San Francisco is a city enshrined in both LGBTQ+ history and culture, with many viewing it as the “gay capital of the world”. It was the symbolic heart of the gay rights movement in the United States for several decades, ultimately becoming the place where the first same-sex marriage licenses were issued. From exploring the iconic Castro District to seeing what the city’s nightlife has to offer, GAY TIMES got to experience San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ scene in all its glory as part of Virgin Atlantic and the San Francisco Travel Association’s search for the UK’s next big drag star. Wondering how to spend your time there? We’ve got you covered.
1. Go to a drag show at the Oasis nightclub
An internationally acclaimed venue for both drag and cabaret shows, Oasis is located in the heart of the SOMA district. The building is an 8,000 square foot converted gay bathhouse that provides a safe space for all members of the LGBTQ+ community. From drag performances to cabaret shows to live musical acts, Oasis is home to an array of queer performances, events and club nights. A number of Drag Race legends have taken to the stage there, including Kitty Scott-Claus, Raja, Trixie Mattel, Pangina Heals and Jasmine Masters, to name a few. Vanity Milan told GAY TIMES that her time at the venue was “magical and a moment I’ll never forget” after delivering a showstopping performance there during Pride Month this year.
2. Explore the Castro District
Start with a freshly-baked snack from Hot Cookie, a shop which prides itself on its dedication to LGBTQ+ customers and was made famous by its penis and vagina cookies, and end where the night takes you. The Castro District is the hub of LGBTQ+ culture, life and history in San Francisco and it would be sinful to visit the city without going there. Pride flags hang defiantly on almost every street, LGBTQ+ venues can be located with ease and the locals are some of the most accepting in the world. Places like the GLBT Historical Society give you the chance to learn about the community and Harvey Milk’s unprecedented impact on the fight for equality, with a number of walking tours available to take you through each milestone. The Lookout bar serves food and drinks with panoramic views of the Castro, with the Beaux nightclub being a two-minute walk away so you can spend the rest of the evening partying.
3. Visit the sea lions at Pier 39
If you’re visiting San Francisco, it’s unlikely that you’re coming from somewhere you can go on a merry-go-round, see a live show and watch sea lions in the wild all in one place – but Pier 39 offers just that and more. Its restaurants and activities would make it easy to spend an entire day there, but you can also do all you need to in a single morning or afternoon. Those with a sweet tooth will find plenty of dessert shops to satisfy it, with the salt water taffy being a particular highlight. Take note, the smell of the sea lions will hit you as soon as you arrive, but you’ll get used to it as you watch them play and swim. Boasting stunning views of the city’s skyline, there is also the option of going on a boat ride around San Francisco from Pier 39 – more on that below…
4. Go on a boat ride under the Golden Gate Bridge
There are a number of ways you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, but perhaps the most underrated is by boat. Adventure Cat Sailing Charters offers people the chance to sail around part of San Francisco’s stunning coast, past Alcatraz and under the iconic landmark. GAY TIMES took a trip with drag queens Glitzy Von Jagger, Vanity Milan and Kitty Scott-Claus – the latter of which said she “loved” every second of. “Just being on a boat, driving under the Golden Gate Bridge was just incredible, like one of those moments where you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, as if we’re doing this!’ and in drag? How funny!” The boats offer guests the chance to feel the full experience with an open deck, or witness the epic views from the covered cabin which comes complete with coats for when the wind gets a little too much (just ask the queens – extra glue was needed for those wigs that day, henny).
5. Visit the National AIDS Memorial Grove
The memorial, which is located in the Golden Gate Park, exists to remember those lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The idea for the 10-acre living memorial was conceived in 1988 by a small group of San Francisco’s residents in need of a positive way to express their grief. Since then, a permanent endowment has been established, with the work of the National AIDS Memorial also expanding to scholarships, storytelling programmes, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt which GAY TIMES saw on display during a visit to the city. It is often home to events and volunteer workdays and ultimately provides a safe space for those affected by HIV/AIDS to reflect without fear of stigma or hate. “Thousands of people have died in San Francisco, millions in the world,” said Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. “The point of the National AIDS Memorial Grove is to remember them, one at a time.”
6. See the Dear San Francisco cirque experience at Club Fugazi
The live 90-minute-long show intimately tells the story of San Francisco using circus acts, original music, acrobatics and choreography, among other things. You’ll be at the edge of your seat for the full length of the performance, which is delivered by an exceptional artistic collective called The 7 Fingers, who hail from all over the world. Club Fugazi, a small theatre located in North Beach, is the perfect setting for Dear San Francisco, with attendees even having the option to get on-stage tickets – yes, on-stage – to be as close to the show as possible. At times, the cast also perform in the aisles and on tables, giving it a personal touch you’ll rarely find elsewhere. Those working at Club Fugazi make every effort to ensure you’re comfortable throughout, with food and drinks options also available, and it’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon or evening. Tickets are available here.
7. Stay at the Hilton Hotel in Union Square
What would a trip abroad be without somewhere to stay? Hilton’s Union Square location offers an experience you’ll never forget and is within walking distance of some of San Francisco’s best shops, restaurants and bars. The hotel comes complete with a champagne vending machine, a serene outdoor swimming pool and the city’s highest sky bar, Cityscape, where you can watch the unforgettable California sunset take place over the city as you sip an ice cold espresso martini. The staff are some of the nicest you’ll ever meet and go above and beyond to ensure you feel at home. From rainbow hot air balloons to Pride-themed stairs, the team takes every effort to make sure LGBTQ+ guests know they are welcome all year round and we can’t wait for our next visit. You can find more information here.
You can book your trip to San Francisco via Virgin Atlantic Holidays by clicking here.