Politically, and in terms of gay-friendliness, Atlanta is sometimes described as a blue island surrounded by a vast red sea. Although more conservative than any other region of the country, The South does nevertheless contain a surprising number of progressive towns and cities, from Savannah to Nashville. And even some of the less liberal areas still have plenty to see and do, sizable GLBT scenes, or— in the case of Pensacola - major gay events. Here are some enticing getaways from Atlanta.
Asheville, North Carolina
This attractive mountain city is an underrated gem for gay travelers, surprising when you consider Asheville’s visible, active LGBT community, and its proximity to Atlanta and Charlotte. The region is rife with hiking and other outdoor opportunities, and its moderate climate keeps things several degrees cooler than most of the South. Downtown Asheville sits like a saucer balanced precariously amid the slopes of numerous emerald mountains. Hip restaurants, fine galleries, organic coffeehouses, indie boutiques, and fine examples of Arts and Crafts and Art Deco architecture abound, and the few gay bars here are youthful, offbeat, and fun. The city prides itself on being a haven of diverging and eclectic views.
Distance: 230 miles (3.5 hrs)
Of the 25 U.S. metro areas with the highest percentage of gay and lesbian households, two are in Georgia. You might guess that Atlanta is one of these - Athens is the other. There are several reasons so many gays and lesbians choose to live in this city of 100,000. The University of Georgia (UGA) fosters an open-minded, tolerant population, as does the edgy arts, theater, and live-music scene, which has cultivated such homo-popular music acts as the B-52s and R.E.M. (out rocker Michael Stipe lives here). Vegetarian Times has called Athens one of the country's best cities for noncarnivores. And every April, Athens hosts the Boybutante Ball, an AIDS benefit with drag fetes and campy parties.
Distance: 80 miles (90 min)
With 1.2 million residents, this modern and fast-growing city has only in recent years developed visibility in its gay community, although the scene here remains low-keyed, and you won’t see a ton of Rainbow flags around here. The city suffered from various image problems throughout most of this century, ranging from the decline of a once-prolific steel industry to intense racial struggles. That being said many gay-friendly businesses thrive here, quite a few in the trendy Five Points South area, a historic streetcar suburb, and now an enclave of funky shops, eateries, music clubs, and well-preserved art deco architecture. Birmingham is also very strong in fine arts, from museums to theaters.
Distance: 150 miles (2.5 hrs)
The quintessentially Old South city of Charleston has begun drawing increasing numbers of GLBT visitors in recent years. This engaging metropolis is rich in charm: Historic house-museums, sophisticated restaurants, posh old-world hotels, renowned galleries, and antique shops, a first-rate lineup of arts festivals, and a few convivial gay bars make this Colonial-era city the cultural anchor of the Carolinas Lowcountry. If you've spent time in Caribbean islands like Barbados or St. Thomas, Charleston's pastel-hued buildings, with their trademark broad piazzas, may look familiar. The city's sunny palm-lined streets, water views, and nonstop bustle are enjoyable year-round - just beware the steep hotel rates.
Distance: 310 miles (5 hrs)
Fast rivaling Atlanta as an economic icon of the New South, this modern city with a skyline of ultramodern office towers remains nonetheless undiscovered among many tourists, especially gays and lesbians. It’s a conservative town of steady habits, where banking is the key industry—a foil to more liberal areas like Asheville and the Research Triangle. But Charlotte has become increasingly gay-friendly and unquestionably sophisticated. Highlights for visitors include some excellent museums, a growing number of high-caliber eateries, and several charming residential neighborhoods noted for their fine architecture. You'll also find a nice mix of gay bars, from neighborhood joints to throbbing dance clubs.
Distance: 250 miles (4 hrs)
Florida's largest city, with a population of nearly 850,000, Jacksonville lies at the northeastern tip of the state, very close to the Georgia border and along a pleasant stretch of Atlantic beachfront. Parts of the city feel distinctly Southern, while other neighborhoods capture the distinct Spanish Colonial flair of the region—it's just a 30-minute drive south to America's oldest city, St. Augustine, which is home to several GLBT-friendly inns and B&Bs as well as some notable museums. The gay scene is lively and fun, centered mostly around the Riverside neighborhood, but there's also great dining and shopping across the river in historic San Marco. Just up the coast, historic Amelia Island is another lovely spot for a romantic vacation, and it's home to several gay-friendly inns.
Distance: 350 miles (5.5 hrs)
This populous city along the banks of the Mississippi River is arguably the most important American music city in the country, having contributed hugely to the evolution of blues, rock, soul, and more. The city's top attractions are closely associated with this musical heritage, from the iconic former home of Elvis Presley, Graceland, to Sun Studios, Stax Records (now a museum), and the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum. More conservative than Nashville but with an increasingly visible gay community, Memphis has some of the largest gay clubs in the South and some very cool and diverse neighborhoods, especially the funky Cooper-Young District. It's also home to the Lorraine Motel, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated—it's now the National Museum of Civil Rights. You won't run out of things to see and do during a weekend in Memphis, or good things to eat, as the city abounds with outstanding barbecue and Southern restaurants.
Distance: 380 miles (6 to 6.5 hrs)
There's a surprisingly strong gay presence and a lot to see along Alabama's Gulf Coast, which is centered upon the historic, easy-going city of Mobile. You get a sense of New Orleans in this palm-shaded metropolis with grand old inns and several rollicking gay bars, but it's far closer to Atlanta than the Big Easy. And this charming town has been throwing festive Mardi Gras parties long before New Orleanians started throwing around beaded necklaces. The city has several restored antebellum mansions open for touring, a replica of the 18th-century Spanish Fort Conde, and one of the South's most spectacular historic estates, Bellingrath Gardens and Home. And you won't go hungry here—exceptional seafood abounds.
Distance: 330 miles (5 hrs)
Although it's in the heart of the Bible Belt, the vibrant, culturally rich city of Nashville is one of the South's most progressive and gay-friendly cities. Here you'll find not only a celebrated music heritage (and plenty of museums and live-music venues to learn about this history up-close - don't miss the Country Music Hall of Fame) but also hip and gay-friendly neighborhoods, bars, hotels, restaurants, and shops. Funky neighborhoods like East Nashville and 12th Avenue South make for enjoyable strolling, and the over-the-top Opryland Hotel must be seen to be believed. Along Church Street near Vanderbilt University, you'll find a small but bustling gay scene, including several cool bars and clubs.
Distance: 250 miles (4 hrs)
The conservative Florida panhandle city of Pensacola isn't one of the friendliest parts of the world for GLBT persons. However, in late May, over Pensacola Gay Memorial Day weekend, it's one of the world's true gay meccas, as it hosts a five-day circuit-style gay party that's been going strong for two decades. You'll find far less of a queer presence in these parts the rest of the year, but Pensacola is not without its charms. The Seville Historic District, on the southern fringe of downtown, contains several blocks of cottages, shops, and cafes—it bears more than a slight resemblance to Key West and makes for an engaging stroll. And the many nearby beaches are among the prettiest in the Gulf region.
Distance: 325 miles (5.5 hrs)
The jewel of Georgia's lazily enchanting coast, Savannah was founded in 1733 by British General James Oglethorpe, who designed the perfect grid of streets and grassy tree-shaded squares for which this city of 130,000 is still famous. This has long been a place where eccentrics, artists, and traditional Southerners mingle with ease, but the publication of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil especially heightened the city's popularity with gay travelers, who appreciate its many stunning inns, fine restaurants, beautiful house-museums, handful of gay bars (including one of the South's most famous gay bars, Club One, and rich arts scene. Just 15 miles away are the smooth beaches of Tybee Island.
Distance: 250 miles (4 hrs)