Let’s just say right up front that, at Backbeat Tours, we love Elvis. And Graceland is a fascinating place to visit, not to be missed! But time and again, one of the most frequent comments we hear from visitors from all over the world is some version of “Wow, I had no idea there was so much to do here!” And it’s true, Memphis is much, much more than Elvis and Graceland. With spring and its usual glorious weather just a few weeks away, we thought it was time to put together a list of our top fun things to see in Memphis that showcase the other amazing things Memphis has to offer. (This is just Part One for now, we’ll post more in the weeks ahead.)
1. The National Civil Rights Museum
Located inside the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated in April, 1968, the National Civil Rights Museum tells the story of the Civil Rights movement in a powerful, captivating way. You won’t just be reading information off the wall when you visit. You’ll step inside the hull of a slave ship; sit on a city bus next to Rosa Parks, see the hotel room Dr. King stayed in, and experience tons of other immersive and interactive exhibits. The museum is just a short ride from Beale Street and most downtown hotels on the Main Street trolley. You’ll probably work up an appetite while you’re there, so afterwards we suggest heading over to Central BBQ, located on Butler Street right behind the museum.
2. Beale Street
One of the most famous streets in the world, Beale Street packs a lot of history into a few storied blocks. Named “Most Iconic American Street” by the readers of USA Today in a recent poll, it was a melting pot of the city’s Jewish, Irish, German and Italian immigrants before becoming the center of Memphis’ vibrant African-American community in the early 20th century. Officially designated the Home of the Blues by act of Congress in 1977, it’s home today to many great bars, restaurants, shops, and, of course, live music. During the day you can shop at specialty stores, tour the shotgun-house of W.C. Handy – the “Father of the Blues”– at Beale and Fourth Streets, stroll through A. Schwab’s, the former dry good emporium that’s been a fixture on the street since 1876, or check out the amazing photographic exhibits of the Ernest Withers Gallery for an incomparable view of the African-American experience. But Beale Street’s at its very best at night: don’t even think of leaving town until you’ve had a few drinks, listened to some great music, and enjoyed the street in all its neon glory.
3. Sun Studio
It’s amazing to us how little people know about this legendary studio. It’s not only the place where Elvis first recorded, but the place where rock n’ roll was born. The first rock n’ roll song here in this small studio in March of 1951, making it the Birthplace of Rock n Roll. Sun also launched the careers of other iconic musicians such as Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and many, many others. The 45-minute guided tour of the studio and small museum area is pretty great: trust us, you don’t want to miss it.
4. Stax Museum
You don’t want to miss visiting the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, either. Located in a neighborhood of South Memphis now known as “Soulsville,” Stax Records captured the sound and legacy of soul music and launched the careers of artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. & the MGs, and a whole ton of other greats. Among the more than 2,000 exhibits, videos, costumes, and photographs, you’ll find items such as Isaac Hayes’ peacock-blue Superfly Cadillac El Dorado, Tina Turner’s gold sequined stage dress, Booker T. Jones’ organ, and an intact 100-year old gospel church from the Mississippi Delta, as well as a recreation of the legendary Studio A where so many famous hits were created.
5. Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum – created by the Smithsonian Institution – tells the story of the musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic barriers to create the music that shook the world. The interactive museum is a comprehensive Memphis music experience from the rural music of the 1930s, through Memphis’ musical heyday in the 70s, to its global musical influence.
6. The Memphis Mojo Tour
Okay, maybe we’re biased. But if you ask us, this is simply the best tour of Memphis, hands down. It’s the only tour in town that puts Memphis’ musical heritage in the hands of real musicians, professional entertainers and historians who perform all the music Memphis is famous for as you see the sights of this great city. You’ll see Beale Street, Sun Studio, Stax Records, the Peabody Hotel, Overton Park, early homes of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, as well as the Mississippi River, historic Cotton Row, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the Lorraine Motel, and a lot more, all to the sounds of the music that makes Memphis great: blues, rock n roll, gospel, and soul. The best part? You get to join the band and play along with a tambourine or shaker. Check out tour times and availability and purchase tickets here.
7. Mississippi River
Without the river, there simply wouldn’t be Memphis. The Mississippi is one of the great rivers of the world, with a rich history of its own. It was the lifeblood of Memphis in the city’s earliest days, bringing wealth and commerce in the form of cotton to its wharves on graceful steamboats, and floods and war and refugees in times of crisis. It’s still a force to be reckoned with, flooding every spring. You can get a feel for every twist and turn of the Lower River from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico by strolling Mud Island River Park’s mile-long scale replica of the river, complete with terrain features and water that rises and falls with the level of the actual river. But don’t miss getting up close and personal with Old Man river itself by walking or biking Big River
Crossing, the old historic Harahan Bridge, or enjoying a lazy day on its banks at Tom Lee Park, River Garden Park, or Greenbelt Park on Mud Island. Our favorite place to catch a gorgeous sunset? Vance Park, on the Riverwalk atop the bluff at the west end of Vance Avenue.
Memphis is an amazing place packed with so many things to see and experience. It’s one of a handful of cities with a definite, unique vibe that sets it apart from any other place on earth. Definitely put Memphis on your bucket list and check out the places we’ve suggested above. Your visit will be one you’ll never forget and we’re confident that Memphis will be a place you’ll want to visit again and again.