Now Is the Time to Visit Wilton Manors, Florida’s Most Queer-Friendly Small Town

As the state deepens its red hue, one town is going all in on rainbow.

Photo courtesy of Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade
Photo courtesy of Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade

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. This picturesque pocket of Greater Fort Lauderdale, completely encircled by water, is more than just a geographical location—it's a vibrant, inclusive haven.

Wilton Manors, which boasts the moniker "Island City," doesn't use its surrounding canals as a fortress to protect its denizens from the outside world. Instead, it's a beacon, drawing in those seeking a place where they can be themselves without fear or judgment. This is a community that doesn't just tolerate diversity—it celebrates it. It's been that way for decades, and it's not about to change.

This is a town that made history by becoming the first municipality in the state to elect an all-LGBTQ+ city commission. It's a place where same-sex couples aren't an anomaly—they're the norm. More of them call Wilton Manors home than anywhere else in the United States, save for Provincetown, Massachusetts.

"Wilton Manors was a natural draw for me," says Jimmy Lucibello, a snowbird who flutters between the warmth of Wilton Manors in winter and the cool breezes of Ogunquit, Maine, in summer. "It's a refuge from the biting chill of a New England winter, but more than that, it's a community that embraces you, no matter who you are."

But even in this haven, the fight for equality isn't over. As Wilton Manors celebrates its 76th year as a safe space for all identities, creeds, and cultures, the LGBTQ+ community and their allies face a mounting challenge. A wave of legislation threatens to erode the freedoms they've fought so hard to secure. Yet, Lucibello and many others remain unyielding in their love for Wilton Manors. "This past winter was particularly difficult with all the negative political rhetoric—especially against the LGBTQ+ community—coming from the governor's office," he admits. "But the love and support within this community are as strong as ever."

So, take a detour off the beaten path—during Pride Month or any other time of the year—and discover why this small island community stands apart from the rest of Florida and the US. Experience the warmth, acceptance, and vibrant culture that makes Wilton Manors a true LGBTQ+ haven. As Lucibello puts it, "We must stick together in order for love to prevail." And in Wilton Manors, love isn't just prevailing—it's thriving.

Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival
Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival | YES Market Media/Shutterstock

Partake in one of Florida’s largest pride celebrations

Every June since 1999, Wilton Manors’ Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival has taken over the town's main drag to commemorate the pivotal Stonewall riots while celebrating inclusivity and LGBTQ+ heritage. The festivities draw crowds upward of 50,000 revelers to the vibrant street fair and Twilight Parade which thrums with live music and entertainment. This year’s event boasted seven stages and 16 bars stationed along the route, with Julia Lemigova (the first openly LGBTQ+ member of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise) and HIV/AIDS advocate Ederick Johnson leading as Grand Marshals. With the state’s LGBTQ+ 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.

If South Floridians know how to do anything, it’s how to throw an epic party. So even if you don’t visit during Pride Month, check out the events calendar from the nonprofit Pride Center at Equality Park, which hosts a slew of year-round activities, from creative symposiums to a beloved Saturday flea market flourishing with more than 50 vendors.

Stroll Wilton Manors’ rainbow-flagged main drag

"The Drive," as the locals call it, isn't just a street—it's a pulsating artery of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurship, a tapestry of more than 40 independent businesses. At its heart is The Shoppes at Wilton Manors, a canary yellow plaza that's a microcosm of the town's spirit. Here, you can slurp sushi at Tee Jay Thai, get your caffeine fix at Java Boys, or discover the latest eyewear trends at Chic Optique. For more culinary adventure, venture farther along The Drive and you'll find yourself in a gastronomic wonderland. Rosie’s Bar and Grill, a local institution, offers a lush patio that's the perfect backdrop for a boozy brunch. Tulio’s, on the other hand, is a temple of tacos and tequila. For those craving a taste of Europe, there's Le Patio, a pocket-sized joint serving up comfort food that's earned it the title of "The Tiniest Cutest Restaurant in South Florida." And if it's the Mediterranean you're after, Ethos Greek Bistro has you covered. The newest kid on the block is Kava Jive, an upscale elixir bar that's shaking up the scene with its botanically infused teas and kava, all served up in a space that's as much an art gallery as it is a bar. And for those with a sweet tooth, To The Moon Marketplace is a candy-coated dream, a Willy Wonka-esque emporium stocked with upward of 13,000 sweet treats from more than 60 countries. You'll even find old-school penny candies that have been around since 1806.

Wilton Manors waterfront
Photo courtesy of Wilton Manors

Immerse yourself in the outdoors

With 15 parks certified by the National Wildlife Federation and 13 miles of waterways teeming with wildlife, outdoor pursuits abound in Island City—both on 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.

If you prefer to stay dry, 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.

Stonewall National Museum & Archives
Stonewall National Museum & Archives

Tour two of the world’s premier LGBTQIA+ museums

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 LGBTQ+ museum in the United States when it relocated from Wilton Manors to the same building as the original Stonewall library in Fort Lauderdale, today holding more than 28,000 materials related to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

Rediscover your creative side

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). Aesthetes will also encounter a slew of eclectic showrooms like blu Egg Interiors and Island City Traders to inspire their own home design projects.

The Yard
The Yard | Photo courtesy of La Mexicana Taco Bar

Chill out in a breezy, bohemian urban oasis

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 Cafe 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.

The Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa
The Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa

Stay at a locally-owned (and queer-friendly) guesthouse

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.

Catch a show at an award-winning local theater

Island City Stage was founded in 2012 by members of Greater Fort Lauderdale's LGBTQ+ 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.

Hamburger Mary's Fort Lauderdale / Wilton Manors
Hamburger Mary's Fort Lauderdale / Wilton Manors

Party all night with the boys

Little Wilton Manors goes big when it comes to nightlife. Again, it is South Florida after all. Naturally, the queer bars are where you can dive into all the action—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 dance floor. Migrate to Hunters across the parking lot for even more nocturnal debauchery.

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Paul Jebara is a travel and design journalist, content expert, and photographer in NYC. Follow him on Instagram @paulgoesthere.