There’s likely one word that comes to mind when anyone thinks of Tupelo: Elvis. The entire town feeds off the memory of the King, its tourism industry centers on his legacy, and much of the boom of visitors year-round is because the rock ‘n roll legend was born in East Tupelo just before World War II. But take it from me, Tupelo is a great option for a weekend getaway, whether you’re an Elvis superfan or just a mere appreciator of his influence on music for generations to come.
The fusion of gospel and blues that Elvis came to personify cannot be overstated. It was, literally, the first time that facets of each genre had been blended into the mixer of music, and it transformed the sound emanating from the United States—forever. A springboard upon which most of the greats based their actual sound, Elvis’s genius came to embody, in a very short period of time, American rock ‘n roll as we know it today. Much like jazz and raw blues music are infused into the American psyche, the chords that he produced throughout his career continue to define American music, and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see where it all began.
This project is in partnership with Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau. All opinions and love for Elvis are our own.
Getting to Tupelo
Tupelo is much easier to reach than you might guess. It’s got its own regional airport, but it’s also just 90 minutes from Memphis (115 miles), so if you’re flying into West Tennessee, you can rent a car and bop on down to Tupelo. And if you’re in Nashville (214 miles), you can either drive the three hours or take a flight via Contour Airlines, which often is as low as $19 each way.
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Tupelo, which occupies a full block in the perfect central location on Main Street, meaning it’s walkable to many of Tupelo’s main attractions. Tupelo does have its first boutique hotel in the works, which will live in Fairpark right downtown, but no word on when that will open as the hospitality group hasn’t even broken ground yet.
A brief history of tourism in Tupelo
Tupelo has always had visitors thanks to its place in commerce. For decades, it was known first and foremost as a shopping hub—people would come from hundreds of miles to do all their shopping in Tupelo. While the current population is 38,000, it still swells to more than 100,000 during the day with all the incoming visitors who would (and still do) come to town to stock up on clothing, groceries and more. Tupelo currently has three main shopping areas: Midtown Shopping District, Barnes Crossing District and Downtown District.
In recent years, that’s changed dramatically as the international and domestic tourist numbers rise and the number of downtown restaurants, attractions and local boutique stores increase—meaning, while yes, people still do come here from all over Tennessee and Mississippi to shop, they stick around for myriad other reasons.
This year, Tupelo turns 150 years old. Its place in North American history extends back for thousands of years as an epicenter of the settlements of native people, so it’s crazy to think that we’re only a century and a half from European settlement yet, modern Mississippi as a state didn’t exist prior to 1818, and they’re pulling out all the stops in 2020 to celebrate that legacy.
What took us to Tupelo in the first place is the fact that it lies right on the Natchez Trace Parkway, the 444-mile scenic byway from Tennessee through Alabama and down to Southern Mississippi that we are exploring over the course of a year. In fact, at milepost 266, Tupelo lays claim to the only National Park Service-operated visitor center on the entire Trace, and you can center yourself in Tupelo as you explore the Trace and tackle day trips to the Shoals, Tishomingo State Park and other attractions along the North Mississippi section of the parkway.
Elvis in Tupelo
Everywhere you go you’ll see signs of Elvis in Tupelo. But before you really dive in, drop in the Tupelo Visitors Center—located on the former site of the Shake Rag neighborhood, the former African-American community that influenced Elvis’ sound—and pick up themed maps to the area, which include locations on an “Off the Wall” map to the murals in town, the Elvis Guitar Trail, a self-guided bicycle tour and the 14-marker Elvis Driving Tour that travels through the first couple decades of his life. When Elvis was little, he was a devout comic book fan, particularly of Captain Marvel Jr.—that’s why, when he went on to become famous, he dressed in costumes that incorporated capes and lightning bolts—so you’ll be able to flip through a fun exhibit of his life depicted via life-sized comics, dubbed “Elvis’ Tupelo Story.” The visitors center also has an interactive story timeline of the city, a video wall, mini-exhibits and listening stations so you can hear the connection between Elvis’ influence on modern music, which, if you’re not familiar with Elvis, is critical to understanding why he’s so popular.
Once you have your bearings, you’ll want to start your exploration of Elvis in Tupelo where it all began. Many of the Elvis attractions in Memphis focus on his later life, while the Elvis Presley Birthplace highlights his most formative years; he lived in Tupelo until he was 13 when his dad moved the family to Tennessee in search of a better life.
You’ll undoubtedly learn everything you need to know about the King during your stay, but here’s a primer: In 1934, Vernon Presley, his father and his brother built a two-room house lit by a single bulb with the $180 Vernon borrowed from his employer. On Jan. 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley in this very house; his twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, tragically, did not survive.
The family moved out a little more than two years later due to lack of payment. In 1957, Elvis—a bona-fide star by then—returned to play a benefit concert on the Tupelo Fairgrounds. The City of Tupelo purchased the home and the surrounding park where the King spent his early years, and it thankfully still stands and is available to tour as a result. The home sits in its original location, though it has been restored to its original condition.
Also at the birthplace is the 1940’s Assembly of God church through which Elvis got his start in music. While Elvis was obviously known for bringing rock ‘n roll to the masses, gospel was actually where his heart always was, and the very church where he used to get on stage and sing hymns has been moved to the site of his birthplace, restored and incorporated into the compound. Elvis purchased his first guitar at Tupelo Hardware, which is also on the driving tour, and his pastor taught him how to play it. There’s a multimedia activation—a Pentecostal service recreated—that takes place every half hour during the museum’s opening hours, and it’s worth sitting through to get a feel for the environment in which he grew up, as well as watching the biopic about his early years in the theater of the main building.
The birthplace also comprises a park, a museum, the chapel, a gift shop, the Fountain of Life, Walk of Life, the “Elvis at 13” statue and the “Becoming” statue, a depiction of Elvis at 13 vs. Elvis at the peak of his career.
We happened to be in town for Elvis’ 85th birthday, and our introduction to Tupelo was hundreds of bedazzled fans who had come from all over the world to the birthplace to pay tribute to the great. The room pulsed with love and energy. Every year on Jan. 8, admission to the birthplace and museum is free in celebration of the King, and the whole town celebrates his memory throughout the week.
However, this is Tupelo, so even if you can’t make it in January for Elvis’ birthday—or for the even bigger five-day Tupelo Elvis Festival every June—you can enjoy all the memorials in honor of him throughout the year. Everywhere you go in Tupelo, it seems, has a menu item devoted to Elvis. The map will take you to many spots he frequented in his youth—like Tupelo Hardware, which opened its doors in 1926 and from where Elvis got his first guitar—and you won’t be able to escape him, as there are murals, sculptures and guitars donning his face everywhere. Want to make up your own fun little game? Keep track of how many times—and in how many different ways—you spy Elvis in Tupelo during your time there.
Historic Downtown Tupelo
Tupelo is one of many Southern cities we’ve seen in recent travels whose downtown has undergone an entire renaissance over the past 15 years, and we garnered some interesting insight on those changes thanks to locals we met here and there.
Tupelo’s downtown as it exists now is less than a century old because of a devastating tornado in 1936 that wiped out 48 city blocks and left 216 dead and more than 700 injured. Hundreds of homes and buildings were destroyed and, while Tupelo was rebuilt, it suffered as many small towns have in the modernization push of the ’60s and ’70s.
Like many successful downtown revitalizations, a lot of the progress can be attributed to the formation of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association 30 years ago. But one thing we’ve found dramatically different in this particular group is its progressive approach to revitalization: “…we are committed to maintaining [Tupelo’s] historic integrity while adapting it to usher in the modern age,” its mission statement says. Not being adaptable to the current ecosystem in rural America is a death knell for so many historic groups, and we absolutely love everything the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association is doing. The group’s approach to decorating their alleys with patio space and public art while creating more walkable areas in the community is refreshing, as is the current mantra. Small towns, take note of the following!
“Today, downtown is the embodiment of post-war optimism rooted in commerce. It is a dynamic place unencumbered by stereotypes shackling some Southern cities.” —Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association
Downtown’s renaissance officially began with the evolution of the Fairpark District, which got its start in 1999 as a 50-acre urban renewal development by the Tupelo Redevelopment Agency. Before the new Tupelo City Hall was built in Fairpark, lifelong residents told us, the other side of the railroad tracks was completely rundown. The development of the district not only moved City Hall to the other side of the tracks, but created a park around it with green space, free Wi-Fi and, of course, an Elvis sculpture, as well as sparked new facilities and business opportunities right in the heart of Tupelo.
What’s most startling, however, is the number of stores and buildings that survived the mall boom that destroyed many downtown squares across America back in the 1980s. Reed’s, for example, is not only surviving, but thriving; 115 years after it first opened, this family-owned department store still specializes in menswear, but also sell shoes and has a good selection of outdoor gear for women, too, plus an entire upstairs dedicated to children’s clothing. Let’s just say I did not come home empty-handed, and that Charlotte and her baby brother both got fashionable souvenirs from Reed’s!
Reed’s is also notably the former place of employment of Gladys Presley, Elvis’ mother. A photo of her in a group of workers wraps the upper wall, as do other scenes from a bygone era of Tupelo.
Across the street, the massive, three-story, bricked Tupelo Hardware also continues to flourish, still serving as the premier hardware store in town since 1926. On top of supplying about every kind of tool you could possibly need, it also keeps guitars in stock. When Elvis bought his first here, he actually went in in hopes for a .22-caliber rifle, but Gladys talked him into a guitar instead, to the benefit of the world for centuries to come.
Art around Tupelo
Downtown Tupelo is dotted with art offerings like Caron Gallery and Gumtree Museum of Art, as well as boutiques such as L.A. Green and Anna Elizabeth, both of which carried numerous high-end women’s brands. If you need furniture or home wares, there are plenty of places to stock up on those items, too, like RAW Furniture, Blairhaus, Kirksey Brothers and Farmhouse.
While shopping at Reed’s, we happened upon a local muralist, Morris McCain, who is 77 years old, has worked as a shoe salesman for 56 years and paints murals (literally, hundreds!) in his downtime. The backside of Reed’s sports some of his 3-D work, and we saw other pieces he had painted around town.
Tupelo has a postcard mural, created by Reid Caldwell and Kit Stafford, that you can’t miss downtown at 202 W. Main Street, but my favorite of the Tupelo installations is the “Jailbreak Rock” Elvis mural on the side of Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, also created by Stafford.
We almost missed this collection of characters, too, that we spotted on an alley down off of South Broadway Street on our way out of town. A mural doesn’t always have to occupy an entire wall, and I love how the artist incorporates several circus performers throughout an otherwise-drab alley. We’re always looking for fun new ways to do more art in our own town, so this may be an idea we implement in the future!
Music in Tupelo today
So much of what gets the European market over to Tupelo—and much to our surprise, everywhere we went, we heard English, French and German accents—is the Americana Music Triangle. Linking Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans—and all the towns in between—thousands of visitors make this American heritage tour each year, and it only makes sense that Tupelo would be a part of that.
There’s no shortage of places to find live music in Tupelo. In addition to performances at the historic, haunted Lyric Theatre, on any given night, one of the following venues is bound to have a show: Blue Canoe, Courtyard by Marriott, Forklift, Nautical Whimsey, Romie’s Grocery, The Stables, Steele’s Dive, Thirsty Devil or Woody’s. There’s a handy community calendar you can reference for show times during your visit to Tupelo.
Dining around Tupelo
The dining scene in Tupelo is casual and eclectic and, most importantly, damn good. We started our trip at Johnnie’s Drive-In, an institution since 1945, and even managed to nab the coveted Elvis booth; we ordered a doughburger, fries/tots and a milkshake each, the grand total of which came to less than $15. You can’t beat that! I was already a fan of Tupelo with this meal alone.
Breakfast at Connie’s Fried Chicken is also a rite of passage. While I’m not typically a biscuit-for-breakfast fan—I know, I know, you’re revoking my Southerner card—even I couldn’t pass up on this piece of perfectly crisped chicken smashed between a buttery bun. They’re on the smaller side, too, so you can swing through the drive-through and just order a single biscuit if you’re not feeling overly hungry. Connie’s is also known for its deep-fried blueberry donuts, so do with that information what you will.
Lunch at Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen is not only a fun, casual experience, but the perfect way to break up an afternoon of exploring downtown Tupelo. We dined upstairs with two new friends who swear by the salmon salad (which you can get atop a bed of fries instead of lettuce if you wish because, well, this is the South). I had the gyro, while SVV opted for another burger, the patty of which was made out of ground beef and sausage. Take our word and order a plate of parm fries for the table. Are you drooling yet?
For dinner, Forklift is one of Tupelo’s more elevated options with live music several nights a week. We sat on the patio beside the fire pit and shared a trio of mouthwatering morsels: Thai chicken wings, New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp and short ribs.
The following evening, we went to the one place everyone in Tupelo insisted upon and that’s Blue Canoe. This quirky Southern restaurant with a bit of a cajun vibe boasts unique twists on Southern favorites; SVV and I shared the sloppy joe, as well as the pot roast and cornbread waffle. The crack fries are non-negotiable, and neither is the donut bread pudding, which is made from those aforementioned blueberry donuts from Connie’s. Blue Canoe bears the distinction of having the biggest tap list in North Mississippi; it also has live music seven nights a week. On the night we were there, it was a songwriter round featuring a rotating roster of three country singer-songwriters.
There are plenty of sweet treats available in Tupelo, at Crave, at Holly Pop’s Bakery and at PoPsy. I swung by PoPsy on our way out of town to try the Elvis popsicle, only to find they were sold out. No bother, I had the cookies and cream instead and was not disappointed in my order. If you’re looking for something healthier, PoPsy also sells smoothies, açai and pitaya bowls, juices. wraps and more.
If you’re in town exclusively for the King, the CVB has a full list of Elvis-inspired treats in Tupelo.
Drinking in Tupelo
Tupelo doesn’t have a brewery (yet), but it has something just as grand: Queen’s Reward Meadery. Most of the mead I have consumed to date has been homemade by my cousin’s husband, and I realized I’d never actually visited a proper meadery until we met Jeri Carter, who owns Queen’s Reward.
A former elementary school teacher, Jeri and her husband opened Mississippi’s first meadery in 2018; they wanted all ingredients to come from the state, so they spent time finding the perfect apiary in Yazoo County with whom to partner. Their products are made with 100 percent Mississippi honey, and they make several different varieties from a traditional dry to a scarlet noir.
The process to make mead is just like winemaking, only it uses honey instead of grapes. No cooking is involved, and the aging process usually takes about six weeks, though Jeri pointed out that mead ages beautifully—“the longer it sits, the better it gets,” she told us. Currently there are around 500 meaderies in America, and it’s the fastest-growing segment of alcoholic beverages in the country. Queen’s Reward is open for tastings Tuesdays through Saturdays with food trucks there on the weekends and the option to order in from Tupelo 2 Go on the other evenings.
My other favorite place to drink in Tupelo is Downunder, a subterranean, retro-themed bar with a vaguely speakeasy gangster vibe started by an Aussie expat with a sweet cocktail menu that we sipped our way through. It also opens mid-afternoon and has free Wi-Fi, so we posted up here for two rounds of drinks while we caught up on a bit of work.
If java is your sin, there are a few options from which to choose—among them, Lost + Found Coffee Co. at Relic Antiques Market and the Tupelo River mobile espresso cart—but my favorite option is Crave, which whips up specialty coffee drinks like the Shakerag (a whiskey-flavored espresso drink drizzled with caramel). It also sells mouthwatering desserts like a S’mores pie and chocolate chip skillet cookie, plus Killer Cereal’s creative breakfast cereal concoctions on Saturdays.
In all, I was pleasantly surprised by how robust Tupelo’s offerings are, and we definitely left town without doing every last thing we’d mapped out prior to our arrival. While many people stop over for the night to check out Elvis’ birthplace en route to or from Graceland, Tupelo is definitely a destination that has plenty to do to fill a weekend and one of the more unexpectedly delightful Southern cities I’ve been introduced to in years.
Have you explored Tupelo before? Did you have any idea there was so much to do in this small Mississippi city?