9 Legendary San Francisco Gay Bars
There’s something magical about walking through the doors of a gay bar or club that's older than you are. You can almost feel the personal stories, the come-ons, the banter, and the longing for freedom seeping out of the nicked wood of the bar.
Many of San Francisco’s legendary bars go way, way back--even before the Summer of Love--and are still thriving today. After all, what would the revolutions in San Francisco have meant without amazing places to celebrate change and embrace the freedom in diversity?
During your next stay in San Francisco, be sure to visit some of these legendary gay bars.
440 Bar (440 Castro St.)
If you like your men big and fuzzy, then 440 Bar is where you'll want to stop for a drink. Generously priced specials, a large and festive curbside parklet, and plenty of friendly regulars make this bar a guaranteed good time. Plus, it's smack in the middle of all the gayborhood action on Castro Street, so grab a beer (or a bear!) and enjoy watching the world go by.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge (133 Turk St.)
It might seem like it’s been here forever, but it’s not the oldest of San Francisco’s gay bars. Aunt Charlie’s only opened in 1987. Still, that’s plenty of time to have become an institution, as one of the Tenderloin’s most fabulous dive bars. The Friday and Saturday drag shows are notorious in the tight, colorful space. But the clientele is decidedly more mature than you might find at a more modern establishment. The city might be changing dramatically around the bar, but Aunt Charlie’s is frozen comfortably and brilliantly in time.
The Cinch (1723 Polk St.)
One of the last gay bars left standing in what was San Francisco's original gayborhood, before the action and activism moved south to the Castro, The Cinch is a delightful dive with pinball, a patio, and plenty of strong cocktails to choose from. With a loyal following and lots of history, it's definitely worth a visit. Plus, you can order in food from some of the excellent neighboring restaurants.
The Eagle (398 12th St.)
Your grittiest experience is sure to be found at The Eagle, San Francisco’s famous leather bar. The place looks like it’s just barely held together with string and duct tape—probably because the place is older than many of the people in attendance. It’s been the site of countless fundraisers, mud wrestling tournaments, drag shows, and community meetings. The outside patio is filled with men on sunny weekend afternoons.
Oasis (298 11th St.)
This bar in SoMa is one of the city's premiere LGBTQ venues. Hosting drag nights, concerts, and DJs, Oasis is all about having a gay old time. It gets its fun and frivolous spirit from its proprietor, drag legend Heklina, who's been encouraging outrageous on-stage performance for years. A small, cozy bar outside the main space and a rooftop bar above offer you the chance to quiet down and connect with someone new.
Powerhouse (1347 Folsom St.)
It’s a perfect place for a little happy hour, strippers, leather, and, well, the erotica that plays on several large screens on any given afternoon or evening. Powerhouse may not be the sleekest design in the world, but the old time atmosphere evokes the past and an "anything goes" atmosphere. There’s plenty of fascinating men-watching to be enjoyed. The crowd’s always friendly and welcoming, so long as you drop your attitude at the door.
Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.)
At the corner of Castro and Market streets, Twin Peaks Tavern holds an important distinction: it was the first gay bar in the city to have large, street-facing windows. The guests could see out and the world could see in. It was a bold declaration that there was nothing shameful about being gay or the gay community. Twin Peaks remains a popular spot with queers of all ages and has become a destination for LGBTQ travelers. It's cosy and unpretentious, meaning you could easily knock back a few rounds with friends.
Vesuvio Cafe (255 Columbus Ave.)
Naturally, the Beat Poets liked to drink and hang out. A lot. And when they did, it was often at Vesuvio Cafe in Italian-flavored North Beach. Covered in local art, a drink at this destination is a must for anyone visiting the city who wants to feel the echoes of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There’s a nearby alley that’s been spruced up to highlight the legacy of the generation that paved the way for the Summer of Love. It's not technically a gay bar, but it's still a must-see for those who value what made San Francisco the beacon of love it is today.
Wild Side West (424 Cortland Ave.)
A neighborhood institution since 1962, Wild Side West was opened by two lesbians to cater to the far-flung queers hiding in San Francisco’s sleepier neighborhoods. Word is Janis Joplin used to party here. It’s a true local gem in Bernal Heights and overflows with friendly familiar faces every night. Head out to the patio to enjoy some fresh air and wink at pretty (mostly female) faces.