only in SF

Uncovering San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history in the city’s most popular ‘hoods 

A diverse group of people, drag queens, pups, lesbians, latex and leather lovers converge on a street in San Francisco for a group photo.
Snapshot from San Francisco Pride 2023 (photo by Gooch)

San Francisco has long been a beacon of inclusivity, inviting travelers from across the globe with the promise of freedom and liberation, not to mention perfect climate and natural beauty. 

As a result, multiple landmarks define San Francisco’s queer history and now stand as a testament to the city’s enduring spirit of acceptance and resilience.

Travelers can walk in the footsteps of Harvey Milk under the Castro’s huge rainbow flag, explore thriving community hubs in SoMa, and pay a visit to the cultural institutions of Golden Gate Park. On this journey through the city’s hippest neighborhoods, you’ll uncover a complex web of history and culture.

Castro District – Harvey Milk’s Camera Shop

The atmosphere at Queer A.F. Grand Opening Extravaganza on June 10th, 2022
The atmosphere at Queer A.F. Grand Opening Extravaganza on June 10th, 2022 (Photo by Drew Altizer)

Strolling through San Francisco’s gayborhood, a stop at the site of Harvey Milk’s camera shop, Castro Camera, is a must. The Human Rights Campaign took over the site in 2011. Today, it has transformed into a vibrant hub known as Queer A.F. (Queer Arts Featured), and now houses an artist-led gallery, a unique boutique, and serves as an exciting event space. 

Nearby, you’ll also find historical points of interest like the Pink Triangle Memorial and Twin Peaks Tavern, a gay bar that opened in 1935. The bar became iconic in 1972 when it pulled back its curtains so passersby could see inside, a pivotal moment for LGBTQ+ visibility. Designated as a San Francisco landmark in 2013, it remains a symbol of progress as well as a great place to enjoy a cocktail. Have a spritz under its Tiffany-style lamps for a true Castro experience. 

Queer A.F. plans to hosts an event to support the local arts community
Queer A.F. plans to host as many events as possible to support the local arts community (Photo by Devlin Shand)

As you stroll through the Castro in search of a late-night bite, consider Orphan Andy’s, where French toast and chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy await. Dennis Ziebell and Bill Pung, co-owners of this 50s-style diner, have been in business since the 1970s, catering to visitors’ cravings 24 hours a day. 

Polk Gulch – San Francisco’s first gayborhood

Juanita MORE! leads the People’s March on Polk Street during San Francisco Pride 2023
Juanita MORE! leads the People’s March on Polk Street during San Francisco Pride 2023 (photo by Gooch)

Little known fact: Polk Street was the site of the city’s first Pride parade, making Polk Gulch the first gayborhood in San Francisco. At the center of it all, Cinch Saloon, a cherished local haunt, doles out brews alongside nearly five decades of history. This gay-friendly bar beckons a diverse crowd with its calendar of events, offering a warm and inclusive atmosphere to unwind and mingle.

Dykes on Bikes Rally during San Francisco Pride 2023
Dykes on Bikes Rally during San Francisco Pride 2023 (photo by Gooch)

Further up Polk Street, find a cute ‘fit at ReLove. This queer-BIPOC-owned business is not just a resale boutique; it’s a curated collection of vintage, designer, and indie labels, where each item is handpicked with style in mind. ReLove is also a community space that encourages personal expression and believes in style without breaking the bank. 

For a sweet treat, visit Hot Cookie. This San Francisco bakery’s second location on Polk (its first location is located in the Castro District) is a go-to spot for fresh-baked, suggestively-named cookies. 

SoMa – Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District 

Mural by Simon Malvaez outside Mr. S. Leather in San Francisco
Mural by Serge Gay Jr. outside Mr. S. Leather in San Francisco (photo by SF Leather District)

Eagle Plaza in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood has breathed new life into a once-underused street, creating a haven where our community can come together and celebrate our common history.

Mural by Simon Malvaez outside Powerhouse
Mural by Simon Malvaez outside Powerhouse (photo by Simon Malvaez)

Notably, SF Eagle is the first leather bar in the country to receive historical landmark status and is the party epicenter during Folsom Street Fair. This relaxed hangout in the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District creates an inviting space for all to enjoy—daddies, otters, and pups included. 

Before or after visiting SF Eagle, take a stroll around SoMa and admire the murals created by Simon Malvaez. A proud queer immigrant, Simon’s work sheds light on the intersection of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities.

Following your art walk, make a pit stop at Mr. S Leather for some goodies. This renowned clothing and sportswear shop is celebrated for its top-notch leather, rubber, and neoprene attire. 

After gearing up, make your way to Powerhouse. This local leather bar has long reigned as the ultimate SoMa club destination. From drag shows and gogos to lively happy hours, this venue hosts a plethora of events for circuit queens and heavy hitters. 

Mission District – Clarion Alley Murals

An artist at work on Clarion Alley
An artist at work on Clarion Alley (photo: CAMP)

In the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District, the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) is an expression of the community’s resilience and conviction for advocacy. CAMP harnesses public art to amplify marginalized voices and challenge the status quo. The project has turned Clarion Alley into a giant canvas with over 700 murals created by local artists who bring together social, economic, racial, and environmental justice narratives. 

After your tour of Clarion Alley, grab some sandwiches and refreshments at Bi-Rite Market for a picnic in the park. Take a short walk down the street and claim your spot on the grass at Dolores Park, known to locals as “the gay beach.” Soak in its unique charm and breathtaking views of the city skyline. 

When the sun sets, there’s a long list of highly-rated bars to check out in the Mission. Most notably, the district is home to three lesbian bars: El Rio, Jolene’s, and Mother. On top of that, you’ll find a mostly queer crowd at the Make Out Room.

Golden Gate Park – National AIDS Memorial Grove

A visitor reflects on a memorial at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco
A visitor reflects on a memorial at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco

Tucked inside Golden Gate Park, you’ll find the National AIDS Memorial Grove, a serene, spiritual oasis. Its inception dates back to 1989, a crucial period during the devastating AIDS crisis. The purpose of this sacred space was to offer solace to those affected by grief. It endures as a meticulously nurtured woodland retreat, an enclave for quiet introspection.

National AIDS Memorial Grove
National AIDS Memorial Grove

As you walk through the lush undergrowth beneath towering ferns, you’ll come across numerous stones etched with the names of those lost to AIDS.

Among them, a “Circle of Friends” bears the weighty inscription of no fewer than 2,500 names. The impact of the Grove and its memorials is undeniably profound, a poignant reminder of the lives lost.

Golden Gate Park, a sprawling green expanse situated between San Francisco’s Richmond and Sunset Districts, owes its existence to early environmentalists with a vision to transform barren sand dunes into a lush forest. The park starts in Haight-Ashbury and spans over 1,000 acres to picturesque Ocean Beach, making it the largest urban park in the United States.

Aerial view of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco
Aerial view of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Given its size, it’s no surprise there’s an abundance of things to do, from world-class museums like the de Young and the California Academy of Sciences to music festivals including Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There’s also a diverse array of recreational pursuits, including roller skating, mountain biking, polo, archery, and disc golf. 

That’s just scratching the surface of what Golden Gate Park and the City by the Bay have to offer.

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