Are you stuck inside your hometown with the Memphis blues again? Saddle up your car, hire a sitter for your houseplants, pack up the family and ride off into the sunset towards the chosen land of Memphis, Tennessee. Presumably, if you’re interested in visiting Memphis you’re probably a music fan or you are at least interested in the art form’s history. Memphis is a musical Mecca (everyone knows Elvis) and one of the original birthplaces of Soul music as well as the Blues. This holy land has a lot to offer for any “soul searching” musical pilgrims with sacred musical sites abounding. While Memphis boasts a plethora of musically oriented sites, the city also provides a variety of attractions and experiences for those who are not so interested in music history. So prepare yourselves, EscapeHere has a list of the Top Ten things to do and see in Memphis, Tennessee.
10. The Sun Studio
The Sun Studio is one of the most musically and historically rich sites in the entirety of The Unites States. It is certainly a legendary site in terms of music history, having been the place where Elvis Presley recorded his very first song. It also served as an initial foundation for recordings by many Rock n’ Roll legends such as Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and a multitude of other musicians. The studio has also been used by contemporary musicians such as U2, John Mellencamp and Def Leppard as a recording space. Sun Studio is the home base for the equally distinguished record label, Sun Records and was also used as a setting in many films, including “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Mystery Train.”
Due to its rich history and importance to the development of American music, the Sun Studio is also a National Historic Landmark, and is protected from demolition by the United States Government. As an attraction, it includes a high quality gift shop, complete with a coffee house and soda fountain as well as an upstairs museum where any visitor will be directed and informed of Sun Studios’ history by extremely knowledgeable tour guides. The tours offer information for the most die-hard of music fans but they also provide information for the casual visitor.
9. National Civil Rights Museum – Lorraine Motel
The Lorraine Motel was the site of Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination, and though some might have had it demolished or allowed its tainted history to dictate its future, the city of Memphis has turned the motel into an incredible homage to the civil rights movement that King labored so diligently to progress. The National Civil Rights Museum underwent a 27.5 million dollar renovation in 2012 and in order to properly exhibit the entire history of civil rights, the museum encompasses not just the Lorraine Motel, but several surrounding buildings as well.
Beginning with the 1700’s, the museum offers an interactive tour that intricately demonstrates the entirety of American Civil Rights. It contains many exhibits and multimedia presentations covering the past, present and future of the civil rights movement. Among the most impressive exhibits that the museum offers is a replica Montgomery, Alabama bus that Rosa Parks would have rode on the day of her protests -which visitors are free to explore. It also contains The Lorraine Motel’s room 306, the room in which King stayed on the day of his assassination. Prices range from around ten dollars to thirteen dollars, depending on the visitors’ age, but an experience such as this is worth every penny.
8. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music
This site is for the real “soul searchers” out there. Yes, that’s the second time the same pun has been used in one article. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is another must-see attraction for music fans and non-music fans alike. An exact replica of the former Stax Records recording studio, it resides at the very address where Stax Records once operated and boasts a gargantuan 17,000 square foot museum full of vintage musical instruments, mementos and exhibits. These exhibits concern the history of soul music and also emphasize the various influential artists who had, at one time or another, signed with Stax Records.
Among the many exhibits are those dedicated to past and present Stax Records artists Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Albert King, among many others. Though the museum focuses on Stax Records artists, it also boasts a massive video footage collection of various non-Stax artists such as James Brown, Tina Turner, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder and other high-profile soul artists. Some of The Stax Museum’s most impressive artifacts include a genuine, century-old Mississippi Delta Church, the authentic Soul Train dance floor and Isaac Hayes refurbished Cadillac Eldorado. The museum also hosts a bounty of ever-changing exhibits dedicated to the history and legacy of soul music.
7. Graceland Mansion
If you travel to Memphis, Tennessee then you must visit Graceland. Whether you are a fan of music or merely a sightseer, Elvis Presley’s impact upon the world is far reaching. He not only changed the face of music, but he also impacted American and global culture. This detail is impossible to ignore and there is no better way to show appreciation for or understand his legacy than by visiting Elvis Presley’s former home.
Graceland is the second most visited house in America, only being beaten out by The White House. Now a gallery, the Graceland Mansion and grounds contain a number of museums dedicated to the King of Rock n’ Roll with informative tours and exhibits, as well as virtual iPad tours containing added footage and photos. Visitors can tour Elvis’ “Jungle Room,” view his car, jet and record collections and also pay homage to The King by visiting his grave. There are multiple tours and museums, and their rates vary in price and duration. However, most visitors agree that Graceland is one of, if not the most, important sites in all of Memphis, Tennessee. The site also offers dining services, various gift shops and is located directly across the street from the Elvis-themed “Heartbreak Hotel.”
6. Beale Street
Ask anyone who has been to Memphis and they will tell you to visit Beale Street. Much like Bourbon Street in New Orleans or 6th Street in Austin, Beale Street is known as the penultimate experience for anyone looking to partake in Memphis’ vibrant and unique culture. This street is the place where Memphis Soul began and continues to this day. Its stages housed shows from soul masters B.B. King, Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters, among a plethora of others. It was so integral to the evolution of blues and soul music that in 1952 an act of Congress officially declared Beale Street as “Home of The Blues.”
If you are looking for a relaxed shopping and dining experience, it is best to visit Beale Street during the day, because at night, it becomes a non-stop party. From souvenirs to high-end clothing to world-renowned barbeque, Beale Street offers a wide variety of shopping and dining opportunities. However, if you are looking for a nightlife experience that you won’t soon forget, head to Beale Street around sundown and you will find yourself in the midst of one of America’s most unique and exciting assortments of clubs, bars and live music shows.
5. Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum
The Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum is a building dedicated to the history and legacy of Memphis musicians who pioneered and furthered the evolution of “the Memphis sound.” The museum was created through the combined efforts of The National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Institute. Among its many displays, the museum hosts The Smithsonian’s “Rock n’ Roll: Social Crossroads” exhibit. The museum chronicles the evolution of rock and roll music as well as soul, beginning in the 1920’s and gradually moving into the current era of music.
The museum also provides a collection of over 100 songs recorded in the greater Memphis area during the 1930’s and moving into the 1970’s. It also boasts an informative catalog of information containing over 300 minutes of material concerning the musicians, labels and pioneers who have operated in Memphis throughout its history. It is not the largest museum in Memphis and it is more directly oriented towards visitors who are interested in the history and evolution of Memphis music. However, it is very possibly the most informative museum in the city and visitors will leave with an enhanced understanding of music history and Memphis music’s effect upon American music and culture.
4. The Orpheum Theatre
The Orpheum Theatre is an auditorium that seats 2,400 people and is one of the few remaining “movie palaces” still in existence. The Theatre was originally built in 1890 as an opera house and was known as The Grand. However, it burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1928 during the peak of the movie palace boom. It was then renovated in 1982 and reopened in 1984 as a much more luxurious and elegant building. The Orpheum Theater is a non-profit organization managed by The Memphis Development Foundation, and it is home to the Memphis Ballet and the Memphis Opera. However, it also hosts shows and events ranging from films and concerts to Broadway plays. On average, The Orpheum Theatre annually hosts more Broadway shows than any other theatre in the country.
The Orpheum is less of a tourist attraction than it is a legitimate venue and staple of Memphis culture. Its grand appearance and lavish decor provide every attendee with a genuine, vintage experience in a masterfully maintained theatre. Prices range depending on the show but if you find yourself in Memphis, The Orpheum is a fantastic place to begin a night out on the town.
3. The Memphis Zoo
The Memphis Zoo is a family friendly attraction and houses a giant collection of animals. It has undergone over 70 million dollars worth of renovations since the early 1990’s and in 2008 it was even ranked the #1 zoo in America based on visitors’ votes on tripadvisor.com. Overall, the zoo has over 3,500 different animals, and though its animal collection is large, the zoo itself is relatively small. So, it is a pleasant walk for any visitor, whether they are a toddler or a senior citizen.
The zoo is broken down into three main divisions to make it easier to navigate, and it has some of the most famous exhibits in America. Among the zoo’s most impressive attractions are a five-acre primate exhibit, a three-acre cat exhibit and two famous giant pandas named Ya Ya and Le Le. In fact, The Memphis Zoo is one of only four American zoos to exhibit giant pandas. The zoo also contains exhibits featuring komodo dragons, polar bears and an aquarium, among the many other attractions. The zoo has a gift shop, activities for young children and it hosts many events throughout the year. Entry prices range from $10 for children to $15 for adults, with an additional $5 charge for parking.
2. Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art
Jack and Marilyn Belz started the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art in the 1990’s when they decided to share much of their massive personal collection with the world. The couple had become enthralled with global art and started the museum to celebrate the legacy of worldwide works of art as well as Asian and Judaic culture. The museum features over 1,000 objects from various time periods and societies including China, Russia, Italy, Israel and many Judaic cultures from around the world. Its exhibits include sculptures, paintings, pottery, photographs and various other cultural artifacts from all around the globe.
The Belz also recently introduced a Holocaust Memorial Gallery that provides personal testimonies, photographs and art associated with the Holocaust, as well as in-depth portraits of many survivors. According to the Belz, this gallery is not meant to memorialize the Holocaust as a general event, but rather to introduce visitors to the intimate and personal testimonies of those who suffered and survived its atrocities. The museum is located within walking distance of Beale Street and is also accessible by trolley from downtown Memphis. The entrance fee ranges from $4 for students, $5 for seniors and $6 for adults.
1. Mud Island
Mud Island is the perfect bookend to any trip to Memphis. It is a peaceful common that offers a relaxing experience where any visitor can take a load off and enjoy the serenity of the Mississippi River. Located on a Mississippi River peninsula, it houses a park, an amphitheater, museums and many restaurants. It is located 1.2 miles from downtown Memphis and is also accessible by many methods including monorail, ferry, by car and by walking. The River Park is free to all visitors and contains a scale reproduction of the city of Memphis as well as a replica of the Mississippi River that empties into a model of the Gulf of Mexico. The park also offers bike and hiking trails as well as pedal boats and rafts for rent.
The Mississippi River Museum is dedicated to the history of the Mississippi River and contains a replica of the steamboats that once graced the river’s waters. However, there is a $7 to $10 fee to enter the museum, depending on the visitors’ age. The 5,000-seat amphitheater is used primarily as a host venue for summer concert series and festivals, so if you’re looking for a serene experience, odds are that it will be quiet unless a festival is in progress.