Memphis city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in the birthplace of rock’n’roll

Jacqui Agate
Walking in Memphis: Getty

Few places on Earth match Memphis’s musical legacy. The city has nourished legends such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, and plenty of attractions honour this harmonious heritage.

Memphis is more than a sum of its musical parts, though. It’s also a city steeped in poignant Civil Rights history, and one whose artsy neighbourhoods speak volumes about the creativity of Memphians.

There’s never been a better time to walk to Memphis’s beat.

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What to do

Follow the Civil Rights trail

Martin Luther King Jr was giving a speech on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel on 4 April 1968 when he was fatally wounded by a single bullet.

Today, this spot is marked by a wreath and the motel has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. Entry is £12 ($16), and exhibits chronicle the history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, the sit-in movement and more. Other significant sites include Clayborn Temple, the hub for the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that led King to Memphis in the first place.

Motel sign at the National Civil Rights Museum (Getty)

Drop in on the Withers Collection too. This dinky Beale Street gallery houses work by photojournalist Ernest C Withers, who focused on African-American culture and the Civil Rights movement throughout his career.

Walk in Elvis Presley’s blue suede shoes

The ghost of Elvis is around every corner in Memphis. The king of rock’n’roll​ kickstarted his career here, having left his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, as a teenager. He called the city home right up until his death in 1977.

No trip is complete without a tour of Graceland, the Memphis house Elvis bought in 1957. Highlights include the tropical-themed “Jungle Room”, with its forest-green carpets and dark-wood furniture, and the Meditation Garden, where Elvis and his family are laid to rest. Be sure to explore the wider exhibits here too: the Presley Motors Automobile Museum includes that famed pink Cadillac. Adult tours start from £31 ($41).

A visit to Graceland is a must (Getty)

Levitt Shell, a music venue in Overton Park, is also worth a visit. Elvis played his first official billed performance here in 1954 and free concerts are held throughout the year.

Dig deeper into Memphis’s musical past

Elvis is but one piece of Memphis’s musical jigsaw. Head to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Soulsville (entry £10; $13). The museum is a replica of the former Stax recording studio, home of revered soul artists such as Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. You’ll learn about soul music’s roots in blues and gospel, and a Mississippi Delta church dating to around 1906 is one of the first things that greets you.

The most visceral experience of all is a tour of the Sun Studio. This humble building on Union Avenue cut what is considered to be the world’s first rrock’n’roll record: “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. It also gave birth to musical greats including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and the King himself. During your visit, you’ll hear recordings from a spontaneous jam session by this so-called “Million Dollar Quartet”, plus snippets from the first time a nervous young Presley was recorded. Entry is £11 ($14).

Rock out on Beale Street

Allow yourself to be swallowed up by the musical mecca that is Beale Street. Pass through the neon gulch, soaking up the blues ballads and rock’n’roll beats that leak from the clubs and juke joints. Also watch out for the Beale Street Flippers, who somersault in sync over the famous boulevard.

Beale Street is home to Memphis’s music scene (Getty)

Get to grips with the city’s spirits scene

You can sip a mean bourbon within Memphis’s city limits. The Old Dominick Distillery, the first to operate in Memphis since Prohibition, pays homage to the fine whiskeys of old.

Chris and Alex Canale, descendants of spirit brand-owner Domenico Canale, recreated their great, great grandfather’s Old Dominick Toddy after they happened across an unopened bottle of the stuff dating from the 1800s. Now Old Dominick is a thriving distillery offering vodka, a small-batch bourbon whiskey and their grandfather’s beloved toddy.

Old Dominick is also the host of the new annual Spirits & Soul Festival, which sees distillers from all over Tennessee descend on Memphis in April.

Come for a tour and tasting to sample their offerings for yourself.

Experience a South Main Trolley Night

If you’re in town on the last Friday of the month, make the most of the South Main Trolley Night. A true Memphis tradition, this festival sees the shops and galleries of the historic neighbourhood stay open after hours, with live music and restaurant specials to boot.

If not, the district is a joy to explore any time. Art Village Gallery, Primas Bakery + Boutique and the South Main Market food hall all make great pitstops.

Where to stay

Having recently celebrated its 150th birthday, The Peabody is a Memphis institution. The hotel has welcomed distinguished figures over the years – from Princes William and Harry to Memphis-born Justin Timberlake – but its most revered guests remain the Peabody Ducks. As has been tradition since the 1930s, the resident ducks leave their penthouse, “Duck Palace”, each day and march to the lobby’s ornate fountain, where they splash around to the delight of human guests. Beyond the birdlife, rooms are spacious and plush, and the glitzy Lobby Bar is a great place for a sundowner. Doubles from £170 ($219), room only.

A sleek boutique downtown, Hu. Hotel comes complete with an upmarket diner and a rooftop bar. The rooms are contemporary with clean lines, pillowy beds and minibars stocked with local treats. Doubles from £122 ($159), room only.

Another good bet is Hotel Napoleon. Part of Choice Hotel’s Ascend collection, this boutique is a stone’s throw from Beale Street. The rooms and lobby are effortlessly stylish, all dark wood and white marble, and the Luna Restaurant and Bar is a plum spot to grab breakfast. Doubles from £214 ($250), room only.

Where to eat

Start with breakfast at the southern-style Arcade Restaurant, one of Elvis’s favourites. Dating back to 1919, it’s billed as Memphis’s oldest cafe and the blue booths and neon signage ooze retro charm. Try to nab the “Elvis booth” towards the restaurant’s rear and order the sweet-potato pancakes or Elvis’s pick: the peanut butter ‘n’ banana sandwich.

For lunch, plump for Global Café, a laid-back restaurant in Memphis’s Crosstown Concourse, once a Sears distribution centre. The venue offers traditional cuisine from three refugee or immigrant chefs, hailing from Sudan, Nepal and Syria. The Nepalese chow mein and momos (dumplings) are a winning combination.

A Memphis staple, Central BBQ has several locations around the city. The slow-smoked ribs are a house favourite and vegetarians are catered for too: order the portobello mushroom sandwich smothered in barbecue sauce and topped with coleslaw. Comforting sides include mac ‘n’ cheese and BBQ beans.

Come dinnertime, head out to the Beauty Shop in the hip Cooper-Young neighbourhood. This spot serves modern American cuisine in a 1940s salon once frequented by Priscilla Presley. Sit under one of the original dryers and tuck into lighter plates such as roasted beet and satsuma salad or entrées like barramundi with succotash.

If you’d prefer to stay downtown, try Catherine and Mary’s, a swish Italian restaurant on South Main Street. Local cheffing duo Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman were inspired by the home-cooking of their grandmothers when they opened this elevated spot. Expect inventive small plates, dainty pasta dishes and a menu that changes with the season.

Where to drink

Beale Street is the top spot for a cold beer or cocktail and an evening of live music. Begin at the legendary B.B. King’s Blues Club with its low purple lighting and walls adorned with photos of musical greats. Catch a set by the B.B King’s Blues Club All-Star Band and sip your suds to the sound of soul and rhythm and blues.

Further down the street, Silky O’Sullivan’s is a rather left-field local favourite. Drink an alfresco brew on the Irish bar’s patio alongside its famed resident goats or slip inside to catch a sing-along piano show. Other top Beale Street drinking holes include the Blues City Band Box, adjoining the down-home Blues City Cafe.

Away from Beale Street, Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square is another great nightspot. Enjoy a decent selection of local drafts, plus eclectic musical offerings that range from jazz bands to Elton John impersonators.

In Cooper-Young, Railgarten is a sprawling playground, featuring a bar and ping-pong tables, plus a yard with a volleyball court, children’s play area and a stage for live music. Parts of the uber-cool space are built using railroad shipping containers and you can’t go wrong with the Smoked Hawaiian Punch.

Also nearby is Muddy’s Bake Shop. The cutesy bakery has an espresso bar, a range of speciality teas and a bounty of sweet treats made from scratch daily.

Where to shop

For some of the city’s top shopping, strike east from downtown towards Broad Avenue. Here, you’ll find locally-owned boutiques selling handmade jewellery, Memphis prints and homemade goods – must-visits include Instagram-worthy Falling Into Place and City & State with its adjoining coffee shop.

More treasures await in Overton Square, where Shangri-La Records heaves with vinyl and CDs covering genres from rockabilly to R&B.

Meanwhile, in Cooper-Young, you’ll find indie book shops such as Burke Book Store, whose floor-to-ceiling shelves are crammed with new and used volumes by authors from Memphis and beyond. Vintage-lovers should also pop into quirky Fox + Cat Vintage.

Architectural highlight

The iconic ‘M Bridge’ always impresses with its daily light show (Getty)

The striking Hernando de Soto Bridge loves the camera. Nicknamed the “M Bridge”, it’s illuminated daily by a spectacular light show, which runs each hour from sunset to 10pm.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

US dollars.

What language do they speak?

English.

Should I tip?

Yes. Add an average of 15-20 per cent to meals, and keep smaller bills to hand for porters, bar staff and live bands.

What’s the time difference?

Six hours behind the UK; one hour behind New York.

What’s the flight time from the UK?

There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Memphis, but there are a range of options available. You can fly direct to Nashville (around nine hours), then make the three-hour drive to Memphis, or fly indirect via destinations such as Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth. Delta, American Airlines and United all fly direct from New York to Memphis in around three hours.

Public transport

Memphis’s trolley system is popular – it costs $1 to ride and lines run along Main Street, the Riverfront and Madison Avenue. There’s also a bus system, though many visitors rent a car or make use of Uber.

Best view

Memphis’s Hu. Hotel grants views from its rooftop over the Mississippi River and the Hernando de Soto Bridge.

Insider tip

Time your trip for the Memphis in May festival, a month-long jamboree that includes the Beale Street Music Festival, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and more.

More information

tnvacation.com; memphistravel.com

The writer travelled as a guest of American Sky, which offers a choice of holidays to Tennessee, including city breaks, tailor-made and escorted tours. A nine-night Experience Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans Self-Drive tour costs from £1,589pp, including flights