San Diego's reputation is that of a conservative military town. In recent years, though, that has changed significantly. The city now has a large and rapidly growing gay population that thrives in the live-and-let-live atmosphere.
The gay community in San Diego is ethnically diverse and includes many military and retired military people. The crowd skews slightly younger than other California gay strongholds such as San Francisco, Palm Springs and Laguna.
The biggest draw in San Diego isn't the large gay community or the city's laid-back attitude, though. It's the area's natural beauty. With over 300 days of sunshine each year, the weather is nearly perfect no matter when you visit. The city's 70 miles of coastline provide both breathtaking scenery and spectacular beaches -- including gay-friendly, clothing-optional Black's Beach. San Diego also offers great dining, fantastic shopping, top-tier cultural attractions and terrific nightlife.
Business travelers surveyed by Conde Nast recently rated San Diego International Airport as one of their favorite airports -- the fourth consecutive year San Diego International Airport has placed in the top 10. The airport is serviced by 13 airlines with direct flights to hundreds of cities worldwide. Eight different shuttle services offer transportation from the airport to your destination in town, or you can take a cab. Public transportation to and from the airport is limited.
The Pacific Surfliner is Amtrak's train service from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, by way of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, with twelve daily round-trips between San Diego and Los Angeles. There are two stations in San Diego: Old Town, 4005 Taylor Street; and the Station Building at 1050 Kettner Boulevard. Most trains have bicycle and surfboard racks allowing you to bring your bike onboard, unboxed as carry-on baggage.
San Diego's attractions are spread out, and you don't want to rely on public transportation. If you plan to sightsee, rent a car. If planning to spend most of your time in or near the gay-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood, you can probably get away with cabs. Gay nightlife is not concentrated in a small area, so if you're planning to bar-hop you should either designate a driver or take a taxi.
Nearly all of San Diego's 100 neighborhoods are at least gay-friendly, though Hillcrest and Hillcrest-adjacent neighborhoods have the highest concentration of gay residents and gay nightlife.
Hillcrest: Hillcrest is the traditional center of gay life in San Diego. The area is home to the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center and gay events and activities throughout the year, including the annual Pride celebrations in July. Located next to Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban cultural park, Hillcrest offers gay and gay-friendly accommodations, restaurants, shopping, culture, cruising and lots and lots of nightlife.
North Park: Just east of Hillcrest, North Park is a charming, eclectic neighborhood with a mix of coffeehouses, cafes and shopping. The neighborhood is home to San Diego's Lyric Opera and "Ray at Night," a monthly art walk that takes place on the second Saturday of each month. North Park also has several gay bars and clubs.
University Heights: Just north of Hillcrest, University Heights is a mostly residential area with a large gay population. The wood-frame bungalows date back to the first half of the 20th century. The commercial section runs along Park Boulevard, with a trendy mix of restaurants and shops as well as the nation's third-oldest LGBT performance space, Diversionary Theatre.
Downtown San Diego: More gay-friendly than gay, downtown San Diego is home to the historic Gaslamp Quarter, the revitalized East Village and Little Italy. There are tons of hotels and restaurants in the area, and plenty of shopping.
Media and resources
San Diego Gay & Lesbian News covers local GLBT news, entertainment, events, health and sports, online.
Gay San Diego newspaper, printed every two weeks, has local and national gay news, listings and reviews, also an online-reader.
Uptown News is a gay-friendly newspaper focusing on Hillcrest, North Park, University Heights and other nearby neighborhoods.
The Reader is a hip, gay-friendly weekly covering all things cool in San Diego.
See websites and locations for gay & gay-friendly San Diego businesses at our map & listings pages.
The Gay and Lesbian Times, San Diego's gay newspaper of 23 years, ceased publication in September 2010, but their archives remain at the old website address.
The San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center is located at 3909 Centre Street in the Hillcrest neighborhood. The center offers a wide variety of services to the gay community, and stopping in for a quick visit is a great way to familiarize yourself with what the city has to offer.
The San Diego Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, "dedicated to the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt," host and help with various events and fundraisers around town.
For locations and website links to businesses listed below, see our San Diego gay map & listings pages.
Obelisk (1037 University), re-opening planned for May 2013 in new location (after 2011 fire), was GLBT bookstore, will now have more "lifestyle items." Check their fb page for updates.
Creating a theatrical diversion
One of the country's oldest gay and lesbian theater companies, the Diversionary Theatre produces edgy dramas, goofy comedies and playful musicals with gay themes. If you live in a town lacking in gay culture, you'll definitely want to catch one of their cutting-edge shows.
The company was founded in 1986 with a production of a show about the AIDS crisis called Artists Involved in Death and Survival. In the early '90s the theater began producing short seasons of shows. Recently those seasons were expanded to include year-round offerings.
Dan Kirsch, executive and artistic director of Diversionary Theatre, says the six major productions presented each year keep the company busy.
"We also commissioned Dear Harvey, about Harvey Milk, in honor of the 30th anniversary of his passing," says Kirsch. "We commissioned a playwright to interview people who knew him, and we were able to tell stories that had never been heard before, even though the film Milk had just come out. That's about his life, and these were very personal stories from his colleagues and friends."
After Dear Harvey premiered, it has had subsequent productions in Sacramento and Los Angeles.
As interesting as Diversionary Theatre's special events are, the real attractions are the main stage productions.
Diversionary Theatre is located at 4545 Park Boulevard in the University Heights neighborhood. For more information call 619-220-0097.
Bars & clubs San Diego
1202 (1202 University Ave), former Eden location, large dance floor, mixed crowd, shows, holiday and special events.
Bourbon Street (4612 Park), Near University Heights sign, brick open-air courtyard bar, live entertainment bar, games room with pool tables. Music videos and gay TV favorites, almost always plenty of handsome men about.
The Brass Rail (3796 Fifth) live music, Latin dance nights, drag shows, oil wrestling, Manic Mondays cheap drinks, 80's retro.
Caliph (3100 Fifth) an unpretentious, relaxed neighborhood piano and karaoke bar with outdoor patio, and good conversations.
Cheers (1839 Adams Ave) neighborhood bar for a straight and gay mix, with pool tables.
Flicks (1017 University Ave) daily 2 pm to 2 am, lively gay music and sports video bar, something happening every night at heart of Hillcrest; website Boy Toy Gallery, College Boy Nights, karaoke, Saturday night Wet Underwear Contest for cash prizes.
The Hole (2820 Lytton, Point Loma), friendly local's hangout with an old time vibe, popular Sunday California Style Barbecues and beer bust.
Kitty Diamond (3780 Park), former Flame, new club nights, women/men, live music and performances in one space, DJ dancing in the other.
Martini's (3940 Fourth) piano and cabaret lounge bar and restaurant.
Number One Fifth Ave (3845 Fifth) an "at home" atmosphere where you'll soon be chatting to the locals while enjoying something from their large selection of beers and cocktails. For more elbow room, they have a sheltered open-air back patio.
Numbers (3811 Park) early locals pub becomes dance club with two floors, playing Hip Hop, and Techno, strong urban and military vibe, go go boys Thursdays and Fridays, bears nights first Saturdays.
Redwing (4012 30th St) bar and grill with good basic food, friendly charm, decent prices, outdoor patio, mixed crowd but more men than women.
Rich's (1051 University Ave) San Diego's biggest gay dance club, Wednesday through Sundays crush of bodies on two floors. Hot go-go dancers, many special theme parties, including shows, bears and women's nights.
San Diego Eagle (3040 N Park Way, North Park) leather, BDSM, and fetish cruise bar, underwear, uniform and dress code nights, St Andrews cross. Home to BDSM leather/kink/fetish clubs, with regular events. Friendly guys, digital jukebox; games include darts and pinball.
Spin (2028 Hancock St), big multi-level weekend dance venue, mostly straight, with pleasant rooftop patio bar, special events.
SRO Lounge (1807 5th Ave) good place to start your night locals' neighborhood bar for everyone. Decent drinks , bar munchies, pool nights, women's nights, friendly vibe.
Top of the Park (525 Spruce) rooftop bar and restaurant atop the Inn at the Park. Memorial Day (May) through Labor Day (September) Sunday gay T-Dance, BBQ burgers and dogs. Gay wedding-friendly.
Urban Mo's Bar and Grill (308 University) restaurant and bar, big outdoor patio, young, sociable crowd, big food servings. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday Champagne Brunch. Ajoining dance club Kickers Saturday and Thursday country line-dancing, Friday "Skin."
Restaurants and cafes
Babycakes (3766 Fifth) cozy couches, brick fireplace, delicious cupcakes, Chocolate Decadence, stuffed croissants, quiche, chicken pies or fruit salads. Outdoors seating, front and back, also brunch, cocktails, beer and wine.
Baja Betty's (1421 University) south-of-the-border restaurant from the people at Urban Joes in Hillcrest.
Brian's American Eatery (1451 Washington), open 24 hours on weekends, has an old style friendly American diner ambience and breakfast anytime.
Cafe on Park (3831 Park), many brunch variations of eggs benedict and omelets, some of the best potatoes anywhere, big portions, plus Bloody Marys with good kick. They also serve lunch and dinner if you still have room later.
Crest Cafe (425 Robinson Ave) hearty, healthy comfort food, affordable prices, handy to Hillcrest Inn. Breakfasts with Mexican twist of Huevos Rancheros, burritos, quesadillas; benedicts, florentines, veggie messes, omelets, waffles, and hash among many options.
Eden (1202 University Ave) eclectic dinner menu, all-day Sunday brunch, patio, entertainment.
Extraordinary Desserts (2929 Fifth Ave) gourmet restaurant, cakes, pastries and ice cream you'd expect to find in Paris, Vienna or Brussels. Also bruschetta, pate, panini, fontina, fine cheeses, hot and cold beverages of all kinds. At other location (1430 Union St) Sunday European Breakfast served with limited seatings 11am-2pm, reservations recommended.
Fiesta Cantina (142 University Ave) WeHo import, gay bar and Mexican restaurant, popular happy hours, festive patio, casual mixed crowd.
Gossip Grill (1440 University Ave), favorite local hangout for women, but guy-friendly too. Paninis, sandwiches, burgers, flat breads, t-bones, salads, karaoke and cocktails.
Lips (3036 El Cajon), elaborate drag diva shows with dinner service.
Lestat's (3343 Adams) Antique Row, in Normal Heights, cafe with soups, sandwiches, quiche and salads, free wi-fi and live music.
Living Room (5900 El Cajon Blvd) coffeehouse and bistro, good breakfast, lunch and dinner, coffee and tea specialties, iced drinks galore, and big selection of tempting deserts; also with Wi-Fi.
The Mission (2801 University Ave) cafe with simple, fresh, healthy and tasty food; whimsical and artful at affordable prices.
Range Kitchen & Cocktails (1263 University Ave), American eatery, breakfast, lunch, burgers; full bar with cocktails, wine and craft beers.
See our map & listings section for locations and website links for the above, plus more restaurant options - Indian, Mexican, Tuscan, Persian, Vegetarian, Asian Fusion and more.
A favorite Hillcrest meeting place for men anytime, Club San Diego (3955 Fourth) is a large multi-leveled complex with all the amenities: TV and porn lounges, private rooms, huge jacuzzi, steam and sauna rooms and Jacuzzi water jets massage tired muscles. Their many cruisey alleys and corners offer more active recreation with a good-looking weekend crowd packing the place, so get there before midnight for one of 53 rooms. The party goes non-stop, all night.
Downtown, right on the trolley line, is Vulcan Steam And Sauna (805 West Cedar, at Pacific Coast Highway) is a superb facility with a secluded patio sun deck that draws a crowd, sauna, jacuzzi and private and community rooms (one a bunkroom, with a student/military feel). Open 24 hours every day, they have Monday and Wednesday bargain lockers, and guest memberships are available for those just passing through.
Hillcrest Inn (3754 Fifth) has 45 moderately priced units at the center of Hillcrest. They are pet-friendly and rooms have refrigerators and microwaves.
Inn at the Park (525 Spruce) formerly Park Manor Suites, large, all-suite hotel in gay Hillcrest, two restaurants, piano bar, free wi-fi. Top of the Park has great sunset views of San Diego's skyline, the harbor and Balboa Park, Sunday T-dance on summer Sundays. Inn at the Park, their restaurant at the 5th Avenue entrance, has continental cuisine and fun piano bar.
For links to the above, plus additional area hotels and guesthouses, check our map & listings section.
No need to drive from San Diego, Americans can park on their side, then walk across the border for a wild and all-night Mexican party. Once on the other side taxis are easy to find, and inexpensive for getting around town. But agree on the price upfront and travel with companions when possible. The lower drinking age, and a greater tolerance south of the border for pleasures of the flesh, long ago made Tijuana a magnet for those to the north. Young military men in particular, but other Americans of all ages and orientations have been coming in droves, since at least Prohibition days in the US.
Check our Tijuana feature with map and listings of the city just south of the border.
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