Memphis has a magic that few other American cities possess, and it’s all about the way this Tennessee city plays on your senses.
There’s the intoxicating smell of barbecue cooking, the dazzling sight of gold ornaments, the architecture of mansions like Graceland, and the sound of rhythm and blues on Beale Street all night long. If you love music, food, and history, Memphis is the place for you.
If to you Elvis Presley is King, you simply have to visit. No true fan can avoid making the pilgrimage to Graceland, the King’s mansion, where you can see where hits like Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel were recorded at Sun Studios. For music fans, Memphis isn’t just another city. It’s almost a place of worship.
From dedicated rock and rollers to history buffs and gourmet food lovers, Memphis attracts a broad spectrum of people, and all of them find a way to fall in love with this charming southern destination.
More than anything else, Elvis Presley dominates Memphis. That’s because the King of Rock and Roll made his home and died at Graceland in the south of the city. Tour the grounds, see Sun Studio where he recorded, and watch impersonators summon the spirit of the King.
Elvis may have gone, but Memphis is a thriving modern musical hub. Beale Street bars like Silky O’Sullivans and Wet Willie’s are some of the best places to see roots rock and roll and blues the way they should be played.
The food in Memphis is spectacular. Head to Beale Street in May for the world’s largest barbecue cooking competition, try Cajun seafood at superb restaurants like Pearl’s Oyster House or soul food delights and cocktails from Hog & Hominy.
Memphis is a wonderful destination for families. Head to the zoo to see pandas and other animals, see the dinosaur exhibits at the Pink Palace and Planetarium or visit the Botanical Gardens, which have special play areas for kids.
Aside from Elvis, Memphis has a long and fascinating history. Visit the Civil Rights Museum to learn about the life of Martin Luther King, see where artists like Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash recorded, or delve even deeper back into time at the Cotton Exchange, once the largest cotton trading floor in the U.S.A.
If you're a fan of the King, Graceland is simply a must-visit attraction. Located a few miles south of the city center, Elvis bought Graceland in 1957 for his parents, but ended up making it his home until his death in 1977. Now a National Historic Landmark, Graceland remains more or less as the King left it, complete with his TV room, kitchen, and the "Jungle Room" - a Hawaiian-themed den where the star spent most of his time. There are also exhibits featuring his cars, clothes and, of course, his music.
Dubbed the "Home of the Blues", Beale Street stretches for around 2 miles from the banks of the Mississippi to East Street. In the 1900s, it was home to legendary musician W.C. Handy as he was fashioning the modern Blues, while stars like Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters also got their breaks there. Nowadays, Beale Street is a cultural magnet, hosting plenty of music and food events, and boasting attractions like the W.C. Handy Museum and the exceptional Ernest Withers Photographic Collection.
The family-friendly Rock 'n' Soul Museum is situated just off Beale Street, and is one of the country's foremost musical attractions. The collections bring together all of Memphis' musical styles, from early Blues to Jazz, Soul and Country. Learn about the story of iconic labels like Stax or Sun and how the Civil Rights movement helped to create the 60s Soul sound. You can also see more than 30 instruments played by musical greats and over 40 famous costumes that they sported on stage. It's an unmissable collection for any music fans.
Along with its music, Memphis also helped to give birth to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, as African Americans rose up against segregation and sought the vote. This museum on Mulberry Street in South-Central Memphis tells that inspiring story, but it's a solemn one too: the museum includes the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. A testimony to the power of democracy, the museum includes stirring exhibitions on slavery, the sit-ins movement, the bus boycotts, and the Freedom Riders, weaving a narrative that will absorb any visitor's attention.
Mud Island sticks out into the Mississippi and runs most of the length of Downtown Memphis. Accessible via a monorail, the "island" hosts plenty of things to see and do. There's the Mississippi Museum, for example, which tells the story of America's greatest river and the people who have lived alongside it. There's a 5,000-seat amphitheater which hosts a lively concert program all summer long. And there's the park itself, with it's quirky scale model of the river, pedal boats for hire, and great views of the city center.
Memphis is at its best in spring and fall. Summer can be extremely hot and humid, but it’s a good time to go if you don’t mind the heat. Elvis Week is also in August, so late summer tends to draw rock and roll pilgrims. Visit in May to catch the Beale Street Festival or 901Fest, a showcase for Tennessee’s finest musical talent.
If you are flying into Memphis, you’ll probably touch down at Memphis International Airport, located around 9 miles out of town. There are no public transport connections from the airport. Instead, taxis are available outside the terminal entrance (expect to pay $20 to reach the city center). You can also rent a vehicle from companies like Hertz, Avis, and Dollar.
Memphis’ Amtrak station connects the city to northern destinations like Chicago and southern cities like New Orleans. Located at 545 S Main St, the station is conveniently situated for city center hotels.
I-40 is the main transport artery that passes through Memphis, and it’s the best way to reach the city from the east and west. I-55 links Memphis to Chicago and St. Louis to the north, and to Louisiana and Mississippi to the south, while I-22 links the city to Alabama and the south-east.
Greyhound is Memphis’ major inter-city bus operator and you can find their main stop at 203 Union Ave. Megabus also provides a connection between Memphis and St. Louis (and then to Chicago) and their stop is at 120 Shadyac Ave.
There are plenty of luxury accommodation options in town. The most spectacular hotel is probably the Peabody Hotel, with its lobby fountain that’s home to actual ducks. The Madison Hotel has a popular grill restaurant, while River Inn is a smaller boutique option located right next to the Mississippi. If you are traveling on a tight budget, there’s no better place to stay than Pilgrim House Hostel, which offers a selection of dorm beds and private rooms.
Downtown – The focus of the local music scene and the best place for families to stay, Downtown is right next to the river and has a wide range of hotels to choose from. Don’t miss the soul food at Earnestine and Hazel's or the po’ boys and gumbo at Pearl's Oyster House, and be sure to visit local attractions like the National Civil Rights Museum.
Midtown – Located about twenty minutes’ walk east of Downtown, Midtown is a prosperous area and the home of Memphis Zoo, one of the city’s most popular family attractions. It’s also home to Bosco's, where you can sample the city’s only locally made craft ale and great eateries like Corky's famous barbecue, a local mainstay with superb homemade barbecue sauces.
Southland Hills – A couple of miles south of the city center, Southland Hills is famous for one thing: Graceland. If you are an Elvis fan, staying here is a must, and it’s also very convenient for the International Airport. You can even stay at Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel for a truly immersive experience.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority offers a good bus service during daylight hours, but there are far fewer buses in the evenings, so plan to use taxis if you are going out after dark. You can purchase a daily FastPass that provides unlimited journeys on local trolleys for just $3.50 or 7 day passes for $16.
Taxis are a great way to get around, Memphis and local rates are relatively cheap. The basic fare is $2.12, then $1.80 for every subsequent mile and $30 for one hour of waiting. Uber costs $1 and then $1.25 per mile (in the most basic vehicles).
To really make the most of your time in Memphis you’ll need to rent a car. Getting around is simple as the city has a regular north-south, east-west grid (with I-40 cutting through the middle). Downtown parking is also cheap compared to other U.S. cities. 40,000 spaces is usually ample for regular demand and shouldn’t cost more than $5-10 per day.
Midtown is the place to visit for bohemian stores and major chains. The mall at Overton Square is a good place to look for apparel and electronics, with stores like the Attic (an apparel boutique), athletic brands like Breakaway Running, and a huge range of places to eat. Downtown, Union Ave, and S Main Street are a good place to hunt for interesting shops, such as popular local start-ups like Made by Memphis Pop Up Shop and bigger stores like Shop Girl New York.
If you want to shop for the freshest food in town, head just south of Downtown to the Memphis Farmers Market. However, there are cheaper options nearby as well, including branches of Krogers, A&M, Target, and Walmart. The cost of living in Memphis is relatively low. You can have a good meal out for about $15 and a gallon of gasoline will cost around $2.
There are some superb soul food restaurants in Memphis. Miss Polly’s is a great place to book in the center of town and serves up huge portions of chicken wings. Alcenia’s is the best place to grab a filling breakfast, while Dyer’s Burgers is a fast food institution. For more up-market meals, check out Flight or Pearl’s Oyster House, while Iris in East Memphis cooks up superb French-Creole dishes. Expect to pay around $15 for a medium-range meal and $30-40 at more high-end places.