If you want to get into a war of words, get into the Nashville vs. Memphis debate. They have very different atmospheres for visitors and are set on opposite sides of the state. Both Tennessee cities played an important role in American music and are located on a large river. Both destinations are also known for their cuisines, notably dishes like ribs and hot chicken.
If you only have time for one, we’ll help you determine which one is right for you. But to be honest, we think you should see both! Decide for yourself which city is better by traveling the three hours between them by renting a car or fly between them.
When it comes to the traditional arts, Memphis has a number of art museums including the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Metal Museum, and the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art. Nashville’s Frist Museum of Art is also well regarded with impressive touring exhibits.
Both cities also boast colorful murals and street art. Nashville in particular has dozens of murals in just about every neighborhood. They’re especially popular as backgrounds for photos. Both also excel in the performing arts, with venues for music, dance, and theater. Beale Street and Broadway are also known for their live music venues.
Both cities have incredible art, both in traditional settings and on the streets.
Because of their music ties, both Nashville and Memphis have music-related attractions. In Nashville, visitors can tour the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the National Museum of African-American Music. In Memphis, you can tour Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, Sun Studio, and the Stax Museum.
But both also have other things to see. Memphis has the important National Civil Rights Museum, set on the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Visitors can learn about the history of the area at the Tennessee State Museum or tour The Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson.
We’ll call this one a tie because both cities have plenty of attractions to see.
Nashville and Memphis are both located near major highways, making day trips a breeze. If you’re staying in Nashville, visit the many nearby historic towns, including Franklin, Columbia, and Lynchburg. Bowling Green and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky are also accessible within a few hours’ drive.
From Memphis, enter the Mississippi Blues Trail by traveling south through Tunica, Clarksdale, and Cleveland. Or head to Tupelo to visit the birthplace of Elvis Presley and a stop along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Little Rock, Arkansas is also an easy day trip.
We’ll give it to Nashville for the abundance of nearby charming towns. But if you want to visit the homes of Elvis and the blues, Memphis is a better place to stay.
Drinking and Nightlife
While Nashville’s rowdy bachelorette party crowd is well known, both cities have plenty of nightlife. For the honky-tonks and rooftop bars with views of the city skyline, Nashville is your best bet. The George Jones, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar, and White Limozeen are just a few of the many options.
Memphis has the market cornered on dive bars including favorites like Earnestine and Hazel’s, Hernando’s Hideaway, and Raiford’s Disco. Both cities also have craft breweries like Nashville’s Yazoo and Bearded Iris and Memphis’ Wiseacre and Ghost River.
This one is really a matter of preference. Personally, I love a dive bar, so I side with Memphis, but it’s up to you.
Nashville may get much of the culinary acclaim, but don’t let Memphis fool you. The Bluff City has its fair share of incredible restaurants. Both with claim celeb chefs and international eateries, not to mention both white tablecloth fine dining spots and old school joints.
In Nashville, see and be seen at Jonathan Waxman’s Adele’s, Sean Brock’s Husk, and Maneet Chauhan’s Chauhan Ale & Masala House. But don’t forget classic spots like Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Loveless Cafe, and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
Memphis is home to Kelly English’s culinary empire, including The Second Line, the namesake family’s Neely’s Barbecue, and chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s Hog & Hominy. Or enjoy authentic Memphis ribs at Corky’s Ribs & BBQ or Elvis’ favorite sandwich at The Arcade Restaurant.
I know many people would say Nashville, but I’ve had incredible food in both cities.
What about green spaces? Nashville is rapidly expanding, but there are a handful of spots to wander. Centennial Park, which includes the Parthenon, is one of the best parks in the city, boasting 132 acres near the Vanderbilt campus. Percy Warner Park is another, sprawling across 3,100 acres.
Fannie Mae Dees Park, nicknamed “Dragon Park,” and 55-acre Cheekwood Gardens are other favorite Nashville parks, especially with families. Located just 3 miles from downtown Nashville along the Cumberland River, the Shelby Bottoms Greenway is another welcome escape.
But Memphis also has some places to spread out. The 100-acre Memphis Botanic Garden was established in 1947 in Overton Park. It has features like a Japanese Garden, an azalea trail, and a daffodil hill, which are popular with families. Explore the 300-acres of Overton Park with its trails, two museums, a zoo, a golf course, and a historic amphitheater.
Shelby Farms Park boasts 4,500 acres, making it one of the largest in the country, five times larger than Central Park. It has playgrounds and trails. T.O. Fuller State Park is another, set on 1,000 acres built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
You don’t have to go far to see Tom Lee Park. The 30-acre park on the banks of the Mississippi River overlooks the border with Arkansas and was named for an African-American man that saved over 30 from a sinking steamboat in 1925.
For the size of parks alone, this category goes to Memphis.
Hotels and Accommodation
It matters where you stay! Both Nashville and Memphis are seeing a boom in boutique hotels, which is our option of choice. In Nashville, you can’t cross a street without seeing a new one.
But Memphis has its own train station restaurant, The Central Station Memphis. See the ducks that live on the roof of the Peabody Hotel or enjoy rooms inspired by Elvis Presley’s home at the Guest House at Graceland.
Both cities also have plenty of Airbnb properties if you’d rather stay in a private home. Memphis also has nearby campgrounds if you’re traveling with a tent or RV.
Nashville wins for the higher number of hotels, but Memphis gets the win for the affordability of rooms.
Neither city is known for its efficient public transportation and neither are extensively used by visitors. Instead, many rely on ridesharing apps. But there are options if you’re not traveling with a car.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) operates buses and the streetcar. The trolley runs in three lines through downtown, including stops at the Amtrak stop. The buses cover dozens of routes to reach every part of town, including the airport. Fares are under $2 and exact change is required.
Nashville also has public transportation, but it’s limited to buses. There is a free shuttle around Music Row that visits the tourist hotspots. The city bus goes to Hillsboro, 12 South, the airport, and even neighboring Franklin. Visit the Nashville MTA website for details.
While both cities have options, I wouldn’t say that either city wins for public transportation.
Nashville has some incredible shopping, especially in the Hillsboro Village, 12 South, and Broadway areas. Browse for dresses at Draper James, owned by Reese Witherspoon, or records at Third Man, owned by Jack White. And that doesn’t even include all of the other boutiques.
Memphis has shops in pockets of the city including Crosstown Concourse. Here you can find a local wine shop and outposts selling goods like Mo’s Bows. In Cooper-Young, check out vintage stores like Flashback and FOX+CATVINTAGE.
We’ve got to give this one to Nashville. Where else can you get prints from concerts, vintage Levi’s jeans, and freshly pressed records?
The song may be “Walking in Memphis,” but both cities have walkable pockets. In Memphis, neighborhoods like downtown, Beale Street, and Cooper-Young are easy to get around by foot. In Nashville, it’s the Gulch, Broadway, 12 South, and Hillsboro Village.
Both cities have areas where you can mostly walk but getting between them is difficult by foot. It’s a tie!
At the end of the day, Memphis and Nashville tie in the important areas. No matter which city you decide to visit, you’re sure to enjoy yourself.
Do you prefer Memphis or Nashville? Let us know in the comments!