What to do in NYC for LGBT travelers
New York City has long been a destination for LGBTQ people, both tourists and permanent residents. In 2019, NYC hosted World Pride, which brought a record five million people to the city. Made infamous in song and story, the city is difficult to disentangle from its image as a place where the artists and business moguls come to find their fortunes, where LGBTQ people can find sanctuary, and where anyone can find their place — but it is much more complicated than the stories suggest.
New York City is often credited with starting of the Gay Rights Movement with the riots at the Stonewall Inn, but the history of LGBTQ people in the city goes much further back. Books like The Stonewall Reader from the New York Public Library and When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan make great plane-ride primers for the rich history of LGBTQ culture and activism in NYC and its boroughs.
This city has something for every visitor, especially those interested in LGBTQ culture. New York City is well set up for a late-night partying followed by a slow morning enjoying a walking tour or a few hours in a museum. Of course, the city has a few “must-sees” for the LGBTQ traveler, such as the Stonewall Inn, which still operates as a bar, but there are so many quieter delights (and not-so-quiet nightlife) that should not be discounted.
Greenwich Village was once the heart of gay life in New York City. Heading south towards lower Manhattan along 6th Avenue, you will know you have reached the neighborhood as the streets fall out of the grid pattern that defines most of the city. It is here that the Stonewall Riots raged for three days in 1969 and early gay rights organization thrived. Rising rent costs have pushed many LGBTQ residents further out, but the neighborhood remains a popular nightlife neighborhood. Be sure to check out Big Gay Ice Cream for a sweet treat — especially the best-selling flavor, Salty Pimp.
Hell’s Kitchen has grown into a hub for LGBTQ people in more recent decades. The neighborhood is home to some of the hottest clubs, including Flaming Saddles Saloon, Industry Bar, and the Ritz Bar and Lounge. What was once a seedy neighborhood has transformed with new developments, including The High Line. Enjoy the public art, and watch the sunset from this elevated park before enjoying your night on the town.
If you are looking for a neighborhood with a slower pace to stay in during your busy trip, consider Park Slope in Brooklyn. Park Slope is known to be a popular neighborhood for families, especially LGBTQ parents. Each year, Brooklyn Pride enjoys a twilight march down the street past Ginger’s, one of three lesbian bars left in New York City. Year-round, Ginger’s offers a comfortable place to grab a drink, complete with pool table and backyard garden.
People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park
If you are visiting the city during the warmer summer months and have a spare day, consider making the trek out to the People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park. It can be a bit tricky to get to, but on weekends, the beach comes alive with LGBTQ people and allies of all stripes. The queer section of the beach is the far left, or northeast section of the beach. The section is more crowded than other parts of the coastline and defined by rainbow flags and colorful umbrellas. This strip of sand used to be a nude beach, but there has been a crackdown by the police in recent years. A lot of people of all genders will be topless, but try to keep those bottoms on.
Bars and nightlife
The Stonewall Inn
No list of gay bars in New York City would be complete without Stonewall. This is a bar that celebrates its fame, but don’t expect anything fancy here. Back in the day, The Stonewall Inn was a pretty gross bar with no running water to clean the glasses used throughout the evening and a number of other health code violations. But it was run by the mob and not subject to such oversight. It closed down a few years after the riots but was reopened again as a small but functioning bar in the 90s. Today, the bar is a destination spot — both for the nightlife scene and the historic significance — offering two for one deals during happy hour, typically with a mixed-gender crowd.
Where: 53 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014
If lesser-known LGBTQ history is your thing, Julius’ must be on your list. This bar claims to be the oldest gay bar in the city and is the site of the first LGBTQ rights protest in New York City, three years before the riots at The Stonewall Inn just down the street. At a time when it was illegal to serve gay people alcohol in bars, the Mattachine Society, one of the oldest gay rights organizations in the country, staged a protest at the bar. The walls of Julius’ are decorated with newspaper clippings detailing the protest and fliers for Mattachine Society parties held at the bar through the ‘80s. The bar has always attracted an older crowd and is set up more for conversation with a drink.
Where: 159 W 10th St, New York, NY 10014
The Cubbyhole is one of the last three lesbian bars in the city, the other two being Henrietta Hudsons and Gingers in Brooklyn. The bar is most famous for its rainbow kitsch hanging from the ceiling. The small bar has a jukebox for patron’s requests and maintains a comfortable crowd. Margarita Tuesdays are an especially great day to visit when margaritas are only $3.
Where: 281 W 12th St, New York, NY 10014
If you love Broadway musicals, there is no better bar for you than Marie’s Crisis. This small bar features a piano at the center of the room where a rotating cast of pianists plays the classics all night long. Marie’s Crisis often attracts Broadway hopefuls looking for a fun way to blow off some steam, so the quality of drunken singalongs is off the scale. But there is no need to feel self-conscious — everyone is encouraged to join in.
Where: 59 Grove St, New York, NY 10014
For the dancing queens, a stop by the ironically named Therapy is a must. This Hell’s Kitchen joint has two levels, one for dancing and one for enjoying your cocktails, although the music can be a bit loud for those looking for deep conversation.
Where: 348 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019
If you prefer a seedier scene, The Cock might be more your jam. The bar identifies as a “rock and sleaze fag bar”. Not for the faint of heart, if your goal for the night is to get dirty, this might be your best bet. Be sure to bring plenty of cash because it is the only way to pay at this bar.
Where: 93 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10009
While many cities in the United States have a leather bar called The Eagle, New York City’s is the original. With three stories, nights here can range from mild to wild, but the rooftop bar can offer a moment’s breath from the activities inside. Sometimes, The Eagle is host to special events including leather competitions and pageants, so check their calendar to see what you might be in for.
Where: 554 W 28th St, New York, NY 10001
While a great drag show can be seen at most of the bars already listed, Lips is dedicated to the art. From brunches to late-night extravaganzas, there is a drag show that will fit your schedule here. The bar is especially well paired with bachelorette parties and birthday celebrations. Lips is set up for dinner theater, so come hungry and ready to drink.
Where: 227 E 56th St, New York, NY 10022
Landmarks and tours
The recently opened NYC AIDS Memorial Park is located in Chelsea. The site is dedicated to more than 100,000 New Yorkers who passed from AIDS-related deaths, as well as the activists and caretakers who have contributed to working towards an AIDS-free future. With a large triangular covering and a beautiful fountain, this is the perfect spot to take a moment of reflection.
Where: 76 Greenwich Ave, New York, NY 10011
The only accredited museum dedicated to LGBTQ art in the world, the Leslie Lohman Gay and Lesbian Art Museum offers the unique opportunity to explore LGBTQ artists. What began as a project to save the art of those who were rapidly dying from AIDS in the 1980s has grown into a community hub in SoHo.
Where: 26 Wooster St, New York, NY 10013
In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the square in front of the Stonewall Inn a National Park. Stonewall National Park is filled with benches making it a perfect spot to rest as you run around the city. At one of the benches sits white plaster statues of two women and two men, meant to honor those who fought back in the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Where: 38-64 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014
The Bureau of General Services — Queer Division, better known as BGSQD, is the only gay bookstore in New York. Located on the second floor of the LGBT Center (also worth a visit), the bookstore not only carries books from your favorite LGBTQ authors, but it also hosts events like the TELL storytelling series and readings from LGBTQ writers. Also located on the second floor of the LGBT Center is a former bathroom covered in a NSFW Keith Haring mural that is worth checking out.
Where: 208 W 13th St #210, New York, NY 10011
Walking Tours with Oscar Wilde Tours or NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
For a more detailed tour of all the LGBTQ sites around the city, consider taking a walking tour. Both Oscar Wilde Tours and the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project offer LGBTQ history-themed tours around the city.