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 LGBTQ. In the Castro, a rainbow flag flaps in the wind above colorfully painted crosswalks, making one big statement: San Francisco welcomes the LGBTQ community with open arms. There are more than 60 gay bars and clubs, and although the Castro serves as the epicenter of LGBTQ culture and nightlife, gay-friendly businesses are sprinkled citywide—frankly, it’s the norm here. Learn more about the remarkable role the city played and is playing in the gay movement at the GLBT History Museum, or on a guided “Cruisin’ the Castro” historical walking tour.
Every June is Pride Month, which culminates on the last weekend when up to a million visitors flock to the city for the annual (and outrageous) San Francisco Pride celebration. Taking place in front of City Hall at Civic Center Plaza—a location steeped in LGBTQ history– the festivities include live music and comedy on a main stage, plus cabaret, a Country-Western Dance Corral, a Leather Alley carnival, and, pretty much everywhere you look, elaborately costumed performers. Keep your eyes open for celebrities—the celebration has become a real see-and-be-seen opportunity. The main event, of course, is Sunday’s parade, which begins at Market and Beale streets and ends near the Civic Center. If you’re in town during Pride Month, also check out a screening or one of the many events hosted by the Frameline LGBT film festival.
Attending the world’s largest LGBTQ gathering can present a few challenges; check out some tips on how to get the most of it. If you are new to the city’s gay scene, Badlands, Lookout, and Twin Peaks Tavern are legendary haunts, and The Parker Guest House, the Hotel Whitcomb, Joie de Vivre Hotels, and the W are just a few of the city’s gay-friendly hotels.
Insider tip: When planning a visit to San Francisco during Gay Pride Month, be sure to book well in advance, as accommodations fill up quickly.
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 LGBTQ travelers. Whether you’re a couple or looking for a singles scene, Palm Springs and its neighboring 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 LGBTQ population at over 30 percent, and in November, the Greater Palm Springs Pride event kicks off the season with an eye-popping parade and block party, and games and arts-and-crafts activities for kids of all ages. It’s among the many signature LGBTQ 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 parties of the Palm Springs White Party, the area’s biggest annual gay event.
In September, cinephiles flock to Cinema Diverse: The Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival, which attracts submissions and attendees from around the world. Nearby Cathedral City has its own LGBTQ Days event, a free festival held over Easter weekend featuring an opening-night kickoff party, a Bed Race through the streets of the city, and live musical performances. And when it comes to one particular scene, Palm Springs will not be outdone: The Palm Springs Leather Pride weekend in late October has become one of the nation’s largest events of its kind, culminating in the crowning of Mr. Leather.
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 is the center of LGBTQ Los Angeles. In 1984, West Hollywood became the first majority-gay municipality in the country, and ever since, its rich tradition of pride and acceptance has been enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Today, LGBTQ residents comprise more than 40 percent of the 1.9-square-mile community, and the crosswalks are painted as welcoming rainbows.
It goes without saying that the entire area is LGBTQ-friendly, with excellent restaurants, hotels, and shopping on every corner. As for nightlife, consider The Abbey as your first stop. One of the most famous gay bars and nightclubs in the world, The Abbey has everything from go-go dancers to high-end cocktails, and surprisingly good food. Turn up the volume at the aptly named Girl Bar, check out Fubar if you’re looking for an underground feel, or The Bayou for a late-night happy-hour scene. Round out the weekend with drag queen bingo nights held every Sunday at Hamburger Mary’s.
Come June, West Hollywood becomes the home base for the LA Pride Festival and Parade. The monthlong celebration includes festivities around the city, but the main event is the two-day festival in West Hollywood Park, which welcomes more than 400,000 people each year. Listen to A-list musicians perform on the event’s three stages and watch the elaborate floats roll by at Sunday’s parade. Additionally, One City One Pride commences in late May, honoring LGBTQ visual and performing arts with free events around the city.
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.