Thanks to a collective grassroots effort, Memphis has modernised beyond recognition over the past decade or so – but a century of tumultuous history still oozes from its pores. The faded shopfronts and once-derelict warehouses of downtown now house swish design agencies, art galleries and loft apartments, just a few streets inland from the river landing where steamboats were once piled high with cotton to be exported down the Mississippi and beyond. New parks and bike trails spearhead the city’s green ambitions, and the dining scene is ever more slick and sustainable. But the major tourist draws are unquestionably still rooted in the twentieth century: the blues, Elvis and Graceland, and the Civil Rights movement to name but a few. Discover the best of Memphis in our beginner’s guide…
If you’re a music fan, there are few places in the USA as meaningful as Memphis. The birthplace of the blues it may be, but River City’s musical heritage runs the full gamut of American music from rock n’ roll and soul to gospel and rockabilly. But the blues came first, and everything else followed – so don’t miss an opportunity to catch a session or two while you’re in town.
Known as the ‘home of the blues’, Beale Street is the first stop for most tourists: more than 25 clubs line its sidewalks, including the nation’s first B.B King’s Blues Club, and the ever popular Rum Boogie Cafe and Mr Handy’s Blues Hall next door. But locals might advise real blues aficionados to skip Beale Street altogether, and head to a juke joint like Wild Bill’s or consider a tour of the best Memphis blues bars in a 1955 Cadillac with legendary Memphis tour guide Tad Pierson.
Want to pay homage to the King? See where Elvis was first discovered on a tour of Sam Phillip’s Sun Studio, and of course – no trip to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland; the shag-carpeted, gloriously kitsch colonial-style mansion that was home to the Presley family in the 1970s. You can see the house itself in a couple of hours, but genuine fans will also want to check out his incredible stage outfits, insane collection of cars and other vehicles, plus his two private jets and various other exhibits. Over the top it all may be, but it’s also an enlightening and even moving experience at times, with an excellent audio guide featuring insight and memories from Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie.
One of the best museums in Memphis is the small but uplifting Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the former site of Stax Records; Memphis’s gutsier, grittier answer to Motown. The story of Stax is a fascinating one, from its beginnings as a tiny record store in Soulsville USA to its place as one of the most revered recording studios in the world, launching the careers of soul superstars like Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s and Isaac Hayes, whose revolving peacock blue 1972 Superfly Cadillac – complete with gold trim, a TV and a fridge – is the museum’s star attraction.
They say music and meat are Memphis’s biggest draws – the birthplace of blues is also the undisputed BBQ capital of the States. Constantly evolving, but always with one eye on history and tradition, Memphis is an essential stop for foodies in search of authentic Southern comfort food. Try one of Corky’s three locations for slow cooked Southern-style pulled pork, ribs and hickory smoked turkey; the multi award-winning Central BBQ (locations across the city) for smoked hot wings and rubbed beef brisket; or Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous downtown, for meat that’s charcoal grilled, not smoked.
If Southern-style seafood is more your bag, head to downtown diner Flying Fish for enormous plates of shrimp, fried catfish, gumbo and grits, or a po’boy with hushpuppies and fries. Or get up early for a country fried steak breakfast at the deeply atmospheric Arcade Restaurant, the oldest diner in town. If you’re in the mood for something more contemporary, also in the South Main Historic District is modern Italian Spindini or Memphis’s first gastropub South of Beale.
Memphis will forever be associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s is brought to life superbly at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where King was allegedly shot by James Earl Ray in 1968. The museum presents the lead up to King’s assassination, and examines all the major events of this turbulent period in a contextual timeline, with exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington among others. The Lorraine Motel itself is undergoing renovations and will re-open on 1 March 2014, though all other parts of the museum are open.
- Travelling with kids? Don’t miss the five Peabody ducks who come down in the lift for their twice-daily red carpet march through the lobby of the grand Peabody Hotel every morning and afternoon, heading back to their rooftop home after a quick splash in the fountain.
- Take a leisurely cruise a few miles up and down the Mississippi on an authentic paddlesteamer. 90 minute sightseeing and evening dinner cruises are available.
- See how the world’s most famous guitars are made on the 45 minute tour of the Gibson Guitar factory at the Gibson Beale Street Showcase.
- Pay a visit to Mud Island and visit the Mississippi River Museum or stroll the Riverwalk’s exact replica of the Lower Mississippi.
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Have you been to Memphis? What are your favourite things to do in the city?