Memphis is smack dab in the middle of the Southern US — at the very bottom of Missouri just above the Mississippi Delta and alongside the Mississippi River; just east of the flatlands of Arkansas.
It is a heavy music town — where the Delta Blues originated.
I’ve been to Memphis a number of times, in both the heat of summer and the dead of winter, over a period of 20 years. Unlike Nashville, Memphis hasn’t changed much over that period of time — sans the addition of the FedEx Forum downtown, where the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA play, and the addition of AutoZone Park a few blocks away, home of the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA team of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Beale Street is still Beale Street — THE place to go to take in live blues bands since the 1920’s. It hasn’t been ramped up by an order of magnitude like Nashville has the last 15 years. And Elvis Pressley’s home Graceland is still Graceland — an interesting place to visit.
Here are things to do in Memphis:
1. Beale Street for Live Blues
Beale Street in downtown Memphis has been serving up the blues since the 1920’s.
About a dozen bars on Beale Street currently offer live blues of the highest order.
Beale Street on a Thursday night in the dead of winter — January 14, 2024 — was.. relatively dead, especially compared to Nashville. But a ton of fun.
All of downtown Memphis was dead — not many people walking around, a number of homeless people sleeping here and there, and a large police presence.
It is a different scene in the summer; more people — although still not nearly as lively as Nashville is these days. In fact two orders of magnitude less.
When there in January 2024, we stopped into a bar called Rum Boogie and watched the Eric Hughes Band. Terrific blues and at some point an old timer came up onto the stage and sang a number of songs — the kind of thing you get in Memphis and Austin — where other performers stop in and join the band.
Video below of a snippet of Eric Hughes band with special guest singer. Eric Hughes is on the far left of the stage, the lead guitar player is his brother Walter Hughes, with Leo Goff on bass, and Bill C Marshall on drums.
Drummer Bill Mitchell did a solo near the end of the show. Eric Hughes mentioned that Bill spent years with Hank Williams Jr during “the crazy years” and was on 3 albums with Hank that won Grammy’s. Mitchell gives some of his story in this video: Bill Mitchell on youtube.
2. Sun Studios
Sun Studios is a must-see if you are visiting Memphis. The small 2-story brick building was the headquarters of one of the most important and influential recording companies of the rock and roll era — launching the careers of Elvis Pressley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, BB King, Roy Orbison and many others. It is called The Birthplace of Rock and Roll.
Sam Phillips founded Sun Studios amidst much competition from many other burgeoning recording companies in the early 1950’s. Sun Studios became known as a place that would record anybody who came in off the street. It catered to local musicians.
Elvis Pressley walked in the door and recorded a song for his mother in 1954 and the rest is history. Later, the story goes that Johnny Cash continuously peppered Sam Phillips for an audition/meeting by standing in front of the building and waiting until Sam showed up. Cash finally got Phillips to agree to a recording session that Phillips attended. Cash started off by singing a gospel song that Phillips rejected — telling Cash to sing a song he’d sing if he was lying in the gutter about to die. Cash sang a song he wrote while in the Air Force in Germany, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and the rest is history.
You can stand in front of Sun Studios on the sidewalk like Johnny Cash did, or go inside and have a coffee and/or buy something from their store, or take the tour — which is $20 per person and takes 45 minutes.
Graceland is the mansion where Elvis Pressley lived. He is buried there, as are his parents, his grandmother on his father’s side, his daughter, and his grandson.
Graceland is 10 minutes’ drive south of Memphis. It is a 2-story mansion built in Colonial Revival style and sits on a hill amongst rolling pastures and a grove of oak trees.
4. The Peabody Hotel
The Peabody Hotel is Memphis’ landmark hotel with an elegant lobby that it is worth walking through. For kicks you can view the Peabody Ducks (see below).
The hotel building is of Italian Renaissance design and was built in 1923. It replaced an original Peabody Hotel that was a few blocks away.
The original Peabody Hotel was built in 1869 and had many notable guests such as Presidents William McKinley and Andrew Johnson, and Confederate generals Robert E Lee and William Bedford Forrest. Former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis took up residence in the old hotel in 1870 when he became president of a local insurance company.
The current Peabody Hotel does not have that rich of a past — its history is actually filled with bankruptcies as Memphis the city fell on hard times from the 1950s thru the 1970s. The hotel was closed due to bankruptcy in 1965, in 1973, and again in 1975.
Jack A. Belz poured $25 Million of renovations into the hotel and reopened it amidst fanfare in 1981. It is said that was a turning point for not only the Peabody Hotel but the city of Memphis itself.
The Peabody Ducks are the hotel’s main attraction. Back in the 1930’s a General Manager of the hotel came back from a hunting trip to Alabama with his buddies and they thought it would be funny to put their calling ducks in the hotel fountain in the lobby. Everyone else thought it was funny and it became a tradition.
Today, you can watch at 11 am each morning as the ducks march from their rooftop home across a red carpet in the lobby to the hotel fountain, where they spend the day swimming. Later in the day at 5pm, they march back to their rooftop “Royal Duck Palace.”
When we were there in January 2024 the fountain was covered as the area was being cleaned (see picture above). Below is a public picture of the ducks.
5. Touch the Mighty Mississippi River
You can touch the Mississippi River at the Mud Island River Park, which you can get to from downtown Memphis by walking over the pedestrian Skybridge, accessed from the public parking lot at Front Street and Poplar Avenue. You can drive to the island by taking A.W. Willis Avenue to Island Drive. The park is free to enter.
From the 52-acre park you can get views of the Memphis skyline and dip your fingers in the Mississippi River. You can bring your own food and drinks, but alcoholic beverages are not permitted in the park.
The park also features a 50-foot “Memphis” sign and the “Riverwalk” — a scale replica of the Lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans.
6. Watch the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum
The FedExForum opened in 2004. It is owned by the city of Memphis with naming rights sold to FedEx, one of the biggest employers of Memphis.
It is home of the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team of the NBA and the University of Memphis college basketball team.
The FedExForum also hosts concerts and other events such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) events and pro Wrestling.
7. Watch a AAA Minor League Game — Memphis Redbirds
AutoZone Park opened in 2000 and cost $80 Million to build — then a record for a minor league park. It is home to the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA team of the St Louis Cardinals, playing in the International League.
It is a gorgeous stadium smack down in the heart of downtown Memphis. There are no outfield seats — as it is squished between two city blocks.
8. Guitar Shops
If you are watching blues on Beale Street and play the guitar at all, or get an urge to learn to play the guitar, you might want to pop into a local guitar shop of note.
This is the number-1 rated local Guitar shop. It is located at 1659 Poplar Ave, in the Center City Shopping Center — a 10 minute drive from downtown near the Memphis Zoo.
Memphis has one Guitar Center — 10 minutes drive from downtown in the Northeastern part of the city; it’s address is 8000 US Route 64 in an area called Bartlett.
Other Guitar Shops
Other guitar shops of note are Blues City Music, rEvolve Guitars and Music Shop, and Lane Guitars.
9. Visit the Civil Rights Museum
The Civil Rights Museum is housed in the old Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
But who REALLY assassinated Martin Luther King Jr?
Who REALLY assassinated Malcolm X?
Who REALLY segregated African Americans and turned primarily black cities like Chicago, Detroit, St Louis, etc into slums?
Bear those questions in mind when you visit the Civil Rights Museum, which may or may not present the real answers.
To note: Martin Luther King Jr’s niece and family are huge supporters of Donald Trump. They know his side didn’t do any of the above.
10. Memphis Zoo
Memphis has a large zoo. If you are from a small town which doesn’t have a zoo, visiting Memphis’ zoo may interest you. Being from NYC, where I’ve been to the Bronx Zoo and also the Staten Island Zoo (biggest rattlesnake collection in the world) many times, and the Manhattan Zoo (in Central Park) — going to a zoo doesn’t interest me when I’m on the road so I didn’t visit the Memphis Zoo. But it is supposed to be good.
11. Where to Eat
When in Memphis you must eat Barbeque or southern fish dishes you cannot readily get elsewhere like Crawfish Etouffee.
Flying Fish is a restaurant in downtown Memphis across the street from the Peabody Hotel that gets great reviews online. We stopped in and it was terrific.
You order up front and then get your food when it is ready. The fried Calamari was pretty good — we are connoisseurs of Fried Calamari being from Staten Island.
Flying Fish didn’t have Crawfish Etouffee but they did have Crawfish Gumbo with Frog Legs and Alligator bits and that was my meal. The Alligator bits are on the left in the picture below.
Memphis calls itself the Barbecue Capital of the World. The most prestigious barbecue contest in the world is held each year in Memphis in the middle of May in Liberty Park: the World Championship Barbecue Contest.
There are a number of recommended Barbecue places in Memphis in online guides — but since we were only there one night in January 2024, we didn’t have chance to try them. Consult online reviews but here is a list:
- Rendezvous — located downtown a block from Peabody Hotel down an alley — you’d never know this was the most famous BBQ place in Memphis, serving BBQ since 1948. In fact I took a picture of it and had no idea until researching after the fact that I had taken a picture of the famous Rendezvous. Renowned for its dry-rubbed ribs, a technique that is said to set it apart from other BBQ places. People who are into BBQ are said to make pilgrimages to Rendezvous. The walls are adorned with memorabilia from the restaurant’s past.
- Central BBQ — there are several Central BBQ locations, including one downtown. Central BBQ emphasizes slow smoking its meats over a combination of charcoal and wood — giving its meats a distinctly smoky flavor. Central is known for its pulled pork sandwich.
- Corky’s BBQ — Corky’s has been voted #1 BBQ place in Memphis 22 of the last 30 years, since it opened 30 years ago. There are multiple locations throughout Tennessee.
- Elwood’s Shack
- 3 Little Pigs
- On and on — if you know of a good BBQ place in Memphis, let us know via the Comments below and we’ll post.
12. Where to Stay
You can find recommended places to stay on Expedia or other travel sites. We stayed in La Quinta hotel in downtown Memphis. The La Quinta in downtown Memphis is an excellent hotel — very modern with beautiful lobby — at a modest price that allows dogs — a must for us as we were traveling with our 2 Shibas.
The La Quinta is a few blocks walk to Beale Street. Excellent location.
La Quinta offers an excellent free breakfast which reduces the real cost of the room even more. In their lobby they have huge wall photos of downtown Memphis; very nice.