The 10 best gay things to do in San Francisco

There’s no place quite like San Francisco, particularly for counter-culture loving liberals with queer leanings. Iconic for its trailblazing legislation on gay freedoms, as home to the first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, and the first city in the US to legalize gay marriage, San Francisco is a true haven for the global gay community. Not coincidently, the city also happens to be the backdrop to one of the world’s best Pride Parades and myriad other fetish and non-conformist events, where queer antics and free-spirited sexuality can go without judgement. With the right to be as outlandish as possible granted to all, a visit to San Francisco is sure to be a truly memorable experience, one where you can soak up rich queer history across a number of cool neighbourhoods while embracing the active LGBTQ community and local nightlife scene. Here’s our round-up of the top gay things to do in San Francisco.

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With such a rich, rainbow-hued history, San Francisco has long been a stomping ground for famed members of the global queer community

Photo: Henri Meilhac

1. Soak up the gay-friendly atmosphere in The Castro

The Castro neighbourhood has sat firmly at the centre of gay life in San Francisco since the 70s and remains a rainbow-flag lined beauty, brimming with history, lively bars and an ever-widening shopping district. Pause at the intersection of 18th and Castro streets to soak up the atmosphere of gay ground zero before grabbing a bite to eat from one of a plethora of fusion eateries, serving up such delights as dim sum at Mama Ji’s and sweet snacks at Hot Cookie. While you’re here, don’t miss the mural and plaque at 575 Castro Street which stands as a tribute to Harvey Milk, the gay civil rights icon who spearheaded anti-discrimination legislature in the 1970s.

2. Browse San Francisco’s best shopping districts

You don’t have to be gay to appreciate shopping on San Francisco’s Chestnut Street but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Tread the sophisticated yet bustling streets, moseying in and out of the area’s eclectic mix of restaurants, cafés, stores and boutiques. Whether you come here for a laid-back coffee morning, to pick up a sharp new outfit or to try out the lunch and dinner options, Chestnut Street is always throbbing with life, and not wanting for anything. The possible commercial exception might be the huge adult gift store known as Does your Mother Know which is based closer to the Castro for obvious reasons. Head here for a peek at an impressive range of lubricants, sex toys and eyebrow-raising novelties for both men and women.

Photo: Leighann Renee

Castro Theater | Photo: Jens Peter Olesen

3. Swot up on San Francisco’s Rich LGBT history

The GLBT Historical Society, rather than serving dyslexic members of the queer community as it might seem, is, in actual fact, an archive museum holding an extensive collection of historic artefacts relating to the history of LGBT people in the United States, with a particular focus on San Francisco and Northern California. The first standalone museum of its kind, dedicated solely to LGBT history, the GLBT Historical Society, on 18th Street in the Castro neighbourhood, allows visitors to learn more about the legendary political figure Harvey Milk while enjoying various temporary and permanent exhibits spanning archival materials and even graphic arts.

4. Walk San Francisco’s Rainbow Honor Walk

With such a rich, rainbow-hued history, San Francisco has long been a stomping ground for famed members of the global queer community. Discover more with a walk along San Francisco’s own version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, known as the Rainbow Honor Walk. Concentrated along Castro Street around 18th, where even the crosswalks are rainbow-striped, you’ll find numerous commemorative plaques honouring prominent gay artists, entertainers and activists throughout history, such as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and modern pop artist Keith Haring, as well as other minority figures such as the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams.

5. See a performance at San Francisco Castro Theatre

It’s theatre, darling, at the San Francisco Castro Theatre, a landmark location which has hosted theatre, performance, sing-a-longs and movie screenings since its construction in 1922. Boasting original features, extravagantly ornate décor and plush seating, this 1,400-seater theatre is as old school as it gets in the US, complete with its own pipe organ for grand musical productions. Witness various events and celebrations on the auditorium’s large stage, or enjoy screenings of film festival events, repertory cinema and foreign film, with or without audience participation!

Pier 7 | Photo: Jaredd Craig

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6. Dine at one of the best restaurants in San Francisco

For a slap-up meal suitable for even the most hard to please member of the LGBTQ community, Frances is the place to go. With its daily-changing menu designed to reflect modern Californian styles while maintaining a focus on locally sourced ingredients, Frances has garnered both a stellar reputation and a Michelin star to boot in its short time on the Castro scene. Expect fresh and unexpected Cali dishes served alongside juicy cocktails and a fabulous wine list that features local and internationally acclaimed favourites.

7. Quench your thirst at SF’s best gay bar

There’s no shortage of gay bars in San Francisco but Twin Peaks Tavern is a firm winner, proudly gay since the day it became one of the first gay bars in San Francisco to remove the coverings from its centrepiece windows and shout its presence to the world. Strewn with ornately vintage décor in a top location, Twin Peaks Tavern is an iconic watering hole in SF that’ll tempt you time and time again with its affordability, classy cocktails and comfy seating, providing the ultimate space to meet the city’s mercurial queer community and other like-minded travellers.

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Seasonal gay extravaganzas are afoot all year long in San Francisco but it’s around summer solstice when the event calendar is most packed

Baker Beach | Photo: Rodrigo Soares1

8. Take a gay day trip to Napa Valley and Sonoma

Serving as the setting for many movies including Keanu Reeves’ 1995 A Walk in the Clouds, Sideways and the more recent Netflix comedy Wine Country, are the winemaking regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma. Famed worldwide for their wines, these numerous vineyards, located back to back in the rolling hills of rural California, provide the perfect sun-soaked locale to indulge in a grape-heavy afternoon of wine tasting while observing winemaking processes first hand.

9. Liberate yourself on San Francisco’s nude beaches

Back on the main island, towards the edges of northern San Francisco in the green Presidio area, the landscape is just as noteworthy. Here you’ll discover crystal waters, with views of the Golden Gate and Alcatraz Island, as well as naked beach-dwelling gays towards the north-west (although you’ll have to get a little closer to fully appreciate these sights). If you’d like to do so, follow signs towards Baker Beach, an unofficial gay, clothing-optional beach, or Marshall’s Beach, a gay-popular nudist area. Both sandy stretches offer great views of the famed bridge and are accessible via a bus journey to Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza (#30 for Marshall’s, #38 and #29 for Baker) plus a 15-minute walk on the other side.

Sonoma | Photo: Trent Erwin

Photo: Lefteris Kallergis

10. Celebrate summer’s best gay events in San Francisco

Seasonal gay extravaganzas are afoot all year long in San Francisco but it’s around summer solstice when the event calendar is most packed. Of course, there’s the infamous San Francisco Pride in June where crowds upwards of 100,000 loudly show their support for San Francisco’s diverse and inclusive LGBTQ+ community with a huge weekend-long party that disrupts and brightens the entire city. As well as the memorable celebrations to be had among the main parade, the wider festival hosts speeches from inspiring LGBTQ leaders, a political rally, fun run, various club nights and free hugs for all.

Also in June, visitors to the city can experience Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, one of the biggest queer film festivals the world over, and one such event offering a more encultured view of the international community compared to the average fetish festivals or club circuit. Integrating programs designed to support emerging LGBTQ+ filmmakers, Frameline also provides an internationally recognised stage for the best queer cinema around the globe. As this one is known to sell out fast, make sure to book your tickets to screenings and other connected events well in advance.

Then there’s Fresh Meat Festival, the edgy cherry atop an already sweet, gender-bending June in the city. Featuring everything from transgender-centric rock opera to gay ballroom championships and intersectional dance theatre featuring pioneering queer disabled acts, Fresh Meat is one of the best trans and queer performance festivals sure to keep you all guessing. Aiming for total inclusivity with a defiant edge, this event is a true joy for San Francisco’s summer, showcasing regional and world premieres of extraordinary performance, theatre and live music.

Photo: Edgar Chaparro

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