Stonewall Pride Parade at Wilton Manors | YES Market Media/Shutterstock
Stonewall Pride Parade at Wilton Manors | YES Market Media/Shutterstock
If you were asked to point to South Florida’s premier gay neighborhood on a map, where would your finger land? Key West? South beach? While they’re both technically island towns with longstanding reputations for inclusiveness, there’s only one “island town” in our book: Wilton Manors. While this scenic pocket of Greater Fort Lauderdale is completely encircled by water — hence its official nickname — the surrounding canals don’t act as a moat-like barrier to protect its residents from the outside world. No, not at Wilton Manors. It’s one of the most welcoming and open-minded communities in the country, and it’s been that way 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 residing here than anywhere else in the United States (apart from Provincetown, Massachusetts). But this year, as Wilton Manors celebrates 75 years of being a safe space for all identities, creeds and cultures, it’s clear that proud Floridians and their allies still face an uphill climb to secure equal rights. . So cruise along the coast – during Pride Month or any other time of year – and you’ll discover why this small island community is unlike any other in Florida or the rest of the United States.
Take part in one of Florida’s biggest Pride celebrations
Every June since 1999, Wilton Manors’ Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival has taken over The Drive to commemorate the landmark Stonewall Riots while celebrating LGBTQIA+ inclusivity and heritage. The festivities draw crowds of over 40,000 revelers to the bustling street fair and the Twilight Parade which buzzes with live music and entertainment. This year’s event had six stages and no less than 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 plunged into uncertainty from political leaders, the positive impact of the Stonewall Pride Parade on Wilton Manors is much more than an economical bargain. Be sure to check out the calendar of events at the nonprofit Pride Center at Equality Park, which hosts a slew of activities throughout the year, from creative symposia to the beloved Saturday flea market thriving with more than 50 vendors.
Immerse yourself in the outdoors
With 15 National Wildlife Federation-certified parks and thirteen miles of waterways teeming with wildlife, outdoor activities abound in Island City, both on land and on the water. For the latter, rent a “Crystal Clear” kayak or paddle board from OTWaves Kayaks & More and cruise along the Middle River. Put your upper body strength to the test as you walk the entirety of Wilton Manors along the seven-mile loop. 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 Colohatchee Park. Hit the elevated boardwalk, which winds through a seven-acre strip of protected mangrove, a prime spot for birdwatching. Alternatively, head to Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve, which offers guided nature tours along its riverside trail and viewing pier. The park is also home to a former mansion and the Carriage House, the oldest structure in Wilton Manors originally built by its founder, EJ Willingham.
Visit two of the largest LGBTQIA+ museums in the world
Just outside Wilton Manors are two of the world’s greatest museums dedicated to queer history: The World AIDS Museum, the first-ever institution dedicated to the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, aims to alleviate the lingering stigma associated with the virus by sharing first-person testimonies and ongoing educational programs to foster dialogue within the community. The museum’s 55-ton AIDS Memorial Quilt, made up of more than 48,000 panels of tribute to those who died, 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 moved from Wilton Manors to the same building as the original The Stonewall library in Fort Lauderdale, now containing more than 28 000 documents related to the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York.
Walk down the main street of Wilton Manors with the rainbow flag
With over 40 independent LGBTQIA+ businesses, Wilton Drive (“The Drive”) is a hub for queer entrepreneurship. The bulk of them are concentrated at The Shoppes at Wilton Manors, a canary-yellow retail plaza packed with popular eateries like Tee Jay Thai Sushi, cafes like Java Boys, and trendy eyewear stores like Chic Optique. . Further along The Drive are some of Wilton Manors’ most beloved culinary hotspots. Grab a table on the lush patio at the everlasting Rosie’s Bar and Grill for a boozy brunch, or head to Tulio’s for epic tacos and tequila. For stellar European comfort food, there’s Le Patio (dubbed “South Florida’s Cutest Little Restaurant” thanks to its pocket size) and the Greek Bistro ethos for authentic Mediterranean cuisine. For those with a sweet tooth: don’t miss To The Moon Marketplace, a candy store stocked with over 13,000 (!) sweet treats (chocolates, gummies and everything in between) from over 60 countries. You’ll even find quirky sweets like old-fashioned sweets dating back to 1806.
Rediscover your creative side
Art transcends disciplines at Wilton Manors, which has become a buzzing hive of creativity. Check out the multitude of boutique galleries along and around The Drive, 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 multimedia artist Trey Opp, aka Topp Artist (both of whom can commission custom pieces). Want a more hands-on experience? Book a ceramic workshop at Sculpture by Sylvie and manifest your clay masterpiece. Aesthetes will also encounter a host of eclectic showrooms like blu Egg Interiors and Island City Traders to inspire their own home design projects.
Relax in a bohemian, breezy urban oasis
Shaded under rows of rainbow eucalyptus trees between mural-covered walls, The Yard – although you’ll still feel like locals call it by its old name, Eucalyptus Gardens – is a a true sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of The Drive. With a farmer’s market, vintage shops, nurseries and nearly a dozen restaurants, this outdoor mall is the definition of a hidden gem. Pop into The Alchemist Coffee for some of Broward County’s best espresso drinks, Voo La Voo Cafe for unpretentious French cuisine or La Mexicana for top-notch tacos and heady margaritas served with live music. If you’re looking for souvenirs, Lola’s Bazaar Art and Music (open weekends only) is a treasure trove of unique finds ranging from handcrafted jewelry to vinyl records.
Stay at a local (and gay-friendly) guesthouse
Wilton Manors is an excellent choice for a day trip. But if you choose to stay overnight, just be aware that big name resorts and hotel chains are nowhere to be found (you’ll have to stay ‘off’ the island for those). And hey, it’s all part of the charm. Instead, rest in one of the low-key guesthouses that dot the island. The majority tend to cater to gay travelers, like Cabanas Guesthouse & Spa and the men-only Ed Lugo Resort. Ritzier guests will delight in the chic digs at Casa Hermes, a former mansion outfitted with modern Italian furnishings, while family travelers should opt for the Island Sands Inn. Look to Airbnb for a full range of accommodations within walking distance of The Drive, that’s where you want to stay.
Watch a show at an award-winning local theater
Island City Stage was founded in 2012 by members of Greater Fort Lauderdale’s LGBTQIA+ community and in the years since has earned an elated reputation as one of South Florida’s most acclaimed professional theaters. This small but mighty theater group has expertly tackled the world premieres of up-and-coming talent and beloved classics written by famous playwrights such as Tennessee Williams. And while Island City Stage’s character productions focus heavily on aspects of the queer experience, any viewer can relate to common themes of love and loss, relationships and individuality.
Party all night with the boys
Little Wilton Manors is getting big when it comes to nightlife. (Again, South Florida.) Naturally, queer bars are where you can dive into all the action — and boy, are there all types of bars here. Without leaving The Drive, you can watch the game at the Gym Sportsbar, sip a sophisticated cocktail on the terrace at The Drynk or catch a rowdy drag show at Hamburger Mary’s. Oh, and remember The Shoppes we talked about earlier? That mall where you can grab a coffee, gorge on sashimi, and even get your eyes checked all at once? It shouldn’t surprise you that two of Island City’s hippest bars are in the same plaza. At 25 years old, Georgia’s Alibi Monkey Bar is one of the oldest in South Florida. The legendary nightclub has four sections, including a full-service restaurant, so sample one of the award-winning burgers before hitting the dance floor. Migrate to the Hunters across the parking lot for even more nighttime debauchery.
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