From Elvis Presley to Isaac Hayes to Aretha Franklin, Memphis has produced more musical legends than most American cities. And that rich musical heritage is highlighted on the city’s most popular historic strip, Beale Street. Home to blues legend W.C. Handy, Beale also served as the birthplace for the blues and a young Elvis Presley was inspired by the sounds he heard coming from the strip’s many nightclubs.
But plenty of other American history played out on Beale Street and its environs. In fact, Memphis is a city unlike any other given how nearly every nook and cranny is reminiscent of American history. Ulysses S. Grant stationed his headquarters on Beale Street during the Civil War (at the Phelan Home, which now houses an elegant restaurant). The 1920s brought some of the country's hottest nightclubs and vaudeville theaters, not to mention a very popular red-light district and an escalating crime rate. Before and during the Civil Rights Movement, Beale served as the city center's African American commerce and culture. Memphis was at the crux of the American Civil Rights Movement, as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in this city helped to galvanize the movement. Not to be overlooked is the nation's largest river, the Mighty Mississippi, a big reason why Memphis was settled and is still an intriguing presence.
With so much history behind it, Memphis deserves your undivided attention, and we are here to help you make the most of your stay.
For sightseeing, we suggest you take advantage of tour shuttles and taxis. You won't need to rent a car if, say, Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music will be your only excursions from Downtown Memphis. Keep in mind that it's usually necessary to call a cab since taxi stands are scarce and the city’s bus system is notoriously difficult to navigate. (A rental car is recommended if you are exploring extensively beyond Downtown.) One of your first stops should be the Tennessee State Welcome Center, which has loads of brochures as well as savvy staffers who can answer any question. NOTE: AS OF JUNE 10, 2014, TROLLEY RAIL LINES ARE TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED FOR EXTENEDED MAINTENANCE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. THERE IS CURRENTLY A TEMPORARY BUS SERVICE ALONG THE MAIN STREET MALL TROLLEY ROUTE.
When it comes to accommodations, downtown is your best bet, as it is convenient to most attractions and many clubs and restaurants. The Westin Memphis Beale Street features a Starbucks in the lobby and Beale Street just outside the door. Another downtown option is Madison Hotel, a plush boutique hotel with jazzy décor. Memphis' famous grand hotel is The Peabody, which, in its current location, dates to 1925, when it replaced the original, smaller Peabody built in 1869. Long a social center of the city, it is best known for its resident ducks, which from their rooftop domicile waddle to the lobby fountain for an afternoon of swimming and entertaining the throngs who come to view their activity. This campy ceremony attracts a crowd, as, under the watchful eye of their attendant, the ducks exit their elevator and parade down a red carpet to the fountain in two daily marches at 11 a.m. and at 5 p.m.
MEMPHIS DAY 1: National Civil Rights Museum, Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum and The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art
For your first day's morning nourishment, consider an elegant breakfast at Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse, the main dining establishment in The Peabody. Then begin your Memphis sightseeing by exploring the city's African-American culture and history. Take the trolley on your own or check with Blues City Tours for a more structured itinerary. Start with the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — leader of the campaign that brought about civil rights reform — was assassinated in 1968. Continue by exploring historic Beale Street, between Main and Fourth Streets, the heart of the African-American community at the turn of the 20th century and now home to numerous nightclubs, shops and restaurants. While on Beale Street, visit the tiny W. C. Handy Home and Museum, former residence of the man who penned "The Memphis Blues" and became known as the "Father of the Blues." Don't miss A. Schwab, a general store that has been doing business since 1876. Browse for everything from inexpensive souvenirs to fine china, not to mention voodoo cures for life's problems.
You can lunch on Beale Street, perhaps at the Blues City Cafe, or walk north on Second Street for more choices, including Flying Fish for fried catfish, or Huey's for award-winning burgers.
In the afternoon venture off the beaten path to Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, a home said to have been a way station for runaway slaves. You can also explore Downtown's many other attractions and shopping opportunities. The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art boasts a collection of more than 400 Chinese artifacts, with exquisite and rare pieces that include intricately carved ivory and jade, among them a magnificent dragon ship. You can also take the trolley to the South Main Historic Arts District, where you'll find galleries, shops and The Arcade Restaurant — a vintage diner you may recognize from movies such as "Mystery Train and "21 Grams." Or splurge and take high tea at Chez Philippe, the Versailles-like restaurant at The Peabody.
This grand hotel is also a pleasant place to conclude your day. Arrive around 4 p.m. and order a drink in The Lobby Bar. The drinks are pricey, but the bartenders make a mean martini. Plus, the bar offers you a front-row seat to the five o'clock "march," as the resident ducks leave their fountain, reprise the red carpet trip to the elevator and retire to their rooftop home. You might also ask if you can catch the sunset over the Mississippi from the roof; check out the ducks' accommodations while you're up there.
For dinner, downtown options range from perennially hip Automatic Slim's Tonga Club to Itta Bena, hidden just above B. B. King's Blues Club. Many visitors head for The Rendezvous, one of the city's liveliest and most popular purveyors of Memphis barbecue.
To cap the evening, stroll along Beale Street, where live blues and jazz are sure to lure you into one of the clubs. Good bets: Rum Boogie Café, King's Palace Café or B.B. King's Blue Club.
Founded in 1819, Memphis started as a rowdy river town frequented by Davy Crockett, future Texas governor Sam Houston, who also served as governor of Tennessee (1827-1829) and future President Andrew Jackson. Wealthy plantation owners helped tame it, and with the Mississippi River at its front door, the city grew as a commercial center and crossroads. Cotton was and still is a major economic force, but today the city is also home to FedEx, which keeps the airport bustling at night.
In the early 1900s, W.C. Handy put the city on the map and gave birth to a new form of music with his song, "The Memphis Blues." In the 1950s, a young man named Elvis Presley walked into a Memphis studio to record a song in a style that would reverberate around the world. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated here. The city saw its downtown deteriorate during the 1970s, but in recent years historic preservation, renovation and residential development have brought it back to life. Fortunately, the city has recognized and is capitalizing on its wealth of music history, as well as its African-American heritage, Southern culture and river lore.
Continue to Day 2
* Top image courtesy
Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau