I may choose to live in a foreign country and fly wherever my wallet will allow, but the number one destination for me will always be my lil ol’ hometown, Memphis, TN. It’s a good place. To those reading for whom the whole American South seems like a blur of health problems and conservative Christianity, let me situate you: Memphis is a city all snuggled up in the corner of the state of Tennessee, bumpin’ shoulders with Arkansas and the Mississippi River, which fuels both classic American literature and classic Southern humidity.
While of course the nostalgia of my childhood and early adulthood make me biased, not to mention the fact that my whole family is there, I feel confident saying that Memphis is a hidden gem of US travel. Sure, if you only have one chance to visit my country, the east or west coast may have a bit more to see and do, I can’t deny that. But if you’ve got the time for a drive down south, Memphis is worth the visit.
Here’s a quick list of my Memphis favorites, to both tempt you to visit and give you an idea of what to do while you’re here. Settle in, y’all, and let me take you on a tour.
Ya Gotta Eat
The South is known for our southern hospitality, and that means making sure no guest of ours goes hungry. So once you get to Memphis, it’s time to sit down and eat some barbecue. While the Rendezvous is our best-known spot, and not a bad one at that, I usually recommend Central, The BBQ Shop, or Cozy Corner. More specifically, the barbecue nachos at Central, a pulled-pork sandwich with coleslaw on texas toast at the BBQ Shop, or the cornish hen at Cozy Corner. You really can’t go wrong. Bonus points if you wash it all down with a beer from one of our breweries–my favorite being the Ghost River golden.
If you’re not a meat eater, never fear, we’ve got options. It might not be barbecue, but it will be tasty. Try out Fuel for vegan and veggie pizzas, Two Vegan Sistas for your raw needs, Imagine Vegan Cafe for a huge menu, the cafe at Crosstown for vegan pastries and more, etc. The list goes on.
This city is absolutely adhering to the idea that the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. So eat up, y’all.
Walk It Off
Once you’ve had your fill, it’s time for some sightseeing. There is of course Graceland, but I really only recommend that if you’re a die-hard fan of Elvis. Otherwise, you’ll just be paying a lot of money to tour a retro house. Take a walk along the Mississippi River, instead, and stroll across the Big River Crossing. It’s free!
Sun Studio, as opposed to Graceland, I recommend to all. It’s more affordable and more interesting–somewhere you can learn some key Rock n Roll history, stand in the actual studio where Elvis played, plus hear outtakes from classic recording sessions.
My other constant recommendation is the National Civil Rights Museum. Memphis has a painful racial history, the wounds of which still haven’t completely healed. The Lorraine Motel is where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, and while that’s a shameful part of this city’s legacy, the museum that’s been erected around it is an important means to reckon with that history, to see what effects endure to this day, and to learn about the activism that addresses it. Clear out an afternoon. Go to the Civil Rights Museum.
Out on the Town
When it comes to nightlife, I can’t go without mentioning Beale Street. It is pretty touristy these days, but not a bad time. You can catch some live music at BB King’s, Rum Boogie, and a variety of other bars, drink an absurdly large Hurricane at Silky’s, and stumble around some dance floors. Be warned, though, you’ll have to pay a slight cover charge to enter the street itself, and most bars have their own charges on top of that, so the cost can add up.
If you’re looking for some more laid-back fun, the bars in the Cooper-Young area are worth hopping, from DKDC to Celtic Crossing. You could also go dancing at the Rumba Room, ghost-hunt & chill at Ernestine & Hazel’s along South Main, or see a movie followed by drinks in Overton Square.
You can’t leave Memphis without seeing some live music, so if you’re not planning on getting your blues fix on Beale Street, see who’s playing at The Hi-Tone, Minglewood Hall, The Fed-Ex Forum for the big shows, and check the schedule for music, karaoke, or open-mic nights at various bars like the P&H or Dru’s (drag on Thursdays and Saturdays!). If you’re here over the summer, the Levitt Shell hosts free shows every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Bring a picnic blanket and a bottle of wine.
Y’all, I know, this is a lot, and I’m really trying not to overload you, but I have a lot to say. I lived here two decades, you know. Here’s my last handful of pointers that I just can’t stand to forget, and then I’ll wrap it up, I promise.
Go to Muddy’s for sweets and a lovely atmosphere. I’d recommend their Midtown location, even though it’s not the original, for better coffee, more non-cupcake options, and space to sit and stay a while. The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic art is the most surprisingly beautiful and intricate art I’ve ever seen in town, and I only first found out it existed last year. $4 for students, $6 for adults. Otherlands, Muddy’s, Java Cabana, French Truck, or City & State for coffee.
The best time to visit is in May, when the Memphis in May festival features the Beale Street Music Festival, Barbecue Fest, and more. If not May, definitely in the summer, when the city comes alive with free music and movie screenings. The best place to stay is in Midtown, if you can find a comfy little Airbnb in that neighborhood. An apartment along Main Street isn’t a bad choice either, although Midtown has a more homey, artsy feel.
For events specific to your arrival, I Love Memphis Blog and Choose 901 feature things to do every week of the year, so you can check out whatever bizarre happening is going on just in time for your visit.
Okay! I’m done! There is more to say, but I’m trying to keep this thing an internet-friendly length and keep y’all reading ’til the end. Feel free to ask questions or add recommendations in the comments if you want to keep the party going.
Memphis, you’re doing great, sweetie.