The 12 Best Things to Do in Memphis, from Music Studio Tours to Barbecue Joints
When you think of places to visit in Tennessee, Nashville may be the first city that comes to mind (because who hasn’t had to take the flight for a bachelorette party, right?). Let us be the first to tell you why Memphis should be on your radar, too. Besides it being the official “Home of the Blues,” it’s also home to stellar barbecue, soul music, historic museums and landmarks and a whole lot of Southern whiskey. Here, the 12 best things to do in Memphis, plus our favorite place to stay in the entire city.
Where to Stay: Hyatt Centric Beale Street Memphis
Nothing spoils a vacation like needing to walk a few miles (or pay a pricey Uber) to get anywhere from your hotel. If you stay at the Hyatt Centric Beale Street Memphis, you’ll be mere steps from the main drag, as well as several local attractions, museums, music venues and restaurants. It’s the first and only hotel in Memphis to ever acquire a Beale Street address, and it also boasts the only resort-style pool and rooftop whiskey bar in the city, Beck & Call. (Take it from us: Order the Biscoff Old Fashioned.) Soak up views of the Mississippi River and the iconic “M” bridge before having dinner at CIMAS, an on-site restaurant serving Latin American-inspired fare with a Southern twist. The hotel is also equipped with free Internet, room service and a fitness center (but personally, we’d choose barbecue over exercise).
What to Do:
Read on for our favorite things to do in Memphis, whether you’re all about adventure, history or food.
1. Hop Aboard the Memphis Mojo Tour Bus
There’s no shortage of music tours to take in Memphis, since blues, soul and rock ’n roll all have roots there. But the Memphis Mojo Tour will give you all the insider details that other tours won’t. You’ll take your seat on an old-school bus for a driving tour around the city, during which you’ll see everything from the Overton Park Shell, where Elvis put on his first live performance, the church where Johnny Cash first played a show (believe it or not, he served as entertainment for a bake sale) and one of B.B. King’s early homes. Not only are the tour guides incredibly knowledgeable, but they sing and play guitar to boot.
2. Take in Live Music (and Drinks) on Beale Street
There’s an endless supply of talent—and cocktails—in this famed entertainment district. Take a stroll and you’ll find outdoor performances, music shops, bars and even walk-up drink counters to take advantage of. Better yet, the street is closed to cars during peak hours, leaving crowds plenty of space to stroll. B.B. King’s Blues Club is arguably the most famous venue on Beale. Go for happy hour before it gets too crowded and help yourself to a Southern Hurricane and a Boogie Woogie shooter while you wait for the music to start. Any band on B.B.’s stage is guaranteed to be on point.
3. Tour the Legendary Sun Studio
Known as “The Birthplace of Rock ’n Roll,” Sun Studio is where talents like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Howlin’ Wolf first got their start. Most famously, you’ll get to stand in the very rehearsal room where “The Million Dollar Quartet” (that’s Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash) had an impromptu recording session in 1956. You’ll also see a replica of the DJ booth where radio engineer Sam Phillips would play his records for local listeners, plus learn about the unsung hero of Sun Studio, Marion Keisker, who was the first in the biz to record Elvis singing.
4. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum
This is one local highlight that first-timers don’t want to miss. The museum is built around the historic Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The hotel and parking lot have been preserved since his death, allowing visitors to see what his room looked like in his final hours. Prior to MLK’s assassination, the Lorraine was significant to the Memphis community because at the time, it was the only hotel in the city where Black and white guests could both stay. The self-guided tour includes the bus on which Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat, the Freedom Riders’ bus that was set ablaze by white supremacists and a sobering exhibition on the history of slavery in America.
5. See a Show at the Orpheum
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this downtown must-see has been open since 1928 and has been hosting touring Broadway productions since 1977. Formerly the Grand Opera House, the Orpheum was renovated back to its former glory in 1996, and it’s nothing short of stunning today. Head there for a comedy show, movie screening or theater performance, then mosey down the street for drinks on Beale (or better yet, turn the corner and go to Beck & Call for a nightcap before heading back up to your room).
6. Conquer Big River Crossing
Nearly a mile in length, Big River Crossing is the longest public pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River. When you reach the center, you can have one foot in Tennessee and one foot in Arkansas at the same time. The bridge is a means for rail, bike and foot transportation, so you can pedal out across state lines or stop in the middle for an Insta-worthy photo. From that vantage point, you can admire Memphis, Tennessee’s urban beauty and West Memphis, Arkansas’s rural landscape in one fell swoop. Head to the Hyatt Centric rooftop to see a nightly light show glitter across the bridge every hour from sundown to 10 p.m.
7. Boogie the Night Away at Paula & Raiford’s Disco
Only locals know about this hidden gem, and they swear by its disco balls, flashing lights, chandeliers, fog machines and funky tunes. Open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Paula & Raiford’s Disco has been one of Memphis’s most unique nightlife spots since it opened in 2009. Located a walkable two blocks from the famous Peabody Hotel (sidenote: go there at 11 a.m. or 5 p.m. to see the resident mallard ducks march around…don’t ask, just do it), the disco is a haven for dancing ’til the early hours of the morning. If haunted bars are more your thing, make a pitstop at the legendary dive bar Earnestine & Hazel’s.
8. Visit Graceland
It’s truly impossible to grasp how large Graceland is unless you’ve been there yourself. We don’t mean just Elvis Presley’s former home, either. Graceland is more like an enormous, outlet mall-amusement park hybrid that’s made up of shops, exhibits, restaurants and even a collection of jets, vintage cars, boats and motorcycles—all dedicated to or formerly owned by The King. Is it pricey? Sure. Will it take you just about all day to see everything on the premises? Indeed. But no Elvis fan will be disappointed by the treasure trove of memorabilia there is to explore, including his many sequined jumpsuits. If there’s one thing you should make time for, it’s the picturesque mansion, which looks just as it did in 1977 when Presley died. See his beloved racquetball court, the meditation garden where he and his parents are buried and the notoriously retro Jungle Room.
9. Take a Trolley Ride
The downtown trolley is one of the cheapest, most popular ways to get around Memphis. The real-deal vintage cars are complete with rubber wheels, intricate woodworking, antique lights and hand-carved corbels that will make you feel like you hitched a ride on a time machine. For $1 per ride, you can reach various museums and downtown hot spots, including the National Civil Rights Museum, the South Main Historic Arts District, the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum, Beale Street and the Mississippi River. Pro tip: Get a day pass for $2 instead of paying for each ride.
10. Dig into Some Stellar Barbecue
We’d be remiss to not suggest scarfing down all the fried catfish and gator gumbo you can while you’re in Memphis (Rum Boogie is the place for both, BTW). But Memphis is hands-down most famous for its barbecue fare, specifically pork ribs and pulled pork. Memphis BBQ leans on dry rubs for most of its flavor rather than sauces, although both are crucial. Most Memphians stand in one of two camps: Central BBQ or Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. Whichever joint you choose, be sure to start your meal with Cheese & Sausage (aka Memphis charcuterie), a mélange of kielbasa, cheddar, pickles and pepperoncini, all dusted in dry rub. If fried chicken is more your thing, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is the spot to try. As for breakfast, do not go home without trying the deep-fried French toast at Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’s oldest café that Elvis himself used to frequent.
11. Visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
A trip to Memphis is incomplete without a visit to Soulsville, a neighborhood that was nicknamed for all the homegrown soul artists (like Aretha Franklin) who got their start at nearby Hi Records and Stax Records, the latter of which is now the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Housed in a former movie theater, Stax served as the launch pad for acts such as The Staple Singers, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs and Otis Redding. Our favorite exhibits include a circa-1906 Mississippi Delta church that’s a nod to soul’s gospel roots and Isaac Hayes’s custom Cadillac Eldorado, complete with a refrigerated mini bar, television and white fur carpeting.
12. Visit the Biggest Bass Pro Shop in the World (No, Really)
Even if you’re not the fishing/hunting type, this 535,000-square-foot behemoth deserves your attention. Modeled after the Egyptian pyramids, the 32-story construction is an impossible-to-ignore part of the Memphis skyline. You can buy all your outdoor gear there, just like at any Bass Pro Shops location. But you can also explore 600,000 gallons worth of water features, including a tree-toting swamp and ten aquariums that house nearly 2,000 fish. There’s also a waterfowl exhibit, a bowling alley, a restaurant, archery ranges, a billiards room, a full-service hotel and a stunning glass-floored observation deck at the pyramid’s peak.