Austin’s progressive and artsy vibe make the city perfect for LGBTIQ+ travelers and is both welcoming and filled with tons of great food, events, and nightlife.
Austin is a weird and wonderful place. It’s a college town and a hippie outpost, but it’s also a booming metropolis and the capital of Texas. It’s a city of contrasts and dichotomies. It’s big, yet small; it’s filled with high-paying tech jobs, but also artists and creatives; and it’s an incredibly liberal and progressive town… in the middle of Texas.
The best LGBTIQ+ bars and clubs in Austin
One of the coolest things about Austin is that its main LGBTIQ+ scene is concentrated downtown on South 4th Street. This makes it incredibly fun and easy to bar hop from place to place throughout the night.
During my visit to the city, my friend said he’d set me up with a guide. He claimed this guide was someone who knew Austin inside and out, and that they were excited to show me a good time. Little did I know that my guide for the evening would be one of Austin’s most prominent drag queens, Vylette Ward.
Ward wanted to show me around 4th Street, and our first stop was the bar where she began her drag career, Oilcan Harry’s. Ward said this is one of Austin’s oldest gay bars and has been around for over 25 years. It’s known for its various drag shows that take place throughout the week. From karaoke nights to talent contests and more, drag queens and kings host a variety of shows and events every night of the week.
When we arrived, the bar was doing its 9pm early show, which tends to be made up of newer queens. Ward whispered into my ear that early-evening shows like this are how they break into the scene, giving them a space to hone their skills and solidify their on-stage persona. Despite a smaller crowd than the later show attracts, the audience was loving every minute of it. Every death drop, sashay, and wig reveal was met with roaring applause from the crowd.
Later in the night, we headed to Rain on 4th, which is conveniently located next door. With a crowded dance floor, great DJs, an outdoor patio, and weekly parties, Rain is Austin’s favorite spot to dance the night away. Naturally, Ward knew virtually every bartender, DJ, and patron at the club, and was greeted by almost everyone we passed.
Normally, I don’t enjoy dancing at clubs, but Rain had such an awesome vibe and wide array of music that I couldn’t resist. A blue spotlight glittered off a disco ball, sending little prisms of glowing light around the dance floor. While they did play typical gay club music like Ariana Grande, they also played some awesomely unexpected songs, like a remix of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, and at one point, even “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.
Rock music at a gay club? I loved it, and the whole crowd seemed to love it too. We all bounced in rhythm with the song’s famous guitar riff, and many (myself included) started singing along. Something about that moment felt so special and uniquely Austin. It isn’t very often that you get to hear music in gay clubs that isn’t pop, dance, or trance.
Most of the action on South 4th takes place on one block located between Lavaca and Colorado streets. On top of Oilcan Harry’s and Rain, there’s also Neon Grotto and Highland Lounge, just to name a few. Ubers line up along the curb, friends hug before heading inside, and groups meander from club to club, giving the sidewalks a life of their own.
But Austin’s queer scene goes beyond just South 4th Street. One of the city’s most popular (and welcoming) nightspots is Cheer Up Charlie’s. The bar is known for attracting and welcoming everyone from the LGBTIQ+ spectrum, serving as a meeting place for gay men and the lesbian community, as well as trans and nonbinary people.
The bar describes itself as “Vegan + Queer” and keeps Austin’s trademark counter-culture vibes alive. From great cocktails to rotating DJs and musical guests, Cheer Up Charlie’s is perfect for anyone who feels they don’t align with the mainstream vibes of most LGBTIQ+ bars and clubs.
Excellent LGBTIQ+ spaces beyond the clubs
Austin has much more than just LGBTIQ+ nightlife, and no space proves that better than Halcyon. Located on South 4th Street among the clubs and bars, Halcyon is a coffee shop by day and a relaxing lounge at night. Throughout the morning and afternoon, you can order coffee and tea, as well as some fantastic sandwiches and salads.
My personal favorite was their chicken pesto sandwich, which gets warmed in a panini press and comes complete with sundried tomatoes and provolone cheese. I sat on Halcyon’s covered patio that faces 4th Street. It’s the perfect spot to drink something cold on a hot Texas afternoon, and the people-watching is fantastic. Austin attracts a huge number of bachelor and bachelorette parties, so there are always groups of people, usually a bit tipsy, walking down the streets or peddling along on a party bike.
With a mostly-queer staff, it’s a relaxed and welcoming space for those who want to find community without having to hit up a bar. Halcyon also puts on weekly events from afternoon drag brunch, to live music performances and more.
Located on South Congress, in the heart of Austin’s trendy SoCo neighborhood, is the campy and funky (and super queer-friendly) Austin Motel. Decked out with neon lighting, retro-style furniture, and a giant Pride flag in the lobby window, the Austin Motel is a quirky and exciting lodging option. Best of all, even guests who aren’t staying at the motel can purchase day passes to the property’s 1950s-inspired outdoor pool and lounge area.
For other lodging options, Marriott is an LGBTIQ+ inclusive brand that has expressively committed itself to welcoming the community. The company has three fantastic properties in downtown Austin, all complete with rooftop pools, including the Marriott, JW Marriott, and the W, which puts on its own monthly themed drag brunch (often hosted by my new friend, Vylette Ward).
Barbecue is one of Austin’s oldest culinary traditions and the city is famous for joints like Franklin BBQ and Terry Black’s. But a relative newcomer to the competition, la Barbecue, has quickly become one of Austin’s favorites. It’s also been a gamechanger to the mostly male-dominated BBQ industry. Owned by wives LeAnn Mueller and Alison Clem, this female and LGBTIQ-led barbecue joint has solidified itself as one of the best restaurants in the entire city.
For those with a sweet tooth, Wunderkeks is a gay-owned cookie company helmed by husbands Luis Gramajo and Hans Schrei. It ships nationally and has become famous for its legion of celebrity followers, including Busy Phillips, Tori Spelling, and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. Locals regularly knock on the door of Wunderkek’s kitchen to strike up conversations and stock up on cookies and brownies.
How to find the LGBTIQ+ community
There are tons of excellent ways for LGBTIQ+ visitors and locals alike to find a sense of community in Austin. BookWoman is Austin’s local feminist bookstore that, in recent years, has really embraced stories of intersectionality and has since become a welcoming space for queer women. Aside from selling books, BookWoman also hosts weekly events including poetry readings, speakers, and open mic nights.
The Little Gay Shop sells tons of fun and unique gifts and goods, all created by the LGBTIQ+ community. From stickers to candles, books, magazines, and more, the shop is loaded with tons of fantastic finds.
The Little Gay Shop also sells coffee and has an outdoor seating area. I loved this addition to the store because it encourages people to grab a drink and mingle. For anyone looking to shop, you can find everything from t-shirts that read “Hope will never be silent” to drawings that say “Y’all means all”. I laughed when I saw their collection of bumper stickers, all of which have cheeky messages like “Sorry, Gay Driver”. To help build community, The Little Gay Shop also hosts events like queer trivia and book club meetups.
For those who enjoy a good dose of competition, head over to The Iron Bear, Austin’s local bear bar. They host a weekly Geeks Who Drink pub trivia event, taking place every Thursday. It’s an excellent way to meet new people, find a team, and enjoy some lighthearted competition.
Save the date: Austin’s best LGBTIQ+ events
Austin always has something going on, but LGBTIQ+ travelers will be especially interested in visiting the city during Austin Pride, which normally takes place every summer. Other events of interest include South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin’s annual entertainment and tech festival that, in the last decade, has boomed into a massive, globally-attended event. SXSW normally takes place in early spring.
Also of interest is the famous Austin City Limits music festival, which takes place yearly each autumn. The festival not only attracts visitors from around the world but also queer musicians such as Lil Naz X and SZA.
What LGBTIQ+ travelers need to know before going to Austin
While Austin is extremely progressive, it’s important to remember that you are still in Texas, a state that is actively working to take rights away from LGBTIQ+ people. Fortunately, you’re unlikely to encounter any issue while in Austin thanks to its young, progressive population and its city-level organizations that help provide the resources that Texas doesn’t on a state level. In fact, the city of Austin is probably one of the most liberal, progressive, and queer-friendly cities in the entire country.
On a broader note, Austin is experiencing a few growing pains. The city has grown incredibly fast over the last decade and has become America’s 11th-largest city. With such quick growth, traffic can be a problem as the city hasn’t yet been able to construct a large-scale transit network. Luckily, for those staying near the city center, it’s incredibly walkable and electric scooters are easy to find on virtually every corner.
Resources and info for LGBTIQ+ visitors
Do512 is an awesome Austin-centric website that has its own LGBTQ webpage that lists daily queer events taking place throughout the city, from comedy shows to viewing parties.
Some other resources that are worth looking into before visiting include Austin’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which can help you discover queer-owned businesses, and Vivent Health, the city’s main LGBTQ health provider and community organization that puts on events and can help with finding access to PEP and PrEP, even for visitors.