Tennessee’s genteel Southern nature offers an attractive flair for gay travelers
andrew collins | Contributing Travel Writer
Tennessee may be a decidedly conservative state, but Memphis has developed into a popular destination for queer travelers in recent years. With a sizable LGBT community, Memphis is steeped in American music lore with a noteworthy restaurant scene that’s far more than barbecue and Southern fare. And after dark, the city offers an eclectic array of gay nightlife options for fans of dancing and clubbing.
Visitors will keep busy in this city most famous for the blues, Elvis and civil rights history. Today the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, is home to the National Civil Rights Museum. The surrounding South Main Street neighborhood is a good spot for a stroll, with its shops and cafes. A short drive south, you’ll find the National Museum of Ornamental Metal, with exceptional galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden that sits on a hilltop overlooking the scenic Mississippi River.
The name most associated with Memphis, of course, is Elvis Presley, whose palatial (and decidedly kitschy) mansion, Graceland, is a must-see. Allow at least two hours to tour the home to fully take in his custom jets, the car museum and several other exhibits making up the impressive compound.
While Downtown, don’t miss Beale Street, the nation’s blues capital, which abounds with music venues, lively restaurants and excellent hotels. The vibe is fairly touristy without any gay hangouts, but the city’s Mid-South Gay Pride festival happens here each October.
You can tour the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum and the Gibson Guitar Factory, which traces the vibrant Memphis music heritage. Music buffs should also check out Sun Studio (where Elvis launched his career) and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Local Gastropub and Lunch Box Eats serve excellent edibles. The swanky and historic Peabody Hotel houses celebrated restaurants Chez Philippe and Capriccio Grill.
The Peabody is the classy grande dame of the city, with luxurious rooms, spa and fitness center. In the lobby, ducks famously parade to and from a gurgling fountain each day. A more intimate but still pleasing hotel is the River Inn of Harbor Town, a charming 28-room property on the ironically pretty Mud Island. The gay-friendly Talbot Heirs Guesthouse is smartly furnished, while the centrally located Westin Memphis and affordable Hampton Inn at Beale Street are reliable accommodations.
Memphis extends east toward Midtown, where many area businesses are popular with gay visitors. In Overton Park, you can tour the excellent Memphis Zoo and the acclaimed Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
A short drive south you will find the hip and funky Cooper-Young neighborhood features distinctive restaurants and quirky shops, including Inz & Outz, which carries Pride gifts, underwear and erotica.
Cooper-Young is home to Central BBQ, which turns out fiendishly delicious ribs and pulled pork. Other neighborhood hot spots with a strong gay following include Tsunami for Asian fusion cooking; Alchemy, with its tasty tapas and well-crafted cocktails; and Sweet Grass, known for inventive regional American cuisine. For a java and plenty of room to snuggle in with a book, Otherlands is a great indie coffeehouse.
South of Downtown, the 901 Complex is one of the largest gay clubs catering primarily to African-American patrons — the club hosts Memphis Black Pride in June. The elegant Mollie Fontaine is a trendy, mixed gay-straight lounge in the city’s Victorian Village Historic District and the massive Club Spectrum is the place to dance. Most of the city’s gay bars are in Midtown, clustered mostly around the 1300 to 1500 blocks of Madison and Poplar avenues. These include the Pumping Station, lesbian-popular Dru’s Place and Crossroads Bar.
You might not bump into Marc Cohn, but walking in Memphis will definitely keep you joyously busy.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 23, 2012.