America's Best Cities for Gay Travel
During his first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Stephen Schmitz attended the Bourbon Street Costume Contest, hosted by two of the most notable local drag queens.
“It was raucous, it was rowdy, it was slightly inappropriate,” says the executive at a Louisiana advertising and public relations firm. “But I was struck by the amount of families with children at the event. I don’t know many other places where straight families go watch huge public drag shows.”
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That atmosphere helped New Orleans take the crown (or tiara?) as the second most gay-friendly city, according to Travel + Leisure readers. The annual America’s Favorite Cities survey asks readers to rank 35 cities in categories such as walkable streets and great ethnic food. This year, we added gay-friendly travel, and while cities with an obvious connection to the gay rights movement—such as San Francisco and New York—ranked near the top, so did some less obvious places that have clearly made a point to welcome the LGBT community.
It’s a smart move. According to marketing firm CMI, LGBT travelers now account for about $70 billion in the U.S. travel industry. “When the economy slowed down, travel companies realized they needed to diversify their customer base, and they saw an opportunity: gay couples with double incomes,” says Jason Couvillion, partner at agency Alternative Luxury Travel.
Being a gay-friendly destination these days means more than having a selection of bars or a gayborhood: “It needs to be more than just putting up a rainbow flag,” says John Clifford, president of agency International Travel Management. “It’s about sensitivity and savvy.”
At a hotel, that savvy may result in a staff that doesn’t blink at a same-sex couple booked for a honeymoon package. In Las Vegas, the Wynn and Encore now offer gay guests a “pride concierge,” while in Honolulu, the Sheraton Waikiki has an on-site office for civil-union licenses.
At least as important, but less tangible, is the sense of welcome a city conveys. In No. 6–ranked Providence, RI, “I don’t fear holding my wife’s hand when I walk downtown, even late at night,” says Desiree Sousa, owner of the Gay Travel Information blog. “And I don’t stop myself from introducing her as ‘my wife’ at local businesses. There is an overall accepting vibe. When I travel, I want to feel safe being myself.”
No. 1 San Francisco
The first iconic rainbow flag was raised here in 1978, and the Castro District has remained, for many, the epicenter of American gay culture. You can learn more about the movement at the GLBT History Museum, or have some history with your happy hour at the Twin Peaks Tavern, the first “out” gay bar. Or, just enjoy the fabulous weekly brunch-and-show, “Sunday’s a Drag,” at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. No surprise, the city also ranked near the top for its fabulous sense of style.
No. 2 New Orleans
The arts community, as well as that laissez le bon temps rouler mind-set, has long created a happily unconventional environment in the Crescent City; a calendar that emphasizes festivals, parades, and flamboyant costumes sure doesn’t hurt. While many cities hold their pride weekends in June, New Orleans’ annual Southern Decadence festival (sometimes dubbed “the gay Mardi Gras”) arrives on Labor Day weekend. While the French Quarter and the Marigny may have the most gay bars, the city ranked first in the survey for live music, people-watching, and an overall sense of pride.
No. 3 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities—deemed the cleanest and brainiest metro area in the reader survey—was early to pass nondiscrimination ordinances, has been called the “gayest city in America” by the Advocate, and has long embraced a casual, hipster vibe. Check out the North Loop neighborhood, which offers dapper shops such as Martin Patrick 3, as well as laid-back bars that appeal to these athletic, outdoorsy locals. Case in point: the Eagle Bolt Bar, a hot spot during the recent Gay Softball World Series.
No. 4 Santa Fe, NM
This southwestern town has a long history as an artists’ colony—attracting the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work has its own museum here. Today Santa Fe also counts the fifth most same-sex-couple households, according to Census data. Voters loved the city’s rich textures: it won in the categories for cultural getaways and funky little boutiques, and ranked No. 2 for its cool flea markets.
No. 5 New York City
Readers crowned the Big Apple the king of diversity—so much so that the vibrant LGBT community may not be the first thing visitors notice. While the West Village (site of the Stonewall Inn, where riots infamously broke out in 1969) has long been Manhattan’s gay neighborhood, much of the gay community is partying a little farther uptown these days. Hell’s Kitchen offers clubs such as Hardware and XL Nightclub, plus the so-called “straight-friendly” hotel OUT NYC, which has both a spa and wedding spaces. NYC also ranked first for its theater scene.
No. 6 Providence, RI
This mellow New England town—whose gay former mayor, David Cicilline, now serves in Congress—ranks well with voters for being artsy, offbeat, and safe. In downtown’s multiuse space AS220, you’ll find gay bar The Stable, while a longtime favorite, Mira Bar, recently reopened in a new location on Elbow Street. The city was also voted the No. 1 base for side trips—such as Cape Cod’s Provincetown, which may be America’s most gay-friendly small town and is about two hours away.
No. 7 Portland, OR
The funky Oregon city gets high marks for its progressive culture: it’s No. 1 for being eco-friendly, mass-transit-friendly, and pet-friendly. One way to explore the local gay culture is to step back into the past. The site of the recently opened Crystal Hotel (owned by the local McMenamins group, of microbrewing fame) was once an auto parts store, a subject of a racketeering investigation, and then a raucous gay bar and bathhouse. Today the hotel has 51 rooms, each inspired by a song performed at the Crystal Ballroom across the street.
No. 8 Seattle
Seattle may have a certain “straight-arrow” vibe—it rules the survey for both its techy nerd culture and for the highly caffeinated coffee—but it’s also the home of outspoken gay writer Dan Savage, and was recently the site of singer Jim Nabors’s wedding to his longtime partner. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, you can find the gay community and get a great cup at Espresso Vivace or Caffé Vita.
No. 9 San Diego
Who doesn’t love a man in uniform? This beach city is a heady combination of strapping military folks, surfers, and sunshine—which likely helped it win the 4th of July category. Hillcrest has traditionally been the gay neighborhood (in 2012 a street there was renamed Harvey Milk), although neighboring restaurant-packed North Park has expanded the terrain. San Diego also has a burgeoning rep as a craft beer mecca; check out the Hillcrest Brewing Co., which bills itself as America’s first gay brewery.
No. 10 Miami
Party town Miami, which ranked near the top for its singles scene, dress-to-impress locals, and wild-weekend potential, is so welcoming to gay travelers that there’s an LGBT Visitor Center in South Beach. For sun-worshippers, there are a number of gay-friendly beaches where you can see why the locals ranked No. 1 for looks. South Beach’s 12th Street Beach is the most famous, but there’s a quieter, and more local, scene 20 minutes to the north at Haulover Beach Park (spoiler alert: you may even see all of said locals, on the beach’s clothing-optional stretch of sand).
No. 11 Austin, TX
The Texas capital is a little bit cowboy and a little bit geek, and it has always charmed readers for being offbeat: it also ranked near the top for its music scene and street performers. The best new gay-friendly hotels include the rehabbed estate of Hotel Saint Cecilia—named for the patron of music and arts—and the sleek Kimber Modern in the South Congress area.
No. 12 Chicago
Sure, the city may rank first for its straight-seeming sports bars and team-crazed locals, but note that Wrigleyville also borders gay-bar-friendly Boystown, so the partying can be pretty seamless sometimes. The Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, for instance, hosts both Super Bowl and awards-show-watching parties. The Windy City also ranked highly for its great aesthetics: architecture, design shops, and luxury stores.
No. 13 Savannah, GA
Readers love the city for its picturesque charm—quaint neighborhoods, antique shops, cafés—but friendly Savannah also has a festive, let-your-hair-down side. The best gay-friendly spots have a great sense of fun: there’s both cabaret and bingo at hot spot Club One, hookahs at the Mirage (where every Monday is gay night), and wine-plus-dessert at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar. According to the survey, the locals may also slay you with their charming accents.
No. 14 Los Angeles
Why didn’t Hollywood rank higher in the survey? Perhaps the lousy traffic and aloof locals made readers feel a little less welcome. After all, there are plenty of great ways to experience gay culture here, such as the Out and About bus tour (featuring gay landmarks and the homes of purportedly closeted stars), or June’s OUTFEST, the nation’s largest LGBT film festival. For a night out, consider RAIN in Studio City, touted as the Valley’s first gay nightclub to rival those in West Hollywood.
No. 15 Portland, ME
On December 29, 2012, the day that gay marriage was legalized in Maine, Portland’s city officials were so enthusiastic that they opened the city hall at midnight to start performing weddings. Even if there is no one “gay” part of town, readers embraced the Maine city’s mellow, welcoming vibe: it won the survey for feeling safe. Instead of a raging party scene, the allure here is the idyllic summers, great for strolling the Old Port and sipping the highly ranked microbrews.
No. 16 Boston
A historic hotbed of liberty, Massachusetts was the first state on the map for marriage equality. Most of the gay bars are to be found in South End or Jamaica Plain; to go high-tone, you can hear the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Readers do indeed love Boston for its erudite culture and also for its family-friendly appeal (Pride week in June features a dance for teens).
No. 17 Philadelphia
Readers loved the City of Brotherly Love for its museums—such as the revamped Barnes Foundation—and its deep history, which includes the first documented gay-rights sit-in, in 1965. Today, Center City’s “Gayborhood” is marked with rainbow flags from Chestnut to Pine streets between 11th and Broad streets. On the corner of South 12th and Pine, you’ll find Giovanni’s Room, which boasts of being the oldest LGBT bookstore in the country.
No. 18 Las Vegas
Certainly, Vegas has nailed the “loud” part of loud and proud—and having its own gay rodeo association is good proof of the proud part, too. Several Strip hotels go out of their way to cater to gay guests: the Wynn and Encore, for instance, have “pride concierges,” and the Luxor does LGBT pool parties every Sunday during the summer. Downtown also has a booming scene, from bowling lounge Drink and Drag to the upcoming, 80,000-square-foot Krave Massive, which promises to be the world’s biggest gay club.
No. 19 Washington, D.C.
The gay neighborhood and bar scene, once primarily in Dupont Circle, now extends into Logan Circle—and also intertwines with the city’s big parties. In April, the gay-friendly Cherry Blast dance party coincides with blossom season, while the drag-friendly High Heel Race helps kick off Halloween festivities. Readers also gave D.C. credit for its museums—which may have also helped it score the gold for its free attractions.
No. 20 Honolulu
The island city must make all comers feel welcome: it ranks near the top for romance and Valentine’s Day visits as well as for being a great place to bring the kids. One gay-friendly hotel caters to both the stroller set and the singles scene: the Sheraton Waikiki, with its huge water playground, makes a point of welcoming gay families and, on the last Sunday evening of every month, throws an LGBT oceanfront dance party called Phoenix Sunday.