaza will host speakers and musical performances. The community stage will feature local organizations and leaders, so be sure to check it out and learn more about what’s happening in the city.
Frameline LGBT Film Festival
If you’re a fan of the movies, you can’t miss out on Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBT Film Festival. The festival, running since 1977, is one of the most famous LGBT film festivals in the world with an annual attendance of over 60,000 guests. Frameline’s mission is to “change the world through queer cinema”, by supporting up-and-coming filmmakers and by helping make these films accessible to the queer community. The festival happens every June, just ahead of pride weekend, but the organization holds film screenings and events throughout the year to promote the movies shown at the festivals.
Castro Street Fair
Hundreds of people flock to the streets of Castro, at the corner of Castro St and 18th St the first Sunday of October each year for the Castro Street Fair. Since 1974, this fair, started by community organizer Harvey Milk, brings together local vendors, artists, and performers to show off their treats and crafts, and to provide a good show for all festival goers. All profits from the fair go to charities that benefit the queer community and the Castro area.
Head to the rainbow flag-lined streets of the Castro for the largest concentration of gay bars in San Francisco. Lucky 13 gives off classic vibes with punk rock music playing from the jukeboxes and over 30 beers on tap at a good price. Lucky 13 is laid back and usually filled with regulars, but you can’t miss out on this Castro classic. Last Call Bar is another iconic Castro bar. With cozy 1970s decor and a happy hour that goes from 12-7 pm every day of the week, how could you miss out? The Mix is perfect for any mood. This Castro bar is known for good, affordable drinks, crowds of all ages, and a local spot to go any night of the week.
Mission District is also home to many popular queer bars and clubs in the city. Check out El Rio for diverse crowds, good drinks, live music, games, and cozy patio space in a Mission District classic. Opened in 1978, El Rio is a home to gay men, queer women, trans* people, drag queens, and anyone and everyone in between. Check out Mango at El Rio on the 4th Saturday of every month. Mango is a dance party beginning in the afternoon that draws in a diverse crowd of ladies.
Head just north to an area right on the outskirts of the Mission District for some other great bars. The Stud, with over fifty years of serving up drinks, events, and specific parties for different nights of the week, is a classic San Francisco queer hotspot. SF Eagle is another popular SoMa institution, most popular amongst gay men. SF Eagle is one of San Francisco’s biggest gay party spots, with a patio and bar open until the early hours of the morning.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is a classic little dive bar by Civic Center, perfect for queer people of all shapes and sizes. Known for great drag shows and top parties, including Dream Queens Revue, Hot Boxxx Girls, Tubesteak Connection Tuesdays, and more, Aunt Charlie’s is a hidden gem in the heart of the city.
Parker Guest House
Parker Guest House is the elegant option for any couple. The hotel sits in the heart of Mission District, right in front of Mission Dolores Park. The boutique bed and breakfast offers a cozy, homey feel for guests close to the best the city has to offer. The rooms each come with comfy beds, plenty of sunlight and private bathrooms. Enjoy the wine socials on the sun porch, coffee during breakfast, and a great, accommodating staff.
Beck’s Motor Lodge
Beck’s Motor Lodge, right in the Castro is a classic. The 1950s motel style hotel opened its doors for the first time in 1958 and over the years saw much of the area’s history unfold. The lodge has been owned by the Beck family since its opening, save for a few years in between, giving you and your partner the best, most authentic kind of care during your stay. Beck’s Motor Lodge is a known LGBT friendly destination for you and your boo and each booking comes with free parking, access to the rooftop terrace, and simple yet charming rooms.
Inn on Castro
For an authentic San Francisco stay, check out the Inn on Castro. Step into the inn inside one of San Francisco’s classic Victorian homes, which boasts itself as the only accommodation in the heart of the Castro on Castro street itself. Enjoy a book or a coffee by the fireplace, the charming and sunny, uniquely decorated bedrooms, or the full breakfast in the communal dining room each morning.