Progressive and diverse, California easily stands out as a top U.S. destination for LGBTQ travelers. Whether your vacation of choice is having a romantic farm-to-table dinner at a celebrated restaurant, glamping in the midst of California’s world famous scenery or going to a raging pool party in the desert, the Golden State has options galore that cater to the LGBTQ community.
Vibrant neighborhoods such as the Castro in San Francisco and West Hollywood in Los Angeles might be the first LGBTQ destinations that come to mind, but those are only the start. Since the ‘90s, smaller, more rustic towns like Guerneville in Sonoma County have seen an explosion of LGBTQ-owned and -friendly spas, high-end restaurants, and nightlife, making them top destinations.
In the southern part of the state, Orange County’s Laguna Beach has been home to a thriving gay community for decades. A rich art scene, numerous theatrical performances, and a highly celebrated event that combines the two—the Pageant of the Masters—are all a major draw. San Diego has a flourishing LGBTQ scene as well, with the charming neighborhood of Hillcrest serving as the scene’s unofficial hub and hosting one of the nation’s largest pride parades in July. But perhaps some of the state’s most glamorous goings-on are to be found in the deserts—Greater Palm Springs hosts more than its share of major LGBTQ happenings that draw huge crowds every year, and the club scene is booming. Read on to learn more about them all and how to plan a memorable LGBTQ getaway.
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 Alleycarnival, 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.
A note to parents: There are plenty of pride events that are family- and kid-friendly going on in San Francisco during Pride Month. Directly opposite the Asian Art Museum right around the corner for them Civic Center, the annual Family Garden event offers the perfect venue for kids to celebrate diversity with arts, crafts, face-painting, and more; kids are also encouraged to participate for free in the San Francisco Frontrunners Pride Run. You can also check the events calendar at Habitot.org and the Pride with Our Families page at ourfamily.org.
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 (with or without kids), 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 in late autumn and winter—some estimates put the local LGBTQ population at over 30 percent during this time. Though June is the traditional month to celebrate LGBTQ Pride, many Pride events take place in November here; the Greater Palm Springs Pride event kicks off the season early in the month with an eye-popping parade and block party, including games and arts-and-crafts activities for kids of all ages. Another family-friendly Pride event is the Desert Hot Springs Pride Festival in mid-November. And come March, nearby Cathedral City has its own, more adult-focused 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.
The party-filled Dinah Shore Weekend/Palm Springs Women’s Weekend (or just “The Dinah”), in early April, 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. 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.
Insider tip: Check out the Greater Palm Springs LGBTQ calendar for a complete list of events.
Blessed with sunny beaches and plenty of cultural attractions, San Diego is an appealing destination for LGBTQ travelers. Hillcrest, a retro-hip enclave located northwest of Balboa Park, is San Diego's unquestioned LGBTQ 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. The neighborhood is also home to Hillcrest Brewing Company, a proudly gay brewery and restaurant—some say the nation’s first—with signature pours such as Banana Hammock Scotch Ale and Long & Stout Russian Imperial Stout. A short drive from Hillcrest, catch productions showcasing LGBTQ stories and themes at the Diversionary Theatre, first opened in 1986.
Book a room at the Hillcrest Inn, located in the middle of it all, or at the historic boutique resort Inn at the Park, on the edge of Balboa Park West. There are plenty more suggestions on the city’s guide to LGBTQ+ Friendly Lodging.
With its year-round sun, San Diego doesn’t really have a “best” time to visit, but LGBTQ travelers might want to aim for San Diego LGBTQ Pride Parade and Festival, a three-day celebration in July that draws 300,000 people to its rally, parade, block party, and music festival; more than 200 bands take to stages set up in Balboa Park. There are specific events geared to teens and young adults, sponsored by Pride Youth, but the entire event is billed as family- and kid-friendly.
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 go-go dancers, 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.
In late May, One City One Pride honors LGBTQ visual and performing arts with free events around the city, and come June, West Hollywood becomes the home base for the L.A. Pride Festival and Parade. The monthlong celebration includes festivities around the city, many of them appropriate for kids, 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. The festivities are family-friendly, even if they can get a little raucous, but specifically for kids and younger adults 24 and under, there’s the free, circus-themed, and alcohol-free Youth Pride Dance. July brings Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival, which showcases the work from LGBTQ filmmakers from around the world.
A historic arts colony with a long-established gay community, Laguna Beach is Orange County’s leading LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ-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 LGBTQ 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, earning the nickname the “Gay Riviera.”
For pinch-me-perfect romantic settings to enjoy with any partner, book a stay at the luxurious, Mission Revival–style Applewood Inn, or at least dine in the firelight-lit restaurant (the wine list is a stunner—not a surprise in the Sonoma County setting). Another option is Boon Hotel + Spa, opened in 2008 by local entrepreneur and quasi-celebrity (she was named Triple Grand Champion on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show Grocery Games) Crista Luedtre. Also check out her other local restaurant endeavors, farm-to-table bistro Boon Eat + Drink, German beer hall Brot, and modern Mexican bar El Barrio. For a truly down-to-earth and easygoing stay, Highlands Resort offers a wide array of homey cabins and suites, and promotes an “unplugged” approach to relaxation.
During the day, rent a canoe at Burke’s Canoe Trips—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, or the Bar at the R3 Hotel, another longtime favorite of the LGBTQ crowd. Featured prominently on the Russian River calendar of events is an entire week starting in late July devoted to “bears”—and good deeds—during Lazy Bear Week, when profits from all dance parties, pool parties, wine tastings, gourmet meals and more go to charity.
If you’re visiting with kids, be aware that many LGBTQ-focused accommodations in Guerneville are adult-oriented. Check their websites before booking. If you’re looking for kid-friendly events to celebrate Pride Month, see what’s happening at sonomacountypride.org.