Progressive and diverse, California easily stands out as a top destination for LGBT travelers. Home to such world-renowned havens for personal beliefs and lifestyles as San Francisco, West Hollywood, and Palm Springs, California has a wide range of LGBT-welcome (or LGBT-owned) inns, restaurants, nightclubs, spas, and major happenings that draw huge crowds.
The City by the Bay, known for its liberal, alternative lifestyles, is one of the best-known areas in the world for LGBT. In the Castro, a rainbow flag flaps in the wind above colorfully painted crosswalks, making one big statement: San Francisco welcomes the LGBT community with open arms. There are more than 60 gay bars and clubs, and although the Castro serves as the epicenter of LGBT culture and nightlife, gay-friendly businesses are sprinkled citywide—frankly, it’s the norm here. Learn more about the city’s remarkable gay movement on a guided “Cruisin’ the Castro” historical walking tour.
Every June is Pride month, when visitors flock to the city for the annual (and outrageous) SF Pride Parade, as well as Frameline LGBT film festival. Badlands, the Lookout, and Twin Peaks Tavern are legendary haunts, and The Parker Guest House, W, and Casa Luna SF are just a few of the city’s gay-friendly hotels.
Fabulous pool parties. Stylish bars and impeccably designed hotels. Pampering spas and energetic nightclubs. Lavish events. There’s no question that the Palm Springs region ranks as one of the world’s top destinations for LGBT travelers. Whether you’re a couple or looking for a singles scene, Palm Springs and its neighbouring cities offer memorable experiences—from tranquil retreats to clothing-optional resorts.
"The scene really heats up when the weather cools down"
The scene really heats up when the weather cools down in late autumn and winter. Some estimates put the local LGBT population at 40 percent, and in November, the Greater Palm Springs Pride event kicks off the season with an eye-popping parade and block party. It’s among the many signature LGBT gatherings that take place during the year. The party-filled Dinah Shore Weekend/Palm Springs Women’s Weekend (or just “The Dinah”) coincides with the ANA Inspiration LPGA Golf Championship, and is considered the world’s largest lesbian happening. A few weeks later, it’s the guys’ turn, and time for the dancing and pool frolics of the Palm Springs White Party, the area’s biggest gay event.
Blessed with sunny beaches and plenty of cultural attractions, San Diego is an appealing destination for alternate-lifestyle travelers. Hillcrest, a retro-hip enclave located northwest of Balboa Park, is San Diego's unquestioned LGBT hub. This leafy neighborhood is a shopper’s heaven, with distinctive boutiques and plenty of cafes where you can window-shop, dine al fresco, and soak up the great weather. Dig into classic American comfort foods at Gossip Grill, then dance the night away at The Brass Rail, San Diego’s oldest gay bar. A short drive from Hillcrest, catch productions showcasing LGBT stories and themes at the Diversionary Theatre, first opened in 1986.
With its year-round sun, San Diego doesn’t really have a “best” time to visit, but LGBT travellers might want to aim for San Diego LGBT Pride, a three-day celebration in July that draws 300,000 people to its parade, festival, and block party.
At the base of the Hollywood Hills, the city of West Hollywood (known as “WeHo” by locals) is an unabashed hot bed for L.A.’s vibrant LGBT scene. Expect splashy, classy, and stylish in an area where roughly a third of the people who live here identify themselves as LGBT.
Since you’re also in the heart of the entertainment industry, you might as well look like a star—and shop like one. Keep up your workout regimen at one of WeHo’s excellent gym’s, like Crunch, TRAIN, or Mansion Fitness. Then browse fabulous boutiques filled with ultra-stylish clothing and exquisite home furnishings along Melrose Avenue, and Beverly and Robertson Boulevards. Visit top showrooms at the Pacific Design Center (dubbed “The Blue Whale”), also home to MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) Pacific Design Center, with leading exhibitions on architecture and design.
At night, head to the legendary Sunset Strip for comedy clubs, rooftop pools and bars, and live music. One of the hottest spots is the Sky Bar atop the Mondrian, where head-swivelers include John Mayer, Nicole Richie, Marilyn Manson, and a bevvy of flavor-of-the-month young stars. Picking a time to visit? Consider the end of October, when more than 500,000 outrageously costumed revelers let loose during the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival outdoor extravaganza along Santa Monica Boulevard.
A historic arts colony with a long-established gay community, Laguna Beach is Orange County’s leading LGBT city. Stay in such gay-friendly spots as the Surf and Sand Resort, a spectacular oceanfront luxury hotel that’s also home to the intimate (and LGBT-friendly) Aquaterra Spa. Swim and surf in secluded coves and sunny beaches (including such gay-popular stretches as West Beach and Mountain Road Beach), then browse for high-quality art in Laguna’s numerous galleries. For more great art, visit Laguna Art Museum, known for outstanding exhibits works by some of California most important contemporary artists. At night, catch performances at the acclaimed Laguna Playhouse, then dance and hang with the locals at Club Bounce—especially lively during Laguna’s busy summer months. For an unforgettable experience, try to get tickets to the annual Pageant of the Masters, an extravaganza featuring richly costumed live performers depicting characters in master artworks.
Discover a more rustic side of Northern California’s LGBT scene in the woodsy setting of Guerneville, about 90 minutes north of San Francisco. Set among majestic redwood forests on the banks of the Russian River, the tucked-away hamlet has been the go-to gay getaway for Bay Area weekenders for decades. For pinch-me-perfect romantic settings for any partner, book a stay at the luxurious, Mission Revival-style Applewood Inn, or at least dine in the firelight-lit, Michelin-starred restaurant (the wine list is a stunner—not a surprise in the Sonoma County setting). During the day, rent a canoe at Burke’s Canoes—a local classic for decades—then zigzag down the easy-to-paddle Russian River. Back on land hike through stands of giant trees in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, just north of town at the end of Armstrong Woods Road.
Add some indulgence to your day with a wine or champagne tasting at Korbel California Champagnes in Guerneville, or follow country roads south towards Healdsburg, sampling acclaimed Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels at countless wineries along the way. At night, catch the action at the landmark Rainbow Cattle Co., a party destination since 1979.