In 2017, Nashville surpassed Memphis (for the first time since 1890) as the biggest city in Tennessee and lately Nashville has been all anyone can talk about. But while Nashville has many charms, Memphis is finally getting its buzz back. And it’s all warranted. While oft-overshadowed, Memphis has a quirky food scene, a rich visual arts tradition, plus famous blues music, civil rights history and, of course, Elvis. This year Memphis celebrates its bicentennial—imagine 200 years of attractions worth checking out—so we pulled together some of the tried-and-true classics as well as a few new and off-the-radar discoveries to help you see a little bit of everything in Bluff City.
Civil Rights History
From music to agriculture to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—African-American history is part of Memphis’s cultural fiber, particularly the struggle for Civil Rights.
Classic: Located in the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot, the National Civil Rights Museum covers that event in detail, as well as many other significant events in American civil rights history. While many of those activities took place in Memphis, this truly is a national museum.
New find: In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, a monument to the strikers and their civil rights fight, was unveiled next to Clayborn Temple. The I Am A Man Plaza is located at the spot that was one of the meeting points for the striking workers and is a meaningful site to visit.
If you’re hearing it in Memphis, it’s probably blues.
Classic: Since the 1840s Beale Street has been a fixture, in one way or another, in Memphis. Today this pedestrian-only strip is lined with clubs playing the iconic music that was born here. You can’t go wrong anywhere, but Rum Boogie Café and Blues City Café are good choices for getting started with some toe-tapping.
New find: Minglewood Blues are referred to in a 1928 song…so Minglewood Hall isn’t exactly new. But the venue with rich tradition has a new life as a live music hall where musicians play blues, as well as a good cross-section of other genres. Note that Minglewood Hall tends to have more locals and fewer tourists in the audience than Beale Street.
Thanks in part to graduates of the Memphis College of Art who stick around town, Bluff City has had a long tradition of visual arts, with lots of museums, galleries and creative projects.
Classic: Nestled in Overton Park, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is the largest fine arts museum in the state, with collections ranging from ancient to contemporary. The Brooks Outside project places mural versions around town of many of the pieces in the collection, so you may see oversized versions of great art all over town and again inside the museum.
New find: A former Sears, Roebuck & Co distribution center is now home to restaurants, studio space, apartments and art galleries, much of which operates under the Crosstown Arts umbrella. Stop by to see artists at work and an ever-changing display of exhibitions. If you prefer your art in boutiques, stroll up and down the Broad Avenue Arts District and take a class at the Five-in-One-Social Club. Both spots have great shopping if you want to take home something to remember your trip.
All About Elvis
Elvis Presley, the man, may have passed away in 1977. But Elvis Presley the legend lives on, and there’s hardly a thing in the city of Memphis that doesn’t have a connection to the King, from his favorite places to eat to his favorite places to shop.
Classic: If you’re a mega fan, you obviously need to head Graceland, once Elvis’ home and now the site of his house, airplane, many cars, clothing and all the memorabilia you can imagine. You can leave your signature on the wall outside the mansion, just bring your own Sharpie.
New find: Many (many, many) things claim to have been Elvis’s favorite. But one of the horses of the fully restored Grand Carousel is one of the most charming. This 1909 merry-go-round spent decades at the Fairgrounds and then at the old Libertyland amusement park (of which Elvis was a fan) but after the park closed, the carousel sat in storage. Now it has been brought back to life at the Children’s Museum of Memphis. Its renovation includes modifications to make it handicap accessible.
Where to Dine
If you’re coming to Memphis, come hungry. This is a city that likes to eat.
Classic: If there’s one food for which Memphis is known, its barbecue…although barbecue isn’t just one kind of food. There are pork ribs and pulled pork and chicken wings and more. Memphis ‘cue sauce is thin and both vinegary and sweet, typically made with tomato and molasses. You need to try it when in town: Central BBQ and Cozy Corner are two favorites.
New find: Of course, one cannot live on barbecue alone…nor does one need to in Memphis. Start with a fresh breakfast and locally brewed coffee at Edge Alley, which connects to High Cotton Brewing Co., should you want a beer later in the day. Don’t let the name The Liquor Store fool you. This restaurant serves drinks, but also delicious Cuban-influenced dishes. Don’t skip desserts, such as tres leches cake and homemade Pop-Tarts. Dessert and quality hot chocolate are the name of the game at Midtown’s 17 Berkshire.
Where to Stay
Classic: On the banks of the Mississippi River, River Inn of Harbor Town is a little oasis just a few minutes from downtown. Each floor in this inn has a separate library where you can sit and read while sipping coffee or a glass of wine, helpfully provided by the attentive staff.
New find: If you’d rather stay in the heart of the action, there are several good renovated options, including the mid-century feel of Hu. Hotel, with its views of the Mississippi River, and Hotel Napoleon, which is right next to AutoZone Park, where the Memphis Redbirds play baseball.
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