As the weather heats up and West Tennessee prepares for its biggest month of the year, Memphis in May, I’m reflecting on 30 years of traveling to Tennessee’s largest, rawest and most delightful city to compile my greatest hits list of things to do in Memphis.
Whether it’s your first visit to the state’s cultural capital or your 10th, you’re traveling with kids or flying solo, you’ll find something fun to strike your fancy on this list of restaurants, tours and attractions in Memphis, some of them touristy and others a bit more insider.
1. Make your own musical PhD
There are so many places to learn about the history of music in Memphis, and Stax Museum is the place to start; you can visit on your own or on this awesome Big Mojo bus tour we took a few years back. Though the original Stax was torn down in the late 80’s, the museum serves as a legacy to its glory years. Nearby, the Blues Hall of Fame Museum also provides a history lesson to Memphis’ melodic past with an extensive music collection of both hits and rare finds for visitors to dip into via its various high-tech listening stations.
Don’t pass on a stop at Sun Studio, whose legacy was cemented by a jam session with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash that was recorded and later dubbed “the Million Dollar Quartet.” The small studio has remained relatively unchanged and is open daily for tours.
Check availability with Memphis Mojo Tours here
2. Take a self-guided tour of Memphis’ murals
I’d argue that Memphis has even more street art than Nashville; street art that is more interesting and less art-by-committee and, thankfully, comprises far fewer wings murals. Don’t know where to start? I’ve got a guide to Memphis murals, complete with a Google Map to guide you along.
3. Stroll down Beale Street
Just like Broadway in Nashville, walking in Memphis (sorry, had to) along Beale Street is one thing you have to do whether you like touristy things or not. Beale Street first began as a meeting place for the African-American community following the Civil War but saw its heyday as an entertainment district in the Roaring 20’s. At the turn of the century, W.C. Handy—“the father of blues”—was one of the bustling avenue’s most prominent residents, and he still has a museum operated out of his former home there.
My tip? Go during daylight hours on the weekdays to avoid full-on mayhem. On top of round-the-clock music, there are always street performers and other fun things taking place on Beale.
Related post: A New Generation of Soul for Memphis Music
4. Wander through Crosstown Concourse
Housed in a former Sears distribution center that sat crumbling for decades, Crosstown Concourse’s $200 million facelift featured a 10-story, 1.1-million-square-foot, mixed-use concept spanning residential spaces, businesses, restaurants and more. Worth a visit: Crosstown Brewery and this cool art bar with globally-inspired cocktails.
5. Sip a flight at Old Dominick Distillery
Memphis’ first distillery since pre-Prohibition, Old Dominick Distillery, opened on the heels of a major legislation change a few years back. The Canale family stepped in to revive its family legacy—which had thrived under founder Domenico Canale from 1866 until Prohibition halted all production nearly a century ago—by bringing back Old Dominick, the sole West Tennessee member of the 26-stop Tennessee Whiskey Trail, in the form of a 50,000-square-foot facility by the river with a bar, large retail area, a rooftop and plenty of room for private events.
Related post: Meet Tennessee Whiskey Trail’s Urban Distilleries
6. Pop into Wiseacre Brewing Co.
We love us some craft beer in this household, and Memphis boasts the largest brewery in the state: Wiseacre Brewing Co. The OG brewery still holds court at the original location on Broad Avenue, but the downtown headquarters is bigger, brighter, and bolder and has dozen of Wiseacre beers and cocktails on taps and available for purchase in cans.
Want to taste some other Memphis brews? Memphis Made now has a sizable distillery in Cooper-Young while Meddlesome Brewing Company in Shelby Farms puts out some funky beers.
7. Check out the underground music scene
Beale Street isn’t the only place to get your live music on. There are plenty of grittier music clubs and venues spread across the city. One of my favorites, Railgarten, is an adult Disneyland of sorts spanning 1.5 acres of a former rail yard with Ping-Pong, volleyball, live music, a diner, an ice cream parlor and plenty of beer on tap. It’s also where some truly great musical acts like Lord T & Eloise play.
8. See a Grizzlies game
Memphis’ only professional sports team is Memphis Grizzlies, and as such, locals go gaga for the Grizz. The NBA team plays at the FedExForum downtown conveniently a stone’s throw from Beale Street each season.
9. Try Memphis barbecue
Many will fight to the death claiming Memphis BBQ is better than all others. While I have no dog in this fight … the rumors are absolutely true! And while I love all barbecue, my favorite kind comes from Memphis. My go-to stops? Central BBQ, Germantown Commissary and Rendezvous; Corky’s BBQ also originated in Memphis. Don’t eat pork? Try Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken instead.
10. Bike to Arkansas
Haven’t been to Arkansas? You can check off two states in one trip by renting a bicycle through Explore Bike Share and pedaling the Big River Crossing over the bridge and across the state line.
Related post: How to Get Outdoors in Memphis, Tennessee
11. Tour the National Civil Rights Museum
If ever there were a more poignant museum that accurately gives patrons a more gut-wrenching look at slavery and its effects on humanity, I have yet to find it. The National Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated is one of those life-changing experience every human needs to have.
12. Learn about Memphis’ Black history
Learning about Black history in Memphis will give you better insight to the racial tension that rips apart areas of the South in present times. And there are few people more qualified to give you such an in-depth look at Memphis from the Underground Railroad to today than Carolyn Michael-Banks, owner of A Tour of Possibilities, and her fellow tour guides.
13. Visit the Memphis Zoo
We’re big zoo fans in my house, and rarely have I had more fun in Memphis than when my whole family went to the zoo a couple summers back. We pet stingrays, we fed giraffes, we rode the train, and we saw every last animal that inhabits the zoo’s 76 acres.
14. Bike the Greenline
Memphis is a bike town, and it comes as no surprise really as the city boasts more than 60 miles of bike trails, including the wildly popular, 10-mile Shelby Farms Greenline. If you’re a cycling enthusiast, this is the city for you.
15. Head north to Meeman-Shelby Forest
The 12,539-acre Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park borders the mighty Mississippi River and is just 13 miles north of downtown Memphis. With a swamp-like terrain and plenty of campsites throughout the park, it’s a great spot to get away to for a weekend or just for an afternoon paddle.
16. Get out in Shelby Farms
Shelby Farms is also another must-do in Memphis. At 4,500 acres, it’s more than five times the size of Central Park, and it’s got SUP, paddleboats, zipling, axe-throwing, horseback riding and much, much more.
17. Do a DIY picnic along the river
I love getting takeout and picnicking outdoors on a balmy Southern evening at the River Garden next to Tom Lee Park; utilize the public seating while dining and watching the sun set over over the Mississippi River.
18. See the Mighty Lights
If you stick around long enough, you’ll get to see the Mighty Lights, which run every half hour on the Hernando De Soto Bridge each night from sundown till 10:30pm. Pack bug spray.
19. Tour Elvis’ former digs
I went 35 years before I finally made it to Graceland, and let me tell you: Even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, the Kings’ splashy digs are worth checking out nonetheless. The house alone is a fantastic display of midcentury modern design, and Elvis’ car and plane collections are impressive to say the least. Check out the ultimate Elvis tour from Graceland to Tupelo in a day or skip the long lines with a private VIP Graceland experience.
20. See a show at Overton Shell
Formerly called the Levitt Shell, the iconic music venue now simply referred to as “the Shell” in Overton Park was the site of Presley’s first live appearance—as an opener. It was long neglected in the 70’s and later saved by the City of Memphis and a non-profit foundation who restored it to its former glory. Now, the open-air amphitheater is a must-visit for music lovers looking to see a show in warmer months.
21. Shop for music-related memorabilia
There are plenty of places to pick up musical memorabilia, from Ditty TV’s Vibe and Dime in South Main to the Gibson Guitar Factory. Looking for instruments? Memphis Drum Shop is worth perusing even if you aren’t a drummer. There’s also Goner Records in Cooper-Young and Shangri-La Records in Midtown for vintage vinyl, as well as Elvis’ former clothier Lansky Bros. on Beale Street.
22. See the Crystal Shine Grotto
You’ll find a bizarre manmade feature deep within East Memphis’ Memorial Park Cemetery. Designed to look like a natural cave, this 1930s relic is surrounded by a zen garden and reflection pond and filled with quartz and peppered with religious imagery.
The cemetery’s original architect and owner thought the grounds needed a bit of jazzing up, so he hired Mexican artist Dionicio Rodríguez to bring his concept of a rock crystal-encrusted cave to life; the project wasn’t finished, though, until decades later when woodworker David Day came along in 1981 and carved the figurines depicting the life of Christ that now inhabit the cave. Crystal Shine Grotto is free and open to the public during the cemetery’s regular hours.
23. Create your own culinary tour of Memphis restaurants
Memphis has a food scene to rival any other city its size, and I recommend making reservations to all of my favorites including Second Line, Hog & Hominy and Gray Canary. Consider yourself a foodie? Use this weekend itinerary for Memphis as your culinary guide.
24. Follow in the footsteps of slaves
Slave Haven, a spot along the Railroad Underground near the Mississippi River, is a fascinating glimpse at the resilience it took all involved to ferry slaves out of Memphis in the 1800s and up to Canada to freedom. The old house isn’t far from the site of the gruesome slave markets, which now bears a historical marker. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet and learn from Elaine Lee Turner, director for the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, who was also a celebrated civil rights activist.
25. See the Peabody ducks on their march
Even if you aren’t staying at the Peabody Hotel, you have to pop in to see the daily march of the ducks from their perch atop the hotel at 11am and back up to their roost at 5pm each day. In between, they swim around in the lobby pond. This is free to check out and so fun, especially with kids. I even got to be an Honorary Duckmaster once!
26. Check out the Broad Avenue Arts District
Home to Wiseacre OG, this blossoming arts district is full of shops, restaurants, bars and a whole lot of cool art.
27. Take the trolley down South Main Street
Just south of downtown, the South Main district is one of my favorites, as it’s brimming with indie shops, bars and other places to fuel up. It’s also got a trolley line that you can ride from one end of Main Street to the other if you simply don’t feel like walking.
28. Honor civil rights activists at I Am a Man Plaza
For the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I Am a Man Plaza alongside Clayborn Temple was a memorial to the Sanitation Strike Workers who were there the evening before his murder. Provoked by the deaths of colleagues due to unsafe conditions, the sanitation workers began peaceful protesting, protests met with violent opposition. Dr. King gave his iconic speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at Bishop Charles Mason Temple on the evening before he was assassinated at the age of 39.
29. Check out Orange Mound
A historically black neighborhood in Memphis, Orange Mound is worth driving through to check out the local businesses like the Collective (The CLTV), which houses the city’s first museum for black artists, The COMPLX, where the artistic community can showcase their original pieces. The art gallery on 2234 Lamar Ave. is free to visit.
30. Stroll through the Victorian Village
Don’t sleep on Memphis Victorian district; its home to some of the most well-preserved mansions in town, including Woodruff-Fontaine House and the 1886 Queen Anne mansion that formerly housed Mollie Fontaine Lounge.
31. Wander through this Amtrak-station-turned hotel
Central Station isn’t just cool because it was a historic rail station. It’s cool because it’s still an Amtrak rail station and a hotel in one—with the coolest decor in town. Wander through the stunning lobby, grab a drink in the bar or nab a table at on-site Bishop restaurant while you’re there.
There are dozens of other things to do in Memphis, but hopefully this is a good start in helping you plan your trip to Tennessee. Have any questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll be glad to answer!
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