One City, Three Ways: Memphis, Tennessee

The culturally rich ”Home of the Blues” offers history buffs, pop culture junkies, and music lovers much to savor
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Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee

Photo via Bigstock

Over the last half century, Memphis has been marked by highs and lows, from its musical heyday of the ’60s and ’70s, when artists including Elvis Presley and Ike and Tina Turner rocked the world, to the heartbreaking assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggles of that era. Today, the city strikes a balance between celebrating its rich cultural identity and honoring its sobering history.

Live music floods out of glowing Beale Street clubs, world-class museums tell the city’s stories, and murals and statues all around town pay homage to Memphis greats. Years of revitalization efforts have driven a cultural rebirth visitors will enjoy whether they’re there for the barbecue, the blues, or the King of Rock and Roll.

HISTORY BUFF

STAY
Sleep in a 1914 train terminal at Central Station Memphis, a 123-room hotel that still serves as an active station. The decor is fresh and modern, but the hotel’s past shines through with original elements such as neon signs in the cocktail lounge, railroad buffer stops in the entryway, and the departure board in the ballroom.

The Central Station Hotel still serves as an active station

Photo by Sean Fisher

REFLECT
Carve out several hours to explore an immersive timeline of the civil rights movement—from the Middle Passage to the present day—at the National Civil Rights Museum at the historic Lorraine Motel. Sound effects and full-scale replicas place you right in the center of the Montgomery bus boycott and at the motel on the day of Dr. King’s death.

The National Civil Rights Museum traces the timeline of the civil rights movement

Photo courtesy of Memphis Travel

DEVOUR
Open since 1919 and now in its fourth generation of family ownership, Arcade is the oldest restaurant in Memphis known to be a favorite of Elvis’s. Eat like the King and order a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, or opt for classic diner cheeseburgers and milkshakes (several of which come boozy).

The fried peanut butter sandwich, one of Arcade’s specialties

Photo courtesy of Arcade

BROWSE
New and used books line the shelves at Burke’s Book Store, open since 1875. First editions and signed copies, including a $750 signed copy of famous Memphis painter Carroll Cloar’s Hostile Butterflies, make up some of the shop’s rare offerings. Don’t miss the ever-growing photo wall of the many dog visitors over the years.

TOAST
Grab a cheap beer at Earnestine & Hazel’s, a haunted dive bar with previous incarnations as a 1930s pharmacy, salon, brothel, and then a cafe frequented by music legends Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Today, the late-night joint is known for its back-to-basics Soul Burgers as well as the upstairs bartender, Mr. Nate, who’s been shaking cocktails for 30 years.

Interior of Earnestine & Hazel’s

Photo by Alex Shansky

POP CULTURE JUNKIE

DELIGHT
Each day at 11 a.m., the Peabody Hotel ducks ride the elevator from their penthouse down to the lobby, where curious onlookers line the red carpet awaiting their arrival. After a day splashing in the lobby fountain, the beloved mallards waddle back home at 5 p.m. on the dot with the help of the official Duckmaster.

The hotel’s famous mallards waddle back to their penthouse at 5 p.m.

Photo courtesy of The Peabody Memphis

GET ALL SHOOK UP
Experience all things Elvis Presley at Graceland, a 200,000-square-foot wonderland. Tour his perfectly preserved mansion (including the kitsched-out Jungle Room and his personal racquetball court), and spend a few hours examining the museum’s jaw-dropping exhibits, including ones highlighting his bedazzled wardrobe and extravagant car collection.

An entire exhibit at Graceland highlights Elvis’ bedazzled wardrobe

Photo courtesy of Memphis Travel

ASCEND
Ride the country’s tallest freestanding elevator to the top of the iconic Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, a former events arena turned megastore that also houses a bowling alley, hotel, 10 aquariums, a cypress swamp with 100-foot-tall trees and live alligators, and several restaurants (including one at the top with 360-degree downtown views).

The iconic Bass Pro Shops Pyramid houses the country’s tallest free-standing elevator

Photo courtesy of Memphis Travel

DINE IN STYLE
Located in Priscilla Presley’s former curl-and-dye spot, the Beauty Shop offers sandwiches, salads, and their own spins on other deli staples, such as the Reuben sandwich–inspired Oy Vey Fries. Enjoy your meal beneath a vintage hooded Belvedere hair dryer amid fun retro decor.

HAVE A BALL
Memphis is a basketball city, so make like a local and catch a Grizzlies game at FedExForum, aka the “Grindhouse.” The state’s only NBA team brings an infectious energy to the city during basketball season (October to April)—so pack some blue and gold.

MUSIC LOVER

GET THE BLUES
Hit the high notes of Memphis’s famous music scene at the Blues Hall of Fame Museum. Take a self-guided tour and admire the shimmering costumes of Koko Taylor and Denise LaSalle, handwritten Willie Dixon lyrics, Muddy Waters’s tour jacket, and a guitar signed by blues greats, including B.B. King.

ADMIRE
Stand in the place where the “Million Dollar Quartet”—Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins—held their legendary 1956 jam sesh during a guided tour at Sun Studios. The studio known as the birthplace of rock and roll hosts nightly recording sessions to this day.

Sun Studios, the birthplace of rock and roll

Photo courtesy of Memphis Travel

PAY TRIBUTE
From the rough wood pews of an old Mississippi Delta church to the gold-trimmed grill of Isaac Hayes’s Cadillac, the Stax Museum chronicles the rise of American soul music at the original location of Stax Records, which launched the careers of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and other greats.

The original Stax Records location

Photo courtesy of Memphis Travel

TUNE IN
A Smithsonian affiliate, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum walks through the city’s complete music history, starting with the porch music of 1930s sharecroppers and leading up to Memphis’s global cultural impact today. Check out Ike Turner’s first piano and the original lyrics to Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” while using the museum’s curated playlist of Memphis stars as your tour soundtrack.

GROOVE
Beale Street’s nightlife is not to be missed. Take in the glowing neon signs and bluesy tunes floating from the juke joints as you walk the historic strip, drink in hand. Be sure to stop in for live music at B.B. King’s Blues Club, Rum Boogie Cafe, and Silky O’Sullivan’s (don’t miss the goats).

Goats wander the property at Silky O’Sullivan’s

Photo via Flickr

This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Southbound.

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