On the town at Philadephia's OutFest (©VisitPhilly.com)
Many of the nation's LGBTQ-friendly destinations have had a long and storied history of social activism, from the election of the openly-gay Harvey Milk to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to protests against conservative Christians seeking to overturn LGBTQ civil liberties.
Whether these destinations provide an all-inclusive city experience or a clearly-defined district or "gayborhood," the LGBTQ traveler will feel at home in these metropolises with strong roots in human rights—and fun, engaging social clubs, nightlife, dining hotspots and activities. Fly your pride flag high in these welcoming American cities.
San Francisco, California
Consistently ranked by polls, newspapers and the Census Bureau as having the largest LGBTQ population of any metropolitan area in the United States is San Francisco, no stranger to the struggle for civil rights.
"San Francisco has long been considered a bastion of progressive culture in the United States, leading the nation in a number of progressive social movements throughout the second half of the 20th century," said Rachel Ward, Where San Francisco editor. "The city’s LGBT activist legacy took off in the 1960s, and the local gay community went on to survive the brutal AIDS crisis during the 1980s-'90s. Today, the city is home to one of the world’s biggest and most prominent LGBT communities."
The heart of that community lies in the Castro District, where a giant rainbow flag flies over the plaza named in honor of Harvey Milk, the slain civil rights leader who held a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors as the city's first openly gay politician. Since his assassination in 1978, there has been at least one openly gay or lesbian supervisor on that board. Learn more about Milk and this historic district on a walking tour led by an LGBTQ community activist.
Related Article: The Castro: A Guide to San Francisco's Legendary Gay District
"If you’re looking for rainbow fanfare and a festive nightlife scene, visit the Castro District," said Ward. "The industrial SoMa neighborhood is a hub for dance clubs, leather bars and drag shows. On the other end of the spectrum, the pleasant residential neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights have attracted lesbian families for years."
In addition to having the largest pride parade in the country, San Francisco's is also the oldest—it was first held in June 1970, and continues to take place on the last full weekend of June every year.
It's been called "America's Gay Riviera," and indeed, Miami offers plenty of opportunities for LGBTQ travelers to imbue themselves in the sun, surf and Latin flavor of South Florida.
South Beach's 12th Street Beach is the most popular beach in Miami. Just look for the flying rainbow flags at Ocean Drive and you know you've arrived. The must-see is a visit to The Palace, an oceanfront restaurant. It's a spot to knock back a mimosa and watch an over-the-top drag show during brunch.
Another popular sunning spot frequented by the LBGTQ crowd—perhaps for its half-mile clothing-optional section—is Haulover Beach, 20 miles north of South Beach. It's been estimated that 7,000 people visit this beach each day and the Huffington Post named it one of the "Best Nude Beaches in the World."
Related Article: Miami for LGBTQ Travelers
No visit to Miami would be complete without a foray into the Latin culture, in particular, the nightlife options. Azucar, located in Little Havana, features "Drag Wars," cabaret nights and salsa dancing. Mainstay Twist—the longest-running gay club in South Beach—is known for its sexy male dancers and the laid-back Purdy Lounge is popular with lesbians.
Providence, Rhode Island
Having a drag queen as spokeswoman for the LGBTQ community and the city as a whole is such a fun and creative idea that it's a wonder no other city has thought of it. But as its residents will tell you, it's just one of the quirky things that makes Providence, Rhode Island, a unique destination.
"I've traveled a lot in my 13 years of performing, and I've never seen a drag queen do this sort of thing," said Haley Star, Providence's "glambassador," YouTube star and former Miss Gay Rhode Island. "It's such a lighthearted way to get the word out about this eclectic, fun and inclusive city where anything and everything goes. You can come here and really let loose."
One of Star's favorite things about Providence is the artistic nature of the city. "There are so many different kinds of art, you can watch a show evolve in front of you," she said.
Watching members of the community come together to better the area for the enjoyment of all makes Rich Pezzillo—president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association—proud of Providence. Case in point: Residents of downtown Providence came together to beautify the Riverwalk, a once-blighted area; today, it's home to the one-of-a-kind WaterFire, one of Providence's signature events.
Pezzillo puts exploring the Riverwalk among his favorite things to do in the city.
"It feels like a cross between a European and a New England village," said Pezzillo. "In the summer, you can take gondola rides up and down the river and learn about its history. During WaterFire, there are 90 metal baskets with bonfires roaring [on the water]. There are festivals and bazaars. Even though I live here, I never get tired of it."
The epicenter of Philly's LGBTQ community, the "gayborhood" was first described as such by a reporter at the City Paper, who called Philadelphia's OutFest—the city's National Coming Out Day celebration, the largest in the country—a "beautiful day in the gayborhood." Event organizers quickly started using the term, which is now used universally.
To honor OutFest, the city originally donated 36 rainbow-flag streets signs which has currently doubled; the gayborhood now also sports a rainbow crosswalk at 13th and Locust streets.
In addition to the host of eclectic restaurants, boutiques and bars in the gayborhood, must-visit Philly experiences include Independence Hall, a landmark for people of all persuasions and the site of the United States’ first major LGBTQ rights demonstration on July 4, 1965; the Arch Street Meeting House, where LGBTQ activists planned 1979's Philadelphia Conference, the first national demonstration of lesbian and gay rights in Washington, D.C.; and the Barbara Gittings House, the abode of the woman who edited the nation’s first lesbian magazine and campaigned in some of the first-ever demonstrations for gay rights in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Her efforts helped to change the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness.
Related Article: Philly for the LGBTQ Crowd
One of the most vibrant neighborhoods not only in Chicago but throughout the country is the energetic Boystown just southeast of Wrigleyville. It was the first officially recognized gay village in the United States.
Robert Siegel, a longtime Boystown resident, finds that it's a place to easily return to.
"I first moved to Boystown in 1996, then left for three years in 2004 before moving back in 2007," said Siegel, whose job briefly took him to New York City. "I could never adopt the brasher, more hectic attitude out East. When I had a chance to move back, I felt like I was coming home."
Siegel said that the friendly, walkable neighborhood appeals to both locals and out-of-town guests, and feels fortunate to live in the vibrant LGBTQ community within a supportive city. He also enjoys taking part in Chicago's social groups, such as the Chi-Town Squares, Chicago's gay and lesbian square dance club—he has been a member since 1995.
"I consider it a great venue to relax, doing an enjoyable activity which offers physical, mental and social stimulation, in an alcohol/bar free setting," Siegel said. "CTS was inducted in the Chicago LGBT [Hall of Fame] in 2012, not only for its long-standing status as a gay social club but for its accomplishment for breaking barriers with the straight dance community."
Siegel's suggestions beyond Boystown include exploration of the neighborhood-rich city.
"Andersonville, Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, River North are all vibrant and gay-friendly neighborhoods," said Siegel. "Also, try to make time to go to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, bike ride along the lake, see Millennium Park and downtown and check out our great museums including the Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park."
Austin prides itself on not having a gay district, but rather a large and diverse LGBTQ community that represents its pride throughout all of the city's neighborhoods. The city earned a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's 2016 Municipal Equality Index, which rates the municipal laws, policies and services of a city and how they serve the LGBTQ community.
The standouts here are the array of LGBTQ-owned businesses that lend color, cool-factor and a distinct Austin flavor to the area. The gay-owned Hotel San Jose is a historic 1936 property that was converted into a bungalow-style hotel with perfectly manicured greenery that welcomes canine companions. When you're in the mood for something sweet, head over to Lick Honest Ice Creams, a gay-owned parlor with creative flavor combinations that's been featured in People Magazine. Goat cheese, thyme and honey, anyone?
Austin is a fit, recreation-minded city so it's no surprise there are a number of sports leagues and social organizations that cater to the LGBTQ community. Extend that health-conscious focus while hitting the bar scene; the lesbian-owned Cheer Up Charlies is a vegan bar with kombucha—organic beer with tea, herbs and vegan sugar cane—and fresh-squeezed juice cocktails.
New Orleans, Louisiana
With its traditional laissez-faire philosophy, New Orleans has long supported LGBTQ lifestyles. The population—one of the largest in the South—thrives here, and celebrates its diversity in a number of festivals year-round.
Southern Decadence is the largest such festival in the South. This multiple-day festival takes over Labor Day weekend and is known as "Gay Mardi Gras" thanks to the elaborate costumes, drag shows, DJs and tours through the city's gay bars. Another fabulous event, the Mardi Gras Bourbon Street Awards, or "most famous drag queen contest in America," has been on for four decades. And Halloween in New Orleans' LGBTQ community is also an over-the-top affair.
New Orleans' LGBTQ connection with the arts is undeniable as well: Liberace was the first to tickle the ivories at Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar, and frequent guest Truman Capote used to tell tall tales about being born at Hotel Monteleone.
Related Article: New Orleans for the LGBTQ Traveler
Another don't-miss in New Orleans' LGBTQ story is the landmark Jackson Square. In 1977 thousands gathered to protest popular singer and conservative Christian Anita Bryant, whose "Save Our Children" campaign overturned a Florida law that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The capital of the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Boston boasts one of the longest-running pride parades in America and one of the largest LGBTQ populations on the East Coast.
"Boston's LGBTQ community is a vibrant thread in the tapestry of our city," said Leigh Harrington, Where regional editorial director and a Boston resident for three decades. "As do many of Boston's defining subsets, the LGBTQ community can gather with peers at specifically minded bars, clubs and special events; however, the city's broader landscape is welcoming to all."
This spirit, said Harrington, is even more vibrant every June, when Bostonians celebrate gay, lesbian and transgender folk at its annual Boston Pride Week, a 10-day festival featuring an elaborate parade, pageants and block parties, solidarity events and more.
And, said Harrington, "It's worth noting that Boston is a mere 90-minute ferry ride from Provincetown, Mass., long known as a haven for artists, writers, performers and the LGBTQ crowd."
In addition to the above, Harrington's favorite Boston must-do is a visit to the Boston Harbor Islands National Park.
"There are 34 islands settled into the ocean waters between the northern point of the town of Nahant and the southern point of town of Hull," she said. "Eight are widely accessible to the public from ferries out of Boston's waterfront. I recommend spending the day at Georges Island, exploring the dark recesses of Civil War-era Fort Warren. Peddocks Island is great for hiking and is actually the location where Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" was filmed. Overnight camping, too, is a popular pursuit, and reservations go fast as soon as the season opens up."
Related Article: Things to Do in Boston for the LGBTQ Crowd
Palm Springs, California
A mecca for the LGBTQ traveler, Palm Springs offers a multitude of resorts for every sexual orientation, including 20-plus clothing-optional resorts for gay men, nude hot springs resorts for couples and women-only and vacation rentals that cater to the LGBTQ community. From Spanish-style villas to bed and breakfasts to mid-century modern dwellings, you can find distinctive options in this desert city.
There are many adventures waiting in Palm Springs, and many include tours of the city. For example, there are several tours devoted to Palm Springs' mid-century modern architecture. The style was popular among many celebrities, including members of the Rat Pack like Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow, Kim Novak, Debbie Reynolds and Liberace.
Dining, shopping and partying are all essential Palm Springs as well, and you can roll them all into one on Thursday nights at Village Fest, when the downtown streets are closed off and vendors are set up on either side. Stroll through the festive street fair to experience the city at its most vibrant.
A city in which Walt Whitman could sound his barbaric yawp, same-sex marriage was recognized six years before the Supreme Court ruling and where the Human Rights Campaign is headquartered, the LGBTQ community is firmly at home in Washington D.C.
Related Article: D.C. for LGBT Travelers
But beyond the history, D.C. is the spot for a rip-roaring good time. Dupont Circle is the convergence place for numerous LGBTQ events and festivals, such as the 17th Street High Heel Race, where drag queens try to outdo each other then take take off down three blocks in their steepest stilettos. The race takes place every Tuesday before Halloween and the Capital Pride Parade—held annually in June—kicks off with a "Crack of Noon" brunch.
Additional stops to add to the list include a visit to Nellie's Sports Bar—D.C.'s first gay sports bar—Duplex Diner, a fun and funky meet-up zone and Town Danceboutique, D.C.'s largest gay nightclub known for its shirtless bartenders.
Home to the nation's longest-running drag club—Darcelle XV, opened in 1976—Portland, Oregon has a long history of standing up for LGBTQ rights. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark noted a number of interactions with the Two-Spirit Collective, a group of LGBTQ Native American and Alaskan natives still active in the Portland area today as the Portland Two-Spirit Society. In the 1970s, articles about gay life started appearing in Portland's newspapers and in 1975, the city's first pride festival was held.
Portland's pride has only gotten stronger throughout the years; it's always been known for its progressive politics. In 2011, the city council voted unanimously to make the health insurance policy for city employees transgender-inclusive, and in 2014, the U.S. District Court made same-sex marriages legal. In 2015, Kate Brown made history when she became the Oregon's first openly bisexual governor.
That progressive-minded spirit carries over into all aspects of Portland life. The sports-inclined adventurers have a variety of social and sports groups to discover, from biking to bowling to boating. The Red Dress Party, which requires a red dress for admission, no matter what gender the guest, is a fabulous fundraiser that takes place in May each year and benefits local LGBTQ charities. In summer, the beloved Peacock in the Park drag show takes over Washington Park. Nightlife options range from cozy, neighborhood bars to dance clubs that'll keep the party going all night long.
With its LGBTQ center active for almost 40 years, Orlando's is one of the oldest in the country. Here, the LGBTQ experience is an inclusive city experience. Walt Disney World is tops for gay marriage ceremonies, as it is for the annual Gay Days, a weeklong event with pool parties, a business expo, film festival, comic-book convention and more.
Home to LGBTQ partiers for decades, Southern Nights serves up craft cocktails, drag shows and a number of themed nights. At Hamburger Mary's, you can find burgers and divas with plenty of sass. And a visit to Lake Eola, an Orlando icon, is a must for those who want to see the heart of the city, and experience it via a relaxing paddle boat. Its fountain is the starting point for many city events, including the annual AIDS Walk and Earth Day events in April.
Related Article: Out in Orlando: A Guide for LGBT Visitors