Of course I’m writing as a tourist here – and these are impressions after my first short visit to the city. As with any new destination, especially when just visiting for a short while, all you can hope for is a peak at the main attractions and to come away with a sense of the place.
There’s certainly plenty to do and see. While music runs through its veins, its not the only reason to pay the city a visit and history buffs will also have a great time. If you live in the US then Memphis should certainly be on your list for a busy weekend break. On the other hand, if you are planning a road trip, then Memphis would make a great finale for your itinerary.
I don’t think you can actually come to Memphis and not visit Graceland. For many it is a pilgrimage but you don’t have to be a huge Elvis fan to enjoy the spectacle and anyway, everyone will ask you about it when you get home so its just easier to go – no matter how cool you think you are!!
Located about 16km from downtown, the complex is huge with the house on one side of Elvis Presley Boulevard and the rest of the attractions across the road. Tours start over at the Plaza and, armed with iPad and headphones, everyone is shuttled across to the house in minibuses.
The ‘mansion’ appears modest in size by today’s standards. Upstairs is out of bounds but the route takes you through the lower half of the house and you view rooms with great over the top decor and lots of memorabilia before heading out through the grounds, past the swimming pool and on to the Meditation Garden where Elvis and family members are buried.
We were surprised at how many visitors seemed to just opt for the house tour. Having traveled so far, we wanted to see everything and our platinum ticket included access to the exhibits across the road including the automobile museum, airplanes, costumes, gold and platinum records, etc.
Before we left, we headed back across the Boulevard to have a look at the ‘Wall of Love’ and the musical gate.
2. The National Civil Rights Museum
On April 4th, 1968 Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. Most of the hotel is preserved in its original state but now also incorporates the Civil Rights Museum.
A time line of the Civil Rights movement’s struggles and milestones is beautifully presented through visual programmes, audio, video and reconstructions. The sequence is easily navigated and is absolutely gripping – you don’t have to be familiar with the stories to be affected – and the self guided tour ends at Rooms 306 and 307 where everyone just silently takes in the details of a scene suspended in time….
3. Sun Studio
This birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll oozes history, nostalgia, and of course music. Opened by Sam Phillips in 1950, legends including Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison recorded here until the studio outgrew its location and moved in 1959. It was restored as a working studio in 1987 and familiar acts like U2 and Def Leppard have recorded here since.
Situated on an unassuming corner a few minutes drive from downtown, the studio has featured in movies like Walk the Line and Great Balls of Fire. Once inside, you can perch on an old diner stool and have a coffee or soda until your tour is called or else wander through the small shop and have a look at the photos, records and other memorabilia
The tour introduces you to Sam Phillips who quit his job in radio to follow his passion in music. Guides share stories of the early days and those musicians who became legends. Downstairs in the studio, which is pretty much as it was in the 50’s, you can stand on the very spot where Elvis recorded his first songs, having paid $3.98 to the studio to cut the disc . On the wall of the studio hangs the famous ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ photo – Johnny Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis – taken at an impromptu session which Phillips luckily recorded.
4. Beale Street
Beale Street is included on my list as a ‘must do’ rather than a highlight. You need to celebrate what the ‘Home of the Blues’ represented one hundred years ago rather than what it has become. This ‘Historical centre’ runs to about 3 blocks and an effort has been made at renovation and the preservation of some of the original facades. There are information signs, statues and plaques commemorating the clubs and legends of the past. However its impossible to ignore the seediness of the area and although we felt safe the whole time we were there, the highly visible police presence does make one wonder…..
(A. Schwab’s store has stood on Beale Street since 1876 – call in for a look around and a milkshake)
(Further along the street you can shop for home furnishings……)
(……or for a voodoo potion)
(Sun going down and the Neon lighting up)
All said and done, it is about the music! We enjoyed some great sessions in BB Kings and in Blues City Cafe across the street. The area was jammed on the Saturday night but things got quiet on Sunday and very little buzz at all by Monday night – which didn’t stop the main bars from still having a cover charge. (Note – on Fridays you can buy a wristband for $10 which allows entry to all the bars)
(‘FreeWorld’ draws the crowd on Sunday nights in the Blue Cafe)
During our 3 night/2 day stay in Memphis, we visited the street many times – morning, evening, night, weekend and weekday. I tried really hard to love it but for me it lacked the fun and humour of downtown Nashville. Should you visit Beale Street – Absolutely!! – But just don’t go with very high expectations.
5. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
This family owned chicken joint is regularly listed as one of the best restaurants in Memphis. The chicken really is world famous with many many food show, magazine and newspaper credits to its name.
The downtown restaurant can be very busy with queues out the door. We dropped in at mid afternoon after visiting the Civil Rights Museum (its not far from the restaurant) and there was plenty of place available.
The menu has a few appitizers, a selection of sides, some desserts – and Chicken.
There is nothing mass produced about the chicken – regulars say that it tastes different every time and the close guarded recipe can vary in spiciness depending on the day. It is just delicious – all you have to do is just dig in and use plenty of napkins!
And for a perfect 3 course meal……
Fried Green Tomatoes….
6. Mississippi Views
With so much to see and do – Elvis, Civil Rights and the Blues – another iconic attraction can be overlooked – the River (I’m mentioning this because we actually met people who didn’t even go and just glance at it!!). For many visitors to Memphis, this will be their first time ever seeing the mighty Mississippi.
The riverfront is just a short stroll from Beale Street. You can stroll or cycle along the river bank, rent a canoe or take a river cruise. Or of course just have a quick glance and head back to Beale Street!
7. Mud Island Riverwalk
From the riverfront, you can either walk or take the hanging monorail over to Mud Island – There you will find an exact scale model of the lower Mississippi – all 954 miles of it. Every twist and turn of the river as far as the Gulf of Mexico has been included with concrete wall maps representing tributaries. The detail is incredible – down to street names in the urban areas and it stretches about half a mile in length.
Memphis takes great pride in its barbecue. Apparently Memphis style is characterised by being slow cooked in a pit and flavoured with either a dry rub seasoning or a bbq sauce. While any meat can be used, pork is king and usually served as a slab of ribs or pulled in a sandwich. With over 100 BBQ restaurants in town, you won’t have to look very for for you ribs and slaw.
9. Peabody Hotel
A bedroom here won’t suit many visitors’ pocket but anyone can wander in, admire the lobby, maybe have a drink (or even afternoon tea) and, of course, see the famous Peabody Ducks.
Since 1933, the fountain in the lobby has been home to one of the city’s top attractions – at 11.00 am every morning, the ‘duckmaster’ heralds the arrival of the ducks. The elevator opens, the ducks step out and waddle along the red carpet (yep!) to the fountain where they hop in, hang out until 5.00 pm and the spectacle is reversed and they return to their penthouse.
Before anyone screams ‘cruelty’ duck is not served on any menu in the hotel! The 5 ducks are raised by a local farmer, spend just 3 months at the hotel, and are then returned to the farm where they live out their lives in the great outdoors!
10. Downtown Trolley Ride
The trolley line provides a nice way to see a bit of the city. We walked out to the Pyramid one morning and then took the trolley back to the Civil Rights Museum. The trolleys are mostly restored vintage streetcars with detailed woodwork and antique lighting fixtures.
The system consists of 3 lines and the fare is $1
(You can stay on board and admire the buildings……)
(…..or get off and examine the details)
Somebody, somewhere, had grand notions of building 3 pyramids by the river – think Nile, Memphis (Egypt) and the great pyramids. The first was built as an arena and used as a sporting and concert venue for a while. The overall plan was never realised and today the structure is home to a Bass Pro megastore which includes water features, a hotel, bowling alley, museum, etc. The downtown trolley leaves you close by and you can walk back along by the riverfront.
If you need a bit of exercise, or if the trolley isn’t fast enough for you, you can opt to explore downtown Memphis on a Bird Scooter – A downloaded app will locate the nearest scooter – they seem to be everywhere! – and $1 will unlock it. After that it costs 15 cents per minute.
Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/author/7376a1″>Clipp2nd</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/3dd975″>Visualhunt.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”> CC BY-NC</a>