Can I be honest? I've never thought about visiting Memphis. Not that I had anything against the city, but it just never crossed my mind as a place to put on my domestic wish list. Well after my whirlwind weekend in the "Home of Blues, Soul & Rock 'n' Roll," it's easy to say I've been missing out on one of America's greatest cities.
It's full of so much history, delicious food and good fun that it's hard to believe it's never been on my radar. After my recent visit, Memphis has found a new fan in me. I tried to see as much as possible and visit the city's most famous attractions during my initial visit. Here's an itinerary if you plan to visit for the first time too.
Where I Stayed
My home base for the weekend was Hotel Napolean. A boutique hotel, it was downtown within walking distance of Beale Street and other places in downtown Memphis. The staff was super friendly and gave suggestions about what to do from locals' perspectives which I found to be very helpful. The location makes it an ideal place to stay during your visit.
Let's assume you get there on a Thursday afternoon for a long weekend visit. Take a minute to freshen up at Hotel Napoleon. You don't have much time though so you have to hit the ground running!
Tasting at Old Dominick Distillery
Old Dominick is the oldest distillery in Memphis, having just opened in 2017. They produce six spirits including whiskeys, vodkas and their signature Memphis Toddy (my favorite). For $12, you're able to tour their entire facility and see what goes into making their spirits followed by a tasting of all six. It's a great way to kick off the start to your weekend! If you need to eat dinner next, there's a restaurant directly next door called The Gray Canary, or you can have...
Dinner at Rendezvous
The front door to this basement restaurant is located in a back alley across from the Peabody Hotel, but don't be scared! Rendezvous has been around since 1948 and is known for their signature dry ribs. Their platters are huge so I definitely couldn't eat it all in one sitting. And while Rendezvous is known for its ribs, I'd also like to give an honorable mention to its brisket. Try both if you can!
*Note: Rendezvous only serves beer and wine and no dessert. If you're in the mood for dessert after dinner or a cocktail, walk to Kooky Canuck's about a block away. I'm still dreaming of their Deep Dish Brownie a la mode.
Dance on Beale Street
After dinner, burn off some calories and walk on over to the world famous Beale Street! There are a ton of bars to into up and down the street. Just pick one that suits your fancy!
Breakfast at Sunrise Memphis
Located on the outskirts of downtown near University of Memphis, Sunrise Memphis is a sit-in or carry-out restaurant offering everything from typical options like pancakes, bacon, and mimosas to more nontraditional items like Korean bi bim bowls and tacos for breakfast. I highly recommend their chocolate chip pancakes and a mimosa if you're on a vacation diet.
Go Back in Time at the Slave Haven Museum
The Slave Haven Museum was once the home of Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant and stockyard owner, and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The tour begins with a discussion about the start of the transatlantic slave trade and ends with a visit to the home's basement, where it is believed Jacob Burkle would harbor slaves until it was clear for them to continue their journey to freedom. The museum was one of my favorite stops so I definitely think you should make time for a visit.
Eat Lunch at Carolina Watershed
You'd never guess by the exterior, but the Carolina Watershed is an urban oasis right in downtown Memphis. Picnic tables and waterfalls help create a playground escape for adults. Their menu consists of down-home classics with a twist and creative cocktails. Word to the wise, order the bucket of sangria. Thank me later.
Pay Tribute at the National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum is an absolute must when visiting Memphis. It's located at the very place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the Lorraine Motel. While it may look small on the outside, the museum is huge and very well-done, offering a glimpse into the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis and around the country. You're also able to go back in time and view Martin Luther King Jr.'s room as he left it. Be sure to walk across the street to the other side, where you can visit the place where it is believed that James Earl Ray took the fatal shot.
Dine at Central BBQ
By this time, you'll need to take a moment to digest what you've seen, so walk across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum and you'll find Central BBQ. It's a bit different from Rendezvous because they use sauce on their ribs, which is all the more reason to visit and taste the difference! I didn't get a chance to visit, but as soon as I hop off the plane in Memphis next time, it'll be my first stop. I've only heard great things about it!
Breakfast at The Arcade
Memphis' oldest cafe, The Arcade is known for its delicious breakfast. I ordered and loved their sweet potato pancakes, savory bacon, eggs, and cheese grits. I left no stone un-turned (hey, I do the hard work so you don't have to!).
Whether you're an Elvis fan or not, I believe Graceland is worth at least a short visit while you're in Memphis. It's easy to spend six or more hours there, but I spent about two and felt like it was enough time for me to understand Elvis' life and impact on music. You're able to tour his large estate including his home and burial site and for a little extra, take a tour of his private plane and jet. The estate tour is really comprehensive and gives many details about his personal family life.
Once you're finished, you can either uber to/from Graceland or take the shuttle to/from Sun Studio since it's about 20 minutes outside downtown Memphis. If you have time, take the Sun Studio tour and learn more about Elvis and other recording artists like B.B. King, Ike Turner and Johnny Cash.
Lunch at The Four Way Restaurant
About 15 minutes from Graceland is the Four Way Restaurant, a soul food restaurant where many Civil Rights Leaders would often eat in the 1960's. I was a little skeptical about how good the food would be since my family can pretty much cook everything, so I'm a tough critic. The Four Way did not disappoint! Their fish, macaroni and cheese, yams, fried chicken, and cabbage were delicious. Try not to visit on Sunday because it's a popular place to eat once church is over!
Learn About Memphis Soul at Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Walk 15 minutes from The Four Way Restaurant to Stax Museum of American Soul Music and you're in for a treat. I had never heard of Stax Records but the museum is a crash course in Memphis soul music. It was home to legends like Otis Redding, The Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes and many more. After my self-guided tour, I can now hear the difference in sound between Stax recording artists and other popular musicians at the time. A visit to the Stax Museum is great for understanding the history of soul music in Memphis.
Go to Arkansas at Big River Crossing
Close to the riverfront, there's a one-mile pedestrian bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas called Big River Crossing. Your uber will drop you off in a seemingly weird location across from a television station but don't fret! Walk about three minutes and you'll see the sign below signaling the divide between the two states. You'll find people walking, biking and using their scooters along the bridge. And you'll see great views of Memphis!
This day was a full one but if you have time, take a Riverboat Cruise down the Mississippi River at Beale Street Landing. You'll learn more about Memphis' history and see more views of the city. Have dinner at Loflin Yard, another natural retreat in downtown Memphis. Stay and enjoy music or head back to Beale Street or Midtown.
Go to the Observation Deck at Bass Pro Shops
Did you know Memphis is named after Memphis, Egypt? Naturally, Memphis, Tennessee needed a pyramid too. You can't leave Memphis without visiting the massive Bass Pro Shops that I'm sure you will see at some point while riding around the city. The building was originally used as an arena for the University of Memphis and Memphis Grizzlies basketball teams. However, both teams left the arena in 2004 and Bass Pro Shops moved into the building in 2015. It houses a retail store, bowling alley, swamp, restaurants and observation deck at the very top. You can see all of Memphis and even the shores of Arkansas from up there.
I am a Man Exhibit
Before heading to the airport, stop by the "I Am a Man" exhibit. Located next to Clayborn Temple, it was a key rallying point for the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike (the reason Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis when he was assassinated.). There's also a wall containing the names of 1,300 mostly black Memphis sanitation workers.
Other things to note:
- Renting a bike or scooter is a great way to get around the city!
- The Memphis Grizzlies' basketball arena and the Memphis Redbirds (minor league baseball) stadium are the heart of downtown, so check out a game while you're there.
- Aretha Franklin was born in South Memphis. Her house (406 Lucy Avenue) is boarded up but there is a memorial plaque dedicated to her in front.
Whew! As you can see, there's a lot to see, do, eat, and drink in Memphis! It's hard to get it all in one visit, but you'll have a running head start with this itinerary. I hope you enjoy Memphis as much as I did!
*While this post was produced in conjunction with Memphis Travel, all opinions are absolutely my own.