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Urban Walkabout

Urban Walkabout

Gay walking tours combine fresh air, exercise, and enlightenment.

Cruisin' the Castro
Gay activity in San Francisco's Castro District dates back to the Gold Rush days when gay cowhands, a.k.a. the Lavender Cowboys, arrived. These forefathers of Brokeback's Ennis and Jack created the bandana-in-back-pocket Hanky Code to send subtle messages about the kind of sex they sought. Crusin' the Castro owner Kathy Amendola -- a lesbian transplant from New York -- shares this history of her neighborhood and much more on her two hour, five-block tours. (Did you know many of the streets were named after women who were downtown prostitutes?) The insight starts under the rainbow flag at the Harvey Milk Plaza, which memorializes one of the country's first openly gay elected officials. Tours offered Monday through Saturday. Tickets: $35. Advance registration required. (415-255-1821; www.CruisinTheCastro.com)

Chicago Greeter
City volunteers provide free, personalized tours through Chicago's neighborhoods year-round. The informal process matches guides with visitors based on their interests, so it's necessary to submit a request seven to ten business days in advance of your desired date. Gay walks begin in downtown Chicago and include all-day tickets for the elevated train to Andersonville (Girls' Town) and Lake View (Boys' Town). Ask for area resident John Popik, a fourth-generation Chicagoan with a background in urban history. He dishes on gay hangouts of the 1920s and '30s and the Windy City's connection with Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and other gay-beloved celebrities. Lake View is marked by rainbow pylons on Halstead Street, where you'll see bathhouses, cabarets, and bars, including the infamous Side Track, a video bar known for playing show tunes. Go on Sundays, and you can stop in Big Chicks bar for the free buffet with drink purchase. Hidden gem: Chicago Film Makers, an independent film center in Andersonville that caters to the queer community. Group size: No more than six. (312-744-8000; www.ChicagoGreeter.com)

New York Gallery Tours
Argentina-born Rafael Risemberg, a former art critic and gay studies professor, followed his passion seven years ago to begin a tour company that focuses on gallery tours in Chelsea. He offers gay and lesbian tours once a month, September through June, featuring exhibits by GLBT artists and other shows of queer interest. Because gallery turnover occurs every four to six weeks, you'll never see the same artist twice, and no two tours are ever alike. Risemberg peruses the calendars of more than 200 galleries in the neighborhood to find the best of the gay-friendly offerings. The two-hour tour generally covers eight galleries in a six-block area. Cost: $20. Maximum capacity: 75. No reservations required. (212-946-1548; www.NYGalleryTours.com/gay.htm)

Rainbow History Tours in D.C.
Take your pick of eight LGBT walking tours (African American, Capitol Hill, Drag in D.C., Dupont Circle, East Dupont, South Capitol Street, Whitman in D.C., and Women's Sites) through the Rainbow History Project of Washington D.C. Mark Meinke and his staff offer free guided tours, but brochures distributed throughout the city allow you to do the tours on your own as well. The Capitol Hill and DuPoint Circle tours are the most popular. Each walk spans about a mile and a half in the city and covers topics like the first gay supper clubs, women's history, Langston Hughes and the black gay renaissance, and the location of early gay liberation communes. Meinke says there's history crammed on every corner. Available year-round. Call ahead for the guided tour. (202-907-9007; www.RainbowHistory.org/directory.htm)

The Gay Heritage Tour in New Orleans
Roberts Batson -- a true New Orleans character who only dresses in black or white, grew up in Central America, and has been an LGBT community activist in New Orleans for more than 30 years -- runs a theatrical two-and-a-half-hour walking tour through the French Quarter. It begins at Alternatives, a gift shop at the gay end of Bourbon Street, and focuses in part on the bars where gay men first came out. LGBT history lessons delivered en route highlight courageous early drag queens; the first woman photographer, lesbian Frances Benjamin Johnston; and Clay Shaw, the gay man who was arrested, tried, and acquitted for assassinating John F. Kennedy. Tours are offered year-round; call for schedule. Cost: $20. Advance reservations required. (504-945-6789; www.Decafest.org/gay-heritage-tour.htm)

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