For as long as I remember, I’ve been visiting Memphis annually. My mom’s only sibling has lived there my entire life, and we have a large contingency of close cousins who call it home, as well. It’s simply one of my favorite places in Tennessee, so underrated, diverse in offerings and relatively chill compared to the personified chaos Nashville has devolved into. But it’s also the largest city in the state—so to ensure you don’t spend the entire time in the car, I put together this weekend guide so you can be mindful about planning your visit to Memphis.
Where to Stay in Memphis
First things first: You need to book your hotel. And boy do I have a good one for you!
The bulk of Memphis’ best hotels and lodging options are located in the downtown district, the oldest part of the city. On previous visits, I’ve always stayed at the iconic Peabody, but this particular trip fell just weeks after the Hotel Indigo Memphis opened just a few blocks up. Not only do I adore a good boutique hotel, but I love being one of the first guests at a brand spankin’ new property.
It was my first time staying at any Hotel Indigo and from the murals that greeted us in the parking garage to the top-notch service at the check-in desk, I knew this hotel was my style.
Hotel Indigo is located on the site of the first Holiday Inn in Downtown Memphis, which was built back in 1963. (Fun fact: Memphis gave birth to the global Holiday Inn brand, now a part of InterContinental Hotels Group—also the parent company to Hotel Indigo—back in 1952.) It was most recently an EconoLodge, but a $15 million renovation transformed it into this midcentury-modern dream.
The 119 guest rooms are located on the top three floors of the 10-story building that was added to the National Register of Historic Places just last year with a Palm Springs-like pool right in the middle. Since we were visiting in winter, we didn’t get to go for a swim, but I can imagine this is a glorious place to soak up the sun in warmer months.
The entire hotel is fused with musical elements, a harmonious nod to Memphis’ heritage, and the design of the lobby as well as each guest room is an MCM lover’s delight. I literally squealed with glee (just as SVV) as I took in every detail and splash of color, making mental notes to how I want to incorporate similar elements into the redesign of our new midcentury-modern home.
Coming soon, the hotel will also have a restaurant, 3rd and Court, by local restaurateur Ryan Trimm whose Sweet Grass | Next Door duo in Cooper-Young is one of my favorites.
Day 1: Friday
Every visit in Memphis should start at the National Civil Rights Museum to understand the city’s cultural landscape and racially-charged past. It’s been over 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, and Memphis was forever changed by this. One of the things I really respect about the city is that they don’t try to bury the past, but rather use this as a teachable moment about black history from the days of the slave trade to the present.
Since the last time we were in town, I Am a Man Plaza debuted next to Clayborn Temple as a memorial to the Sanitation Strike Workers who were with Dr. King the evening before his murder. Provoked by the deaths of a couple of their colleagues, the sanitation workers began protesting better wages and working conditions in February, peaceful protests that were met with violent opposition. Dr. King came to town in April to support the 1,300 men on strike carrying signs emblazoned with their slogan “I AM A MAN” and gave his now famous speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at Bishop Charles Mason Temple on the evening before his assassination by James Earl Ray. He was 39 then. It’s hard to believe he’d be 90 now were he still alive.
California-based sculptor Cliff Garten was chosen to create the memorial for the plaza, and he was quoted far and wide saying this a space is for everyone to reflect on the cost of justice.
“When America again grapples with our history of racism by removing hierarchical monuments across the South, we in Memphis have built a very different kind of memorial. I Am a Man Plaza is not a hierarchical place. It is horizontal. It is inclusive and it is participatory.”
Though it’s a heavy way to start a visit, it will give you important context for the rest of your exploration of Memphis. From the Civil Rights Museum, walk north to Beale Street and feel the city’s musical pulse. I’m not one big on crowds, so I love walking in Memphis with feet 10 feet off of Beale (sorry…had to) on a weekday when it’s less crowded.
While there, you can grab a beer, take in some live music and pop by A. Schwab, a dry goods store that has been a Memphis staple since 1876.
After you’ve danced down Beale, hop in your car and drive to Overton Square, where you have plenty of delicious options like Babalu Tacos & Tapas and Memphis Pizza Cafe for lunch. Overton Square was formerly an economically prosperous neighborhood that fell into a blighted state in the 1980s—businesses shutter, it fell into disrepair, it was at risk for demolition until new visionaries took it over in 2012 and brought it back to a thriving state. Today, Overton is full of cute boutiques, but it also houses Overton Park, home to the Memphis Zoo and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Andrea Zucker / Andrea Zucker Photography/ Memphis Tourism
The Memphis Zoo is large and takes several hours to explore in its entirety. I’ve visited on several occasions with my young cousins, and we love seeing the polar bears, giant pandas and gorillas. The newest exhibit is the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, which houses hippos, flamingos, Nile crocodiles and other exotic animals.
Andrea Zucker / Andrea Zucker Photography/ Memphis Tourism
If you’re in town over a weekend, there’s a good chance your visit will overlap with a show at the famed Levitt Shell, the site of Elvis’ first public performance. Like the rest of the Overton areas, this outdoor venue has seen a renaissance in recent years and added 50 concerts annually that are free to the public.
Whether there’s a show or not, be sure and factor in time for a drink at Alchemy in Cooper-Young. It boasts one of the best happy hours in the city—half-off most drinks and appetizers from 4 to 6pm on weekdays—and a crazy-long list of bourbons and whiskey to sample.
Since you’re already in the area, you’d be a foot not to make a reservation at the Beauty Shop, which is always a must for me no matter the day of the week or meal of the day. I’ve been there for lunch, brunch and now dinner; it’s consistently my favorite restaurant in Memphis. And with a motto of “Look Good. Eat Good,” what’s not to love?
Since 2002, this hip restaurant has been a fixture in Cooper-Young. It occupies a former beauty parlor, in case you couldn’t tell from the overarching theme of the place. I love a creative concept that gives a nod to its building’s former inhabitants, don’t you?
The food offerings are as eclectic as the decor—no, really, you’ll find Thai, Southern, Hawaiian, Japanese and Jewish cuisine all sharing the same menu—ranging from fan favorites like the Watermelon & Wings to the Pork & Peach, which I hungrily devoured on this occasion.
For those who like to burn the midnight oil, Beale Street is happening any evening of the week, so once you’re done at Beauty Shop, roll yourself back downtown for a night on the town. Looking for a more relaxed nightcap? Head to the (allegedly) haunted (and former brothel) Earnestine & Hazel’s for a beer and soul burger.
Day 2: Saturday
Up and at ’em—it’s brunch time! We’ve always gravitated toward Brother Juniper’s near the University of Memphis for family brunches, but this time we made the pilgrimage to Broad Avenue Arts District. And what a change this creative hub has undergone in recent years.
Our first stop of the morning was brunch at Bounty on Broad, where we settled in at a table by the window on the second floor for a feast of Cajun-influenced fare with plenty of Memphis pizzazz; I had the BBQ Benedict atop slaw and polenta cakes, while SVV opted for the Grits & Grillades. There were even vegetable juice cocktails on the drinks menu. Aquavit in my carrot juice? Talk about having my cake and eating it, too! Bounty on Broad serves brunch every Saturday and Sunday, and I highly suggest making a reservation.
I always like to take a stroll after a heavy brunch as my food settles, and the Broad Avenue Arts District was the perfect place to do just that. Brimming with independent, artist-owned boutiques like Falling Into Place and Bingham & Broad, it was hard not to go credit card-crazy, particularly with a new house to outfit with all the pretty things. Good thing we’ll be back next month!
At Five in One Social Club, we met one of the owners who told us all about their screen-printing operation a few blocks over, and you know SVV is never one to turn down a cool T-shirt, so he did not leave empty-handed. At Falling Into Place, keeping true to form, SVV left with a new plant and I scored a cool new pair of earrings. Basically, any kind of home accent or accessory you desire you can find along Broad Avenue’s impressive retail row.
After you’ve done a little retail therapy, go see our pals Kellan and Davin at Wiseacre Brewing Co., the award-winning brewery they opened in 2013 that is responsible for such popular brews as Tiny Bomb, Ananda and, my personal favorite, the Gotta Get Up to Get Down coffee stout. A second brewery location downtown is currently in the works.
There are a few brightly-colored murals in the area, so be sure and factor in some time to seek them out, as well. And stay tuned for a full mural guide to Memphis, coming very soon!
Three miles due east of the arts district, Crosstown Concourse adds its own flair to Memphis’ growing entrepreneur scene. This former Sears distribution center sat empty for decades until some community activists reconfigured a use for it, to the tune of $200 million with its focus being the contemporary arts. Ninety years after the building was first constructed, the 10-story, 1.1-million-square-foot Crosstown Concourse debuted in 2017 as a mixed-use concept with apartments, businesses, restaurants and more. It’s also now got a brewery and a cool art bar with globally-inspired cocktails.
Check the Crosstown Concourse calendar prior to your visit as this hub for the arts regularly hosts live music, screenings, exhibits, talks and other special events.
Now time for your Saturday’s pièce de résistance: dinner at the Gray Canary. From James Beard-nominated duo Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer, the chef-owners behind some my other favorite local institutions like Hog & Hominy and Catherine & Mary’s, the Gray Canary is housed in Old Dominick Distillery and, as you’d expect, places a major focus on a five-star cocktail program.
SVV and I sipped our way through the recommendations of our server, as we paired our cocktails with oysters and several shared small plates, the beets with smoked yogurt and dill and the sweet potato with chorizo, meyer lemon, mint, crème fraîche and pecans being our favorites. By the time the main course—the TGC burger came along—we were almost full, so I’m glad we opted to share a main.
But if you’re thinking that meant we skipped dessert, you clearly don’t know me. I had my eye on the flaming s’mores concoction that is lit with grappa from the moment we walked in the restaurant, and it did not disappoint!
Day 3: Sunday
On Sunday morning, you’ve got a few different options for breakfast downtown: a casual bite at Tamp & Tap, a full-on feast at Memphis’ oldest diner, the Arcade, or a pastry to go from Bluff City Coffee & Bakery (those homemade Pop-tarts are one of my favorite treats, hands down!).
Hurry up, though, because you have a trip to Soulsville U.S.A. on your docket for the day!
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten more into Memphis’ musical history through research and writing projects, and while I’d written about Stax Museum in the past, this was my first pilgrimage to the site of the former recording label that siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton started in 1950 (“Stax” is a combination of the first letters of their surnames). It’s such an important part of the evolution of modern-day blues and soul music, but I’ve got a full post coming on that next month.
A lot of places in Memphis are closed on Sundays, like the rest of the South, but Stax opens at 10am daily, except for Mondays when it’s closed, making Sunday morning the ideal time for a visit. Be there when the doors open to avoid crowds, and take your workout clothes with you, as you’re going to want to check out Memphis Rox when you’re through.
If you think Memphis Rox is just another cool climbing gym, you would be wrong. For starters, their ethos is to “bring rehabilitation, healing and a renewed sense of hope to challenged communities by providing a climbing facility and programs to foster relationships across cultural, racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.”
This company aims to foster community and encourage fitness by instituting a “pay-what-you-can policy.” So those who can’t afford a gym membership can still come here to use the facilities and take advantage of the juice bar for free to almost nothing. And for those who do want to be regular members but the financial burden is too much, there’a also the option to volunteer at the facility in exchange for membership. How cool is that? Beyond the walls, there’s also a second level with treadmills, stationary bikes, weight machines, yoga rooms, the whole nine yards.
And, now that you’ve worked off those calories you’re about to consume, no trip to Soulsville U.S.A. is complete without lunch at the Four Way, a traditional Southern meat-and-three that has anchored the neighborhood since 1946. Fill up before you hit the road (or airport) and venture back home.
We’ll be back again in the spring. Anything about Memphis you’ve always wanted to know?
This post is in partnership with Memphis Travel. All opinions, as always, are my own.