Although it’s one of the most populous cities in the South, Memphis is a fairly low-key place, and its lesbian and gay population is less visible than in most comparably sized cities. Nevertheless, visitors to this sprawling metropolis hugging the east bank of the Mississippi River will find a remarkable variety of outstanding attractions - enough so that you really need at least three days here just to hit the best ones. As for gay nightlife, don’t come expecting the high-octane club scene of Atlanta and New Orleans, but you will find some very fun bars.
From the day in 1968 that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was felled here by an assassin’s bullet to about the middle of the 1980s, Memphis suffered an unrelenting slump - even the city’s elegant grande dame, the Peabody Hotel, closed its doors for a time in the ‘70s. The city began to rebound economically by the early '90s. The rich music heritage (blues icon W.C. Handy and rock icon Elvis Presley became American icons while living here) continues to draw fans of many genres and is celebrated at several superb museums, including, of course, Elvis' former estate, Graceland (a must, even if you're not a big fan).
The city’s once grim Civil Rights record has been largely reversed, a highlight being the impressive National Civil Rights Museum, which has been created out of the motel in which Dr. King was assassinated. Nevertheless, stand along the banks of the Mississippi River and you’ll see a city skyline still retains plenty of charming early 20th-century buildings, including the gloriously restored Peabody Hotel.
As for the LGBT community, it continues to attain increased visibility. The city's Gay Pride event, Mid-South Pride takes place each October in the heart of downtown, along the famed Beale Street, and Memphis Black Pride in June, in downtown's South Main neighborhood (near the Lorraine Motel). And gays and lesbians in Memphis have played a vital role in the revitalization of such eclectic neighborhoods as Midtown and funky Cooper-Young.
Major Memphis Events
- Early Jan.: Elvis Presley Birthday Week at Graceland.
- May: Memphis in May International Festival (a month of blues, barbecue, and other fun events).
- Early May: Beale Street Music Festival (one of the world's leading blues festivals, drawing dozens of top artists).
- Late May: Memphis Film Festival.
- Early to mid-Sept.: Outflix LGBT Film Festival.
- Mid-Sept.: Cooper-Young Festival (a celebration of music and art in one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods).
- Late Sept.: Memphis Gay Pride/Mid-South Gay Pride.
- Early Nov.: Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Keep in mind that you'll want a car to explore anything beyond downtown Memphis and a few key museums (such as Graceland and the Civil Rights Museum, which have shuttle or trolley services from downtown). The neighborhoods with most of the gay nightlife and retail scene are in Midtown, a 10- to 20-minute drive east of downtown. Call Premier Transportation (901-577-7700) for taxi and airport shuttle services. The airport in Memphis is one of the busiest for cargo in the world, as the city is the headquarters of FedEx - Memphis International Airport is a 20-minute drive southeast of downtown and is served by all major airlines and is a smaller hub of Delta Airlines.
Atlanta, GA: 380 miles (6 to 6.5 hrs)
Birmingham, AL: 240 miles (4 hrs)
Chicago, IL: 530 miles (8 to 9 hrs)
Dallas, TX: 450 miles (7 to 8 hrs)
Eureka Springs, AR: 270 miles (3.5 to 4.5 hrs)
Jackson, MS: 210 miles (3 hrs)
Kansas City, MO: 450 miles (7 to 8 hrs)
Little Rock, AR: 270 miles (5 to 5.5 hrs)
Louisville, KY: 380 miles (6 to 6.5 hrs)
Nashville: 215 miles (3.5 hrs)
New Orleans, LA: 400 miles (6 to 6.5 hrs)
Oxford, MS: 85 miles (90 min)
St. Louis, MO: 280 miles (5 to 5.5 hrs)
Memphis Visitor Resources
A nicely produced, thoughtful LGBT print and online resource based in Memphis, Focus Mid-South touches covers news, culture, community, events, and plenty of other issues important to the city's and the surrounding region's community. Tennessee's gay newspaper is Out & About (which is geared more toward Nashville but does have some statewide coverage). There are some local websites of note, including that of the progressive alternative newsweekly, Memphis Flyer, and the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
For general tourism information, take a look at the Memphis CVB's helpful travel site.
Memphis Attractions Guide - Memphis Music Heritage
It's well worth beginning any tour of downtown with a visit to the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum (191 Beale St., by the FedEx Forum, 901-205-2533), an impressive building whose galleries use costumes, instruments, memorabilia, and a terrifically informative audio tour to tell the story of the city's - and region's - rich music history.
Elvis Presley wasn’t the first, nor was he necessarily the most important, musician to make a name for himself in Memphis. Alabama native W. C. Handy sparked the city’s legacy as America’s blues capital. The modest wood-frame W.C. Handy Memphis Home and Museum (352 Beale St., 901-522-1556) has been moved from its original location to downtown, along rollicking Beale Street, a pedestrian-only strip lined with live-music clubs and restaurants specializing in Blues, Jazz, and R&B. A couple of blocks away, note the enormous Gibson Guitar Factory at 145 Lt. George W. Lee Ave. (901-544-7998) - 45-minute tours are available.
Beale Street can feel a bit like a shorter version of New Orleans’s Bourbon Street, complete with throbbing music clubs, inexpensive but touristy restaurants, and a rich history of revelry (albeit without any discernible gay presence, as there is in New Orleans’s French Quarter.) One favorite stop along here is the original A. Schwab Dry Goods Store (163 Beale St., 901-523-9782), which has been running continuously since 1876 and has its own museum; inside you can buy bloomers, incense, top hats, walking canes, harmonicas, and hundreds of other items ranging from the mundane to the bizarre.
Around the corner, the free Center for Southern Folklore Hall and Galleries (119 S. Main St., 901-525-3655) has exhibits on the culture, music, food, and crafts of the Mississippi Delta region - it's right by the famed Peabody Hotel.
A few blocks south of downtown is the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. King’s killing on April 4, 1968. The motel has been transformed, appropriately, into the National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St., 901-521-9699). This creative and intelligently designed museum recently underwent a major renovation. Visitors can tour the extensive galleries detailing every aspect of the Civil Rights movement, with memorable displays depicting lunch-counter sit-ins and historic rallies. You can also stand beside the very motel room in which King stayed the day of his death, and view the balcony outside on which he was gunned down. The museum also includes the former boardinghouse across the street, in which can view the room of assassin James Earl Ray and learn about the lengthy manhunt that eventually led to his arrest. The blocks of South Main Street just south of the Civil Rights Museum are lined with a cluster of cafes, shops, and restaurants.
A lesser-known but fascinating museum just a few blocks south of the South Main neighborhood, the National Museum of Ornamental Metal (374 Metal Museum Dr., 901-774-6380) is perched on a scenic bluff overlooking a wide bend in the Mississippi River. It comprises a campus of buildings that contain galleries as well as a full-working metal shop in which you can watch artisans ply their trade. The galleries show everything from tiny, exquisite works of jewelry to larger installations, some of them displayed in the tree-shaded sculpture garden.
At the northern end of downtown stands the most distinct component of the city skyline, the glimmering Pyramid Arena; across a narrow swath of river is Mud Island, a 52-acre park that's been handsomely developed into a mixed-use neighborhood, with a handful of hip bars and cafes and an excellent small hotel, the River Inn. You can also visit the Mud Island River Park (125 N. Front St., 901-576-6507), which is dedicated to the history of the Mississippi river, contains many exhibits about the river’s natural history, most memorable of which is a five-block-long replica of the river (as it runs from Illinois to New Orleans), through water flows every minute. You may recognize the monorail that runs between Mud Island and downtown from the movie, The Firm.
One last section of downtown that bears exploring is the Victorian Village Historic District (Adams Ave., from Front to Manassas Street). Along this span, you’ll pass about 20 restored historic homes, some of which are open to the public, and one that contains the elegant and very gay-popular lounge, Mollie Fontaine.
As you drive east of downtown along Union Avenue, you’ll pass a totally unassuming and relatively small commercial building, Sun Studio (706 Union Ave., 901-521-0664). Back when this music-recording studio opened in the early ‘50s, anyone with a few bucks and a love of crooning could stroll in here and cut a demo tape. One such customer was a cocky, good-lucking young guy from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Presley. Other luminaries such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner recorded music here, and more recently Sun Studio has drawn such diverse talents as Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Isaak, and U2's Bono. The studio has also been featured in such films as Walk the Line and Great Balls of Fire. Very interesting tours of the studio are available daily.
Another key part of the city's music history is Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 S. McLemore Ave., 901-942-SOUL), a 10-minute drive south of downtown. Set in another of the South's most important music studios, an old theater that was converted in 1959 into Stax Records, the museum discusses the many luminaries who recorded here - Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Richard Pryor, and more. More than 2,000 artifacts detail the rise of American soul music.
Midtown, Overton Park, and Cooper-Young
The Memphis gay scene is quite spread out, but it's broadly centered to the east of where I--40/I-240 slices through the city center, in Midtown. The western and southern edge of Midtown, nearest downtown, is mostly a working-class residential neighborhood, which also claims the bulk of the city’s neighborhood gay bars (around the 1200 to 1500 blocks of Madison and Union). Farther east, anchoring Midtown, you’ll find Overton Park (2080 Poplar Ave.), the name of both an expansive patch of meadows and gardens that’s popular with gay sun bunnies, and a stately residential neighborhood. Adjacent to the park are the outstanding Memphis Zoo (2000 Prentiss Pl., 901-333-6500) and the esteemed Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (1934 Poplar Ave., 901-544-6200), an eclectic 7,000-piece collection whose works span eight centuries.
On the east side of Midtown are two small but trendy and increasingly diverse entertainment districts, Overton Square (around the intersection of Madison Ave. and Cooper St.) and, a few blocks south, Cooper-Young (around the intersection of Young St. and Cooper St.). The latter is home to the city’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center; the very nice (and friendly) gay adult bookstore and underwear shop Inz & Outz (533 S. Cooper St., 901-728-6535); and a bounty of kitschy shops, artsy coffeehouses, and stylish restaurants. Another shopping favorite in these parts is Flashback (2304 Central Ave., 901-272--2304) an entire department store of high-quality 1920s to 1960s furnishings and vintage clothing.
Few attractions are more closely identified with their respective locations than Graceland (Elvis Presley Blvd., 901-332-3322) is to Memphis. Pronounced “grace-lynn” locally, this campy compound in which the King of Rock & Roll resided upon his rise to mega-stardom contains not only his palatial home (filled with many peculiar collectibles and memorabilia, plus a substantial number of Presley’s glittery and gaudy costumes), but his custom jets (the smaller Hound Dog 2 and the quite substantial Lisa Marie), a collection of 22 vehicles, and several other displays. The several extensive gift shops are reason enough to visit. This is an impressive museum, whether or not you're a big fan of The King - it tells us a great deal about mid-20th-century popular music and culture, and it's very easy to spend three hours here investigating all of the exhibits.
Memphis Restaurant Guide
Memphis cuisine is influenced by Southern, soul, Cajun, and Creole traditions and has become increasingly sophisticated over the years, with a number of newer restaurants embracing the current trend of sourcing locally. While the restaurant scene still trails Nashville in creativity and panache, the cost of a meal here is typically quite reasonable.
First, a word about the culinary tradition perhaps most associated with Memphis: Barbecue. As you'll notice, pork (pulled or ribs) is the favored meat here, and dry rubs dominate. But wander around town trying different restaurants, and you'll find plenty of variety - brisket, chicken, sauces, sausages, barbecue nachos. The famous spots, like Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous (alleyway behind 52 S. 2nd St., 901-523-2746) and Corky's Ribs & BBQ (5259 Poplar Ave., 901-685-9744) are plenty good, if maybe a tad over-hyped. Plenty of folks (count me among them) would rank the ribs and pulled pork at Central BBQ (2249 Central Ave., 901-767-4672), in funky Cooper-Young, as the finest around. Also nice here is the great selection of draft beers, the management's commitment to sustainability, and the hot sauce that'll make you cry. The house-made potato chips with blue cheese dipping sauce are a memorable starter. Another highly worthy ribs purveyor in Midtown is Bar-B-Q Shop (1782 Madison Ave., 901-272-1277) - ginormous portions and low prices make this a terrific value, too.
Downtown has its share of touristy restaurants, especially along Beale Street - good spots for live music and drinking, but generally lacking when it comes to food. But look around a bit, and you'll find some gems, including Local Gastropub (95 S. Main St., 901-473-9573), which is known for everything from humble but delicious spicy hot wings to shrimp-and-grits to green-chile & bacon mac & cheese; and the Brass Door Irish Pub (152 Madison Ave., 901-572-1813), an elegant old-fashioned space serving nicely prepared comfort food, like PEI mussels cooked in ale with jalapenos and smoked bacon, and first-rate fish-and-chips. A great choice during the day is Lunchbox Eats (288 S. 4th St., 901-526-0820), a friendly purveyor of tasty down-home soul food, including a grilled cheese, fried egg, and hot-links sandwich, and wonderfully rich mac-and-cheese.
Tennessee’s most famous historic hotel, the Peabody (149 Union Ave., 901-529-4000) is home to one of the most elegant restaurants in the city, formal Chez Philippe, which serves a first-rate menu of French and Continental cuisine. Afternoon tea in the lobby, and Sunday brunch (either the buffet in the hotel's Capriccio Grill or the lavish prix-fixe in Chez Philippe) are both vaunted Memphis traditions. Across the street, hip Automatic Slim's Tonga Club (83 S. 2nd St., 901/525--7948) has the style and energy of a big-city supper club, and serves very good modern Southern and great cocktails. Many regulars from the gay community drop by for drinks at the swank cocktail bar. Farther down South Main, the lively stretch near the National Civil Rights Museum is home to a handful of good eateries, including cheerful Bluff City Coffee (505 S. Main St., 901-405-4399), local legend Earnestine & Hazel's Bar & Grill (84 E. GE Patterson Ave., 901-523-9754), a beloved dive bar renowned for its juicy "soul burger."
Midtown and Cooper-Young
Midtown is home one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the South, Restaurant Iris (2146 Monroe Ave., 901-590-2828), helmed by celeb Louisiana chef Kelly English. Make a reservation for this one, which is set inside a handsome Queen Anne Victorian house, and then tuck into such delectable treats as lobster "knuckle" sandwiches with tarragon and tomatoes; and seared American Kobe flat-iron steak with truffles, shiitake, haricots verts, and leek fondue. The offbeat Fuel Cafe (1761 Madison Ave., 901-725-9025) occupies a restored vintage gas station and earns raves for its locally and humanely sourced food, including bison chili, veggie cheese-and-walnut loaf, and wild-caught fish of the day with an always-changing preparation. The divey Hi Tone (1913 Poplar Ave., 901-278-8663) is a great place to hear talented live bands and to snack on tasty bar victuals, from pizza to burgers.
In the increasingly food-buzzworthy Cooper-Young District, Tsunami (928 S. Cooper St., 901-274-2556) is known for tasty, creative Asian-influenced fare like Jalapeno hushpuppies with maple-soy aioli and peppercorn-coriander tuna with panko-fried green beans. Right next, trendy newcomer Alchemy (940 S. Cooper St., 901-726-4444) pulls plenty of local GLBT folks for cocktails at the long enormous bar, which has a fantastic and extensive list of wines, microbrews, and cocktails, as well as nicely crafted and fair-priced small plates. Alchemy is open late, too. You'll find similarly well-crafted food, with an emphasis on farm-to-table ingredients, at Sweet Grass (937 S. Cooper St., 901-278-0278), which has a both a more refined space with a higher-end menu as well as a rollicking bar next door with similarly good, though lighter, food.
Nearby Cafe Ole (959 S. Cooper St., 901-274-1504) is mobbed at happy hour, which can make for fun people-watching, and presents a dependable array of regional and Americanized Mexican standbys. Beauty Shop Restaurant & Lounge (966 S. Cooper St., 901-272-7111) is run by the local maven of artsy, hip dining Karen Carrier, turns out tasty but inspired Southern-tinted American fare for brunch, lunch, and dinner in a space meant to resemble a retro-kitschy beauty salon.
Perhaps the most popular coffeehouse with the gay set, Otherlands (641 S. Cooper St., 901-278-4994) is a rambling space with several comfy rooms, free Wi-Fi, a good-sized deck out back, and live music on weekend evenings. Java Cabana (2170 Young Ave., 901-272-7210), a deeply weird Cooper-Young coffeehouse that feels a bit like a basement rec room, is a reliable standby for coffee and conversation.
Memphis Hotel Guide - Gay-Friendly Memphis Hotels
You'll find most of the higher-end properties in downtown Memphis, but many mid- to economy-priced chains are well east of downtown, out near where I--40 and I--240 converge; this is a quasi-edge city that’s a base for many business travelers. Unfortunately, this area’s a bit far from gay nightlife and even more of a haul from downtown. On the other hand, this is a big city, geographically, so no matter where you stay you’re going to have to do some driving.
The sophisticated Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave., 901-529-4000) opened in 1925 hotel and remains one of the South's true grande dames. Guest rooms are bright and airy and retain the ambiance of years past without looking either overwrought or dated, especially thanks to frequent updates. The lobby, in whose marble fountain the hotel’s ducks frolic each day from 11 until 5, has been magnificently restored. This is a class act from top to bottom, and the hotel is a member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.
It's just a short drive from downtown, yet the intimate and elegant River Inn of Harbor Town (50 Harbor Town Sq., 901-260-3333) feels as though it's in another world. The contemporary 28-room boutique hotel is on peaceful Mud Island, overlooking the Mississippi River, and in a handsomely designed mixed-use neighborhood of upscale condos, cool cafes, and lively restaurants and markets. The gay-friendly property is all about personal service and attention to detail, from the warmly outfitted rooms (some with fireplaces and jetted tubs) to complimentary wine on arrival, full breakfast, port wine and truffles at turndown, Wi-Fi, and daily paper. Off the lobby is the exceptional French restaurant Paulette's, which moved here from its long-standing location in Midtown. And there's also lighter fare served at Tug's Casual Grill, and - during the warmer months - seasonal snacking on the rooftop terrace.
If you’re seeking the supreme comfort of the Peabody but prefer a more personal and offbeat lodging experience, book a room at this tiny, gay-friendly Talbot Heirs Guesthouse (99 S. 2nd St., 901-527-9772), a mini-hotel that’s just across the street. The huge suites, with equipped kitchenettes, are intended to remind you of home (a very nice home), with furnishings that range from artsy to cutting edge. It’s an interior designer’s fun house, and a great alternative too hulking impersonal convention and business hotels.
Other very nice lodging options downtown include the hip Westin Memphis (170 Lt. George W. Lee Ave., 901-334-5900), which is just steps from Beale Street bars and clubs; and the very reasonably priced Hampton Inn at Beale Street (175 Peabody Pl., 901-260-4000). The historic Madison Hotel (79 Madison Ave., 901-333-1200) is also close to the action, has 110 nattily furnished rooms and suites, and occupies a handsome 14-story former office building constructed in 1905.
Farther afield, Midtown is actually a bit lacking in accommodations, but the economically priced Rodeway Inn (1199 Linden Ave., 901-726-4171) is very well-maintained as budget properties go, and to the east of Midtown, the Holiday Inn Memphis-Univ. of Memphis (3700 Central Ave., 901-678-8200) is a reliable option.
Memphis Gay Bar Guide
Memphis doesn't have a ton of gay bars for a city its size, but it is home to a handful of friendly, welcoming neighborhood bars, most of these clustered around the western edge of Midtown and drawing a mostly local, neighborhood following.
One great Memphis hangout among gay locals and visitors is the elegant two-floor lounge Mollie Fontaine (679 Adams Ave., 901-524-1886), which occupies a stunning, historic mansion in the Victorian Village Historic District, on the northern edge of downtown. Owned by beloved local restaurant maven Karen Carrier (who also developed downtown's Automatic Slims and Cooper-Young's Beauty Shop and Do), this atmospheric lounge has several rooms and draws a mixed gay-straight crowd. There's live piano many nights downstairs, and plenty of cozy spots to sit, chat, and sip well-crafted cocktails.
Neighborhood Gay Bars
You'll find a handful of smaller gay bars, most of them with a local following, in western Midtown around the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Madison and Poplar. One of the most popular of these is the Pumping Station (1382 Poplar Ave., 901-272-7600), a favorite of bears, guys into leather and Levi's, and other cruise-y sorts. It has great drink specials, especially on Sunday, and a lushly landscaped two-level deck behind it (steps lead to the infamous "tree house" section). Quite a few lesbians and their allies frequent Dru's Place (1474 Madison Ave., 901-275-8082), a welcoming, easy-going bar that's known for karaoke (and live music some nights) - it's a real fixture in the community. Nearby, the down-home and dive-y P & H Cafe (1532 Madison Ave., 901-726-0906) is a great place for drinking pitchers of PBR, eating burgers and pub food, and people-watching. The crowd here is very mixed gay/straight, and the vibe hipster.