San Diego's reputation is that of a conservative military town. In recent years that has changed significantly. The city now has a large and rapidly growing gay population that thrives in a 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 have rated San Diego International Airport as one of their favorite airports. The airport is serviced by 14 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.
The Amtrak Santa Fe Depot train station downtown can be reached on the SDMTS, route 992, departing every 15 minutes 5am-11:30pm on weekdays, and every 30 minutes on weekends and holidays.
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 downtown 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.
For local public transportation, including the trolly lines, see SDMTS. For North County Transit regional rail and bus info see GoNCTD. The Coaster commuter train serves eight stations between Oceanside and downtown San Diego, a scenic trip of about one hour. Six of the Amtrak Surfliner trains also make stops at these stations each day.
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 LGBT 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.
For great photos of gay San Diego nightlife see Sdpix.com with their monthly print magazine and online photos of clubs and events around town. They also have a good and fully updated daily calendar of ongoing club nights and events.
For a city map and website links to businesses, museums, and entertainment venues, see our gay San Diego listings pages. For some photos from around town, see our gallery pages. We also list some upcoming local events and activities.
Gay and Lesbian Times, San Diego's gay newspaper of 23 years, ceased publication September 2010, and their archive site was lost when the host company went out of business without notice. See info at their facebook page, and find back issues at the Lambda Archives.
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.
Bears San Diego, a club for bears and bear fanciers, established in 1994, brings together men of like minds for social events at local bars, den nights at members' homes, and takes group outings to movies, restaurants, the zoo and to parties at other Bear Clubs.
Bars & clubs San Diego
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.
Fiesta Cantina (142 University Ave), WeHo import, gay bar and Mexican restaurant, popular happy hours, festive patio, casual mixed crowd.
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; sports on TV, karaoke, College Nights, go-go boys, BBQs, and the Saturday night Wet Underwear Contest for cash prizes.
The Hole in the Wall (2820 Lytton, Point Loma), locals' hangout, gay dive since 1942, old-time vibe, karaoke and game nights, Sunday BBQ/ beer and burger bust.
Martini's Above Fourth (3940 Fourth), piano/ cabaret lounge bar and restaurant, small plates, sandwiches/wraps, steaks, stage performers, comedy.
Number One Fifth Ave (3845 Fifth), "at home" atmosphere where you'll soon be chatting to the locals while enjoying 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 and late night dance club, two floors/ variety of music; urban and military vibe, go-go boys, first Saturday bears' nights, Tagged Thursday Hip-Hop/ Latin nights, Noche Romantica and Pasión Latina drag events, GAMeBoi Asian nights, leather nights, goth events.
Pecs (2046 University Ave) neigborhood men's cruise bar, patio, no sign on the door/ nothing fancy decor. Pool, pinball, darts, internet jukebox, large screen TV's, decent drinks prices, bear nights.
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 Bay, Fridays at The Glass Door (1835 Columbia St), continuing in the slot of the old TOP of many years at Park Manor Suites, the 7-10pm LGBT cocktail happy hour weekend kick-off on the 5th floor of the Porto Vista Hotel.
Urban Mo's Bar and Grill (308 University), gay restaurant and bar, big outdoor patio, young, sociable mix, big servings. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday Funday Brunch, then dancing. Kickers 7pm Saturday niight Country Western line dancing, and occasional Bearracuda bear nights.
CLOSED: Bourbon Street (4612 Park), Mardi Gras theme gay bar/lounge; The Flame (3780 Park), live music, DJs, dancing; Obelisk (1037 University Ave), former gay bookshop, men's clothing store.
Restaurants and cafes
Babycakes Hillcrest (3766 Fifth) cozy couches, brick fireplace, delicious cupcakes, Chocolate Decadence, stuffed croissants, quiche, chicken pies or fruit salads, liquid sweets. Outdoors seating, front and back, also Fri/Sat/Sun brunch, cocktails, beer and wine.
Babycakes Imperial Beach (874 Seacoast Dr), outdoor and indoor seating; coffee drinks and "World Famous Cupcakes" at the beach.
Baja Betty's (1421 University), south-of-the-border restaurant and cabaret showbar from the people at Urban Joes in Hillcrest.
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.
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.
Gossip Grill (1220 University Ave), favorite local hangout for women and guy-friendly too. Lunch specials, paninis, soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, flat breads, t-bones, fish & chips, karaoke and cocktails.
Great Maple (1451 Washington), "European Dinette" breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner; scrambles, pancakes, sandwiches, seafood, steaks, burgers, portabello fries, wine and drinks. In the former Brian's American Eatery space.
Jimmy Carter's Mexican Cafe (3172 Fifth Ave) long-time gay favorite, now serving Mexican fare with big portions, friendly home-style ambience, near the Inn at the Park Hotel.
Lestat's (3343 Adams, Normal Heights; 1045 University Ave, Hillcrest; and 4496 Park Blvd), young mixed crowd, 24-hour/365-day cafe with soups, sandwiches, quiche and salads, free WiFi and live music nightly.
Lips (3036 El Cajon), elaborate drag diva shows, full and prix-fixe menu dinner service, Sunday Gospel Brunch.
Living Room (5900 El Cajon Blvd), coffeehouse and bistro student mix, good breakfast, lunch and dinner; coffee and tea specialties, iced drinks galore, tempting deserts, WiFi. Also at 1010 Prospect St, La Jolla.
The Mission (2801 University Ave), cafe with simple, fresh, healthy and tasty food; whimsical and artful at affordable prices.
See our map & listings section for more restaurant options - Indian, Mexican, Tuscan, Persian, Vegetarian, Asian Fusion and more.
Club San Diego (3955 Fourth), favorite Hillcrest anytime meeting place for men, large multi-level complex, all the amenities. TV and porn lounges, private rooms, huge jacuzzi, steam, sauna and Jacuzzi. Cruising alleys and corners for recreation with good-looking weekend crowd, 53 rooms, non-stop all night party.
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), former Park Manor Suites, all-suite hotel in gay Hillcrest, 82 spacious guestrooms, full kitchens, free WiFi, expanded cable TV, fitness center, rooftop sun deck overlooking the harbor and Balboa Park.
Keating House (2331 2nd Ave, Park West), nine B&B guest rooms, grand gay-owned 1888 Queen Anne Victorian house in Banker's Hill, lush gardens, full breakfast.
Mike's Place (1252 Lincoln Ave; Hillcrest), one-bedroom, 1910 private guest bungalow, quiet neighborhood, patio, garden, full amenities, WiFi.
For another two dozen area hotels and guesthouses, see our map & listings pages.
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, and those seasons were expanded to include year-round offerings.
Diversionary was one of the first theaters centered specifically on the gay, lesbian and transgender community. Executive and artistic director Dan Kirsch, who led the company for more than six years, said the six major productions presented each year kept the company busy.
"We also commissioned Dear Harvey, about Harvey Milk, in honor of the 30th anniversary of his passing," said 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.
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, at least since the days of the American Prohibition Era.
Check our Tijuana feature with map and listings of the city just south of the border.