San Francisco—home of the country's first openly gay elected official (Harvey Milk), birthplace of the rainbow flag, the first city in the United States to legalize gay marriage and host of the best damn Pride parade—remains a major LGBTQ epicenter. Whether you're looking for the best gay bars in the Castro, LGBTQ-friendly night clubs in San Francisco or only-in-SF fetish fests, genders of all stripes are welcomed in the Bay Area.
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Gay bars in San Francisco
One of the few San Francisco gay bars outside of the Castro or SoMa neighborhoods, the Cinch is equal parts dive bar and dance club. Dark even in the middle of the day, this cowboy-themed spot is hung with erotic art and a mirror over the urinals allows your own junk (and that of your neighbors) to make an appearance. Though it’s a little rough around the edges, the Cinch is as friendly as they come, complete with a pool table and patio, all-night happy hour on Mondays and Friday night drag shows.
The Stud is one of San Francisco’s most illustrious nightlife venues that has, over the years, drawn a number of queer celebrities to its stage and dance floor. Occupying the corner of 9th and Harrison in SoMa for over 50 years, this worker-owned cooperative (the first worker-owned nightclub in the U.S.) is also the birthplace of the legendary drag show Trannyshack. Every Tuesday night is “Sing til it Hurts” karaoke and Fridays from 7pm-10p is dedicated to the country’s longest running queer burlesque show, Red Hots Burlesque. And when 2am rolls around and you find you just aren’t ready for the party to end, never fear! Thanks to a special late-night license, The Stud’s doors stay open a full hour later than any other bar in the city on Thursdays and Fridays.
Once upon a time El Rio was a Brazilian Leather Bar. Today, this brightly colored space caters more to the lesbian crowd, but with plenty of indie bands and nights dedicated to worthwhile causes to draw those from diverse corners of the city. Afternoon ping pong competitions on the outdoor patio give way in the late afternoons and evenings to gals in need of a breath of fresh air during Friday night dance parties or Monday night karaoke.
This friendly neighborhood bar is one of the most low-key options in the Castro. With the neighborhood’s longest happy hour (from 12pm to 7pm everyday), a blazing fireplace to warm you on foggy days and a jukebox chock full of 80s favorites, this cozy pub will keep you in your seat until last call rolls around.
The place to see and be seen for everyone from leather-clad bears to twinks in tight tees to party-hardy lesbians. This legendary biker bar is especially known for its Sunday afternoon beer busts, when dozens of revelers pack cheek-to-jowl on the massive outdoor patio to get shitfaced on $12 all-you-can-drink beer. Other weekly themes— including game night on Tuesday, open mic on Wednesday and movies on Thursday—are a nice counterpoint to the often wild and unexpected Friday and Saturday night parties that feature everything from cigar socials to comedy showcases.
The tough and bulky score big at this SoMa watering hole self-styled as Bear Bar USA. It can be slow on weekdays inside but wend your way to the rear, past the pool table, past the DJ booths and bathrooms, down the hallway lined with decades of gay memorabilia, to the outdoor patio to find the crowd chomping cigars and sharing cigarettes. On Sunday afternoons, the Lone Star is the default second-choice destination for those heading to the Eagle.
Since the loss of the Lexington, Wild Side West is San Francisco’s de-facto lesbian clubhouse. For forty years, Wild Side West has welcomed queer women and those that love them to their authentic tavern (complete with tavern-like smells…) and lush outdoor patio. Wednesday nights are for trivia. The rest of the week, the Wild Side is a great spot to check out when coming down from the El Rio “high” a few blocks away or for a laid back evening beer.
Blackbird draws San Franciscans of all genders, ages and sexual orientations with artisan cocktails served up in vintage-inspired style. The bar offers plenty of intimate spots for conversation along a tufted red-vinyl banquette softly lit with Edison bulbs hanging from a ceiling of salvaged wood—though you may find yourself shouting to be heard above the din at peak times. The back of the bar is dominated by a pool table and photo booth. This place can get crowded at happy hour and on weekends so get there early if you prefer to sit.
The world’s first gay bar, Twin Peak’s Tavern holds the most iconic spot in the Castro—anchoring the Jane Warner Plaza just beyond the shadow of a giant rainbow flag and a few doors down from the famed Castro Theater. This low-key bar tends to be frequented by the neighborhood's older residents which, in combination with the windows lining its walls, has earned this spot the nickname “the Glass Coffin.” Regardless, most everyone will roll into this classic tavern at some point, drawn like martini-chasing moths to its rainbow-colored lights.
There’s no cure for the Monday doldrums like Underwear Night at 440 Castro where fit, middle-aged daddies strip down to their skivvies for a dance party like no other. Even on nights where most of the clientele is mostly dressed, a mix of house, electronica and pop music combined with drink specials like $2 beers on Tuesdays keep this classic cruise joint lubed up and ready to go.
What Aunt Charlie’s Lounge lacks in location (it’s tucked away in the Tenderloin) it makes up for in character. This postage-stamp sized, pink-lit cocktail lounge is a place for drag queens drifting towards retirement age to call home. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Hot Boxxx Girls perform their drag show to stellar reviews (reservations advised). Be sure to bring singles and plan to tip every girl. On Thursday nights, local-legend DJ Bus Station John spins classic gay club music for the Tubesteak Connection dance party which starts at 10pm.
First opened more than 40 years ago, Midnight Sun rejoined the A-list following a 2014 makeover. These days, a mixed crowd of bears and sexy guys in tight tees can’t get enough of this black-box video bar, cueing up nightly for happy hour (especially on Fridays when drinks are two-for-one). Get there by 6pm if you hope to get in. After dark, regular events including RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties on Mondays, Wednesday night karaoke and bar-dancing-go-go-boys on Friday and Saturday nights keep the crowd in excellent spirits.
This neighborhood spot, with walls of windows that open wide to the street on sunny days, hasn’t changed much since first opening in the 1980s. Nightly drink specials make it a local favorite but not as a cruise bar—Moby Dick is where you go to have a couple drinks with your crew in a no-pressure environment. Behind the bar, a giant fish tank offers a little something to focus on during lulls in conversation and, up the steps at the rear, a pool table and pinball machines allow for a little friendly competition.
Self-styled as “San Francisco’s cruise bar,” the Powerhouse is the place to be if you’re looking to pick-up. Known for its notorious back patio where poppers and cigarettes get equal attention and its crowd, which would prefer to shmooze than dance (despite the DJ spinning house most nights), this is arguably the most popular gay bar in San Francisco. Several nights a week men compete to win lube, drinks and cash. Leave your girlfriends at home; this spot is where the boys go to play.
Hi Tops was the city’s first bar to recognize the LGBTQ community’s sports lovers. By far the loudest bar in the Castro—especially when a home team is playing—Hi Tops is packed every weekday evening and all day on weekends with sports enthusiasts and league teams looking to celebrate or drown their sorrows. The crowd here makes no compunction about getting messy, hence the bar’s nickname “Low Bottoms,” but if you’re into sports and the jocks that love them, you’ll fit right in.
The laser-cut wood screens, distressed leather sofas and polished brass decor at Beaux take a back seat at night when this bar becomes the Castro’s best dance club. During the week, rotating events including hip-hop twerk vogue ball on Mondays and cock shot Tuesdays featuring dong pong and $2 beers all day draw the crowds. On Wednesdays, Beaux features a pussy party for the queer ladies. On the weekends, big events like Friday night’s "Manimal," featuring platform dancing go-go boys, get everyone moving and shaking. For the best views of the sweaty crowd, head upstairs to snag a seat on one of the cozy sofas. No cover before 10pm.
Flore is the Castro neighborhood's clubhouse. As much a cafe as a bar, on cool days patrons hole up indoors behind walls of windows with a satisfying meal and coffee. On sunny days, Cafe Flore’s huge outdoor patio becomes a hub of activity—an ideal gathering place before exploring the neighborhood or a pleasant spot to spend the day sipping cocktails from the full bar. Stick around a while and you'll eventually meet all the local luminaries.