The progressive, outdoorsy, and unabashedly offbeat city of Austin has developed a repuation as arguably the gay-friendliest city in Texas. There's no question that gays and lesbians are welcomed here more openly and enthusiastically than most of the rest of this otherwise conservative state - fairly or not - conjures up images of George W., Tom Delay, cattle ranching, pick-up trucks, and so on. Hey, stereotypes are just that, but they also develop credence because there's usually a bit of truth to them.
Austin, on the other hand, has not only a longstanding record for being liberal (it's the state capital and an artsy university city), it's also a city that takes partying and revelry seriously. The city has become especially renowned for its live-music scene, which is feted annually with the South by Southwest Festival, which takes place over 10 days each March (March 9 to 18 in 2012) and celebrates the best in music, film, and art.
For a gay-friendly city of more than 800,000 (and a metro area of more than 1.7 million, which has grown more than 20% since 2000), Austin doesn't actually have as many gay bars as you might expect - about a half-dozen, all told. Furthermore, although a handful of the bars here pull in sizable crowds and are good fun for socializing and dancing, you won't find any mega-size gay warehouse discos here. There are a few possible reasons for this, first and foremost that Austin is a relatively well-integrated city where straights and gays socialize more together than on their own. This means you'll often spot gay folks hanging out at the scads of music clubs, trendy lounges, coffeehouses, and restaurant bars that everyone else in town likes.
On the plus side, most of the city's gay bars are within walking distance not only of each other, but of dozens of other cool mainstream bars and clubs downtown, mostly in the hip Warehouse District that's between the Texas Capitol building and the Colorado River (i.e., Town Lake).
Before we get to a quick rundown of the city's top gay bars, with links to longer descriptions of the most popular ones, keep in mind that Austin also has a gay bathhouse, Midtown Spa-Austin, a generally well-kept establishment in a drab but perfectly safe neighborhood 5 miles north of town, near Highland Mall.
Also, Austin is home to a very popular and scenic gay sunbathing area, Hippie Hollow Park, a county-operated, clothing-optional park that's about a 30-minute drive northwest of downtown, on the rocky but scenic shore of Lake Travis.
Here's a quick look at gay Austin's nightlife options:
No serious fan of clubbing should visit the city without making a stop to gay Austin's nightlife mecca, Oilcan Harry's (211 W. 4th St.), an always-crowded bar with a small dance floor and genial patio - it's right in the heart of the hip downtown Warehouse District. Giving Oilcan's quite a run for its money, however, is Rain on 4th (217 W. 4th St.), just a couple of doors down the street. The layout is vibe are rather similar to Oilcan's, but there's something markedly more cheerful, less attitud-y, and more fun about Rain - maybe it's the better lighting, or the fact that the crowd seems more eclectic, with a mix of lesbians and gay men of all ages and styles. They're both fun bars, but I'd give Rain the edge if you're new in town and looking to make friends.
Just across the street from Rain is gay-popular Halcyon Coffeehouse, Bar, and Lounge, a hipster-infested place that draws a wide mix of folks from all walks of life. It's a nice place to sip wine or cocktails, nurse a vanilla latte while you type on your laptop, make conversation with erudite locals, or relax at a sidewalk table overlooking the colorful street action. Next door to Rain, Posh Austin (219 W. 4th St.) opened in 2012 and has quickly helped fill the void created when nearby Kiss and Fly Nightclub shuttered. Posh has dancing, a good happy hour, food, and fun music - it's another nice addition to this strip of gay and gay-friendly establishments that's been going strong for more than two decades.
A bit north of downtown, you'll find 'Bout Time II (6607 North I-35 Frontage Rd., 512-419-9192), which was opened in 2012 by the same team behind the now defunct original Bout Time (which had been also along I-35 but a little north of there) and the venerable old gay bar Charlie's, which has also closed. Just like the original 'Bout Time, this new incarnation if refreshingly free of attitude and welcoming, and it's quite popular with those living on Austin's north side. It's also more popular with the over-40 set than some of the youthful downtown club. It's an attractive, inviting space with a long beer list (the usuals and some craft-beer options), reasonably priced drinks (especially during the long happy hours, which commence in the early afternoon), and some fun theme nights (karaoke on Tuesdays, for instance).
The city's "specialty" gay bars are in the same general vicinity of the Warehouse District. Country-western fans and gay two-steppers were saddened when longtime favorite Rainbow Cattle Co. closed, but a new spot catering to the same folks opened a few blocks east and is quite fun: Rusty's (405 E. 7th St.). On the southeastern edge of downtown, on a quiet side street in a somewhat disconcertingly unpopulated area, gay Austin's leather hangout is Chain Drive (504 Willow St., 512-480-9017). Well, to be sure, the leather scene has more or less faded away in this city, although the dark environs and butch crowd certainly suggests leather-friendliness. It's more like a bear bar with a mix of guys in jeans and flannels, leather, t-shirts, and similar attire.