What to do in Memphis: 15 places and experiences not to miss. My itinerary updated and a series of useful tips about what to do and what to see, where to eat and where to sleep
What to do in Memphis?
How many and what experiences enjoy in this chaotic, surprising and captivating crossroads of music, history and culture made in the USA?
How many days to dedicate to it? And finally where to eat local, maybe in historic venues, and what areas – above all from a safety and convenience point of view – opt for to stay overnight?
Find down here a detailed report with many deepener links to discover the places, the paths and the most suggestive and exciting activities to do, keeping an eye to the times – reckon at least two/three nights in the town – the budget and the news.
For any other information as regards other special events, shows and activities to do during your stay in town, you can look the official Memphis Travel website up, always updated and rich in cues and useful tips.
“Many cities make music, but no city breathes music quite like Memphis.
The songs and sounds that come from here are uniquely American.”
Beale Street, small for size, but great for music.
A street that in less than a kilometer conveys the blues, rock and soul Memphis in a unique atmosphere.
Born in the past as a social and economic center of the Afro-American community of the city – here gathered its artists to improvise unforgettable blues sessions after a long day of work – Beale Street lived its golden era in the first half of the 1900s.
Today, after a period of abandonment, it has been recovered in a good part and it has become the liveliest neighborhood of the city.
Historic venues like the BB King’s Blues Club and the Coyote Ugly Saloon alternate with souvenirs and objects (music and not) stores of a certain level, like the very recommended A.Schwab Trading Co. working since 1876. And with the most kitsch and unusual souvenirs ones (what about the most sold? The Elvis’ ones, of course!) besides restaurants where to taste the most various types of BBQ.
Usually free admission to Beale Street: at the weekends (on Fridays and Saturdays) above all in case of particular events or festivities, the street is closed and is required a $5 fee each to enter.
A museum to discover the complex interactions among soul, country and blues which led to the birth of the Rock’ n’ Roll.
Starting from the origins, from the difficult mixing between “white” and “Afro-American” music, starting from the early 1900s, in the heart of Mississippi Delta – the birthplace of
Blues – as far as reaching Memphis, in an exciting journey into the American music along the whole first half of the 1900s.
The Rock’ n’ Soul Museum is located right next to the FedEx Forum, a short walk from Beale Street. It is opened 7 days a week – except for Thanksgiving Day, December 25th and January 1st – from 9am to 5pm.
Welcome to the Sun Studio, the mythical music label that within a year turned the young and penniless Elvis Presley into the undisputed king of Rock’ n’ Roll.
A guided tour of about 45 minutes, nice and interesting (the guides are very prepared, funny and in perfect tuning with the location) will lead you discovering the characters, the music genres and the songs that made the mythical Studio A great.
You’ll be able to discover anecdotes and stories tied to the most famous artists, listen to some unpublished live recorded in this place by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley himself, besides having the chance to hold his microphone, in the exact place where his first successes were born.
And you’ll find out that, despite the years fly by, artists of the caliber of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Maroon Five et cetera keep recording at the Sun Studio – attracted by the acoustics and the alchemies of the past.
Little far from the Sun Studio you’ll find the very new Edge Motor Museum, opened in April 2019.
A museum complex – born in The Edge district, famous in the ‘20s as “Auto Row”, that is the street of the old car dealerships, garages and car bodies – dedicated to the history of the American sports car with a particular attention to the models that in a certain way were inspired by music and the lifestyle of the Memphis of the first decades of the 1900s until the ‘70s.
The museum is located at 645, Marshall Ave. It is opened Monday-Friday 10am-5pm. On Saturdays 11am-3pm. On Sundays Midday-4pm.
A downright journey into the history of the Soul Music, in the heart of the old Soulville, USA.
You’ll get the chance to enter the original record studio of the STAX music label, the heart to the soul music in the ‘60s, where artists of the caliber of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Booket T, the MG’s and many other ones recorded their most famous songs.
Museum rich in videos, old scene costumes, pictures and really a lot of music to listen and dance, besides the chance for lovers of the genre to admire the1972 Superfly Cadillac belonged to Isaac Hayes.
The STAX Museum of American Soul Music is located at 926 E, McLemore Ave and it is opened 7 days a week – except for Easter Day, Thanksgiving Day and December 25th – from 10am to 5pm.
Even if it was born in Tupelo in Mississippi, Elvis Presley is famously considered a Memphis’ son.
He moved there very young together with his parents and grew up in the popular district of Lauderdale Courts between music and salutary jobs. Here he explodes as a singer and it is right in Memphis that he decided to purchase – famous by now – Graceland, a colonial style residence where he lived from 1957 until his death in 1977.
The tour of his dwelling – you can reach it by a shuttle from the huge Visitor Plaza – and the Meditation Garden where today he rests, gives a well precise slice of life about the private Elvis (about his beloved family and his dearest friends), contrasting clearly with the public character.
Find here further info about the different typologies of tours and the expositions on the way during the period of your visit. Parking to enter the Graceland Visitor Plaza is located at 3717, Elvis Presley Blvd.
You can take advantage also of the free shuttles leaving every 20 minutes from Beale Street and Sun Studio.
Graceland is opened 7 days a week, 9am-5pm. On Sundays 9am-4pm.
The National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel is a modern and interactive exhibition facility risen where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.
The aim is not only to commemorate the life and the work of the leader of the Civil Rights, but actually to celebrate the whole Civil Rights Movement, right starting from the tale of those 12 million slaves led in chains from Africa and the Caribbean islands towards the cotton, indigo and rice plantations of the South of the actual United States from the mid-1700s on.
A museum extremely involving and strong, born to honor the memory of the past generations and to keep always alive that one of the future generations.
The tour is divided into two different moments: first the exploration of the downright museum path ending on the balcony where King was assassinated and the chance to enter the building opposite – where the mortal shots were shot – following the investigations and the elements in the investigators’ hands at the time, and then analyzing at the end the effect of the Martin Luther King’s moral inheritance in the following decades, until arriving nowadays.
The National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel is located at 450, Mulberry St. It is opened 7 days a week, 9am-5pm.
The first Peabody Memphis Hotel was built at the corner between Main & Monroe in 1869.
The “new” Peabody was built in 1925 between Union Street and 2nd Street, with the aim to create an even bigger and more luxurious facility. Up today it is certainly one of the most fascinating and famous hotels in the US, and its legendary Peabody Ducks March has contributed to increase its fame as “South’s Grand Hotel” over time without any doubt.
What is it?
It is a tradition started in 1933 by Frank Schutt – general manager of the Peabody – and by one friend of his – Chip Barwick. The two people, come back from a hunt and after have drunk quite a lot of Tennessee Whiskey, put for joke some ducks which escaped their gun into the lobby’s fountain. The thing arose a certain enthusiasm in the hotel’s guests.
In 1940 Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help taking the ducks to the fountain every day and taught them the famous Peabody Ducks March. Mr Pembroke became The Peabody Duckmaster serving for 50 years until retirement in 1991.
Today – almost 90 years after the first march – the ducks still make their triumphal march towards the lobby’s fountain accompanied by a new Duckmaster. The ceremony takes place every day at 11am. Their come back to the accommodations is scheduled every afternoon at 5pm.
An experience not to miss if you find yourselves in Memphis. My tip is to arrive at least half an hour before to take the best seats around the fountain or on the balconies of the second floor. The march lasts 15 minutes.
The longest pedestrian bridge along the Mississippi River is located few minutes far by car from Downtown Memphis. It is the Big River Crossing opened every day from dawn until 10pm.
A bridge completely renovated with a very new area to allow the crossing on foot and by bicycle along the Mississippi River passing from Tennessee to Arkansas, just right on the other bank of the river.
In the central area of the walking a road sing marks the geographical border between the two states, and right from here you have a wonderful view of the river and of Memphis skyline.
Alternatively, always from Downtown Memphis, you can reach easily on foot Mud Island Park, a small artificial island on the river (it can be reached also by monorail) with an interesting path in miniature mapping the whole Mississippi River, and a museum dedicated.
The entrance is at 101, N Island Drive.
Arcade Restaurant is a downright historic/movie icon in Memphis.
It’s one of the most ancient and always working diners of the city, founded in 1919 by a family of Greek immigrants and where Elvis Presley was a regular customer as many others artists between the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Over time it was used also as “natural” set of many movies and TV series – among them Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, The Client, The Firm, 21 Grams and Elizabethtown.
Sweet potatoes pancakes, chocolate milkshakes, cookies and vanilla and French toasts are superlative.
Arcade is located at 540, Main St near the National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel.
It is opened 7 days a week at breakfast and lunch, at the weekends also at dinner.
The best fried chicken of the South – and not only, also the fried green tomatoes and the BBQ sauce beans are not so bad – can be found in Memphis, little far from Beale Street, at Gus’ World Famous Fired Chicken at 310, S Front St.
It’s a chain born in Mason, always in Tennessee, over 60 years ago with the idea – concurrently to the Civil Right Movement – to join the entire “white” and “Afro-American” community of the state in front of the best fried chicken in the world.
Today it exists over 25 locations of Gus’ in the US. The historic ones stays in Memphis.
You cannot say to have been in Memphis if you haven’t tasted the really tasty Charcoal Ribs and the several BBQ specialties by Charlie Vergos’ Rendevouz.
The Vergos family – famous to have invented a special BBQ sauce for its precious meats – has been running personally this restaurant for over 70 years, located in a basement little far from the Peabody Hotel at 52, S Second Street.
Charlie Vergos’ is opened 7 days a week, from early in the afternoon until evening.
At the weekends, due to the great affluence of locals, is heartily recommended to book well in advance.
If you arrive in Memphis on Sunday, you cannot really miss the chance to experience an authentic and involving Gospel Service at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.
The Gospel Choir led by Reverend Al Green (keep in mind Reverend Green is not present all Sundays, there are often his collaborators, but the experience is extremely moving anyway) is considered one of the best of the Southern US.
Usually Services start at 11am and 4pm. Anyway, it’s always better to contact the church the day before – call +1 901-345-8040 – to get the exact schedule.
Full Gospel Tabernacle Church is located at 787, Hale Rd.
If you are in Memphis and don’t have time to go wander the state looking for the best Tennessee Whiskey, you can reckon the possibility to have a tasting or a special tour – with purchases attached – staying in town, at one of the most famous distilleries.
My tip is the Old Dominick Distillery at 305, S Front Street, right opposite Gus’ Fried Chicken.
It’s one of the most ancient distilleries in Memphis, today known in the whole United States, built in 1866 by the Italian immigrant Domenico Canale, who developed a special fruited Bourbon called Dominick Toddy. The history of his distillery interlaces with the Prohibition one and all the great events occurred in the 1900s.
Memphis is a constantly evolving town.
Year by year it changes, making always more accessible areas that in the past didn’t bright for welcome and safety. The process on the way is still long, so it’s better to adopt the safety rules we’d use in any other big metropolis.
Downton Memphis, Beale Street, Memphis Central, The Edge and Graceland areas – those ones where the most part of the locations and tourist paths quoted above is included – are accessible and livable totally peacefully by now. My tip is to avoid to walk in the evening in the suburbs, above all if you don’t have a car.
The most convenient area and the safest one to stay is Downtown Memphis without any doubt, where it is possible to find trusted chain hotels, besides the historic Peabody Memphis Hotel, and from where you can reach alone and in a few minutes on foot the venues in Beale Street.
You can also reckon to stay overnight in Graceland area, little outside Downtown Memphis. Here you can find a series of Elvis Presley theme hotels (several stars and prices). However, reckon that sleeping in this area you’ll have to use the shuttles or car to move by day and necessarily the car to move in the evening towards Beale Street and the neighboring areas.