San Diego Gay Guide
The 1915 Botanical Building in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Photo by Andrew Collins

San Diego Gay Guide – San Diego Gay Pride 2018

How to make the most of a romantic weekend in San Diego, plus details about 2018 San Diego Pride Weekend

San Diego Gay Guide

California’s second-largest city ranks among the most beloved seaside destinations in North America for year-round beach vacations, and with a large and vibrant LGBTQ community, San Diego also offers plenty to see and do for gay travelers. Because the weather is consistently warm and sunny, it’s also become hugely popular for gay weddings, from lavish celebrations to simple but sophisticated elopements and smaller destination weddings. Whether you’re here to celebrate a special occasion or simply to relax amid 70 miles of breezy beaches, explore leafy Balboa Park and its iconic zoo and museums, or partake of the hip and lively shopping, dining, and nightlife scenes around such diverse and trendy neighborhoods as Hillcrest, North Park, Little Italy, Barrio Logan, and the Gaslamp Quarter, here are some tips on making the most of your time in San Diego.

Check out the website of San Diego Tourism Authority for more trip-planning advice and details, and also take a look at the organization’s extremely helpful LGBTQ Travel section.

San Diego Gay Pride 2018

San Diego Gay Guide
University Avenue Hillcrest. Photo by Andrew Collins

There’s truly not a bad time to visit San Diego, which averages about 265 days with sunshine annually,  but LGBTQ visitors might want to mark their calendars for mid-July, the time for the annual—and well-attended—San Diego Pride Festival. In 2018, the dates are Friday, July 13 through Sunday, July 15, kicking off Friday night with the Spirit of Stonewall Rally at 6 p.m., by the Hillcrest Pride Flag on University Avenue. The always colorful San Diego Pride Parade takes place on Saturday, July 14, at 11 am and proceeds for 1.5 miles through Hillcrest and the northwest corner of Balboa Park.

Don’t miss the Pride Festival on Saturday (noon to 10 pm) and Sunday (11 am to 9 pm), during which some 40,000 revelers of all ages and backgrounds dance and celebrate to performances by more than 100 musicians on four different stages. The headliners for San Diego Pride this year include TLC, Le1f, JoJo, DJ Kandy, Rumba Y Soul, Horse Meat Disco, Brooke Candy, Kameron Michaels & Asia O’Hara, Rica Shay, Starlett, and many others, and you can buy tickets here.

Also note that on Saturday, July 7, She Fest will take place at North Park Community Park from 11 am to 6 pm. This woman-centered gathering has become increasingly popular each year and is a vital part of San Diego Pride.

Where to Stay in Gay San Diego

Among the many stylish, design-minded hotels that have made San Diego a hot spot with LGBTQ travelers, the 317-room Pendry San Diego opened in early 2017 in a dazzling 12-story building. It’s first property in the Pendry portfolio, an urban-style boutique brand that’s part of the ritzy and renowned Montage Hotels & Resorts, which has several hotels in California, including in Beverly Hills, Healdsburg, and nearby Laguna Beach. Although a new construction, the hotel captures the streamlined, artful grace of the 1930s and ’40s with its gleaming polished-wood lobby walls, ceiling, and check-in desk. Rooms have vintage-style wood-and-leather headboards, floor-to-ceiling windows, Bluetooth JBL speakers, minibars stocked with goodies, custom chaise lounges, and sparkling bathrooms with walk-in white-tile showers and marble counters. There are six on-site venues for drinking and dining, each with its own flair—definitely check out Provisional Kitchen, Cafe & Mercantile for elevated breakfast and brunch fare; Nason’s Beer Hall, which stocks a fine selection of international beers and presents live music many evenings; and the much-lauded contemporary seafood restaurant Lionfish. You can relax with a massage or facial in Spa Pendry, where you’ll also find the excellent fitness center, and there’s a sweeping rooftop pool with great views of the downtown skyline.

Downtown San Diego may buzz with hip hotels, but in this city known for its natural beauty, it’s hard to beat the California craftsman-style Lodge at Torrey Pines, a stunning 170-room resort built in 2002 with a design that recalls the early 1900s aesthetic of the renowned Greene and Greene architectural firm. Set on 6.5 acres overlooking dramatic Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course and the Pacific Ocean, and with access to trails in adjacent Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (the hotel offers free guided walks are offered each morning and afternoon), this unpretentiously elegant property makes an ideal retreat—and it’s become quite popular for LGBTQ weddings. The spacious rooms, many with tile fireplaces and balconies overlooking the sea, have fabulous marble and granite bathrooms, and amenities—in addition to priority tee times at the famed 36-hole golf course—include pampering at the tony Spa at Torrey Pines, plus a gorgeous pool and hot tub, a well-equipped fitness center, yoga classes, and croquet on a grassy terrace. The resort has a pair of superb restaurants, too, with the casually stylish Grill at Torrey Pines serving three meals daily and offering seating in on an expansive fire pit–warmed patio, and the sophisticated A.R. Valentien, with its cozy booths as well as outdoor tables overlooking the grounds, serving exquisite modern Californian cuisine—beef short rib terrine, house-made duck sausage, butter-poached lobster, red wine–braised veal cheeks, and offering one of the city’s best wine lists. With sterling service and a magical setting, it’s one of the top spots in San Diego to celebrate a special occasion.

Other highly recommended San Diego hotels include two gems from the LGBTQ-welcoming Kimpton Hotels brand, the tony Hotel Palomar San Diego, which is downtown at the northern edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, and the chic Solamar Hotel, which is next to the aforementioned Pendry and just a couple of blocks from Petco Park and on the Gaslamp border with the East Village. Both properties are known for their sexy pool rooftop pool scenes and bold designs. Whether or not you stay at the Solamar, do make a point of dining in the restaurant, one of the best in the city, Jsix, a buzzy brick-walled space that draws a fashionable bunch for superb farm-to-table fare, including an outstanding mix-and-match cheese and charcuterie plate.

Tower 23 Hotel. Photo by Andrew Collins

And steps from the sand in pier in Pacific Beach, three-story Tower23 has 44 sleek and airy rooms, many with water views and all with a decidedly uncluttered, high-end vibe. There aren’t many lodging options near Hillcrest, but the romantic, LGBTQ-popular Hillcrest House B&B contains seven smartly furnished rooms. Also, the quirky Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows in North Park occupies a whimsically restored 1940s compound where Hollywood celebs used to congregate back in the day and is home to a fabulous pool designed by Johnny Weissmuller, of Tarzan and Olympic swimming fame. This atmospheric, gay-welcoming hotel is a great value, too.

Favorite San Diego Experiences

If you’re in town for a fairly short visit, consider setting aside one day for coastal explorations (from Cabrillo National Monument north to La Jolla, your second day for touring around Balboa Park and the nearby (and very LGBTQ-popular) Hillcrest and North Park neighborhoods.

Exploring Coastal San Diego

San Diego Gay Guide
Liberty Public Market. Photo by Andrew Collins

For a day exploring the coast, start in the morning by making your way from downtown, heading west past the airport, stopping at Liberty Station for a bite to eat and maybe a little shopping. This vibrant and colorful mixed-use development on the site of a former naval training center houses a number of retailers and restaurants, including Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, the flagship of San Diego’s famous craft brewery, and bustling Liberty Public Market, which contains about 20 specialty eateries and gourmet grocers. The market is in Liberty Station’s Arts District, which also abounds with galleries and studios featuring the works of countless talented contemporary artists.

Next follow the signs for Cabrillo National Monument, which occupies a 422-foot-high promontory with dazzling panoramic views of the sea, down the coast toward Tijuana, and across San Diego Bay, from Coronado Island to downtown. Named for the Spanish explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who sailed up the coast of “New Spain” in 1542 and spent several days in what is now San Diego, the 160-acre monument is home to a small museum, Old Point Loma Lighthouse, a 2.5-mile trail through, an overlook that’s ideal for spotting migrating whales, and access to coastal tide pools.

Next make your way north up picturesque Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, through San Diego’s laid-back surfing and sunning enclaves, beginning with Ocean Beach—home to one of the state’s longest public piers—and continuing across Mission Bay to Mission Beach, known for its rollicking 1920s Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, and Pacific Beach. Of these communities, the latter is especially fun for watching sexy surfers hone their skills, people-watching along a 3-mile boardwalk and historic Crystal Pier, and feasting on seafood tacos at Fat Fish Cantinagrill, Oscar’s Mexican Seafood, and others.

In the late afternoon, roll into the tony seaside village of La Jolla, a charming enclave of upscale shops and restaurants, well-regarded art galleries, and a few posh hotels. Try to get here in time to take a look inside the superb Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla (there’s a second branch of MCASD in downtown San Diego), which has a lovely sculpture garden and cafe and whose galleries underwent a major redesign and expansion slated for completion in late 2019. At sunset, venture down to The Cove, an easy stroll down the hill from downtown and a great place to people-watch, swim, and take in the views as far out—on a clear day—as Catalina Island. Or if it’s a Sunday, arrive in the morning to peruse the art, crafts, fresh produce, and delicious eats at La Jolla Open Aire Market (held 9 am to 1:30 pm at La Jolla Elementary School).

San Diego Gay Guide
Black’s Beach, looking north toward Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, in La Jolla. Photo by Andrew Collins

La Jolla is also the gateway to one of the most famous gay beaches in the country, Black’s Beach, a sweeping swath of secluded sand set about 300 feet below striated cliffs at the southern edge of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. You can park in the dirt lot beyond the Torrey Pines Gliderport (it’s fun watching the gliders take off here), and then hike down to the beach, which is clothing-optional—and nearly always frequented by queer folks—from the base of the trail north for about a mile (as you head north, turning right at the base of the stairs, you’ll encounter the gayest section). Note that it’s a steep trail down to the beach, and it can be dangerous—never venture past the roped-off areas or near the edge of the cliffs, which are unstable as a result of ongoing erosion.

San Diego Gay Guide
Salk Institute. Photo by Andrew Collins

The parking area at Black’s Beach is just beyond one of the most striking works of architecture in Southern California, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, designed by Louis Kahn in 1965—guided one-hour tours are offered weekdays, by advance reservation. Farther north up Torrey Pines Road, past the fabulous (see Where to Stay, above) Lodge at Torrey Pines, there’s wonderfully scenic exploring to be had at the main section of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, which is divided into the North and South Beach areas is home to a 1920s adobe visitor center and museum along with a network of both easy and more rigorous nature trails.

Exploring Balboa Park and Hillcrest

San Diego Gay Guide
Big Kitchen Cafe. Photo by Andrew Collins

On the day you explore some of San Diego’s vibrant neighborhoods, start with breakfast in the Gaslamp Quarter, or stop at the quirky Big Kitchen Cafe, which has been a fixture in South Park, on the southeast side of Balboa Park, for eons. It’s run by the one and only Judy “The Beauty on Duty” Forman and is justly famous for hearty breakfasts featuring chorizo egg scrambles, biscuits and sausage gravy, and much more. At lunchtime, consider one of the mammoth burgers—maybe the Hilo, with chopped bacon, fresh grilled pineapple, Jack cheese, and barbecue sauce.

In the afternoon, make your way to gorgeously landscaped 1,200-acre Balboa Park, which a lofty perch of greenery situated in the heart of the city.

 

With a collection of museums housed in Spanish-Renaissance-style buildings that had been built for both the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935–36 California-Pacific International Exposition, the park is rife abounds with one-of-a-kind cultural draws, including the spectacular San Diego Zoo, with its more than 4,000 animals from around the world. Most recently, the zoo added the hugely popular Africa Rocks habitat, featuring penguins, lemurs, baboons, and other fauna from the world’s second-largest continent.

But Balboa Park is about much more than its amazing zoo. There’s the Old Globe Theatre (which hosts an esteemed Shakespeare Festival each year), several formal gardens (don’t miss the 1915 Botanical Building), and several restaurants. Among the museums, there are so many stars, but musts include the San Diego Museum of Art; Reuben H. Fleet Science Center; the Mingei International Museum of contemporary folk art, craft, and design; and the intimate Timken Museum of Art, which contains a small but impressive collection of art and is set inside a sleek mid-century modern building. On Friday nights from June through September, the park hosts Food Truck Fridays in the central Plaza de Panama—it’s an especially enjoyable time to visit. The best way to optimize your visit is by purchasing a One-Day Explorer pass from BuyMyExplorer.com, which gets you admission into any five museums (if you’re here longer, snag the Multi-Day Explorer pass, which gets you into all 17 museums over a one week period).

Just north and west of Balboa Park is the heart of San Diego’s LGBTQ scene, Hillcrest. You’ll find dozens of inviting cafes, bars, and restaurants, plus great shopping, on the main commercial strips of University Avenue and and Fifth Avenue. From here, it’s just a 10-minute drive west to San Diego’s Old Town, which is anchored by a state historic park. Orient yourself at the visitor center and stroll among the several museums and interpretive buildings, plus some fun—if touristy—restaurants specializing in traditional Mexican fare.

Elsewhere Around San Diego

If you have additional time, consider some of many other notable neighborhoods in and around San Diego: Downtown and the adjacent Marina, the historic 16-block Gaslamp Quarter, which is rife with restaurants and bars, and East Village, home to an increasing number of swanky condo towers, hip eateries, and fine art galleries, and Petco Park, where baseball’s San Diego Padres play (there’s an LGBTQ-focused Out at the Park held during a Padres game each year, usually early in the season). Downtown contains the bulk of the city’s hotels and is, of course, the city’s business center. While in the Marina District, there are more than 50 shops and 15 restaurants at Seaport Village, and dramatic views of the San Diego Bay area had from the northern and southern flanks of Embarcadero Marina Park.

Hotel del Coronado. Photo by Andrew Collins

Continuing down just south from downtown beyond the East Village, Barrio Logan has emerged as a vital neighborhood for artists that’s especially important for the region’s Mexican-American community. Check out the world’s most extensive and impressive collection of Chicano murals at Chicano Park, visit the slew of handsome former warehouses that now contain cutting-edge art galleries, and explore the emerging culinary scene anchored by Las Qautros Milpas for Mexican food and Iron Fist Brewing Co. for acclaimed craft beer. And just across the striking Coronado Bridge, Coronado peninsula is dominated by its U.S. Navy bases but is also home to beautiful Coronado Beach and Dog Park and the famed Hotel del Coronado, which you may recognize from scenes in the Billy Wilder classic screwball comedy, Some Like It Hot, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. Built in 1888 and containing more than 750 rooms, this Curio Collection by Hilton property is the second-largest wooden structure in the United States and a memorable location for drinks or Sunday brunch—and perhaps even for a romantic overnight stay. There are several restaurants to choose from.

San Diego Gay Bars

Just northwest of Balboa Park and a 10-minute drive from downtown hotels, Hillcrest contains the lion’s share of San Diego’s roughly two-dozen gay bars, including decades-old favorites like Rich’s dance club, which pulses into the wee hours Wednesday through Sunday, and nearby Flicks, a veritable institution among the West Coast’s queer video bars. Part of a small consortium of LGBTQ bars and eateries that includes Baja Betty’s, Hillcrest Brewing Company (which bills itself the world’s first gay brewery), Gossip Grill restaurant, and newcomer InsideOUT, where the motto is, “Lounge like a king, sip like a queen”—they’re all a lot of fun—Urban Mo’s is a favorite for dancing to a range of different music types, drag shows, cocktails and people-watching on the patio, and pretty good food, from burgers to braised short ribs. Among the other members of the Urban Mo’s family, Gossip Grill welcomes everyone but stands out especially as one of the few women’s dance bars in California—and the kitchen serves excellent, internationally inspired food, too. Cabaret lovers should be sure to check out the talent at Martini’s Above Fourth, which draws first-rate performers

Hillcrest has several other appealing neighborhood gay bars, including The Rail (which began life way back in 1956 as the Brass Rail), The Caliph karaoke and piano bar; and the zero-attitude Loft, which is quite popular with women and men. It’s not a gay bar, but the venerable Alibi Lounge is a great little dive bar that’s been serving up strong drinks for generations, and it does tend to draw a mixed crowd. Outside Hillcrest, you’ll also find some fun gay nightspots, such as Point Loma’s famously dive-y and atmospheric Hole in the Wall, whose friendly crowd best resembles the kinds of guys you’ll see on Scruff, easygoing Cheers Bar & Grill in University Heights, and Pecs in North Park, which earns kudos for its friendly staff, bear-and-otter-friendly crowd, and stiff drinks. Redwing Bar & Grill is another North Park haunt drawing a lively bunch for the excellent pub grub and nightly karaoke, and nearby, the San Diego Eagle is one of the longest-running gay leather bars on the West Coast, and definitely a good bet for guys in a willing mood. And the neighborhood is also home to San Diego’s gay bathhouse, the saucy and always cruise-y Club San Diego, which is open 24 hours and has a handy location just off Hillcrest’s main drag, University Avenue.

Where to Eat in San Diego

A number of the gay bars in Hillcrest also serve pretty tasty food, including Urban Mo’s, Gossip Grill, and several others. Steps from several LGBTQ nightspots, Libertad! Tacos a La Brasa has a few notable things going for it: the kitchen produces exceptionally good street-food-style tacos with tempting fillings (tempura avocado, grilled octopus, and pork belly among them), the restaurant donates 100% of its profits to a different charity each month, and through an unassuming door in the back, you can access a very fun speakeasy lighted by antique chandeliers and featuring a menu of creative craft cocktails. Libertad! is part of the much-lauded Cohn Restaurants group, which includes about two-dozen restaurants around San Diego. Other good bets among the bunch include Little Italy’s Indigo Grill for tapas-style Pacific Coast fare, the craft-beer-centric Draft Republic in La Jolla, the first-rate purveyor of French comfort food, Bo Beau, which has a few locations around the city including Bo Beau Kitchen + Cache, which is right next to Libertad! Tacos in Hillcrest.

Also in San Diego’s “gayborhood,” Trust scores high marks for its sophisticated cocktails and wood-fired seasonal fare, from blistered shishito peppers to wood-grilled pork sausage with yam gnocchi and arugula cream, and handsome Maestoso is a top pick for modern Italian fare, from handmade pastas to Roman-style flatbreads. Hash House A Go Go is famed for its prodigious portions of hearty breakfast and brunch fare, from fried chicken waffles to burgers stuffed with mashed potatoes and smoked bacon. It’s open for dinner, too, but the morning meals are the most memorable. And for years, down-home Crest Cafe has been a reliable destination, from 7 am until midnight, for creative diner fare, such as huevos rancheros in the morning and mac-and-cheese with ham and jalapeños in the evening.

North Park has developed into one of the better dining enclaves in the city, its many hipster-approved eateries tending to draw a pretty good mix of gays and straights. You won’t go wrong with Urban Solace, which occupies a New Orleans–style space and turns out delicious contemporary bistro fare, such as crispy duck confit with a pomegranate reduction. There’s a great wine list, too, and a scene-y weekend brunch.

Diversionary Theatre, the nation’s third-oldest LGBTQ theater. Photo by Andrew Collins

You’ll find some terrific coffeehouses in the neighborhoods near Balboa Park, including Lestat’s, which draws a colorful bunch at all hours of the day and night (it’s open 24/7), including plenty of revelers who’ve been partying at nearby gay bars. Lestat’s has three locations, one in the heart of Hillcrest at 1041 University Ave., another just north in nearby University Heights at 4496 Park Blvd., and another in lively Normal Heights, at 3343 Adams Ave. The University Heights branch partners with the acclaimed Diversionary Theatre, a longstanding LGBTQ-focused arts space that’s produces stellar performances throughout the year. A gorgeous space for lingering, dates, working, or reading while you sip first-rate java is the beautiful, and enormous, 7,500-square-foot flagship roastery and cafe of San Diego chainlet Better Buzz Coffee, which several other locations around the city, including in Pacific Beach, Fashion Valley, Point Loma, and Mission Beach. With its sleek design, generous indoor/outdoor seating, and high-quality coffee (including arguably the best cold brew in town), drop by Refill Cafe, a short walk both from the bars and restaurants in Hillcrest and the museums and zoo in Balboa Park. It’s also a good bet for crepes, avocado toast, and other light fare, or even for a craft beer or glass of wine in the afternoon.

Another hot neighborhood for dining is Little Italy, where the focus goes well beyond cuisine from the Mediterranean. There’s rustic-industrial Juniper & Ivy, where you can create a grand feast from the long list of innovative small plates (lamb belly with pistachio miso, beer-battered morel mushrooms, nectarines with burrata, halibut sashimi with fish sauce and green chiles), and the fabulous craft-beer drinkery Nolita Hall, where scene-y sorts congregate at picnic tables under a beam ceiling, sipping IPAs and colorful cocktails and noshing on fennel-and-mushroom pizzas.

In La Jolla, steps from the impossibly picturesque Cove, Brockton Villa occupies a former beach bungalow and has long been popular for breakfast (try the smoked salmon avocado toast or cinnamon-roll pancakes) but is also good fun for late-afternoon drinks or even dinner. A few miles north at the serenely stunning Lodge at Torrey Pines, consider grabbing cocktails and appetizers in the late afternoon at the resort’s Grill, perhaps before settling into a seat at A.R. Valentien to feast on exceptional contemporary American cuisine.

San Diego Gay Guide to Weddings

San Diego Lesbian Wedding
The wedding of Michal-Lynn O’Kelley & Jaimee Rojas, at the Ranch at Bandy Canyon, just outside San Diego. Photo by Rose Coleman Creatives

Amazing year-round weather and a raft of scenic and stylish venues has made San Diego a top destination for LGBTQ weddings. Have a look at our story on the wedding (pictured above) between Michal-Lynn O’Kelley and Jaimee Rojas, at the Ranch at Bandy Canyon. And check out our San Diego LGBTQ-Friendly Vendor Guide, which lists venues, wedding planners, photographers, bakers, and many businesses that can help you to plan the perfect wedding.