Memphis is where you go to learn about the blues, the birth of rock 'n' roll and Graceland. Ties to the past are strong and deep there—and accessible via the living music of the blues.
Memphis is a modern city of innovation, where FedEx brought overnight package delivery to the world and Kemmons Wilson perfected the roadside accommodation model when he built the first Holiday Inn there. The city's population ranks it among the 25 largest in the U.S., but there is a small-town charm in Memphis. Its history plays a role in what makes this modern city tick, from its rich music heritage to a painful civil rights past.
As always, the city welcomes visitors warmly, in the tradition of southern hospitality, and offers them good food, good music and friendly people.
The Mississippi River forms the city's western boundary. Downtown, which holds many of the popular tourist attractions, spreads along the river (the downtown is not in the center of the city, the usual urban pattern, but along its western edge).
Interstate 240 is a handy way to demarcate several of the other geographic areas of Memphis. It roughly separates downtown from midtown (the geographic center of the city), which lies on the east side of I-240. The southern sweep of I-240 separates midtown from South Memphis, and the northern sweep of I-240/I-40 divides midtown from North Memphis. East Memphis is directly east of midtown, with Highland Street the general border between the two.
The metropolitan area includes suburbs such as Bartlett (to the northeast) and Germantown and Collierville (to the east) as well as the city of West Memphis, which is across the Mississippi River in Arkansas, and DeSoto County, Mississippi, a sprawling suburban area to the south.
The Chickasaw people were early residents of the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, and in 1739, Fort Assumption became the first Euro-American outpost in the area. The town prospered in the first half of the 1800s, becoming an important inland port and cotton market.
The good times ended with the Civil War, and the ensuing years were marked by yellow-fever epidemics and economic depression. The city remained the hub of the surrounding cotton country, however, and by the early 1900s the nightclubs along Beale Street were renowned for good times and the blues music that had been born on the plantations.
Not surprisingly, when the blues mingled with country and gospel music to make rock 'n' roll, Memphis was one of the places where the fusion took place. Elvis Presley was living with his family in a Memphis housing project in 1954. Less than three years later, he was the city's most famous resident and owner of the Graceland estate, now the second-most-visited house in the U.S., after the White House.
The city's slide into harder times began in the late 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at Memphis' Lorraine Motel in 1968. At about the same time, large numbers of residents and businesses began moving to the city's eastern edge—or out of Memphis altogether—pushed along by urban problems and racial strife.
The city center continued to experience problems through much of the 1990s but then entered a renaissance, with a gorgeous baseball park, plenty of restaurants and a thriving arts district on South Main Street. And FedExForum, the arena for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies and University of Memphis basketball teams, opened next to Beale Street in 2004.
All eyes are now on the downtown riverfront, as developers, politicians, descendants of the city's founding fathers and others debate how best to continue developing the area. Beale Street Landing opened in 2014, and today it serves as the home for cruise ships that ply up and down the Mississippi River.
Downtown Memphis now is a popular residential, business, restaurant and entertainment district with action throughout the day and night. Midtown is exploding with the rebirth of Overton Square, the fantastic dining scene in Cooper-Young, and the growing Broad Avenue Arts District.
Although some Elvis disciples might rush directly to Graceland, many prefer to start where the city began—the Memphis riverfront and downtown. Just offshore is Mud Island River Park, a city park that features a Mississippi River Museum and scale model of the full river that visitors can walk along and within.
The Peabody Hotel, a beautiful old building that has hosted visitors for more than 75 years, is downtown's most famous landmark. The hotel also hosts a famous group of ducks, which parade through the lobby twice a day and live on the hotel's roof. A few blocks from the Peabody is Beale Street, famous for its legacy of raucous clubs and famous musicians. Today, the beat goes on, even if the atmosphere is quite a bit more touristy than in the street's golden age.
If you want to learn more about the history of the area, stop by the Center for Southern Folklore, which focuses on the people and traditions of the South, or the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, housed one block south of Beale in the FedExForum. The Rock 'n' Soul Museum offers a good overview of the great music that came from Memphis and the surrounding region.
Fans of the Memphis Sound and other soul music won't want to miss the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, just a few miles/kilometers south of downtown in the Soulsville neighborhood. While in the area, they can try their hand at rock climbing at Memphis Rox, one of the nation's only urban co-op rock climbing gyms.
Also in the downtown area is the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Don't miss the thoughtful exhibits documenting the struggle for equal rights in the U.S. and detailing the circumstances of Dr. King's assassination.
For more African-American history, go to North Memphis and tour the Burkle Estate, a house that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The downtown Cotton Museum, in the historic Cotton Exchange building, tells the story of the cash crop that was the real economic engine for the region.
To get the proper perspective on Elvis' career, we suggest you first stop at Sun Studio, just on the east side of downtown in the Edge district, to learn about the thrilling early days of his career, along with those of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Then proceed south to Graceland. There's a bewildering array of tours and attractions there, with the highest-priced ticket allowing backstage-style access to the King's private planes, his amazing car and motorcycle collection, and special exhibits available only to VIP tour guests.
Fittingly, live music is Memphis' best after-dark pursuit. Beale Street, much sanitized since its heyday, draws in a lot of visitors looking for good bands, and the clubs don't disappoint, either. B.B. King's Blues Club, the Rum Boogie Cafe and Alfred's are prime stops there. Farther east, a mixture of touring and local acts frequent Minglewood Hall, Hi-Tone and the Young Avenue Deli. Most clubs on Beale usually stay open until at least 4 am, with clubs in other sections of town generally closing between 1 and 2 am.
Memphis doesn't have a last call for alcohol. Tennessee law states that all establishments serving alcohol must also serve food. If smoking is allowed, no one younger than 21 is allowed entrance.
The best way to get Memphis residents into an argument is to ask them which place in town has the best barbecue—or even whether you should have your ribs wet (with sauce) or dry (with a rub of seasoned powder). In a city that bills itself as the Pork Barbecue Capital of the World, there are literally dozens of places from which to choose. One traditional favorite (and the one most convenient to the downtown attractions) is Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (dry ribs), a memorabilia-filled basement restaurant in an alley opposite the Peabody Hotel. Central BBQ has made its way to the top of virtually every Memphian's list with its range of choices that include barbecue sausage and portobello mushroom, whether in the original Central Avenue location or the newer spots on Summer out east or on South Main. Depending on whom you ask, the finest barbecue sandwiches in town might also be at Interstate Bar-B-Que (near I-55 on south side of city) or in midtown at the Bar-B-Q Shop.
There's more to the local restaurant scene than barbecue and southern home-style cooking, though. Memphis has a variety of restaurants, from exquisite fine dining (Restaurant Iris, Erling Jensen and Chez Philippe are tops) to prime steaks (Folk's Folly in East Memphis) and ethnic cuisines, including Thai, Japanese, French and Ethiopian. Many of these restaurants are a short walk from the Peabody Hotel, but if you venture out farther, you won't have to drive far to find great food.
Breakfast is usually served 7-10 am, lunch 11 am-2 pm and dinner 6-9 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.
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