by Andrew Collins
Although they’re the two largest cities of a decidedly conservative state, Memphis memphistravel.com and especially Nashville visitmusiccity.com have developed into popular destinations among gay and lesbian travelers in recent years. Both cities have sizable GLBT communities, are steeped in American music lore, and have noteworthy restaurant scenes – not just barbecue and Southern fare, which is legitimately outstanding in these parts, but sophisticated contemporary cuisine. In both cities, fans of dancing and clubbing will also find a nice range of gay nightlife options.
Here are some key exploring, dining, nightlife, and hotel highlights in these two cities just 215 miles apart via Interstate 40.
There’s much to keep visitors busy in this city famous for blues, Elvis, and the tragic assassination in 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King. Today the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot, is the home of the National Civil Rights Museum, whose collections are the story of America’s Civil Rights history. The surrounding South Main Street neighborhood is a good spot for a stroll, with several cool shops and cafes. A short drive south, you’ll find one of the city’s lesser-known cultural gems, the National Museum of Ornamental Metal, whose galleries and outdoor sculpture garden sit on a hilltop overlooking a scenic bend in the Mississippi River.
Along with King, the name most associated with Memphis these days is Elvis Presley, whose palatial – and decidedly kitschy – mansion, Graceland, is a must-see – allow at least two hours to tour the home, his custom jets, the car museum, and the several other exhibits that make up this impressive compound a 15-minute drive south of downtown Memphis.
Downtown Memphis, where W.C. Handy helped to turn Beale Street into the nation’s blue capital, abounds with live-music clubs, lively restaurants, and a number of excellent hotels. Beale Street’s vibe is fairly touristy, and you won’t find any gay hangouts here, but the city’s Mid-South Gay Pride festival does take place here in October. You can tour the outstanding Memphis Rock & Soul Museum, which traces the region’s vibrant music heritage, as well as the Gibson Guitar Factory. Other attractions that music buffs should check out include Sun Studio, where Elvis cut the early demo tape that launched his career, and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Memphis extends well east from downtown, toward Midtown, which has many of the area businesses most popular with gay visitors. In the Overton Park section, you can tour the excellent Memphis Zoo and the acclaimed Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. A short drive south, the hip and funky Cooper-Young neighborhood abounds with distinctive restaurants and quirky shops, including Inz & Outz, which carries Pride gifts, underwear, erotica, and the like.
Cooper-Young is home to one of the best barbecue joints in town, Central BBQ http://www.cbqmemphis.com, which turns out fiendishly delicious ribs and pulled pork. Other neighborhood hot spots, all with a fairly strong gay following, include Tsunami http://www.tsunamimemphis.com for Asian-fusion cooking; Alchemy http://www.alchemymemphis.com, with its tasty tapas and well-crafted cocktails; Sweet Grass http://www.sweetgrassmemphis.com, known for inventive regional American cuisine; and the campy Beauty Shop http://www.thebeautyshoprestaurant.com and neighboring Do Sushi Bar and Noodle Shop. For great coffee and plenty of room to socialize or curl up with a book, Otherlands http://www.otherlandscoffeebar.com is one of the best indie coffeehouses in town.
In downtown Memphis, Local Gastropub http://www.localgastropub.com and – for fantastic soul food – Lunch Box Eats http://www.lunchboxeats.com both serve excellent edibles, and the swanky and historic Peabody Hotel http://www.peabodymemphis.com is home to a pair of celebrated restaurants, Chez Philippe and Capriccio Grill.
South of downtown, the 901 Complex is one of the largest gay clubs catering primarily to African-American patrons in the country – the club also hosts Memphis Black Pride in June. Other gay favorites fairly close to downtown include elegant Mollie Fontaine http://www.molliefontainelounge.com, a trendy, mixed gay-straight lounge set in a historic house in the city’s Victorian Village Historic District; and a massive dance club called Club Spectrum http://www.thespectrummemphis.com. Most of the city’s gay bars are in Midtown, where you’ll find several locals-oriented neighborhood bars, clustered mostly around the 1300 to 1500 blocks of Madison and Poplar avenues – these include the Pumping Station http://www.pumpingstationmemphis.com, lesbian-popular Dru’s Place http://www.drusplace.com, and Crossroads Bar.
Many visitors to Memphis would never think of staying anywhere but that classy downtown grande dame, The Peabody http://www.peabodymemphis.com, which has luxurious rooms, a fine spa and fitness center, and a lobby in which ducks famously parade to and from a gurgling fountain each day. A more intimate but no-less pleasing option is the River Inn of Harbor Town http://www.riverinnmemphis.com, a charming 28-room property on pretty (don’t let the name fool you) Mud Island – just a short drive from downtown. Other reliable options include the gay-friendly Talbot Heirs Guesthouse http://www.talbotheirs.com, the smartly furnished and centrally location Westin Memphis http://www.westinmemphisbealestreet.com, and the reasonably priced Hampton Inn at Beale Street http://www.hamptoninn.com.
The most progressive city in the so-called Bible Belt, Nashville has developed into one of the South’s gay-friendliest destinations over the past decade, as it now buzzes with diverting retail and entertainment districts, several energetic gay nightspots, and a wealth of cultural attractions.
Downtown Nashville is set around the courtly Greek Revival-style Capitol, which is perched atop the highest hill in the city. You can learn a thing or two about the state’s history at the nearby Tennessee State Museum. A block over, 5th Avenue was the site throughout the ’60s of Civil Rights demonstrations, the success of which inspired similar protests throughout the South. These days, 5th Avenue has become rather artsy – it’s the site of several excellent galleries and the nearby Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which occupies a handsomely restored, art deco post office building.
A few blocks east, toward the Cumberland River, you’ll come to Nashville’s old Market Street, now 2nd Avenue, where a long row of redbrick Victorian warehouses converted into restaurants, music clubs, and brew pubs. Downtown’s most impressive attraction is the Country Music Hall of Fame, a handsome, modern structure whose exhibits not only honor dozens of legendary musicians (Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton among them). The nearby Ryman Auditorium is one of the grand music icons of downtown, often hosting Grand Ole Opry shows.
It’s a short drive from downtown to reach Midtown and its main drag, West End Avenue – you’ll pass several of the city’s schools and medical facilities, including Vanderbilt University, as well as an art-filled, full-scale replica of the Parthenon. A few blocks from here is the city’s gay nightlife strip, along Church Street. West End Avenue eventually leads into ritzy Belle Meade, home to Belle Meade Plantation, once the site of a 5,300-acre Thoroughbred breeding farm, and Cheekwood, a 1925 Georgian-style house that’s home to the Tennessee Botanical Gardens & Museum.
Nashville’s dining scene is earning plenty of kudos these days. Downtown has plenty of options, from long-running Merchants http://www.merchantsrestaurant.com, which is set inside a masterfully restored 1892 brick building, to trendy Watermark http://www.watermark-restaurant.com, which offers the most extensive wine list in the city.
But it’s best to venture a bit outside of downtown for some of the most interesting – and gay-popular – dining. The hip 12th Avenue South neighborhood is a great food destination, home to the trendy Burger Up http://www.burger-up.com, known for bison, lamb, and salmon burgers; and Las Paletas, which sells refreshing and oddly flavored popsicles (chai tea, cucumber-pepper, chocolate-wasabi).
East Nashville is another cool neighborhood for eating and exploring. It’s home to lesbian-owned Margot http://www.margotcafe.com, which turns out delicious French bistro fare – the same owners run the nearby coffeehouse and bakery, Marche http://www.marcheartisanfoods.com, which serves up all sorts of tasty snacks. The inviting Rumours Wine Bar http://www.rumourseast.com is great for sipping and dining, and Ugly Mugs http://www.uglymugsnashville.com is a terrific coffeehouse.
For gay nightlife, head to Church Street in the West End. Arguably the neighborhood’s hottest gay bar, Tribe http://www.tribenashville.com is a hip spot with a full restaurant, an open-air deck, and a decent-size dance floor. If you’re seeking a more high-energy experience, venture next door to Play http://www.playdancebar.com, a sprawling dance club that packs in huge crowds on weekends. Just down the street is Blue Gene’s, a relaxed neighborhood joint.
Over in East Nashville you’ll find one of the liveliest lesbian bars in the South, Lipstick Lounge http://www.thelipsticklounge.com, set inside a brightly colored and attractively furnished old house. On the main level there’s a small dance bar, and live music is often featured. A couple of gay neighborhood bars worth going out of your way for are Trax, a hard-to-find little dive bar in a somewhat industrial neighborhood south of downtown; and the nearby Stirrup http://www.stirrupnashville.com, a warm and welcoming bar that caters to a diverse crowd.
Nashville’s hotel selection has become increasingly interesting over the years, thanks in part to the open of the stylish and contemporary Hutton Hotel http://www.huttonhotel.com, a couple of blocks from the West End gay bars. It’s quickly become a favorite address of visiting celebs and musicians. The nearby Hotel Indigo http://www.hotelindigo.com is a gay-friendly, moderately priced, and sleekly designed mid-rise. Another favorite of design-minded, hip travelers is the Hotel Preston http://www.hotelpreston.com – just keep in mind that it’s 10 miles southeast of downtown, by the airport. If you’d rather be downtown, consider the gracious Union Station Hotel http://www.unionstationhotelnashville.com, which adjoins turn-of-the-20th-century Union Station and has a gorgeous lobby and warmly furnished rooms.