Nashville may be getting all the attention lately as a cool tourist destination, but to the southwest lies another Tennessee spot known for its food and music.
Memphis is a culturally and historically significant city at the border of Arkansas and Mississippi, with the Mississippi River in its backyard. Many of the city’s attractions celebrate its past, though there’s plenty for visitors looking to check out the current flavor.
A visit to Memphis isn’t complete without a trip to Graceland (tickets start at $38.75/adults; 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd., ticket office, 800-238-2000), the former home of Elvis Presley (who passed away Aug. 16, 1977). The rock ’n’ roll legend’s surprisingly modest, Southern-style Victorian mansion illustrates his eccentric taste and interests (he was a news junkie), and an extensive collection of memorabilia sheds a light onto the larger-than-life figure. An iPad-led tour also adds to the experience (narrated by John Stamos, naturally). Prepare to spend a few hours at the mansion and grounds, and splurge to see his collection of cars and planes.
Continue your tribute to the King with a tour of Sun Studio (tours daily from 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. on the half hour, $12/adults, FREE for kids ages 5-11; 706 Union Ave., 800-441-6249) — originally called Memphis Recording Service — the so-called birthplace of rock ’n’ roll (1951’s “Rocket 88” — considered the first rock ’n’ roll single — was recorded there). Stand where Elvis, as well as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others, made their hits.
Soul more your speed? Head to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (tickets $13, closed Mondays; 926 E. McLemore Ave., 901-942-7685), housed in the former home of Stax Records. Soul legends from Otis Redding to Sam & Dave recorded at the famed studio, and the museum celebrates the legacy with tributes to the artists, listening stations and memorabilia such as Isaac Hayes’ custom Cadillac Eldorado.
Beale Street has been the spot for blues in downtown Memphis for decades, and the three-block strip continues to draw crowds. For music, head to Blues City Cafe, Rum Boogie Cafe or Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall.
Want to catch an act outdoors? Try Levitt Shell (1928 Poplar Ave., 901-272-2722), an open-air amphitheater in midtown’s Overton Park, which holds dozens of free concerts each year, or the Mud Island Amphitheater, a venue in Mud Island River Park (125 N. Front St., 800-507-6507) along the Mississippi that has featured such acts as Beck and the Alabama Shakes.
For a taste of the local music scene, try the vintage-y Lafayette’s Music Room (2119 Madison Ave., 901-207-5097), in the revitalized Overton Square entertainment district, or the beer garden Loflin Yard (closed Mondays and Tuesdays; 7 W. Carolina Ave., 901-249-3046).
EAT AND DRINK
You can’t leave Memphis without trying the city’s celebrated BBQ. Two oft-recommended spots downtown are Central (closed Sundays; 52 S. Second St., 901-523-2746) and Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (147 E. Butler St., 901-672-7760), simply called Rendezvous, which has operated off a back alley since 1948.
Other can’t-miss spots include Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (310 S. Front St., 901-527-4877), which draws waits for its signature namesake (though you can get it to go if you’re in a rush), and the historic Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest cafe (founded in 1919), where you can fuel up on indulgent diner fare like sweet potato pancakes and country fried steak with biscuits and gravy.
In the trendy Cooper Young neighborhood in midtown, get brunch at Beauty Shop (966 Cooper St., 901-272-7111), which pays homage to its beauty parlor past with hair-dryer chairs; pick up a cupcake or three at Muddy’s Bake Shop (closed Sundays; 585 S. Cooper St., 901-443-4144); and get dinner and drinks at the popular cocktail spot Alchemy (940 S. Cooper St., 901-726-4444).
The recently renovated National Civil Rights Museum (admission $15, $14 seniors and students, $12 ages 4-17, FREE for ages 3 and under; 450 Mulberry St., 901-521-9699) recounts five centuries of history tied to the American civil rights movement. It’s poignantly located in the Lorraine Motel — the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Budget at least three hours to take in the extensive, interactive exhibits.
For a history of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, visit the Mississippi River Museum in Mud Island River Park Museum (125 N. Front St., 800-507-6507), which features more than 5,000 artifacts and two boat replicas. A scale model of the river itself is also in the park.
Get your art fix at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (closed Mondays and Tuesdays, admission $7, $6 seniors, $3 students and ages 7-17, FREE for ages 6 and under; 1934 Poplar Ave., 901-544-6200) in Overton Park, which displays a diverse selection of works from the Italian Renaissance to the present day.
WHERE TO STAY
Downtown will get you within walking distance of Beale Street and is convenient for destinations in midtown or Graceland. Budget-friendly options include the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Memphis (5069 Sanderlin Ave., 901-767-6666) and Westin Memphis Beale Street (170 Lt. George W. Lee Ave., 901-334-5900), while more luxe accommodations can be found at the Peabody Memphis (149 Union Ave., 901-529-4000) — famously home to a handful of ducks that splash around in its lobby fountain.
For accommodations near Graceland, the $92 million resort The Guest House at Graceland (3600 Elvis Presley Blvd., 800-238-2000) is slated to open this October, part of a much-anticipated expansion of the entertainment complex.