Your Destination Guide to San Francisco

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The Castro

The Castro
The Castro

© Michael Vito

Just south of Haight-Ashbury and west of the Mission District lies one of San Francisco's most renowned neighborhoods. One of the nation's most prominent gay and lesbian communities, the Castro District is a vibrant, spirited neighborhood teeming with cultural treasures and some of the best nightlife in the Bay Area.

For the last 40 years or so, the Castro has been the center of San Francisco's thriving LGBT community, though the district's history is much longer and far more varied than recent decades would suggest. The neighborhood, as it is known today, was formed in 1887 with the creation of a cable car line connecting downtown to Eureka Valley, a larger area of which the Castro is an integral part. The district then became home to San Francisco's sizeable Scandinavian contingent during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. The Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes eventually scattered to the surrounding suburbs, but not before leaving their architectural fingerprints all over the Castro; the distinctive Scandinavian "half-timber" construction can still be found readily throughout the area.

Beginning in the 1930s the Castro saw an influx in middle-class Irish moving into the neighborhood, and, for roughly the next 30 years, the population remained relatively uniform. The Summer of Love in 1967 ushered in dramatic demographic and social changes to San Francisco in general and the Castro in particular. Largely due to its proximity to Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of San Francisco's fast-growing countercultural revolution, the Castro became one of the city's more progressive neighborhoods. Fearing the loose social mores of the growing hippie movement, much of the middle-class Irish population moved to the suburbs. The plethora of large Victorian houses with cheap rents and low down payments encouraged many in San Francisco's gay community to move to the Castro from the city's previous gay stronghold, Polk Gulch.

The Castro is among San Francisco's most eclectic neighborhoods, boasting an ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse population. The district is dominated, however, by the LGBT community; as such, the area has become well-known for its many establishments catering to the gay community. Gay bars and nightclubs abound in the Castro, but in keeping with San Francisco's remarkable nature of inclusiveness, people of all orientations, races, and genders are always welcome. Noted gay bar Twin Peaks, often touted as the oldest gay bar in the city, is still a popular hangout, exceedingly so with the Castro's aging gay inhabitants. Zeitgeist, a biergarten-styled bar and grill, caters to a unique blend of bikers and hipsters, a rare combination not often seen elsewhere in the world. Numerous bars, clubs, and karaoke establishments round out the Castro's incomparable nightlife scene.

The ornately decorated Castro Theatre, built in the 1920s and for which the neighborhood is named, is still at the forefront of entertainment in the neighborhood. Alternating between summer blockbusters and underground indie films, the Castro Theatre has gained a reputation as one of the premiere movie palaces on the West Coast. Located nearby is the former site of Castro Camera, a local institution owned Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and San Francisco politician who was assassinated at City Hall in 1978. Castro Camera was temporarily and painstakingly reconstructed on its former site for the production of the academy award-winning film Milk in 2008.

The Castro District remains a sparkling gem in San Francisco's crown. The neighborhood's compelling history, coupled with its unique brand of entertainment and nightlife, continues to draw visitors and residents alike to marvel at the truly exceptional concomitance of such disparate individuals. What makes the Castro so great isn't its fascinating history or its singular brand of entertainment, but rather it is the people, at once accepting and charmingly aloof, who make the Castro such an integral and fascinating part of San Francisco.

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