Gutsy guitar riffs and heart-numbing blues belt out and travel like electricity through the streets. Perched on the Mississippi River, Memphis was named for the ancient Egyptian capital on the Nile. The city still largely rests on the musical glory of its past but its current local scene also has much to offer.
Featured Memphis Hotel
What To Do
If that Tennessee summer is getting a little too much to bear, then head to Mud Island, just across the Wolf River from downtown, and cool off on the beaches or in the pool. If you don't want to get wet but want to be near the water, you can angle off Mud Island or Treasure Island.
What To See
If you only make one stop in Memphis, it ought to be here: the sublimely kitschy, gloriously bizarre home of the King of Rock and Roll.
Though born in Mississippi, Elvis Presley was a true son of Memphis, raised in the Lauderdale Courts public housing projects, inspired by the blues in the Beale St clubs, and discovered at Sun Studio on Union Ave. In the spring of 1957, the already-famous 22-year-old spent $100,000 on a Colonial-style mansion, named Graceland by its previous owners. Priscilla Presley (who divorced Elvis in 1973) opened Graceland to tours in 1982, and now millions come here to pay homage to the King and gawk at the infamous decor. The King himself had the place redecorated in 1974; with a 15ft couch, fake waterfall, yellow vinyl walls and green shag-carpet ceiling – it's a virtual textbook of ostentatious '70s style. Elvis died here (in the upstairs bathroom) from heart failure in 1977. Throngs of fans still weep at his grave, next to the swimming pool out back.
You begin your tour at the high-tech vis-itor plaza on the other side of seedy Elvis Presley Blvd. Book ahead in the busy season to ensure a prompt tour time. The basic self-guided mansion tour comes with a headset audio narration with the voices of Elvis, Priscilla and Lisa Marie. Buy a package to see the entire estate, or pay extra for additional attractions: several clothing museums, the car museum, and two custom airplanes (check out the blue-and-gold private bathroom on the Lisa Marie, a Convair 880 Jet). Parking costs $10.Graceland is 9 miles south of downtown on US 51, also called 'Elvis Presley Blvd.' Nondrivers can take bus 43 from downtown, or hop on the free Sun Studio shuttle.
National Civil Rights Museum
Housed in the Lorraine Motel, where the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, is the gut-wrenching National Civil Rights Museum. Five blocks south of Beale St, this museum's extensive exhibits, detailed timeline and accompanying audioguide chronicle the ongoing struggles for African American freedom and equality in the US. Both Dr King's cultural contribution and his assassination serve as prisms for looking at the Civil Rights movement, its precursors and its indelible and continuing impact on American life. The turquoise exterior of the 1950s motel and two preserved interior rooms remain much as they were at the time of King's death, and serve as pilgrimage points in their own right.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Wanna get funky? Head directly to Soulsville USA, where this 17,000-sq-ft museum sits on the site of the old Stax recording studio. This venerable spot was soul music's epicenter in the 1960s, when Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs and Wilson Pickett recorded here. Dive into soul-music history with photos, displays of '60s and '70s peacock clothing and, above all, Isaac Hayes' 1972 Superfly Cadillac outfitted with shag-fur carpeting and 24-carat-gold exterior trim.
It doesn't look like much from outside, but this dusty storefront is ground zero for American rock and roll music. Starting in the early 1950s, Sun's Sam Phillips recorded blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf, BB King and Ike Turner, followed by the rockabilly dynasty of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and, of course, the King himself (who started here in 1953). Today packed 40-minute guided tours through the tiny studio offer a chance to hear original tapes of historic recording sessions. Guides are witty and full of anecdotes; many are musicians themselves. Pose for photos in the old recording studio on the 'X' where Elvis once stood, or buy a CD of the 'Million Dollar Quartet,' Sun's spontaneous 1956 jam session between Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
From here, you can hop on the studio's free shuttle (hourly, starting at 11:15am), which does a loop between Sun Studio, Beale St and Graceland.
Earnestine & Hazel's
One of the great dive bars has a 2nd floor full of rusty bedsprings and claw-foot tubs, remnants of its brothel past. Climb the creaky stairs to shoot the breeze with Nate, a courtly gentleman who regales you with tales of Memphis past as he pours you a Miller Lite – he works the upstairs bar on weekends. The Soul Burger, the bar's only food, is the stuff of legend. Watch out for ghosts. Things heat up after midnight.
Don't even think of showing up at this gritty, hole-in-the-wall juke joint before midnight. Order a 40oz beer and a basket of wings then sit back to watch some of the greatest blues acts in Memphis. Expect some stares from the locals; it's worth it for the kickass, ultra-authentic jams.
In a former bread factory, this new space is part concert venue, part tattoo studio, part cafe.
Off the Beaten Path
Every day at 11am sharp, five ducks file from the Peabody Hotel's gilded elevator, waddle across the red-carpeted lobby, and decamp in the marble lobby fountain for a day of happy splashing. The ducks make the reverse march at 5pm, when they retire to their penthouse accompanied by their red-coated Duckmaster. The march of the ducks, which dates back to a 1930s-era drunken prank, is a quintessential Memphis trad-ition. It always draws major crowds – get here early to secure your spot (the mezzanine has the best views).
By city proclamation, the King's birthday (January 8) is Elvis Presley Day, and Graceland is the center of festivities. On or around January 15 (usually the third Monday), Martin Luther King Jr's birthday is celebrated with a national holiday and a city tribute. Beale St's Zydeco Festival and ethnic activities coincide with Black History Month through February.
Memphis in May is the major citywide festival; held mid-month, it includes a barbecue cook-off and the Beale St Music Festival. In April, the Spring Pow-Wow is held at Chucalissa. Labor Day weekend, the Center for Southern Folklore hosts the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, a major cultural event with fabulous roots music.
The August 16 anniversary of the death of Elvis sparks city-wide events, including a candlelight vigil at Graceland and a Dead Elvis Ball at the P&H Cafe. The WC Handy Birthday Celebration in mid-November pays tribute to the original Beale St bluesman. New Year's Eve turns Beale St into a giant street party.
Food and Drink
Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken
Fried-chicken connoisseurs across the globe twitch in their sleep at night, dreaming about the gossamer-light fried chicken at this downtown concrete bunker. On busy nights, waits can top an hour. So worth it.
Elvis used to eat at this ultra-retro diner, Memphis' oldest. Crowds still pack in for sweet-potato pancakes and cheeseburgers.
Chef Kelly English richly deserved his recent James Beard Award nomination, one of a pile of accolades he's accumulated since opening Iris in 2008. His avant-garde Creole menu sends foodies into paroxysms of delight, with playful dishes like a 'knuckle sandwich' of tarragon-flecked lobster, or an oyster-stuffed steak 'surf 'n' turf.' The setting, in a turreted cottage on a residential Midtown block, is so low-profile it feels like a speakeasy.