If you were asked to point to South Florida’s premier gayborhood on a map, where would your finger land? Key West? South Beach? Though they’re both technically island cities with a longstanding reputation for inclusiveness, there’s only one “Island City” in our book: Wilton Manors. While this picturesque pocket of Greater Fort Lauderdale is completely encircled by water—hence its official nickname—the surrounding canals don’t double as a moat-like barrier to protect its denizens from the outside world. Nope, not in Wilton Manors. This one of the most welcoming, open-minded communities in the country—and it’s been like that for decades. Wilton Manors was the first municipality in the state to elect an all-LGBTQIA+ city commission. There are also more same-sex couples that reside here than anywhere else in the United States (besides Provincetown, Massachusetts). But this year, as Wilton Manors celebrates 75 years of being a safe space for all identities, creeds, and cultures, it’s apparent that out-and-proud Floridians and their allies are still facing an uphill climb in securing equal rights. So, cruise up the coast—during Pride Month or any other time of the year—and you’ll discover why this wee island community is unlike any other in Florida or the rest of the US.
Every June since 1999, Wilton Manors’ Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival has taken over The Drive to commemorate the pivotal Stonewall riots while celebrating inclusivity and LGBTQIA+ heritage. The festivities draw crowds upward of 40,000 revelers to the vibrant street fair and Twilight Parade which thrums with live music and entertainment. This year’s event boasted six stages and a whopping 16 bars along the route. (If South Floridians know how to do anything, they sure know how to throw an epic party.) With the state’s LGBTQIA+ community shrouded in uncertainty from political leaders, the positive impact of the Stonewall Pride Parade on Wilton Manors is much more than an economic boon. Don’t forget to check out the events calendar from the non-profit Pride Center at Equality Park, which hosts a slew of year-round activities, from creative symposiums to a beloved Saturday flea market flourishing with over 50 vendors.
With 15 parks certified by the National Wildlife Federation and thirteen miles of waterways teeming with wildlife, outdoor pursuits abound in Island City—on both the land and on the water. For the latter, rent a see-through “Crystal Clear” kayak or paddleboard from OTWaves Kayaks & More and cruise along the Middle River. Put your upper body strength to the test by circumnavigating the entirety of Wilton Manors along the seven-mile loop. Back in the 1890s, the area was settled by explorer William C. Collier, who planted an orange grove and traded with the local Seminole tribe. In his honor, they named the waterway “Colohatchee,” which lives on as the Colohatchee Park. Hit up the elevated boardwalk, which winds through a seven-acre swath of protected mangrove—a prime spot for birding. Alternatively, head to the Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve, which offers guided nature tours along its riverside trail and observation pier. The park is also home to an old-world Manor House and the Carriage House, the oldest structure in Wilton Manors originally built by its founder, E. J. Willingham.
Just outside of Wilton Manors are two of the world’s foremost museums dedicated to queer history: The World AIDS Museum—the first-ever institution dedicated to the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—aims to mitigate the persisting stigma associated with the virus by sharing first-person accounts and ongoing educational programming to foster dialogue among the community. The museum’s 55-ton AIDS Memorial Quilt, constructed of more than 48,000 tribute panels to those who have passed, is so massive that it is rarely displayed in its entirety. In 2020, The Stonewall National Museum & Archives became the largest LGBTQIA+ museum in the United States when it relocated from Wilton Manors to the same building as the original The Stonewall library in Fort Lauderdale, today holding more than 28,000 materials related to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.
With more than 40 independent LGBTQIA+ businesses, Wilton Drive (“The Drive”) is a hub of queer entrepreneurship. The bulk of them is concentrated at The Shoppes at Wilton Manors, a canary yellow retail plaza packed with popular eateries like Tee Jay Thai Sushi, coffee joints like Java Boys, and trendy eyewear shops like Chic Optique. Further along The Drive are some of Wilton Manors’ most cherished culinary hotspots. Snag a table on the lush patio of perennial favorite Rosie’s Bar and Grill to enjoy a boozy brunch, or head to Tulio’s for epic tacos and tequila. For stellar European comfort food, there’s Le Patio (dubbed “The Tiniest Cutest Restaurant in South Florida” thanks to its pocket-sized footprint) and ethos Greek Bistro for authentic Mediterranean. To those with a sweet tooth: Don’t miss To The Moon Marketplace, a candy emporium stocked with over 13,000 (!) sweet treats—chocolates, gummies, and everything in between—from more than 60 countries. You’ll even find novelty confections like old-school penny candies that date back to 1806.
Artistry transcends disciplines in Wilton Manors, which has become a buzzing hive of creativity. Scope out the crop of boutique galleries along The Drive and in its periphery, like Gallery XO, which specializes in homoerotic art, and the nonprofit Art Gallery 21 at the Island City Cultural Center. Or visit local studios run by independent creatives like painter and sculptor Claudia Castillo and mixed-media artist Trey Opp, a.k.a. Topp Artist (both of whom can commission custom pieces). Craving a more hands-on experience? Book a ceramics workshop at Sculpture by Sylvie and manifest your clay masterpiece. Aesthetes will also encounter a slew of eclectic showrooms like blu Egg Interiors and Island City Traders to inspire their own home design projects.
Shaded under rows of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees in between mural-covered walls, The Yard—though you’ll still catch locals calling it by its former name, Eucalyptus Gardens—is a veritable sanctuary set away from the bustle of The Drive. With a farmers market, vintage boutiques, plant nurseries, and nearly a dozen eateries, this open-air shopping center is the definition of a hidden gem. Tuck into The Alchemist Coffee to sip some of the best espresso drinks in Broward County, Voo La Voo Cafe for unpretentious French fare, or La Mexicana for top-notch tacos and heady margaritas served up with live music. If you’re on the hunt for some souvenirs, Lola's Bazaar Art and Music (open only on the weekends) is a treasure trove of unique finds from handcrafted jewelry to vinyl records.
Wilton Manors is a brilliant choice for a day trip. But should you choose to spend the night, just know that big-named resorts and hotel chains are nowhere to be found (you’ll have to stay “off” the island for those). And hey—that’s all part of the charm. Instead, rest your head at one of the low-key guest houses that dot the island. The majority tends to cater to gay travelers, like the clothing-optional Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa and male-exclusive Ed Lugo Resort. Ritzier patrons will be delighted with the swanky digs at Casa Hermès, a former mansion kitted out with mod Italian furniture, while family travelers should opt for the Island Sands Inn. Look to Airbnb for a solid array of accommodations walkable to The Drive—that’s where you want to stay.
Island City Stage was founded in 2012 by members of Greater Fort Lauderdale's LGBTQIA+ community, and in the years since has garnered an exalted reputation as one of South Florida’s most acclaimed professional theaters. This small but mighty theater company has capably tackled world premieres from up-and-coming talent and beloved classics written by celebrated playwrights such as Tennessee Williams. And while Island City Stage’s characterful productions overwhelmingly focus on aspects of the queer experience, any spectator can relate to common thread themes of love and loss, relationships, and individuality.
Little Wilton Manors goes big when it comes to nightlife. (Again, South Florida.) Naturally, the queer bars are where you can dive into all the action is—and boy, are there allll types of bars here. Without leaving The Drive, you can watch the game at Gym Sportsbar, sip a sophisticated cocktail on the patio at Drynk, or catch a raucous drag show at Hamburger Mary's. Oh, and remember The Shoppes we mentioned earlier? That strip mall where you can grab a coffee, gorge on sashimi, and even get your eyes checked in one go? It shouldn’t surprise you that two of Island City’s hottest bars sit in the same plaza. At 25 years old, Georgie's Alibi Monkey Bar is one of the oldest in South Florida. The legendary nightclub has four sections, including a full-service restaurant, so scarf down one of the award-winning burgers before hitting the dancefloor. Migrate to Hunters across the parking lot for even more nocturnal debauchery.