- North America,
- United States
See + Do
Beale Street, Tennessee
New Orleans has Bourbon Street; Memphis has club- and bar-lined Beale—"The Home of the Blues." Cornetist and Beale Street resident W.C. Handy published the first Blues song, "Memphis Blues," here in 1912; his house is now the W.C. Handy Home and Museum (352 Beale St.; 901-527-3427; closed Sun and Mon).
Elvis, in his adolescence, revolved through the clubs here, infusing himself with the ingredients he would later use to shape rock 'n' roll at Sun Studio, just a few blocks away. When shopping on Beale, the King patronized an establishment that has become the oldest continually operating shop in Memphis: A. Schwab Dry Goods Store. Opened in 1876, it serves customers with the motto "If you can't find it at A. Schwab's, you're better off without it"—the wares range from penny candy to overalls to souvenirs (163 Beale St.; 901-523-9782; closed Sun).
To experience the bluesy heart of Memphis nightlife, head for Beale on a Saturday night. For about $12, you can grab a wristband in lieu of paying individual cover charges and amble to and from participating clubs (Fridays and Saturdays only). Live music hot spots on Beale include B.B. King's, where the "Queen of Beale Street," Ruby Wilson, reigns many a weekend (143 Beale St.; 901-524-5464; memphis.bbkingclubs.com); Rum Boogie Café, which has the best house band in town, led by soulful James Govan (143 Beale St.; 901-528-0150; www.rumboogie.com); and the New Daisy Theater, a former movie house that now hosts national acts (330 Beale St.; 901-525-8979; www.newdaisy.com). In late spring, the Beale Street Music Festival showcases dozens of renowned musicians, blues and otherwise, at Tom Lee Park, where Beale terminates at the Great Mississip'.
See + Do
Tel: 901 332 3322
While a few cynics dismiss rock 'n' roll's Xanadu as a tourist trap, Graceland (designated a national historic landmark in 2006) remains the predominant reason to visit the region for anyone with an interest in Elvis or Memphis's musical heritage. In the spring of 1957, at the age of 22, the King spent $100,000 on this house, part of a 500-acre farm named Graceland. He lived here until his untimely death in 1977 and is buried, along with his closest relatives, by the swimming pool out back. His widow, Priscilla Presley, opened Graceland to tours in 1982, and now millions come to celebrate the majesty of the King. Elvis commissioned a redecoration in 1974, and much of that look remains intact. With a 15-foot couch, avocado- and gold-colored kitchen appliances, a fake waterfall, and the green shag-carpet ceiling of the "jungle room," the home exudes fun, loud 1970s style. Tours of the mansion start at the visitors' plaza across the street, where tickets are sold and souvenir shops and cafés serve the masses. On busier days the staff will assign your tour time, or you can book ahead. The recording that accompanies the one-and-a-half-hour mansion tour includes a narration by Priscilla and sound bites from Elvis himself. If that doesn't entirely satisfy your curiosity, dig deeper into the mystique by viewing additional memorabilia in the "Sincerely Elvis" collection, such as 56 of the King's stage costumes, or touring his too-cool car museum and private, decked-out jet, the Lisa Marie. For a one-of-a-kind experience, join the thousands of visitors to whom Graceland plays host during mid-August's annual Elvis Week (a.k.a. Death Week), which culminates in a candlelight vigil; or check out Paul McLeod's estimable collection of memorabilia at Graceland Too.
Closed Tuesdays from December to February.
See + Do
Sun Studio, Tennessee
Tel: 901 521 0664
"Consistently Better Records for Higher Profits" was the mantra turned understatement of the century on producer Sam Phillips's stationery at Sun Studio, now a national historic landmark. If you are in Memphis on a pilgrimage to music shrines, you are no doubt already aware of Sun Studio's reasonable claim to be the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. It started in 1951 with the recording of Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats' "Rocket '88," reputedly the first rock 'n' roll single. In 1954, Elvis Presley recorded "That's Alright Mama," a national radio show out of Memphis picked it up, and the legend of the King had begun (along with the globalization of rock). In those first heady years, these smoky walls recorded the mighty blues sounds of B.B. King, Little Milton, Junior Parker, and Howlin' Wolf, along with the world-changing country and rock sounds of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. Since the studio's heyday, the chance to record in the footsteps of musical gods has continued to draw such talents as Paul Simon, U2, Bonnie Raitt, and Matchbox 20. Forty-five-minute tours showcasing the studio and its historic collection depart every hour from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
See + Do
STAX Museum of American Soul Music, Tennessee
Tel: 901 942 7685
The STAX Museum strives to explicate, to illuminate, and to elucidate the sound this recording studio originated—"sweet soul music." STAX stands as the centerpiece of the inspiring rebirth of "Soulsville, USA," an area of South Memphis once known for its soul-music prolificacy. The museum opened in 2003 on the site of STAX Records, the legendary soul label begun by brother-and-sister team Jim Stewart and Stella Axton, which now stands second only to Motown in its sales and influence. From 1960 to 1975, STAX's various labels released work recorded in their famed Studio A by giants in soul and other genres, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor.
The 17,000-square-foot STAX Museum offers fascinating exhibits and film and music clips detailing the history of soul. Billing itself as the only museum in the world devoted specifically to soul, STAX magnanimously highlights success stories from competing labels as well, such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Memphis's own Reverend Al Green. Adjacent to the museum, explore the state-of-the-art STAX Music Academy, where music educators hope to spawn a new generation of Arethas and Otis Reddings by mentoring inner-city youth.
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Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Tennessee
Tel: 901 205 2533
One half-block south of the intersection of Beale Street and Third, you'll find this interactive museum on the plaza outside the NBA Grizzlies' home, the FedExForum. The Smithsonian Institute chose this location to host its first-ever permanent exhibit outside Washington, D.C.: "Rock 'n' Soul: Social Crossroads." The exhibit details how the uniquely earthy sounds of Memphis's alleys, juke joints, choir lofts, and fields coalesced to become American popular music at the hallowed grounds of Beale Street, Sun Studio, and Soulsville, USA. A great place for music-loving tourists to start, the museum's seven galleries tie together Memphis's celebrated music forms—the blues, rock 'n' roll, and soul—through 100 music clips that you can choose from five vintage jukeboxes, as well as cool artifacts like the Reverend Al Green's bible and robe, B.B. King's beloved guitar named "Lucille," and the control board that producer Sam Phillips used to record the first Elvis hit, "That's Alright Mama." In addition to the Smithsonian exhibit, the museum devotes one gallery to new exhibits, which often highlight how Memphis music has influenced modern artists.
See + Do
South Main Arts District, Tennessee
Between Beale Street and G.E. Patterson Avenue, long-abandoned storefronts are steadily being repopulated with boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants. Art Village Gallery showcases Nigeria-born—now Memphis local—Ephraim Urevbu's colorful Cubist depictions of African-American culture (410 S. Main St.; 901-521-0782; www.artvillagegallery.com; closed Sun and Mon). Zanzibar café is next door—go on the weekend for live jazz (412 S. Main St.; 901-543-9646; www.zanzibarmemphis.com). Flower and gift shop Gestures stocks silver trays, Memphis Mary Bloody Mary mix, and the inevitable Elvis paraphernalia (509 S. Main St.; 800-370-3023 or 901-525-4438; www.gesturesgifts.com; closed Sun), while you can pick up Emily Ray's freshwater pearl-, semiprecious stone–, and Swarovski crystal–studded jewelry and denim by Odyn and Delta Blues Jeans Co. at Mode du Jour (509 S. Main St.; 901-527-7970; www.modesomain.com). The area's culinary star is Spindini. Its industrial-chic decor—exposed pipes and bricks, chocolate-brown walls, and a prominent bar with blown-glass sculptures—doesn't exactly mesh with Judd Grisanti's homey Italian fare, but it's always packed, and the food (thin-crust pizzas cooked in the wood-burning oven, and Tuscan butter, Mascarpone, and goat cheese fondue) is divine (383 S. Main St.; 901-578-2767; www.spindinimemphis.com).
See + Do
National Civil Rights Museum, Tennessee
Tel: 901 521 9699
Through fund-raising efforts, the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation purchased the defunct Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, at auction in 1982. Nearly ten years later, the first museum to trace America's civil rights movement opened its doors at the tragically historic site. In 2002, an $11 million expansion added 12,800 square feet of exhibition space, including the exhibit "Exploring the Legacy." The exhibit traces the path American civil rights have taken since King's death and also details other historic civil rights movements worldwide. Each year, the museum honors significant contributors to civil or human rights with three Freedom Awards (national, international, and lifetime). Past recipients include Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Bono.
See + Do
Gibson Guitar Factory, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee 38103
Tel: 901 544 7998
Memphis music pilgrims should make this detour to find out how one of the world's premier electric-guitar makers crafts each tuneful axe. The 45-minute tours impart 100 years of Gibson lore, along with the artistry behind binding, neck-fitting, painting, buffing, and tuning the instruments. The factory is part of the Gibson Beale Street Showcase, a complex one block from Beale Street that also houses The Lounge, a concert venue for such acts as Wilco, Etta James, and the Indigo Girls. Reservations are required for large groups to take the factory tour. Children under age five are not permitted.
See + Do
Cooper-Young District, Tennessee
For quirky shopping, eclectic dining, offbeat coffee bars, a swell farmer's market, and several smart galleries, head to Midtown Memphis's hippest neighborhood, centered at the intersection of Cooper and Young streets. Park on the southwest corner, behind Café Olé, and walk to Young Avenue Deli, fish-happy Tsunami (928 S. Cooper; 901-274-2556; www.tsunamimemphis.com; closed Sundays), or Casablanca, a Moroccan/Greek spot where ebullient proprietor Aimer Shtaya playfully regales the dining room with anecdotes (2156 Young Ave.; 901-725-8557; www.casablancamemphis.com). You'll want to drive to most other highlights, such as David Mah Studio (888 S. Cooper; 901-272-8880; www.davidmahstudio.com; by appointment only), Otherlands Coffee Bar & Exotic Gifts (641 S. Cooper; 901-278-4994), and retro store Flashback, Inc. (2304 Central Ave.; 901-272-2304; www.flashbackmemphis.com). In mid-September, the district's businesses host the popular Cooper-Young Festival, a celebration of art, music, crafts, and food.
See + Do
Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Tennessee
Tel: 901 761 5250
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, formerly a private residence, encompasses 17 acres of grounds and houses an admirable collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and decorative arts. Chagall, Renoir, Rodin, Gauguin, and Degas are represented in the permanent collection, along with a sizable portion of French artist Jean-Louis Forain's work, acquired in a deliberate effort to gather works by lesser-known, accomplished Impressionists. Temporary exhibits change four to five times per year. A stroll through the formal and woodland gardens makes for a tranquil, and sometimes peacefully moving, addition to an afternoon spent sightseeing.
See + Do
The Bluff City has a number of lovely parks and outdoor spaces that are an ideal place to work off all that barbecue you've been wolfing down. Tom Lee Park, which runs along the bluffs of the Mississippi River, is a good place for a twilight stroll. Overton Park is home to the Memphis Zoo, where a $23-million Northwest Passage exhibit opened in 2006 and gives visitors an underwater view of sea lions and swimming polar bears (2000 Prentiss Pl.; 901-276-9453; www.memphiszoo.org). The 96-acre Memphis Botanic Garden (750 Cherry Rd.; 901-576-4100; www.memphisbotanicgarden.com) is located across the street from Audubon Park and hosts a hip Live at the Garden summer concert series (901-576-4107; www.liveatthegarden.com). And Shelby Farms, one of the largest urban parks in the country at 3,200 acres, is a good place for canoeing and fishing, though you must bring your own equipment (500 Pine Lake Dr.; 901-382-0235; www.shelbyfarmspark.org).
See + Do
Pink Palace Museum, Tennessee
Tel: 901 320 6320
The headquarters for several Memphis attractions, this cultural and natural history museum adjoins its namesake, a pink, Georgian marble mansion built by Clarence Saunders, "inventor" of the world's first self-serve grocery store, the Piggly Wiggly. The museum's exhibits include a replica of the original store, creepy dioramas detailing the history of the Memphis area, and kid-pleasing animatronic dinosaurs; several rooms of the mansion are open for self-guided tours. The Sharpe Planetarium and an IMAX theater round out the on-site offerings, but you can also pick up information here about other sights in the Pink Palace family of museums, including the Lichterman Nature Center (5992 Quince Rd.; 901-767-7322; closed end of Nov through Feb) and the Coon Creek Science Center, which is open only to groups of 15 to 35 participants (2983 Hardin Graveyard Rd.; 901-320-6320; closed end of Nov through Feb).