Memphis is a Mississippi River town defined by the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., its rich music history, and delicious barbecue. It’s a city you won’t want to rush through and will need at least 3 days to explore, giving you time to take in all of the experiences.
These are 11 fantastic things to do in Memphis, Tennessee.
1. National Civil Rights Museum
The Lorraine Motel
The National Civil Rights Museum is an extremely moving experience as one might expect. If you arrive without doing much research, you may think the focus will be on that fateful day in April of 1968. It is so much more. The museum takes visitors from the beginning of slavery through today. Each exhibit immerses you in a significant time during the Civil Rights Movement, walking you through the strategy, persistence, and danger involved with each step.
The room where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his last night is exactly as it was when he was assassinated, as are the cars out front. Seeing as it was in 1968 stops you in your tracks.
Part of the visit also includes visiting the boarding house across the street where James Earl Ray stayed, the view he would have had of Room 306, and the search for him after he assassinated King.
The Home Of Elvis Presley
Graceland, the pride and private home of The King of Rock and Roll, is today a complex of buildings filled with his memorabilia. His home and its grounds are still as they were — the jungle room, downstairs entertainment area, swimming pool, and racquetball building.
Across the street are Elvis’s planes and exhibits featuring his cars, dozens of jumpsuits, gold records, golf carts, and more. It may feel over the top, but that’s Graceland.
Graceland offers a variety of tours. We chose the least expensive, a self-guided audio tour, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
3. Sun Studio
The Birthplace Of Rock And Roll
You don’t need to be a music fan to get goosebumps when you walk into Sun Studio. Elvis, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison first recorded here. Knowing you’re standing where they and so many extraordinary musicians recorded, you may feel all shaken up.
The tour takes you into mainly three rooms, but it was amazing, thanks in large part to a fantastic tour guide. Our guide vividly set the scene and relayed the historic events so well, it felt like we were there when they happened.
The highlight of the tour is the hands-on experience at the end where everyone is able to take a picture with the original Shure 55 microphone used by the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and others. You can see Elvis holding the exact same microphone in a photo hanging on the wall and you’re able to do the same.
Tours of the studio take place every day and in the evening. It’s open for nightly recording sessions for $200 per hour.
4. Stax Museum Of American Soul Music
The Stax Museum details the history of soul music. Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Mar-Keys, and others collaborated here. The museum starts where soul music began — a Mississippi Delta church. Artists are then featured with highlights of their accomplishments and memorabilia. There’s a spot to take a spin on a small dance floor and you can stand in the same room where the historic recordings took place.
The most fascinating part of the museum is the story of the people who worked together to create this amazing music utopia. It was a place where talent and collaboration prevailed and skin color didn’t matter at a time when the opposite was true pretty much everywhere else. But the events happening in Memphis and around the country eventually became too much. The atmosphere at Stax changed and eventually, business decisions led it into bankruptcy. To think of what could have been will sit with you when you leave.
5. Beale Street
Home Of The Blues
One of the most well-known streets in the country, Beale Street is the heartbeat of Memphis. It’s attracted blues musicians since the late 1800s. The names we still know today — Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters — performed here from the 1920s through the 1940s and are credited with creating the Memphis Blues sound.
Spend time drinking in the live music at the many blues clubs that line the street like B.B. King’s Blues Club, Jerry Lee Lewis Cafe & Honky Tonk, and Rum Boogie Cafe. Stumble into anyone you like, any time of day, and it’s sure to be a great time!
While on Beale Street, don’t miss A. Schwab. Started in 1876, it’s the oldest shop on the street.
6. Peabody Duck March
The Peabody Memphis
You don’t want to miss the Peabody Duck March when visiting Memphis. It may seem odd to plan a day around watching five mallard ducks quickly waddle from the hotel elevators to the lobby fountain at 11 a.m. or waddle back at 5 p.m. to go up to their home on the roof, but it’s an entertaining 30 minutes or so.
The Duckmaster (real title) marches the ducks to and fro with the help of an honorary Duckmaster. Arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of the march to make sure you find a spot where you can see. I would recommend arriving even earlier, especially if it’s a weekend, and grabbing a cocktail to enjoy while you wait. Kids are allowed to sit along the red carpet which runs from the elevators to the fountain; gather to wait in that area if you have tweens or younger with you.
If you’re not interested in the pomp and circumstance, visit the ducks swimming in the fountain anytime between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
7. Memphis Pyramid
Bass Pro Shops And Big Cypress Lodge
Once home to the University of Memphis and Memphis Grizzlies basketball teams, today, the Memphis Pyramid is an outdoor lover’s mecca that’s ironically mostly indoors. While some just come to shop at Bass Pro Shops and wander through the cypress swamp, there’s more to do than you might think. Go bowling at The Fishbowl; ride the glass elevator to eat at The Lookout or just take in a great view of Memphis and the Mississippi River; enjoy happy hour; or roast some s’mores on the Mississippi Terrace.
You can spend the night at the Pyramid. Big Cypress Lodge has 103 rooms, some with screened-in porches, overlooking the cypress swamp.
8. Johnny Cash Statue
Memphis Art Project
You’ll find a statue of Johnny Cash holding his guitar outside the former Galloway Methodist Church. Cash was asked to perform for a church fundraiser — his first public performance. The Memphis Art Project has put together an interactive map to help visitors see all of the unique pieces of public art and statues throughout the city.
9. Memphis Barbecue
I’m sure you can visit Memphis without eating barbecue, but I wouldn’t recommend it. We tried Central BBQ, Rendezvous, and Cozy Corner and would eat at all of them again. Central BBQ is located next to the Civil Rights Museum if you happen to visit around lunch or dinner.
10. Blues Hall Of Fame Museum
Take a walk through Blues history at the Blues Hall of Fame Museum. The museum features 400+ members of the Blues Hall of Fame, showcasing their accomplishments and memorabilia. A few unique items not to miss: Stevie Ray Vaughan’s kimono, Donald “Duck” Dunn’s Lakeland electric bass, and Pee Wee Crayton’s Fender Stratocaster guitar.
11. Memphis Music Hall Of Fame
The Memphis Music Hall of Fame showcases many of the artists you’d see at the other museums in town like Elvis, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. It’s a perfect stop if you want to see a little bit of everything and don’t have time to see the others. It’s located just off Beale Street.
Bonus: More To Explore In Memphis
We were only in Memphis for a quick weekend and could have stayed longer. The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum wasn’t open when we visited, but a friend who lives in Memphis says it is absolutely worth a visit. She also recommended the Memphis Botanic Garden and Shelby Farms Park.
I’m likely a bit biased as a Cardinals fan, but I can’t wait to go back and see the Memphis Redbirds play at AutoZone Park. We were there right before the season started. NBA fans might also want to catch a Grizzlies game at FedEx Forum.
Where To Stay
We stayed at The Memphian located in Overton Square, about 10 minutes from downtown. The hotel has a great vibe — comfortable yet chic. The Tiger & Peacock on the top floor is an eclectic spot to grab a nightcap and we enjoyed our breakfast at Complicated Pilgrim. You can take it to go or sit down and eat.
Overton Square is a very walkable area with a variety of great restaurants and shops, including a fantastic candy and ice cream store called Sweet Noshings.