Pocket Guide: Memphis
It’s the largest city on the Mississippi River, and there is history seeping from every Memphis sidewalk. Home of the blues, barbecue, Elvis Presley and the Civil Rights movement, this laid-back town is unquestionably one of the most exciting, atmospheric destinations in the South.
The appeal of Memphis lies in its mix of nostalgia and innovation. Sleek contemporary restaurants, vintage stores, hipster design agencies and old boothed diners line the reinvigorated downtown streets, while just a couple of blocks away the steamboats which once transported cotton down the Mississippi now depart the river landing packed with tourists on a sunset cruise.
Despite the turbulent events Memphis lived through during the 20th century, it certainly isn’t living in the past. Modern-day Bluff City is witnessing a continued renaissance in its inner neighbourhoods and outer suburbs, with a collection of newly built hotels, restaurants and museums luring music fans and history buffs from around the USA and worldwide.
Memphis: Home of the Blues
Few places in the United States are more significant to music lovers than Memphis. The city may be known as the birthplace of the blues, but its musical heritage covers rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, soul and rockabilly, too, and there’s no shortage of venues to catch a show.
You could start in Beale Street, the original ‘home of the blues’, though locals would probably say you should head to a more authentic juke joint like Wild Bill’s if you’re a serious fan.
Other Memphis musical must-sees include the excellent Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Soulsville and record producer Sam Phillips’ tiny Sun Studio on Union Avenue, which allegedly recorded the first ever rock ‘n’ roll single before launching the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.
But without a doubt, the biggest musical draw in Memphis is Graceland, the former Colonial Revival mansion of Elvis Presley, and where he lived with his family until his death in 1977. The home – now part of a museum complex which includes Elvis’s custom jets and an automobile museum – is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the USA.
Civil Rights and Memphis Highlights
Memphis will forever be linked with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, brought to life with great care at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
The museum puts you in the period leading up to King’s death, and explores all the events of the time, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the student sit-ins of the 1960s. The self-guided experience starts in the original Lorraine Motel building and continues in the boarding house across the street, from where James Earl Ray’s gun was allegedly fired.
Other Memphis highlights include its undisputed position as BBQ capital of the USA, with top-notch barbecue and Southern soul food restaurants found all across the city.
Be sure to catch the daily ritual of the Peabody Hotel’s ducks arriving for their morning splash in the lobby fountain, or head over to the relative peace of Mud Island for an afternoon stroll.