Like the Mississippi River it overlooks, Memphis is constantly evolving and changing pace. It is the city of Graceland, Elvis Presley's over-the-top mansion, but it's also the birthplace of blues, rock 'n' roll and soul. Here, W. C. Handy put the first written blues music down on paper, Elvis made his first recording at Sun Studio, and Otis Redding and Al Green expressed the music in their souls, vividly documented at the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Slip on your blue suede shoes and hit the laid-back streets to discover this iconic American music city.
Today you will get a taste of the musical legends that put Memphis on the map at the city's best music museums before getting a chance to reflect on the socio-political context of the 1950s. Start your day where rock 'n' roll was born: at Sun Studio.
1. Sun Studio
Start your day where it all began: In the early 1950s, a shy, teenaged truck driver named Elvis Presley sauntered into Sam Phillips's tiny recording studio, asked to cut a birthday song for his mama, and ultimately launched the birth of rock 'n' roll.
2. Soulsville USA, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Albert King; Al Green; Earth, Wind & Fire; Isaac Hayes; and The Staples Singers are just a handful of the musical greats whose inspiring stories unfold in this rousing, interactive museum. The funky music reverberating throughout will make you want to sing, dance, stomp, and shout.
3. Take a Break - Fourway Restaurant
After getting funkified by the vibes at Stax, head down the block and hang with the locals at this family-oriented soul food restaurant. Crispy, piping-hot fried chicken, turnip greens, and candied yams with cornbread and butter are the perfect preludes to silky lemon meringue pie. But there's a lot of other comfort food, too. Drive back downtown and park at the National Civil Rights Museum:
4. National Civil Rights Museum
After spending the morning rocking to the sounds of Memphis music, put some social and political context behind what you've seen and heard. The National Civil Rights Museum is an absorbing and deeply moving experience, as it traces the cruel history of oppression and discrimination in the American South.
5. South Main Street Arts District
Walk north back toward Beale Street, window shopping at boutiques and stepping inside cosy art galleries that line this revitalized historic district.
At the corner of Beale Street, turn right.
6. Beale Street
This legendary strip, revered the world over as the birthplace of the blues, can be a rowdy, neon booze-fest after dark. But during the day, it's a sea of curious tourists taking pictures, listening to live music at the outdoor W. C. Handy Park, and shopping for souvenirs. Join them. A. Schwab's, a 130-year-old general store, has the best bargains around.
7. Take a Break - Blues City Café
Grab a bite at this juke joint and diner that's my pick as the best of the Beale Street eats. Spicy tamales, lip-smackin' slabs of pork barbecue ribs, as well as cold beer, burgers, and rich gumbo are on the menu. With its weather-beaten booths and rural Mississippi shack-inspired decor, the mojo here is laid-back. Walk west back toward Main Street and walk to the nearest trolley stop.
8. Main Street Trolley
Take a ride on one of Memphis's antique restored trolley cars. They're old, they're creaky, their hard wooden seats are uncomfortable, and they're slow. But for a dollar or two you can sit back, relax, and ride the clanging, cumbersome streetcars from one end of downtown to the other, getting glimpses of the Pyramid, the Mississippi River, and other local landmarks. Hop off the trolley at Pembroke Square for the:
9. Centre for Southern Folklore
Step inside the one-of-a-kind Centre for Southern Folklore. Part coffeehouse, part outsider and folk art gallery, and part intimate performance space, the centre is a beloved, locally owned non-profit that celebrates the region's rich diversity.
Okay, you're goin' to Graceland. If you're an Elvis Presley zealot, you probably couldn't wait until Day 2 to head to the home of the King, so you've already tried to squeeze it into Day 1. Fair enough. True fans should not miss seeing his homey (in a Beverly Hillbillies sort of way) mansion and taking the complete tour of all that's offered here. Tourists with no more than a mild interest in Elvis, though, might want to skip the full shebang and do a simple drive-by of the place instead. From here, you'll head back to Midtown and East Memphis for some fine art interspersed with flora and fauna. Cap off your day of critters and culture with a little rest and relaxation in the bohemian Cooper Young neighbourhood.
The blue and white living room where he and Priscilla entertained guests. The mirrored, yellow TV room where Elvis liked to unwind. His paisley pool room. You'll see it all and more on a tour of the mansion where Elvis lived -- and where he died. Across the street from the house you can tour his Austin Powers-ish airplanes, watch Elvis movies, and even admire his car collection.
2. Overton Park
Back in Midtown, Overton Park is a beautiful setting that's home to the Memphis Zoo, the Memphis College of Art, and the Brooks Museum of Art. Visit the museum to get an overview of art through the ages. From Medieval and Impressionist to contemporary, a range of styles and media are represented.
3. Take a Break -- Brushmark Restaurant
Before or after browsing the masterpieces in the Brooks Museum of Art, take some refreshment in the Brushmark Restaurant. Sit outside on the terrace, order a light lunch, and enjoy the lush views of the wooded park surroundings.
4. Memphis Zoo
The two soulful, cuddly panda bears from China are the reigning stars of this world-class zoo. But there are plenty of other animals and exhibits to see. From snakes and lions to elephants and monkeys, this is where the wild things are.
5. Dixon Gallery and Gardens
In East Memphis, you'll find the next two stops on your itinerary: The Dixon Gallery and Gardens and the Memphis Botanic Garden are right across the street from each other. Impressionist works are a highlight of the Dixon, a posh residence-turned-museum. Shaded by towering trees, the meticulously landscaped grounds are perfect for strolling. It's especially gorgeous in the spring, when the dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom.
6. Memphis Botanic Garden
Nature enthusiasts will find much to love in this oasis of fragrant roses, iris beds, herb gardens, and acres of other flowering plants, majestic trees, and paved walking trails. The Japanese Garden of Tranquillity, with its goldfish ponds, lanterns, and angular evergreens, is a favourite of romantics.
7. Cooper-Young Neighbourhood
Drive back toward Midtown and explore the bohemian area known as Cooper-Young. If you like felines, peek inside the House of Mews, a storefront converted into a homelike sanctuary for stray cats awaiting adoption. Shop for gifts at specialty boutiques or step into one of the great restaurants and bars clustered around this intersection.
8. Take a Break - Young Avenue Deli
Flop a spell at this artsy coffee shop and enjoy the eccentric people-watching in this offbeat area of town. Or walk half a block to cull the bins at Goner Records for vinyl rarities or other cheesy finds.
9. Hi Tone Café
Tonight, head back over to the Overton Park area to see what's happening and who's playing at this hip nightclub.
The third day begins with a bit of kids' stuff that will appeal to the child in all of us. You'll start at the Pink Palace Museum before heading over to the Children's Museum of Memphis. Then it's downtown to catch the ceremonious march of the Peabody ducks. The remainder of today you're downtown, taking in the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, W. C. Handy Park on Beale Street, and (We saved the best for last!) barbecued ribs at The Rendezvous. Tonight, say farewell to the city in style by taking in some smouldering live music at B.B. King Blues Club.
1. Memphis Pink Palace Museum
Grocery store owner and entrepreneur Clarence Saunders, who pioneered the self-service grocery store with the Piggly Wiggly chain at the beginning of the 20th century, lived in this pink marble home. Today, it's a museum packed with educational exhibits, along with a planetarium and an IMAX Theatre.
2. Children's Museum of Memphis
A fire engine for climbing, a castle for dreaming, a kid-sized city with a bank for cashing play checks, and a grocery store for filling shopping carts are among the favourites at this Midtown museum, located next to the Liberty Bowl Stadium.
3. Peabody Ducks
Sure, it's touristy, but you owe it to yourself to see what all the fuss is about. If you can make it by 11am, you'll get to see the ducks waddle out of the elevator and into the lobby fountain. But if not, they'll be here all afternoon. They make their return trip to the ducky penthouse at 5pm.
4. Take a Break - Automatic Slim's Tonga Club
Head downtown for lunch at this hip, artsy restaurant. Great food and drinks, along with a vibrant clientele, always keep this hangout buzzing.
5. Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum
On the plaza outside the FedEx Forum you'll find the entrance to this museum that traces the importance of Memphis in the history of rock music, soul, and rhythm-and-blues. Browse the exhibits, jam to the classics, and learn something new about your favourite musical heroes.
6. W. C. Handy Park
Listen for the sounds of a bluesy rock band, or look for the statue of the early 20th century trumpeter, which dominates this open-air park and amphitheatre. Take a load off at one of the benches, watch the crowds go by, and start tapping your feet to the beat.
7. Take a Break - The Rendezvous Restaurant
Make a beeline back down toward Union Avenue, find the alley across from The Peabody, and let your nose lead the way to the source of the sizzling pork barbecue aromas that pervade the area. Feast on The Rendezvous' famous spice-dusted ribs, or try a chopped pork sandwich.
8. B.B. King Blues Club
Kick back and surrender to the blues tonight, taking in whatever act happens to be playing at B.B. King's namesake nightclub on Beale Street.
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