The White House, lit up in rainbow colors

The White House aglow in LGBTQ Pride rainbow hues (©Ted Eytan/Flickr, Creative Commons)

D.C. for LGBT Travelers

By Anne Kim-Dannibale on 06/14/16, updated 11/29/16
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Washington, D.C. may not wave its Pride flag as vigorously as, say, San Francisco, but the capital’s LGBT roots run just as deep. After all, this is where famed poet Walt Whitman met the love of his life, Peter Doyle, while riding a streetcar one night in 1865. Though born and raised in New York, Franklin Kameny, a gay rights pioneer and co-founder of the D.C. branch of advocacy group Mattachine Society, also called Washington home. The Human Rights Campaign is headquartered here, and this is where the highest tribunal in the land legalized gay marriage in the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges.

Those roots have given life to a vibrant and flourishing gay community, rivaling not only San Francisco’s own, but those of major cities around the world. A 2013 New York Times article even wonders aloud if D.C. is “the gayest place in America.” According to Census Bureau statistics, it just may be.

Luckily for visitors, that means there are plenty of ways to soak up the local color. Start at LGBT hub Dupont Circle for a dose of history (try a guided walking tour with Rainbow History Project), and then make your way through the hip bars, shops and restaurants of Logan Circle and Adams Morgan, two other hotspots for alternative lifestyles.

Visitors in June find the city draped in rainbow bunting for Capital Pride, while those who pass through in late October find bon vivants in drag competing to win the popular 17th Street High Heel Race. But no matter the time of year, visitors find a capital city with a jumping nightlife scene, beloved watering holes and a rich history.

One of several dance floors at Town

(Courtesy Town Danceboutique)

Nightlife

Town Danceboutique

This expansive, modern club is known for its drag shows (Fri. and Sat. at 10:30 pm), which features local and international female impersonators. Sundays find a casual crowd of men playing flip cup, cornhole and "giant" Jenga.

Exterior shot of Nellie's Sports Bar

(©Ted Eytan/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Nightlife

Nellie's Sports Bar

A perennial favorite for its fun-loving vibe, Nellie's claim to fame is its raucous unlimited drag brunch (purchase tickets on EventBrite). Bring cash to tip particularly talented entertainers (most likely, all). Sports fans also find plenty of televisions tuned to a variety of games.

Dupont Circle fountain

(©NCinDC/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Areas to Explore

Dupont Circle

As you ride the escalator of the Dupont Circle Metro station's north exit/entrance, note the quote from Walt Whitman's poem "The Wound Dresser." The poet's Civil War-era work was inscribed there in 2006 as an homage to the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Local E. Ethelbert Miller's "We Embrace" is also engraved around a nearby bench.

Redeem

(Courtesy Redeem)

Shopping

Redeem

This hip fashion den stocks men’s and women’s clothing plus unisex items with an edgy vibe. Think All Saints and Rag and Bone, but from up-and-coming domestic and international designers. Also on hand, cool knick knacks and home decor.

The patio at Hank's original Dupont Circle location at night

(©Greg Powers)

Restaurants

Hank's Oyster Bar

Though chef Jamie Leeds' growing restaurant empire extends to Capitol Hill and Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia, the Dupont Circle locale is the original (and our favorite). Get there at dusk for a romantic vibe on the patio or come late and take advantage of the raw bar at half price, 10 pm to midnight daily.

A guide speaking to a tour group

(Courtesy Rainbow History Project)

Activities

Rainbow History Project

Visitors who want a deep dive into D.C.'s LGBT history download backgrounders on this organization's website and take their own tour, or book a guide ahead of time. Knowledgeable escorts take groups around to key sites marking the community's roots and recount stories of famous local LGBT figures, like Walt Whitman.

Exterior of Cobalt, decorated for Pride Month

(©Brooke Sabin)

Nightlife

Cobalt

The namesake dance club is located on the third floor, with a first-floor restaurant called Level One and second-floor lounge known as 30 Degrees.

Colorful exterior of Freddie's Beach Bar

(Courtesy Freddie's Beach Bar)

Nightlife

Freddie's Beach Bar

Located just a short walk from the Crystal City Metro station, this kitschy care-free bar feels like it should be near the shore. Visitors with a song in their heart may gravitate toward the bar's popular nightly karaoke, while gamers will appreciate the always-entertaining drag bingo.

Businesses along 18th St. NW in Adams Morgan

(S Pakhrin/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Areas to Explore

Adams Morgan

This zone exudes a boho vibe with an eclectic collection of bars, restaurants and shops along 18th St. NW. Let your hair down at L'Enfant Cafe's raucous "La Boum" brunch (reservations months ahead), bop to live music nightly at Madams Organ (look for the busty redhead painted on the building) and salsa the night away at Rumba Cafe.

With brands like Diesel, Original Penguin and Ben Sherman, this local menswear boutique attracts a hip, yet laid-back urban crowd. Whimsical details, like a tin moose head and a portrait of Einstein, contribute to a fun-loving shopping experience.

The dance floor at Duplex Diner

(©Kurt Powers)

Restaurants

Duplex Diner

Socializing is a big part of this buzzy neighborhood eatery. Order the famous lemon squeeze and don't be shy about chatting up a friendly local.

The chorus performing

(©James Dillon O'Rourke)

Entertainment

Gay Men's Chorus

With over 250 active singing members, D.C.'s Gay Men's Chorus is the largest male and gay men's chorus in the U.S. The annual holiday concert is the most popular, but any performance throughout the year results in a good time. Check out the choir's youth arm, GenOUT Chorus, which gets its own spotlight in February 2017.

9 1/2 bar upstairs from Number Nine

Number Nine's upstairs lounge, 9 1/2 (Courtesy Number Nine)

Entertainment

Number Nine

This chic bar in hip Logan Circle offers a two-for-one happy hour deal daily from opening until 9 pm. Insiders suggest the muddled mojito or the jalapeno margarita (or both!).

Studio Theatre in the 14th St./U St./Logan Circle corridor

(©Brooke Sabin)

Areas to Explore

U St./Logan Circle/14th St./Shaw

Plenty of diversions, from a top theater for plays and buzzy restaurants for gourmet dining, fill up this hip zone. Logan Circle is where the LGBT crowd congregates, populating the many sidewalk tables for people-watching.

Signature Theatre

(©Brooke Sabin)

Entertainment

Signature Theatre

Founded in 1989, this Tony Award-winning theater based in Arlington, Virginia, attracts a devoted crowd for top-notch musicals and contemporary plays. Get there early or stay later and stroll the bustling downtown's restaurants and shops, including an outpost of famed bookstore, Busboys and Poets.

Shakespeare Theatre Company

Sidney Harman Hall (Courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Entertainment

Shakespeare Theatre Company

This critically acclaimed company produces classics by the Bard as well as Ibsen, Shaw and O'Neill, attracting pros like Patrick Stewart and Hal Holbrook. The company has two performance centers (Sidney Harman Hall and Lansburgh Theatre), both within walking distance of Gallery Pl-Chinatown and Archives-Navy Memorial Metro stations.

Map of D.C. for LGBT Travelers