San Francisco might be the country’s most famous hub for LGBTQ arts, entertainment and lifestyle, but there’s a tiny South Florida town on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale with a scene so vibrant it’ll make you forget all about the city by the bay: Wilton Manors.
Wilton Manors ranks second in the country for per capita LGBT population, and because of that, streets are lined with gay-owned businesses, nightlife is plentiful and the neighborhood of just more than 10,000 people has its own Pride parade. The progressive town even elected its first openly gay official in 1988, well before being out was in.
Instead of setting up shop along Ocean Drive in Fort Lauderdale, head just three miles north for the kind of fun you thought you’d only find in ‘Frisco.
First Stop? Wilton Drive
Focus your visit to Wilton Manors on the epicenter of its gay culture and business district: Wilton Drive. The street starts just after the canal at Northeast 19th Street and continues about a mile and a half north. The strip is home to more than 40 LGBTQ-friendly and gay-owned businesses, including restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs and lounges.
Make Out of the Closet thrift shop your first stop, and make sure your bank account has plenty of padding. Find rare collectibles, luxury-brand apparel and one-of-a-kind housewares at this undisputed king of Wilton Manors thrift stores.
All proceeds from the store’s sales go to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, so you can shop knowing the dollars spent on that vintage Brazilian Carnival headdress are going to a good cause.
One of the largest LGBTQ community centers in the country, The Pride Center at Equality Park, which provides a safe space to more than 125,000 individuals throughout South Florida, is home to all the information, events and history of the gay and transgender community in Wilton Manors.
Time your visit with one of the community flea markets based at the park on the first Saturday of each month, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., where you’ll find artisan wares and bites from local restaurants.
When Evening Falls
It doesn’t look like much from the outside (what bowling alley does?), but Manor Lanes is the perfect way to escape the heat and humidity for a couple of hours. Strap on those super-stylish bowling shoes and roll your ball down one of 20 lanes.
Then retire to the game room and craft beer bar for an epic air-hockey tourney. Friday nights are prime pickings for those with the American Idol itch, as the karaoke DJ starts spinning, the mics are hot and liquid courage is on the menu.
Staying into the wee hours? Of course you are. Grab a high-top table at Rumors, the hottest bar and lounge on the north end of Wilton Drive. The bar is open every night until at least 2 a.m. (Friday and Saturday nights until 3 a.m.) and features drink specials on premium liquors and craft cocktails nightly, as well as a $1 Wednesday night on well drinks and draft beer.
The don’t-miss event at Rumors is the Sunday night drag show at 10:30 p.m., notoriously the naughtiest in the area.
The Morning After
Sunday brunch is a must in Wilton Manors, and Rosie’s Bar & Grill is the place to see and be seen in the neighborhood. Not only does Rosie’s have a fantastic patio for meeting up with old friends and making new ones, the award-winning bloody marys flow freely, and at just $4, you can treat yourself to more than a few (just call for a ride after you’ve swilled your last swig).
The menu is packed with plates as fun to eat as they are to read on the cleverly curated menu. The s’mores pancakes are a must, stuffed with milk chocolate, marshmallow fluff and graham crackers. From the “Big ‘Dicts” section, go with the blue crab eggs Benedict, topped with poached eggs and fluffy hollandaise.
Where to Stay
South of Las Olas Boulevard, where art galleries and chic restaurants reign, the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa is a full-service hotel property with a sprawling pool — complete with pirate-themed water features — and beachside bar service. The gigantic, 22,000-square-foot spa is an ideal oasis from the hustle of Fort Lauderdale’s hub and will prepare you to explore Wilton Manors’ chill vibe.