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.
For local public transportation including the trolly line see SDMTS. For North County Transit regional rail and bus info see GoNCTD
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 online guides to Hillcrest, see HillQuest.com, and Fabulous Hillcrest. For great photos of gay San Diego nightlife see Sdpix.com.
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.
The Gay and Lesbian Times, San Diego's gay newspaper of 23 years, ceased publication in September 2010, but for a trip back in time see their archives 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.
Obelisk (1037 University), formerly the local LGBT bookstore, has reopened after a fire, now with more "lifestyle items," apparel and accessories, watches and gifts.
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
Bourbon Street (4612 Park) - CLOSED Jan 2015, events moved to other bars - brick open-air courtyard bar, live entertainment bar, games room/ pool tables. Music videos and gay TV favorites.
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.
The Flame (3780 Park), women/men, live music and performances, DJ dancing in the other, fashion shows and other special events.
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.
Martini's Above Fourth (3940 Fourth), piano/ cabaret lounge bar and restaurant, small plates, sandwiches/wraps, 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 becomes late night dance club, two floors - variety of music; urban and military vibe, go go boys, bears' nights, WET Thursdays relocated from Bourbon Street.
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.
Urban Mo's Bar and Grill (308 University), gay restaurant and bar, big outdoor patio, young, sociable mix, big servings. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday Mexican Brunch buffets with bottomless Mimosas, champagne, or sangria or $4 Bloody Mary's. Thursday and Saturday niight Country Western Line Dancing at Kickers
Restaurants and cafes
Babycakes (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 California Casual Cafe (2221 Morley Field Dr), paninis, sandwiches, salads, soups, sides, and creative comfort foods; coffee bar drinks and "World Famous Cupcakes" from Babycakes.
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.
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. Moving to 1220 University Avenue in November 2013.
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) Antique Row, in Normal Heights, young mixed crowd, 24-hour cafe with soups, sandwiches, quiche and salads, free Wi-Fi and live music nightly.
Lips (3036 El Cajon), elaborate drag diva shows with dinner service.
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, Wi-Fi.
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, large, all-suite hotel in gay Hillcrest, two restaurants, piano bar, free WiFi. Top of the Park restaurant/bar sunset vistas of city skyline, harbor and Balboa Park. Inn at the Park 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, 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.