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Gay San Francisco: The Complete LGBTQ+ Travel Guide 2024

Gay San Francisco: Our Complete LGBTQ+ Travel Guide. When it comes to gay-friendly cities in the US there are few that can compete with the vibrant and diverse Californian city of San Francisco. A trail-blazing destination when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in America, the city remains as progressive and forward thinking as ever.

We visited for the first time this year, and were blown away by the diversity, the attractions, the iconic landmarks, the scenery, the LGBTQ+ history, and of course – the buzzing LGBTQ+ scene itself. 

It is hardly surprising then that the city attracts so many LGBTQ+ travellers each year, and the city certainly caters to their needs and provides a warm welcome.

We found San Francisco to be the most gay-friendly city we have visited in the US so far – and hopefully our Gay Guide to San Francisco will help you to enjoy your visit as much as we enjoyed ours!

Is San Francisco gay-friendly?

gay district san francisco

Is San Francisco gay-friendly? Absolutely yes!

Known as the original ‘gay-friendly city,’ it is little wonder that so many LGBTQ+ people have chosen to make this city their home. To this day the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco remains one of the largest and most prominent in the United States, with almost 15% of San Franciscans identifying as LGBTQ+. That’s one in every six people!

This warm and welcoming vibe is extended to the countless gay travellers that visit each year, and the gay-friendly attitude, just like the LGBTQ+ community, is found all over the city, and not just in the gay Castro district.

Where is the gay area in San Francisco?

gay friendly san francisco
Ben enjoying brunch at one of the many cafes in the Castro

Just like most major cities the LGBTQ+ scene is centred around the ‘gayborhood.’ Gay San Francisco is found as soon as you set foot in the Castro district – San Franciscos gay epicentre.

Located in the Eureka Valley, the Castro is a historic neighbourhood, mainly concentrated in the cross-section of Market Street to 19th Street and Church Street to Eureka Street, with Castro Street running through.

It’s impossible not to know when you have arrived – the whole area is adorned with rainbow flags flying from the streetlamps, as well as various rainbow crosswalks too.

Home to the city’s largest gay community, the Castro is also a top tourist destination with plenty to see and explore both day and night. The neighbourhood is where you will find many shops, restaurants, countless gay bars, LGBTQ+ bookstores and cafes and brunch places.

The Castro also has many historical features and landmarks to visit, thanks to the city’s importance during the LGBTQ+ movement. It was after all the district where Harvey Milk lived, and to date you can visit Harvey Milk Plaza as well as his former campaign headquarters.

Other historical landmarks to visit include the Rainbow Walk, which covers several blocks offering a walk of fame with plaques dedicated to key LGBTQ+ pioneers of the community, and Pink Triangle Park, commemorating the gay people persecuted in WW2.

Gay-Friendly Hotels in San Francisco

Without a doubt, you will be warmly welcomed as a gay traveller in pretty much any hotel you choose to stay. For most visitors, location is the key deciding factor, and so they may look at choosing a district or area first and then narrow it down to a hotel.

Naturally, many gay travellers will opt to stay in the Castro district, and of course here you will find a number of gay and gay-friendly hotel options, but there are gay and gay-friendly hotels spread across the city.

There are far too many gay-friendly hotels in San Francisco to list here, so for the purposes of this blog post we have included the three hotels we stayed at, one from each of the Castro, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square district.

And for a much wider choice, check out our dedicated post on the top 20 gay-friendly hotels in San Francisco, where we have listed them by district for your ease.

The Westin St Francis San Francisco – Union Square

gay hotel san francisco

The Westin St Francis at Union Square was home for our very first 2 nights in San Francisco, and what a welcome to the city! When it comes to knowing if a hotel is gay-friendly, there is no clearer sign than seeing two ginormous rainbow flags proudly flying above the front door.

The location of this hotel is everything – the hotel is directly situated on Union Square Plaza itself, with many of the rooms offering a view of the entire plaza.

The building is grand and very elegant, especially in the common spaces, yet the rooms are stylishly decorated with some great modern touches.

Address: 335 Powell St, San Francisco, CA 94102, United States

Kimpton Alton Hotel – Fisherman’s Wharf

gay friendly hotel san francisco

We are big fans of the Kimpton brand thanks to their continuous support of the LGBTQ+ community so this was a natural choice for our 2-night stay in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

We immediately knew we were welcomed as a gay couple when upon check-in we saw that all the staff name badges featured the rainbow logo – such a small touch but can make all the difference to how guests feel.

Again, location here was key – the hotel is just a few minutes’ walk to the waterfront, and Pier 39 is also accessible by foot.

We loved the little touches here such as tea and coffee served in the lobby each morning, as well as the hosted evening social hour, with complimentary beer and wine (again in the lobby) and a local DJ.

Address: 2700 Jones St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

Hotel Castro – The Castro

gay hotel san francisco

Naturally for our final night in the city we had to spend it in the Castro district!

Hotel Castro is in the heart of the neighbourhood, with everything within walking distance. A small boutique hotel, it only has 12 rooms, and each one is uniquely decorated inspired by LGBTQ+ heroes both past and present.

We loved the rooftop terrace here, complete with great view of the neighbourhood, as well as ‘The Lobby Bar’ – which is the perfect place to have a drink before heading to check out the gay nightlife of the Castro district.

Address: 4230 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States

Gay Bars in San Francisco

The gay nightlife scene in San Francisco is big – with a huge variety of different bars and clubs to suit all, regardless of what type of night you are after. You don’t have to travel far to find a good gay bar either – as whilst the biggest concentration of gay bars is found in the Castro, there are gay bars dotted around the city.

There are of course too many to list here, but the below are some of the most popular gar bars in San Francisco and definitely ones not to miss on your visit.

Top tip: Most bars in San Francisco operate on a cash only basis. Even the ones that may accept cash or contactless inside will generally still expect the cover to be paid in cash.

Hi Tops – The Castro         

gay bar san francisco

Hi Tops are a chain of gay sports bars, with other locations in prominent LGBTQ+ hotspots such as West Hollywood, Los Angeles.

Hi Tops is a gay sports bar, known for its loud atmosphere and large crowds, especially on big game days which are shown on one of the bars many flat screen TVs. However, the bar becomes much more mixed come the weekend, with go-go dancers, shot boys and more of a ‘party’ vibe.

Hi Tops also hosts different theme nights too, such as their Tuesday trivia night, and they also serve food.

Address: 2247 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States

440 Castro – The Castro

Formerly called ‘Daddy’s,’ the name is quite accurate when it comes to describing the crowd, as 440 Castro is a popular choice amongst the older, leather daddy and bear crowd.

440 is a popular bar in the Castro district, and whilst naturally is busiest on a weekend when the crowd becomes more mixed, they also host various events throughout the week, including their very popular Underwear Night each Monday where you can party in your briefs alongside topless go-go boys.

Address: 440 Castro St, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States

Beaux – The Castro

gay bars san francisco
With our friend Hector at Beaux

One of the newer gay venues to the Castro, Beaux is a cross between bar and nightclub, and so is a perfect choice for those looking for a slightly livelier night with the option to hit the dancefloor.

Beaux hosts various themed nights and events, such as the Latin night on a Wednesday, and Thursday being focused on playing Top 40 pop remixes from the 90’s and 00’s (definitely our kind of bar!)

Beaux is also always the host venue when the queens from RPDR are passing through town – definitely worth keeping an eye on their schedule to see if any Ru queens are starring in their Big Top Sunday drag show!

One thing worth mentioning, despite Beaux being a good choice to close out your night on the dancefloor, due to state law and liquor law sales restrictions, the venue does close at 02:00am.

Address: 2344 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States

Midnight Sun – The Castro

Included here as one of San Franciscos oldest gay bars, Midnight Sun has been serving the Castro community for over 50 years.

Midnight Sun is a gay video bar and lounge, that also hosts various weekly themed nights, such as a drag show on a Monday, karaoke nights, and Ru Pauls Drag Race viewing parties.

Midnight Sun has also been voted as having the best ‘Happy Hour in SF’ – with two-for-one everything until 9pm every day!

Address: 4067 18th St #2535, San Francisco, CA 94114, United States

Powerhouse – Soma

gay bar san francisco

Powerhouse is definitely not a gay bar for the prudish! Powerhouse is known as being San Franciscos ‘raunchiest’ gay bar, where anything goes.

Self-branded as San Francisco ‘cruise-bar’ this is the place to be if you’re looking to pick-up as opposed to hitting the dance floor, although there will be a DJ playing most nights!

Powerhouse also hosts various events, but bordering on the slightly cheeky – underwear nights, wet underwear contest, leather events, smelly armpit competitions etc.

Expect a mixed crowd in attendance – but definitely a firm favourite with the leather crowd and those into kink.

Address: 1347 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103, United States

The Eagle – Soma

gay bars san francisco

Did you really expect a city with such a prominent leather and fetiʂh scene and history to not have an Eagle?

San Franciscos Eagle can be found in the Soma district, the heart of the city’s leather community. This legendary bar of course has its roots as a leather biker bar, but now is open and welcome to everyone.

The Eagle is known for its huge outdoor patio, host to the Sunday Beer Bust – $15 all you can drink beer.

Other themes and weekly events include game nights, open mic nights, movie nights, karaoke nights, and of course partying with a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights.

Address: 398 12th St, San Francisco, CA 94103, United States

Gay Events in San Francisco

Of course, a city with such a big LGBTQ+ community is going to have a calendar full of gay events to keep them satisfied year-round! The below are just a few of the gay events in San Francisco that you might want to consider planning your next visit around!

Folsom Street Fair

gay event san francisco

Spanning 13 city blocks, and attracting over 400,000 fetiʂh lovers from around the world, there is a reason that San Franciscos Folsom Street Fair is known as ‘The World’s Biggest Leather Event’.

The Folsom Street Fair was born back in 1984. Due to the AIDS crisis, the local government started to shut down the bathhouses, and impose severe regulations on many of the bars and meeting places for the gay community at that time, in particular amongst the leather subculture. As a result, the community held a street fair to come together at this difficult time, and the Folsom Street Fair was born and has been going strong ever since.

The Folsom Street Fair takes place on the last Sunday of September each year, and runs along Folsom Street (of course!) from 12th to 7TH Street, in the Soma district. The fair has over 200 exhibitors and vendors – selling food and drinks, as well as all sorts of fetiʂh clothing, toys, gear etc.

You can expect to see all kinds of fetiʂhes on display, with attendees dressed in leather, rubber, sportswear as well as other kinds of fetiʂh clothing. San Franciscos nudity ban is also lifted inside the designated area too, so be prepared to see ‘all.’

Whilst the Street Fair itself is just the Sunday, the week leading up to the fair is Folsom Week, and is full of some of the biggest and best circuit parties in the US.

San Francisco Pride

gay pride san francisco

In a city as gay and proud as San Francisco, it’s little wonder that their Pride is one of the largest in the world, with over a million people visiting the city over the pride weekend.

In fact, San Francisco Pride is also one of the oldest – with the first event taking place in 1970, with a small march down Polk Street and a small gay gathering in Golden Gate Park. Since 1972 the event has taken place every year, changing and evolving to become the San Francisco Pride celebration as we know it today.

Fun fact: The 6-stripe rainbow flag that we are all so familiar with was actually originally created for the 1978 San Francisco Pride

San Francisco Pride usually takes place at the end of June each year, running from Friday to Sunday with a full weekend of celebrations, and of course the main highlight being the Pride Parade which kicks off on the Sunday morning.

San Francisco Pride Parade is huge – last year there were almost 300 groups participating, and over 50,000 people marching.

Another main event during the weekend is San Francisco Pride Festival, a day long event held on Saturday. Pride Festival is held at Civic Centre Plaza, in front of City Hall and features a main stage with music, comedy acts and other forms of entertainment, as well as over 300 different exhibitors.

For the party animals, you can of course expect any number of different circuit parties to be running during the weekend. San Francisco is home to some of the most legendary party venues in the US, and these will all be taken over during the Pride weekend for some special pride editions of the cities usual circuit parties, such as Electrolux, BRUT and XOXO.

And if you are more of a bar hopper than a circuit partier, the nightlife scene in the Castro will be exceptionally busy during the Pride weekend, with most bars and clubs playing host to different events.

Castro Street Fair

gay san francisco

The Castro Street Fair is one of San Franciscos biggest LGBTQ+ events outside of Pride.

As a city built up of multiple culturally diverse neighbourhoods, each neighbourhood tends to host their own unique annual street fair – and the Castro Street Fair is the oldest and longest-running of them all!

The first Castro Street Fair took place in 1974, and was founded by Harvey Milk himself to showcase, support and celebrate gay-owned businesses in response to discrimination towards them by the Merchants Association at that time. This was before he even ran for political office, when he was a small business owner himself, at Castro Camera.

The first street fair drew over 5000 attendees, and the success of the event is said to be one of the main reasons why the Castro has become the centre of the LGBTQ+ community, not just for San Francisco but for the US as a whole.

Today, the Castro Street Fair is one of the city’s most important festivals. It is a full-on all day street party, with music, multiple stages, drag shows, comedy acts, food, drinks and of course, the most important element, the gathering of the community.

The Castro Street Fair takes place each year on the first Sunday of October, and takes over pretty much the entire commercial zone of the district, from Market Street to 19th Street and the whole of Castro Street.

Up Your Alley Fair

The ‘Up Your Alley Fair,’ or more commonly known as Dore Alley Fair, or even simply Dore Alley is a leather and fetiʂh-event held annually in San Francisco – with a reputation for being more hardcore than Folsom and not for the faint of heart!

Up Your Alley is a weekend of fetiʂh events, circuit parties and celebrations running over the last weekend of July, in the lead up to the last Sunday of the month being the Up Your Alley Street Fair.

Located in front of the legendary Powerhouse Bar, the street fair event runs between 9th and 10th Street, and along Dore Alley between Howard and Folsom Streets in the Soma district.

The event attracts almost 15,000 visitors come to dance, show, watch the performances and visit the adult-themed vendors and exhibitors, with a scene for a variety of different fetiʂhes – leather, rubber, sportswear, skin gear etc.

And from Friday to Sunday a number of the city’s circuit party organisers will be hosting various Dore Alley editions of their parties, with something available for everyone.

Gay Saunas in San Francisco

It might be surprising to hear that in a city as forward thinking and open-minded as San Francisco, with so various $ex-positive events spread throughout their calendar, that gay saunas and bathhouses don’t seem to exist here.

However, there is a reason for this, which as previously mentioned dates back to the origins of the Folsom Street Fair.

In the early 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis the city imposed a ban on bathhouses, as well as any other gay meeting place, having private rooms with a locked door. This was to allow the proprietor of the establishment to monitor the patrons and to ensure (as they were required to do if running such an establishment) they were participating in safe-$exual acts and using a condom.

Naturally this intrusive regulation caused the city’s bathhouses to close, and as the city kept this ban on private locked rooms right through until a few years ago, it meant that no gay bathhouse ever reopened.

That being said, the ban was repealed recently, and so for the first time in over four decades, proprietors can now once again seek a permit to open a traditional gay bathhouse in the city of San Francisco.

Now its just a matter of waiting!

Things to do in San Francisco for Gay Travellers

Alcatraz

gay travel in san francisco

Pretty sure if you say the words San Francisco to anyone, Alcatraz is the first thing to pop into their heads!

Alcatraz is a former maximum-security prison, located on an island of the same name in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz is one of the world’s most notorious prisons, and is famed because despite many trying over the years, no-one incarcerated there ever successfully escaped.

Being located on an island, the only way to reach Alcatraz is by ferry, the return ferry crossing on Alcatraz Cruises being included in the ticket. Once arriving at the island, you take a self-guided audio tour, narrated by former inmates and guides.

It gets cold and windy out on the island – especially if the fog is in the bay, so a warm jacket is definitely recommended!

Should you wish to see Alcatraz but not actually go onto the island or tour the prison itself, many of the bay cruises will include a loop around the island.

Visit the sea lions at Pier 39 and explore Fisherman’s Wharf

gay travel san francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most well-known and busiest tourist areas of San Francisco.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to Pier 39 – a waterfront marketplace, and by far the busiest part of Fisherman’s Wharf.

One of the main ‘attractions’ of Pier 39 is the sea lion colony that has set up a permanent home here on the docks. No-one actually knows the reason the sea lions decided to first reside here, but the food in the bay, and the sheltered conditions mean they decided to stay, and they have now been present at Pier 39 for over 30 years.

Whilst the number of sea lions naturally changes throughout the seasons, on average there are over 300 present, and they can be observed from the viewing platform and walkway behind Pier 39.

Pier 39 is also home to multiple shops and dining venues – many of which specialize in seafood given the location. Seafood and clam chowder served in bread bowls is the staple here!

From Pier 39 you are also within walking distance to many of Fisherman’s Wharfs other top attractions and entertainment venues, such as the Aquarium of the Bay, Madame Tussauds, and Ghirardelli Square – home to the world-famous chocolate shop and ice cream parlour!

Picnic in Dolores Park

gay travel guide san francisco

The Mission is San Franciscos oldest neighbourhood, dating back to 1776. It is also home to Mission Dolores Park – a former Jewish cemetery, now one of San Franciscos most popular parks spanning 16 acres.

As soon as the sun comes out and the temperature rises, every inch of the park is covered with locals picnicking and barbecuing, and just generally hanging out.

And whilst it may be miles from the ocean, Dolores Park even has what has been dubbed its own ‘gay beach.’ Whilst New York gays have taken Sheep Meadow for themselves, the San Francisco gays have taken over the southwest, top corner of the park, on the grassy ledge overlooking the city skyline, the slope known locally as ‘The Fruit Shelf.’

This is the perfect spot to come and hang out with your friends on a sunny afternoon, with food and drinks – and whilst not an actual beach, you are guaranteed to find many boys in speedos.

Explore the Castro District and its history

gay district san francisco

The Castro district is the gay epicentre of San Francisco, and for decades has been a vital part of the city’s LGBTQ+ identity, due to the integral role the district played during the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s.

The Castro wasn’t always a gay neighbourhood of course. Up until the early 1960s it was originally a neighbourhood of working-class families, like the majority of the city at that time. But after WW2, these families followed a trend of moving from the city to the suburbs, and they were replaced in their former neighbourhood by soldiers – particularly soldiers that had been discharged from the military for homosexuality.

San Francisco city become home to thousands of dishonourably discharged servicemen – and for some reason, it was the Castro district that many decided to make their home.

The Castros place in LGBTQ+ history was further cemented in 1977 when Harvey Milk, a small business owner and civil rights activist finally won his electoral campaign to be elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors after trying for four years – a campaign he ran from his camera store on Castro Street.

Locations such as the former camera store, Harvey Milk Plaza named in his memoriam after his assassination, and the plaques honouring other historical LGBTQ+ icons on the Castro rainbow walk are just some of the landmarks that can be visited today as a reminder of this district’s historical importance.

Whilst nowadays the Castro is a thriving neighbourhood of bars, shops and restaurants, it’s important to remember that the only reason this modern-day safe haven for the city’s LGBTQ+ community exists is because of the rights that have been so strongly fought for.

Visit Baker Beach

Baker Beach is the most famous of the five beaches found within the Presidio, San Franciscos National Park site.

Whilst a great place to spend a hot day, or to watch the sun set beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, some visitors have an ulterior motive for choosing Baker Beach, and that is because it is San Franciscos unofficial nude beach.

Whilst public nudity was prohibited in 2012, there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as at a fair or festival with permits (i.e. Folsom), private beaches and some public beaches – and Baker Beach is one of those.

When entering Baker Beach from the parking lot to the left is the ‘family-friendly’ section of the beach, but to the right you will find the nudist section.

Baker Beach is a popular choice for locals and tourists alike, both because it is a nude beach, because you can walk to the Golden Gate Bridge from here, but also because it was the location of the very first Burning Man ever – when back in 1986 the founders took a small wooden figure down to the beach to burn on the Summer Solstice.

The Golden Gate Bridge

gay travel guide san francisco

Is it fair to say that the Golden Gate Bridge is possibly the most famous beach in the world? It is instantly recognizable with its red-orange colour – the name Golden Gate comes from the colour it appeared to be when viewed from a distance – and is one of the most photographed landmarks in the world.

Apparently 120,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, but you can also cross on foot or bike, as there are separate pedestrian walkways and bike paths.

Alternatively, there are also a number of cruises that take you out onto the bay for a different perspective of the bridge. The bridge is most often partially covered in fog, but we found this to just add something to our photos and make it even more dramatic!

Ride a Cable Car

gay travel san francisco

San Franciscos cable cars have been transporting people around the city since the late 19th century when they used to run 23 routes.

Whilst nowadays the locals may choose more efficient modes of transport to get around, the cable cars are a key attraction to the city, and taking a ride on one is an iconic experience for almost all visitors.

There are three of the original 23 lines still operating, taking passengers up and down the hills of San Francisco, through various neighbourhoods.

There was something so iconic about walking through the streets and hearing the cable car bells ringing even from blocks away! Also watching the car arrive at the end of the line onto the turntable where it was manually turned around by hand was very impressive!

Cable car tickets must be purchase prior to boarding. Whilst you can purchase passes for multiple rides, the best way being either a Clipper card or MuniMobile, most tourists opt for a one-way ticket for a single ride, which can be bought at various sales locations throughout the city – you can use this map here to find your nearest location.

Once tickets are purchased, the cable car can be boarded at any of the three terminals, depending on the route you want to take, found at Powell & Market, Bay & Taylor and Hyde & Beach Streets from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Visit Mr S Leather

By now we have established that San Francisco is well known for its leather and fetiʂh-scene, the heart of which is the Soma district, home to Folsom, Up Your Alley Fair and most of the city’s leather bars. In fact, part of this district has been named the world’s first officially recognised Leather District.

At the centre of this Leather District lies Mr S Leather – the largest leather and fetiʂh retailer in San Francisco, with the biggest collection of leather, kink gear, neoprene, toys, bondage gear – the list goes on.

Whilst Mr S Leather products are now available worldwide online, this store on Folsom Street is where it all started back in 1979, founded by Alan Selby, Mr S himself. As such, visiting the store on Folsom Street is a must-do for many LGBTQ+ visitors to San Francisco, especially those who are involved in the fetiʂh community.

And there you have our complete gay guide to San Francisco – the gayest city we have visited in the US. We are already looking forward to the day we return and can explore even more.