Memphis, Tennessee is one of the country’s most well known destination for music, fostering acts like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and B.B. King. It’s the largest city on the Mississippi River and has the best dry rub ribs anywhere. Memphis was also an important location to the Civil Rights Movement and where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot at the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum. It was here that he gave his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech only a day before. Today, Memphis in May is the city’s top event, including the famous Beale Street Music Festival.
What to Do
Peabody Ducks– Children and the young at heart will appreciate the daily appearance of the Peabody Ducks. The tradition started as a practical joke in the 1930s that has become the hotel’s trademark. The ducks come down in their own elevator daily at 11 am and 5 pm, led by the Duckmaster and escorted into the fountain in the lobby. 149 Union Avenue
Graceland– Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley, has truly unique decorating style. Check out the famous “Jungle Room” as well as his recording studio and collection of cars and jets, narrated on the iPad tour by John Stamos. 3717 Elvis Presley Boulevard
National Civil Rights Museum– Even if you don’t visit the Civil Rights Museum, you can see the facade of the Lorraine Motel as it looked in 1968 where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot from the second-floor balcony. A wreath hangs in remembrance. 450 Mulberry Street
Beale Street– Beale Street is often likened to Memphis’ Bourbon Street, as it’s lined with bars and music venues and allows you to carry open containers of alcohol on the street. Stop by any one of the clubs to hear authentic Memphis blues. Beale Street
Stax Museum of American Soul Music– This former recording studio is where countless legends were made, including songs by Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, and Booker T and the MGs. Explore this interactive museum and listen to the music that was made here. 926 East McLemore Avenue
Sun Studio– Considered to be the birthplace of rock and roll, Sam Phillips fostered the careers of names like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at this humble recording studio. Tour the space where they played, which still serves as a place to make music. 706 Union Avenue
Other Attractions- The Memphis Rock n Soul Museum, Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are must-sees for music fans. The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art and the Brooks Museum of Art feature timeless works. Walk or take the monorail across to Mud Island River Park. You can purchase local brew Ghost River from their brewery and tailgate for a Grizzlies basketball game.
Tours– Backbeat Tours and Rockabilly Tours are just two of the operators that cover the music and general history of Memphis.
Where to Eat
Flying Fish– Judging by the dozens of Billy Bass nailed to the wall, the specialty of this restaurant is fish. Their fried catfish and po boys are an affordable alternative to some of the overpriced fare closer to Beale Street. 105 S. 2nd Street, (901) 552-8228
Corky’s Ribs & BBQ– Dry rub ribs are one of Memphis’ most famous dishes and while there is a debate about the best place to get them, my favorite is Corky’s. In addition to ribs, you can get barbecue sandwiches and all the fixings, like macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. 5259 Poplar Avenue, (901) 685-9744
Central BBQ– I asked a local where she eats ribs and barbecue and she directed me to Central, where locals had already formed a line at 5:45 pm. The wait is worth it, especially for the platter, which has ribs, pulled pork and brisket with sides. 147 East Butler Avenue, (901) 672-7760
Global Cafe at Crosstown Concourse– This former Sears building has a number of eateries, but this refugee-owned food court of sorts features cuisines from Nepal, Syria, and Sudan. They also have a bar. 1350 Concourse Avenue #157, (901) 512-6890
Earnestine and Hazel’s– This juke joint and former brothel is reportedly haunted, but what it’s really known for its the Soul Burger. The hamburger comes topped with onions, cheese, pickles, and “soul sauce.” 531 South Main Street, (901) 523-9754
The Beauty Shop– Named for the former beauty shop it inhabits, it still retains its 1950s decor. The menu includes dishes like pork chops with pickled peaches and bacon-wrapped steak frites. They’re open for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. 966 Cooper Street, (901) 272-7111
The Second Line– For a taste of Louisiana in the Bluff City, look no further than this restaurant, named for the famous New Orleans parades. Menu highlights include barbecue shrimp, po boys, and Mississippi catfish, prepared a variety of ways. Don’t miss live music on their patio. 2144 Monroe Avenue, (901) 590-2829
The Arcade Restaurant– Said to be a favorite of Elvis, Memphis’ oldest restaurant opened in 1919 by a Greek immigrant. Stop by for breakfast of sweet potato pancakes and beignets or a catfish sandwich for lunch. 540 South Main Street, (901) 526 – 5757
Restaurant Iris– Another one of Kelly English’s restaurants, Iris has creative cuisine like beer battered halloumi, local mushroom couscous risotto, and a Greek-inspired braised short rib. 2146 Monroe Avenue, (901) 590-2828
Hog & Hominy– This popular restaurant combines flavors from the South and Italy. They serve wood-fired pizzas as well as pasta dishes like biscuit gnocchi and their own take on Canadian poutine. 707 West Brookhaven Circle, (901) 207-7396
Where to Stay
Crowne Plaza– Located near St. Jude’s Research Hospital, this hotel is within walking distance of Beale Street and the other attractions. There are stylish guest rooms as well as a fitness center, complimentary parking, swimming pool, and an area shuttle. 300 North 2nd Street
Peabody Hotel– The timeless property is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and namesake to the famous Peabody Ducks. Don’t miss the exhibits on the hotel’s history and the rooftop. Rooms are comfortable and spacious. 118 South 2nd Street
Guest House at Graceland– This hotel features Elvis-inspired touches as well as nightly movies, live music, and a shuttle to Beale Street and Graceland. There’s also a swimming pool and two onsite restaurants. 3600 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Hotel Indigo– Located in the heart of downtown, there are king and queen rooms midcentury-inspired decor. Guests also have access to the swimming pool, fitness center, and WiFi. Parking is available for an additional fee. 22 North B.B. King Boulevard
Hu Hotel– This gorgeous boutique hotel features free WiFi, a business center, a fitness center, and restaurants, including a coffee shop and a rooftop bar. They have king, queen, and double rooms and suites with modern furnishings. 79 Madison Avenue
Hotel Napoleon– Only five minutes from Beale Street, this historic property features cozy bathrobes, flat screen televisions, and a la carte breakfast. There are king and queen bedrooms as well as a fitness center. 179 Madison Avenue
Graceland RV Park and Campground– This campsite is the most convenient to Graceland, right next door, and downtown Memphis. There are full hookup RV sites, tent sites, and cabins. There’s a bathhouse, free WiFi, a swimming pool, and a store. 3691 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Hostel Memphis– Budget travelers can spend the night at this hostel in the trendy Cooper-Young neighborhood. There are private rooms and both coed and single gender dorms. Breakfast, linens, and WiFi are included and there’s also a guest kitchen. 1000 Cooper Street (at First Congregational Church)
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Interstates 55 and 40 access the city and I-240 runs the perimeter of Memphis, which is located 3 hours from Nashville and 6 hours from Atlanta. Memphis International Airport services flights from all over the United States, mostly via American Airlines, Delta and United.
Memphis is also accessible via rail on Amtrak, which arrives at Central Station a few blocks south of Beale Street. The city is on the City of New Orleans route that runs between Chicago and New Orleans. Megabus and Greyhound have stops here as well at the MATA North End Terminal building and Memphis Bus Station, respectively.
Much of the downtown area of Memphis is pedestrian friendly, particularly Beale Street, which isn’t open to cars most days, allowing visitors to walk, with drinks in hand, from bar to bar. “Walking in Memphis” is much more than a catchy song.
There are no city bike rentals in Memphis like in some other cities, but you can rent independently through Peddler Bike Shop for around $35 per day. This map shows the city’s best biking and walking paths by neighborhood, most of which are in the suburbs.
As with many old Southern cities, parking can be hard to come by. If you’re staying at a hotel that has its own parking, it’s best to leave your car there and walk or take the bus to other locations. You won’t need a car for most places in Memphis, as you can take a shuttle to attractions like Graceland.
If you don’t have a car while visiting Memphis but don’t want to take public transportation, or need a ride home from Beale Street at night, take advantage of the city’s taxi services. Yellow Cab is the most popular choice, but ride sharing services Uber and Lyft also have a presence in the city.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) operates buses and the streetcar. The trolley runs in three lines through downtown, including stops at the North End Terminal Megabus stop, Central Station Amtrak stop and Cleveland Station at the Medical Center. One-way trips are $1.00 per section, with day and week passes available. The buses cover dozens of routes to reach every part of town, including the airport. Bus fares start at $1.75 and only accept exact change.