Table of Contents
- Why We Visited Memphis
- How To Attack a Memphis Weekend
- Memphis Food Guide
- Memphis BBQ Options
- Memphis Restaurants
- Memphis Brunch Options
- Memphis Lunch Options
- Memphis Dinner Options
- Memphis Dessert Options
- Memphis Late Night Dining Options
- Memphis Bar and Coffee Shop Options
- Things To Do in Memphis
- Plan Your Memphis Stay
- Hungry for More in Tennessee?
- Pin It for Later
- About the Authors
Some businesses may revise their hours and menus due to COVID-19. Others may close, either temporarily or permanently, without notice. Be sure to check websites for updated information and make advance reservations where possible.
Over the past 200 years, Memphis has earned the title of Home of the Blues and was Elvis Presley’s hometown. Elvis may have left the building, but classic American specialties like barbecue and fried chicken are alive and kicking in Tennessee’s Bluff City.
We recently spent a long weekend in Memphis. Beyond tunes and tastes, the city has a storied past due to its role in the American civil rights movement. Memphis also has an exciting future that’s just beginning to emerge in its central downtown and outer neighborhoods like Cooper-Young.
Skeletons from the city’s early glory ages in the 19th through 20th centuries speak to all who walk along South Main Street. Meanwhile, tattered civil rights monuments like the Lorraine Motel and Clayborn Temple are present-day reminders of the challenge of urban renewal and gentrification.
Why We Visited Memphis
Coinciding with the annual Saveur Magazine blog awards, our long Memphis weekend was a bit of a whirlwind. Chronic FOMO (fear of missing out) sufferers, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to attend the awards, eat Memphis ribs and visit Graceland.
Plus, we would have regretted it forever had we won the coveted award for Best Travel Blog and missed the ceremony. As fate we would have it, we won!
Accepting the editor’s prize was a thrill but so was eating at some of the best restaurants in Memphis TN.
How To Attack a Memphis Weekend
Let’s be real – a weekend isn’t enough to do and eat it all in Memphis. This is a food-focused city with a rich history that demands thoughtful exploration of its deep musical roots and historical civil rights past.
Advance planning is key to attacking Memphis in a short amount of time. Savvy food travelers will research the best Memphis restaurants and bars before their visit, making tough choices regarding what to do and where to eat in Memphis.
During our Memphis weekend, we made a brief, obligatory stop on infamous Beale Street, a neon-laden, honkytonk street lined with blues bars and restaurants.
Though popular with tourists, Beale Street offers entertainment without verity – kind of like South Street in Philly, Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Sixth Street in Austin. After checking it out briefly, we opted to explore beyond Beale’s neon kitsch.
We spent our free time exploring the city’s historic sites during the day and imbibing at many of the top Memphis restaurants and bars at night. As food travelers, we wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Memphis Food Guide
Often overshadowed by Nashville, Tennessee’s capital city just 200 miles to the east, Memphis is an important culinary destination in its own right.
Food travelers could spend an entire weekend chowing down on Memphis barbecue and only scratch the surface of the city’s seemingly endless selection of dry and wet ribs. However, barbecue is just one part of the Memphis food story.
In the heart of the American south, Memphis has a slew of restaurants serving southern soul food featuring a plethora of finger-licking-good fried chicken. The city also offers modern cuisine at several downtown Memphis restaurants as well as a thriving bar scene.
However, if you’re like us, you’ll want to start with ribs.
Memphis BBQ Options
Memphis barbecue is one of the four major American barbecue varietals along with Texas, Carolina and Kansas City. After eating the other three in Lockhart, Asheville and Kansas City, we were keen to eat the best BBQ in Memphis at the source.
Unlike barbecue in other cities, Memphis locals barbecue their ribs both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’. Memphians slow cook all the piggy parts, not just the ribs, and eat the flavorful results at dozens of barbecue joints all over town.
Head to Memphis in May and attend the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Click here for more information and to purchase advance tickets.
Condiment fans (like Mindi) can order wet ribs that are sauced up in all phases of the barbecue process. Others (like Daryl) can order dry ribs that derive flavor from an herbaceous, spicy rub.
Ribs may be the most famous Memphis barbecue item, but don’t forget about chopped pork. Memphis locals eat pork that’s more chopped than pulled, on sandwiches, atop pizza and inside spaghetti.
Whether you want to try dry ribs, wet ribs or chopped pork, we suggest you start your Memphis barbecue journey at the following spots:
We heard a myriad of answers when we asked locals to tell us their picks for the best Memphis BBQ restaurants. Without a consensus, we had to eat a prodigious amount of barbecue to find our personal favorite.
If anybody were to ask us this question after our Memphis weekend, our answer would be Payne’s Bar-B-Que.
Payne’s is neither fancy nor conveniently located. Instead, this ramshackle restaurant operates in a former gas station about four miles from the center of town. Other than red-checkered tablecloths and a few flowers, the decor hasn’t changed much since the Payne family starting barbecuing meat with hickory coals in 1972.
At Payne’s, it’s all about the food. Famous for its pork sandwiches and bright yellow coleslaw, this barbecue joint finishes their ribs to a slight char before smothering them in a spicy vinegar sauce. Payne’s also adds mustard to their coleslaw, a practice that sounds weird but works as a zingy flavor enhancer.
Beyond the food, we loved Payne’s for its truly authentic dining experience. Matriarch Flora Payne took time to chat with us and made sure we ordered well. And order well, we did.
During our visit, we shared a rib plate with beans, coleslaw and bread as well as a barbecued bologna sandwich. Each bite was a revelation from mustardy coleslaw to melt-in-your-mouth meat.
By the end of our meal, Daryl was ready to join the wet rib team. This may have been the best barbecue we’ve ever tasted, and we’ve tasted it all over the country from Texas to KC and even in global cities like Da Nang, Helsinki and Paris.
As a bonus, the total cost of our meal (including drinks) was under $20 for three people. Next time maybe we’ll bring another friend and add smoked sausage to our order.
Take an Uber to Memphis’ Rozelle neighborhood to eat at Payne’s if you don’t have access to a car.
Payne’s Bar-B-Que is located at 1762 Lamar Avenue, Memphis, TN 38114, USA.
The Bar-B-Q Shop
Pasta is one of our passions, and we’ve eaten unique versions in disparate cities like Buffalo, Bologna, Cincinnati and Naples. However, we had never eaten Barbecue Spaghetti until we dined at The Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis’ Midtown neighborhood.
Brady Vincent invented Barbecue Spaghetti when he topped spaghetti noodles with a tangy red sauce and added loads of slow-cooked shredded pork at his Memphis barbecue joint, Brady and Lil’s. Vincent later sold the restaurant and recipe to Frank and Hazel Vernon who now operate The Bar-B-Q Shop, one of the most popular Midtown Memphis restaurants.
The Vernons are smart to not mess with success when it comes to one of Memphis’ most iconic dishes. Sure, other Memphis barbecue joints serve Barbecue Spaghetti but this is this the authentic version.
The Bar-B-Shop has a full barbecue menu with ribs (both wet and dry), brisket, pulled pork and chicken, but we opted to order a heaping plate of Barbecue Spaghetti to share. Sure we could have ordered a side instead, but we wanted the full Barbecue Spaghetti experience.
As we twirled dueling forks in the spaghetti and munched on buttery Texas toast, we knew we had made the right decision.
A local favorite since it opened in 1977, Cozy Corner is a no-frills Memphis BBQ joint with a menu filled with barbecue classics. Beyond expected dishes like ribs and wings, Cozy Corner pushes the barbecue envelope by barbecuing Cornish Hens and serving them with Barbecue Spaghetti.
We trekked (i.e. took an Uber) a couple miles to Memphis’ Uptown neighborhood to check out Desire Robinson’s barbecue restaurant to in our Memphis BBQ quest. While there, we enjoyed a variety of savory dishes as well as a bowl of comforting banana pudding.
Temporarily closed at its original location due to a fire and subsequent renovations for almost two years, Cozy Corner now smokes their meat at a nearby outdoor kitchen. Don’t worry – despite the change, Cozy Corner’s barbecue tastes just fine.
Order BBQ Nachos or Barbecued Cornish Hen to round out your Memphis barbecue experience. Both are on the menu here.
Cozy Corner is located at 735 North Parkway, Memphis, TN 38105, USA.
Though Memphis has more than 100 barbecue joints, we were probably most excited to try uber-popular Central Barbecue. Open since 1972, Central Barbecue has accumulated a pile of awards and accolades for their ‘slow smoking’ techniques using hickory and pecan wood.
Operating at four locations under the premise that ‘smoke is our sauce,’ owners Roger Sapp and Craig Blondis don’t serve wet ribs. Instead, they marinate their meat for 24 hours and season it with a secret dry spice rub.
Our high anticipation built as we pumped a variety of sauces into plastic containers after placing our order for dry ribs, hot wings and sides like baked beans and mac and cheese. Then the food arrived.
After taking a few bites, we looked at each other with disappointment. The ribs were dry as if they had been sitting under heat lamps for way too long, and the spicy wings, while decently flavored, were less than memorable.
Maybe we hit the famous eatery on a bad day or maybe we visited the wrong location. Either way, we’re glad we joined the crowds and included Central Barbecue on our Memphis barbecue crawl. Otherwise, we would have felt like we missed out on something special.
Eat at Central BBQ’s downtown location after you visit the National Civil Rights Museum. You can discuss the moving experience while you’re waiting in line to order food.
Central BBQ has multiple Memphis locations. We ate at the downtown location at 147 E Butler Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Additional Memphis Barbecue Options
There’s no debate that Memphis claimed its culinary fame with barbecue, but only a rare breed of barbecue fan would choose to eat ribs and chopped pork all day every day. Though we contemplated joining those fans, we ended up eating a bunch of other food during our long Memphis weekend.
And you know what? We found a lot of great eats in Memphis. Though Nashville rules Tennessee’s chicken roost with hot chicken at Prince’s, Hattie B’s and Pepperfire, Memphis holds its own when it comes to quality fried chicken. And don’t even get us started on the drinks.
Memphis Brunch Options
Eating brunch provides time to rest and rejuvenate with friends after a Friday or Saturday night on the town. When you’re looking to combine two weekend meals into one, we recommend the following Memphis brunch spots:
The Arcade Restaurant
Open on Main Street since 1919, The Arcade is Memphis’ oldest operating restaurant and a local institution. It’s also the restaurant where Elvis Presley ate fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches while sitting in a blue booth.
Now, a century after Arcade opened, third generation owner Harry Zepatos Jr. runs The Arcade as a modern diner. However, he hasn’t forgotten the past – Elvis’ booth is still intact and his PB&B sandwich remains on the menu.
Beyond nods to Elvis and its retro building design, The Arcade has evolved along with the city. The restaurant now operates seven days a week and serves a variety of dishes like hummus and taco salads as well as standard diner fare like burgers and fries.
Brunch at Arcade is another matter when Southern food reigns supreme. Locals and tourists wanting to eat the best brunch in Memphis will be torn between dishes like Eggs Redneck with sausage, biscuits soaked in gravy, eggs and hashbrowns as well as Sweet Potato Pancakes with two eggs and breakfast meat plus hashbrowns or grits.
Burn off brunch calories by walking around the historic yet gentrifying neighborhood filled with colorful street art.
The Arcade Restaurant is located at 540 S Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
The Beauty Shop
Look Good. Eat Good. These are the words that greeted us at The Beauty Shop, a tony eatery in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. With a creative menu crafted by Chef Karen Carrier and a unique decor, The Beauty Shop is a place to see and be seen in Memphis.
Modern-day diners queue for the chance to eat in the spot where local luminaries like Priscilla Presley had their hair primped and coiffed back in the 1950s. Though these diners can’t get their hair styled at the former Atkins Beauty Salon, they can enjoy a variety of food and drinks while sitting under decorative 60s era domed hair dryers.
As for us, we ended up at The Beauty Shop while walking around the Cooper-Young neighborhood. After checking out Bluff City Coffee & Bakery and Otherlands Coffee, we worked up a healthy appetite. A ‘stylish’ brunch was clearly in order.
The Beauty Shop’s brunch menu offers a diverse selection of local favorites and global specialties. We shared Shrimp & Grits and Chicken & Waffles during our leisurely meal. We may have also enjoyed drinks like the signature Bad Boy Bloody Mary and Big Boy Mimosa, but that’s between our ‘hairdresser’ and us.
Order Watermelon & Wings if you eat dinner at The Beauty Shop. Not on the brunch menu, this intriguing dish derives its flavors from sweet chile ginger-lime sauce, white pepper, toasted cashews and St.Pete’s blue cheese.
The Beauty Shop is located at966 Cooper Street, Memphis, TN 38104, USA.
Additional Memphis Brunch Options
Memphis Lunch Options
Don’t tell anybody but sometimes we cheated on barbecue with Memphis fried chicken for our mid-day meal. When we did, these were our favorite lunch spots:
The Four Way
The Four Way would be worth a visit for its history alone. Local celebrities including Elvis Presley and Isaac Hayes dined here. More importantly, this is the restaurant where Martin Luther King ate his very last meal in 1968.
A safe haven for African American diners during the mid-1900s, The Four Way opened in 1946 when Memphis was a fully segregated city. Original owners Irene and Clint Cleaves, who happened to be African American, cooked such great food that white dignitaries would cross the color barrier to roll up their sleeves and eat some of the best soul food in Memphis.
After changing owners a few times over the decades, The Four Way now rests in Patrice Thompson’s capable hands. We met Thompson during a carbaholic lunch featuring fried green tomatoes, fried catfish, crispy fried chicken and sides like turnip greens, boiled okra and mac & cheese.
We washed down Thompson’s Memphis soul food with big glasses of The Four Way’s version of Arnold Palmers and capped our meal with sweet peach cobbler. Sadly, we didn’t have time to take a nap after lunch since that was the only thing missing from our meal.
Order an entree at The Four Way. You won’t have to order sides since each entree includes two sides and bread.
The Four Way is located at 998 Mississippi Boulevard, Memphis, TN 38126, USA.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
New Orleans may serve America’s Best Fried Chicken at Willie Mae’s, but Memphis takes credit for World Famous Fried Chicken at Gus’s. Between the two options, there’s no bad choice.
Originally opened in nearby Mason, Tennessee by Napoleon and Maggie Vanderbilt back in 1953, Gus’s arrived in downtown Memphis 48 years later. Despite the 40 mile distance, the restaurant uses the same recipes for its spicy fried chicken, sweet baked beans and coleslaw.
Vernon “Gus” Bonner was founder Napoleon Vanderbilt’s only son. When he and his wife took over the family business in 1984, he kept the recipes but changed the name.
We ordered a heaping plate of fried chicken plus sides of fries and mac & cheese during our visit. Served on styrofoam plates, the chicken came with beans, coleslaw and white bread.
Somehow, we saved just enough room to share a slice of chocolate chess cake for dessert. After watching cake slices fly from the kitchen to pretty much every table in the restaurant, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Expect to wait in line at Gus’s. It’s inevitable.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has multiple Memphis locations. We ate at the downtown location at 310 S Front Street, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Additional Memphis Lunch Options
Memphis Dinner Options
Like many American cities, Memphis is experiencing a culinary transition that warrants attention from food travelers. New places to eat in Memphis are popping up from downtown to the suburbs and everywhere in between.
Memphians Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman are leading the pack with a stable of Memphis restaurants that include Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Catherine & Mary’s, The Gray Canary, Hog & Hominy and Porcellino’s Craft Butcher. But these James Beard nominated duo are not the only talented chefs in town.
Catherine and Mary’s
We were intrigued by Catherine & Mary’s cavernous space inside the landmark Chisca building where Elvis recorded That’s All Right Mama as well as its rotating menu inspired by the chefs’ grandmothers. Open since 2016, this restaurant is a popular spot that requires advance reservations.
During our meal, we feasted on Pork Belly with Carolina gold rice and Brussel Sprouts with cacio e pepe and brisket ‘burnt ends’ before we ended our meal with the housemade gnudi pictured and described above. Too full for any more food, we opted for liquid pleasure, i.e. crafted cocktails, instead of dessert.
Treat yourself to a crafted cocktail whether you dine at Catherine & Mary’s or not. You’ll want to savor every sip at the restaurant’s sophisticated bar.
Catherine and Mary’s is located at 272 S Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
The Liquor Store
Don’t be fooled by The Liquor Store’s first impressions. Despite its exterior appearance and neon lights, The Liquor Store is a bustling Latin-American diner that happens to be situated inside a former liquor store.
Owners Lisa and Luis Toro infused a sense of Miami-chic style and Memphis humor when they opened The Liquor Store in 2017. Popular dishes include Cuban Sandwiches, Salisbury Steak and a vegetarian Impossible Burger that can be prepared for vegans upon request. The Liquor Store also serves breakfast and baked goods all day long including for dinner.
Whichever way you go, be sure to add an order of biscuit beignets. This fried biscuit dough topped with powdered sugar, cinnamon and dulce de leche sauce was a favorite during our visit.
Be sure to order pop tarts filled with almond dark chocolate and raspberry jam if you dine at The Liquor Store on a Saturday or Sunday. The restaurant only serves the quirky treat on weekends.
The Liquor Store is located at 2655 Broad Avenue, Memphis, TN 38112, USA.
Additional Memphis Dinner Options
Memphis Dessert Options
If your time in Memphis is short, eat dessert first. At least that’s what we did during our long Memphis weekend.
Actually, we ate dessert whenever we could at restaurants like Arcade and The Four Way. However, the best Memphis desserts we ate were at Muddy’s Bake Shop.
Muddy’s Bake Shop
After hearing Kat Gordon speak at the Saveur Magazine event, we hightailed it to her East Memphis dessert haven. We simply couldn’t resist trying her self-proclaimed ‘outrageously delicious food’ where it all began.
Gordon opened the original Muddy’s Bake Shop in 2008 and named it after her grandmother Muddy. Apparently naming restaurants after grandmothers is a thing in Memphis. She now has two locations plus an appointment-only kitchen and custom studio.
Expect to order sweet treats with a side of humor. Cupcakes tickle the fancy with names like Strawberry Fields Forever, Pucker Up and Plain Jane. However, the most clever name very well may be Prozac Cake, the shop’s chocolate remedy for depression.
Frosting fanatics should cut to the chase and indulge in a shot of icing called The Hank Special.
Muddy’s Bake Shop has multiple Memphis locations. We ate at the location at 585 S Cooper Street, Memphis, TN 38104, USA.
Additional Memphis Dessert Options
Memphis Late Night Dining Options
A city called the Home of the Blues is clearly not a sleepy city. Not only do Memphians love music, but they also work hard and play hard. But where’s the best spot for those times when too much work and play result in late night hunger pangs?
In Memphis, the answer is…
Ernestine & Hazel’s
Ernestine & Hazel’s history precedes the dive bar’s 1992 opening. Typical for Memphis, this bar has a storied past that includes stints as a pharmacy, brothel and night club.
Not only did musical luminaries including Chuk Berry, Ray Charles, Sam Cook, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Tina Turner pass through the front doors during one of the bar’s prior lives, but ghosts apparently haunt the building to this day.
As evocative as its history may be, we went to Ernestine & Hazel’s for the food. And by food, we mean burgers.
Don’t expect a lot of options at Ernestine & Hazel, except when it comes to beers and songs on the jukebox. In fact, the food menu just has two items – Soul Burgers and Double Soul Burgers. Keeping it simple, both hamburgers come with exactly six ingredients – bun, patty (or patties), fried onions, cheese, pickles and signature ‘soul’ sauce.
Watching these burgers sizzle on the griddle is a beautiful thing only bested by their meaty aroma. Served with Golden Flake potato chips, the Ernestine & Hazel smashburger is a perfectly greasy way to end a fun Memphis night on the town.
Make Ernestine & Hazel your last stop of the night. The dive bar is open until 3 am five nights a week.
Ernestine & Hazel’s is located at 531 S Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Additional Memphis Late Night Dining Options
Memphis Bar and Coffee Shop Options
Any weekend in Memphis can likely be summed up with three B’s – barbecue, blues and booze. Memphians like to eat, drink and be merry all over the city. As for us, we enjoyed drinking at the following Memphis bars:
Old Dominick Distillery
More than a typical Memphis bar, Old Dominick Distillery is a relatively new micro-distillery that celebrates and honors Tennessee’s whiskey history. With a passionate female head distiller, Old Dominick is a serious operation located in a beautifully renovated downtown building.
Chris and Alex Canale opened Old Dominick Distillery in 2017 after making a multi-million investment in the business. However, these Memphis cousins trace the distillery’s inspiration back to Domenico Canale who started the family’s beer distribution business in the 19th century.
Visitors to Old Dominick Distillery can fully experience the distillery’s spirits in different ways. First and foremost, they can take a 45-minute tour distillery tour that ends with a tasting and toast. The distillery currently charges $12 for the tour and conducts them on an hourly basis Thursday through Sunday. Check the website for more details and to book a tour.
Those who want to enjoy the distillery’s spirits at home can purchase bottles to drink later. Current choices include Memphis Toddy rye bourbon (60 proof), Memphis Vodka (80 proof), Honeybell citrus-flavored Vodka (80 proof) and Hulling Station Bourbon Whiskey (100 proof). Gins will soon be available as well.
Finally, visitors can participate in Pure Memphis Cocktail Hours offered for several hours each Thursday through Sunday. After tasting some of the cocktails during our visit, we highly recommend this option on its own or in conjunction with a tour or bottle purchase.
You can buy Old Dominick Distillery’s spirits in stores across the Southeast as well as in California and New York. Depending on your state, you may also be able to order bottles online.
Old Dominick Distillery is located at 305 S Front Street, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Tailors’ Union proves that looks can be deceiving. At first glance, Tailors’ Union appears to be an upscale tailor shop; however, a walk through sliding doors reveals a two-story speakeasy hiding in plain sight.
Although the chic upstairs bar at Tailors’ Union is open to everybody, the even chicer downstair bar is for members only. Yes, at Tailors’ Union, membership has its privileges.
Inspired by speakeasies in cities like New York and Miami, co-owners Tyronne Burroughs and Dana Pegues Pointer opened Tailors’ Union in 2018. We met Burroughs during our recent Memphis visit and he invited us behind the curtain, so to speak.
Thanks to Burroughs, we enjoyed crafted cocktails in The Pocket. The dimly lit, subterranean bar was bustling on a Saturday night, filled with mingling professionals and jazz tunes wafting in the air.
Whether you drink upstairs or in The Pocket, try specialty cocktails with stylish names like French Cuffs, In Stitches and The Last Alteration. You can also order food like Fried Green Tomatoes and Wagyu Burger Sliders if you’re hungry.
Tailors’ Union is located at 115 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Belle Tavern bills itself as ‘the place your friends haven’t told you about’ but we’re telling you about it now. This busy downtown bar is a winner with its friendly vibe, top-shelf liquors and classic cocktails.
We popped into Belle Tavern, quickly nabbing spots on a comfy couch. Within moments, we were drinking Cherry Cola, a Morency cherry-infused bourbon with cola syrup and soda, and Kentucky bourbon on the rocks.
Due to dumb luck, we arrived during the nightly happy hour that occurs between 10 pm and midnight. After a day of touring Memphis, there was nowhere else we wanted to be but on that couch.
Non-alcoholic drinkers can order mocktails from the tavern’s Prohibition menu.
Belle Tavern is located at 117 Barboro Alley, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Tamp & Tap
Tamp & Tap focuses on two of our favorite drinks – coffee and beer – at its downtown Memphis Location. In fact, these two beverages inspired the cafe’s name since baristas use tamps to press espresso grounds and bartenders serve beer from a tap.
This cafe soon became our happy place with its third wave coffee and free internet, a combination not readily available in Memphis. Tamp & Tap also serves a food menu with numerous breakfast and lunch options.
Adventurous coffee drinkers will want to try Tamp & Tap’s Choctaw Rocket with honey-infused espresso, soda water and a splash of cream. As for us, we stuck with filtered coffee.
In a rush? You can place your order online and pick it up ten minutes later.
Tamp & Tap is located at 122 Gayoso Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Additional Memphis Drinking Options
Things To Do in Memphis
Considering its population of 650,000 (give or take), Memphis has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to do. Travelers could easily spend a week exploring the city’s musical heritage and civil rights past as well as checking out notable destinations like the zoo, art museum and Bass Pro Pyramid.
If you just have a few days and you’re wondering what to do in Memphis, we recommend the following meaningful activities:
National Civil Rights Museum
More than an homage to Martin Luther King, the National Civil Rights Museum traces the American civil rights movement all the way back to the beginning of slavery with moving multi-media exhibits. But it’s impossible to forget Martin Luther King since the museum is literally located at the motel where he was spent his last night.
In many ways, being in Memphis is a reminder of the impact that Martin Luther King made on the country. Though he lived in Atlanta, he will always be connected to Memphis because of the circumstances of his death, his final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and his participation in Memphis’ ‘I Am a Man’ demonstration.
Experiencing this museum is an absolute must, especially if you’re traveling with children. Budget adequate time. You’ll need at least two hours to read everything while absorbing the moving history of the never-ending struggle for equality.
You can buy tickets at the museum.
The National Civil Rights Museum is located at450 Mulberry Street, Memphis, TN 38103, USA.
Stax Museum of American Soul Museum
Built in the Soulsville neighborhood at the former Stax Records site, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music provides a fascinating overview of soul music in general and the record company’s role in the musical genre in particular.
Brother and sister duo Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton founded the label in 1957 and recorded legends like Rufus & Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs and the Mar-Keys over the next decade. Due to changes in the industry, Stax Records ceased operations in 1975.
Tours provide an interactive education about soul music and its ties to both Memphis and the civil rights movement. Expect to see unique artifacts like Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac El Dorado and the Soul Train dance floor when you visit the museum. If so inclined, you can bust a move or two on that famous floor.
Touring Sun Studio provides another glimpse into Memphis’ musical past. Nicknamed “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll”, this is the studio where Elvis recorded his first songs. The studio also recorded legendary luminaries including B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
Ticket admission includes a 45-minute guided tour that outlines the studio’s musical history and culminates in the studio where Elvis recorded his first songs. Expect to hear stories about Elvis and the other notable singers who recorded here.
Inspired visitors can stand in the exact spot where Elvis recorded his first songs. Don’t be surprised if you feel emotional – our tour guide shared that Bob Dylan was particularly moved by the experience.
Most Memphis visitors feel compelled to visit Graceland, the opulent mansion that Elvis Presley called home and immortalized in Paul Simon’s 1986 album. We were no exception.
Though he died in 1977, Elvis’ music and persona continue to impact American pop culture decades later. He’s both a legend and an icon. And his mansion must be seen to be believed.
Touring the inside of Graceland is a trip. Elvis had an “interesting” sense of style and was not afraid to go big with his design choices. We especially enjoyed seeing his entertainment rooms both for their design elements and for the trip down memory lane.
Tickets to Graceland are not cheap, so you might as well go whole hog and get a ticket that includes access to the estate’s full grounds. You’ll want to see Elvis’ cars, outfits, airplanes and more while you’re at Graceland.
Expect an experience that’s both kitschy and touristic. You’ll be surrounded by crowds and end up in a huge gift shop. Go anyway. Visiting Graceland is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you can only do in Memphis.
Plan Your Memphis Stay
Are you ready to schedule your own Memphis weekend getaway?
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.