The nickname, “America’s Finest City,” is a lot to live up to. Unlike factual monikers such as Denver’s “Mile-High City” distinction, San Diego’s nickname is a bold claim that almost dares you to disagree. The truth, however, is that few people do. With nearly perfect weather, beautiful beaches, and a welcoming, just-laid-back-enough vibe, San Diego totally lives up to its billing.
This post is just one in a series of LGBT destination guides filled with LGBT-centric places to eat, sleep, and play. In this series, we spotlight destinations that show up on our personal radar in cities all over the world. We want to say a special thanks to Marriott International for sponsoring this post and, more important, for its long-standing commitment to embracing LGBT employees and travelers all around the world.
One LGBT neighborhood
Hillcrest. Perched on a ridge overlooking San Diego Bay, Hillcrest is ideally suited because Balboa Park is in its backyard, and it offers quick access to Downtown. But those geographical features don’t don’t begin to touch on the things that make this one of the world’s most adored gay villages. For that, the locally owned businesses, charming restaurants and wine bars, and vibrant, diverse nightlife really put Hillcrest on the map.
Two LGBT fun facts
Lambda Archives of San Diego. San Diego is home to one of the best-maintained and largest collections of LGBT history in the country: the Lambda Archives. The non-profit, which was founded by pioneering gay-activists Jess Jessop and Doug Moore, provides an important way to honor LGBT history and leverage what we’ve learned in order to make progress in the march toward full LGBT equality.
Dignity USA. Faith-based LGBT organizations are rare today and were unheard of in the 1960s. So imagine the bravery and vision it took back in 1969 for Father Patrick X. Nidorf, OSA, an Augustinian priest and psychologist, to establish a ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics. While San Diego was the birthplace of Dignity USA, the organization now supports LGBT individuals all over the nation.
Viewfinder Tip: Balboa Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. Allow yourself at least a day to explore the park sufficiently.
Three LGBT-friendly activities
The Center. The San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center—better known as The Center—is one of the country’s first and largest LGBT community centers. For decades, The Center has provided crucial physical and mental health services to the LGBT community, with specific programs geared toward seniors, youth, Latinos, and families. It also serves as an incubator for civil rights advocacy.
Movies in the Park. Every year the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation partners with neighborhood associations to put on a free series of outdoor movie events. One of the most popular events among the LGBT community occurs in Ward Canyon Neighborhood Park, just northwest of the Hillcrest neighborhood. If the idea of an enjoying movies such as “The Princess Bride” under the stars with a bunch gay people sounds fun (in other words, you have a pulse), make sure to add this to your list.
Explore the outdoors. San Diego is world-renowned for having amazing outdoor recreation activities, so it makes sense that there would be several outdoors-focused organizations geared toward the LGBT community. Check out Great Outdoors San Diego and San Diego Trail Tramps for some great hikes, or head over to Front Runners and Walkers San Diego to learn more about frequent meet-ups right in the heart of the city.
Four LGBT-friendly hotels
San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina. When it comes to location, the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina wins, hands down. You can’t beat the views over the harbor and Coronado Island, and the hotel is walking distance to the iconic Gaslamp District. Of course, the inside of a hotel is what really counts, and Marriott’s un-closeted support of the LGBT community is what really makes this a no-brainer.
The Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows. Located in the Hillcrest-adjacent North Park neighborhood, this boutique hotel maintains much of the charm that made it a hotspot among celebrities when it opened in the 1940’s. It is a popular choice for LGBT travelers looking for a sense of style at a decidedly retro price point.
Andaz San Diego. While the rooms here are super-sexy and stylish (we’re talking glass showers that open to the rest of the room), RoofTop600, the hotel’s über-popular rooftop lounge, really brings the heat. This pool offers bottle service and DJs; it’s almost like a night club during the day, so leave the Crocs and bathrobes back in the room.
Inn at the Park. This lovingly renovated LGBT-friendly hotel is just steps away from expansive Balboa Park, and a quick walk to the Hillcrest scene. Every room in the all-suite hotel comes equipped with a fully-stocked kitchen. Rooms also comfortably sleep four, so this is a great option for families.
Five LGBT-friendly bars and restaurants
Baja Betty’s. This is a Hillcrest institution, and for good reason. Grubby Mexican food: check. Strong, get-to-the-point margaritas: check. Fun neighborhood vibe: double check. Suffice it to say this is the kind of place you are happy you don’t live too close to, because it could become habit-forming.
Urban MO’s Bar and Grill. We asked a lot of locals to share with us their favorite bar or restaurant. In almost every case, the answer was Urban MO’s. We would expect people to rave about the massive patios and strong cocktails, but we were surprised to learn that the food is a major draw, as well. In fact, MO’s claims to have the best hamburger in San Diego and it is clear a lot of people agree.
Extraordinary Desserts. This is the perfect spot for date night, a special celebration, or any old day on the town. The adorable Cambridge Square spot is famous for creating sweet, edible art that tastes even better than it looks (which is saying a lot). On our visit, we had the bread pudding—a custardy concoction filled with tart berries and apple, topped with a crunchy pile of filo dough pieces, and accompanied by crème anglaise, oozy caramel, and lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Hillcrest Brewing Company. Right in the heart of the Hillcrest neighborhood, in the shadow of a massive gay pride flag, sits the country’s “first and only openly gay brewery.” Whatever the claims to fame, the brewery and restaurant is pumping out really great beer and pizza. We suggest the BBQueer Chicken Pizza, which balances the sweet and smoky BBQ sauce with a heavy notes of rosemary.
Parma Cucina Italiana. San Diego is rich with great Italian food, so you’ve got a lot of options if you’re craving pasta. We ducked into this romantic little shoebox of a restaurant during a rainstorm (that totally sounds like the beginning of a Rom-Com) and fell in love with the rich, melt-in-your-mouth lasagna and easy-on-the-wallet wine list.
What do you feel makes a city especially LGBT-friendly?