Memphis is a vibrant city, culturally diverse and strongly linked to many historic events over the last century. Whether you are talking about the Civil Rights Movement, the iconic Elvis Presley or the rise of Memphis soul, the city has many an amazing tale to tell.
Like Nashville, Memphis is home to an immense amount of incredible live music. Avoiding the beautiful tunes is almost impossible and Beale Street is one of the best stretches of live music bars in the country.
With the help of our three days in Memphis itinerary, you will explore Memphis musical history, civil rights and sample some of the best eats in town.
Where to Stay in Memphis
Downtown Memphis is the place to base yourself during your travels. Not only will you be within walking distance of the famous Beale Street, many attractions on this itinerary will also be a short trek away. There are several mid-range hotels to suit most budgets, along with many vacation rentals in the downtown district.
A secondary option would be Midtown. Close to Overton Park, the Zoo, museums and laid-back nightlife, you can escape some of the tourist crowd by staying here.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Memphis
While there is no bad time to go to Memphis, you can certainly increase your enjoyment and ability to get around the city by avoiding the winter months. However, without the tourist crowd, you will enjoy cheaper accommodation and less waiting time at popular attractions.
Spring and the fall are the best times of year to visit Memphis. In the spring, the trees come back to life and Beale Street kicks up a gear ahead of the summer months of festivals and fun. Fall sees crowds diminish, and with plenty of sun you will have the comfort, time and space to move around with ease.
In the summer, temperatures in the city can climb up into the 90s (32c) which can put some people off. However, many of the city’s festivals occur in June and July, along with even more concerts.
Day 1: Graceland, Ducks, and Beale Street
With the tunes of Paul Simon’s Graceland playing over the radio, begin your three days in Memphis at the city’s most iconic attraction, Graceland. The stunning mansion that was once the home of Elvis Presley.
Graceland is split into two sections, the home itself which you can tour and the museum. Start with the home and explore the interior full of self-portraits and mirrors. It is an eccentric place, befitting of such a famous figure.
Afterwards, head over to the sprawling museum space that is dedicated to the life and times of Elvis. Discover jumpsuits, golden suits and other stage wear used by the great man across his sparkling career.
Other highlights include Elvis’ spectacular pink Cadillac, among other such cars at Presley Motors, and the Room of Inspiration.
After an introduction to Elvis Presley, make your way over to the place in which he got his start, the Sun Studio. This studio discovered such revered artists as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lewis, along with Presley. The Sun Studio is still an operating recording studio to this day.
The best way to experience the studio that produced many classic hits and put Memphis on the map is to sign up for a walking tour. Your musically talented guide won’t just spill the beans on the studio’s illustrious history, but he or she will whip out a guitar for some chords or show their wares on the piano. You’ll hear all the tunes of yesteryear and feel a wonderful sense of connection to the place where these songs originally came to life.
Keep in mind that tours can’t be reserved in advance and are sold on a first come, first served basis.
As the wheels of the day turn the afternoon into evening, make your way to the Peabody Hotel. Twice a day, at 11am and 5pm, the famous grand march of the ducks takes place.
Now, these aren’t just any old ducks playing around in the fountain. They transition to and from nature at the hands of a professional caregiver. For three months, they live a life of duck luxury at the Chateau du Canard. Twice a day, they commute from their cozy home on the roof to the fountain guided by the resident Duck Master.
The position of Duck Master is a revered job and not one that just falls into your lap. The last Master came to work every day for half a century. As the ducks float in the fountain, they splash each other and say hello (in duck) to the adoring crowd.
Once the parade is complete, the ducks waddle back to the elevator for the trip back to their home in the sky.
As the dinner plate is taken away and you’re ready for a night out in Memphis, turn your attention to Beale Street. Memphis’ version of Nashville’s lower Broadway, Beale Street is home to endless bars playing soul, blues and country into the early hours.
When the sun falls and moon rises, Beale Street becomes pedestrian-only and open containers are allowed. The neon signs flash brightly against the old buildings that have been the bridge between obscurity and stardom. Like Bourbon Street and the Honky Tonk Highway, the action on Beale is just as entertaining as the bars themselves.
So if you aren’t enjoying the live tunes, you’ll be able to take in some top-notch people watching along the journey. Having said that, bars you have to check out during your Memphis adventure include the Blues Hall, an intimate live music venue, and the Rum Boogie Cafe. Both are connected and you can make the most of both with just a single cover charge.
Where to Eat
From the Sun Studio, you’ll have just a short walk to your lunch at Edge Alley. Serving new American fare, enjoyed refined southern comforts that add a healthy spin to your favorite dishes.
Once the ducks have safely returned to the elevator, head across to the Capriccio Grill inside the Peabody Hotel. Normally, hotel restaurants are at best ok, but Capriccio bucks the trend. From classic southern cuisine to modern takes on international dishes, this restaurant has you covered.
Day 2: The Zoo, Civil Rights, and Midtown
Begin day two in Memphis by waking up and stretching out in Overton Park, the largest park in town. Kick back with a coffee under the shade and watch the locals begin their day. Once you’re up and about, then you can take a few steps over to the zoo, one of the best things to do with kids in Memphis.
The Memphis Zoo is home to over 3500 animals, spanning more than 500 species. They all combine to make this one of the best zoos in the United States. Each exhibit does an exceptional job of replicating the animal’s natural habitat, creating a fascinating place to learn about each species.
Memphis Zoos’ top attraction is the panda exhibit. Only a handful of zoos in the country are home to giant pandas. Beyond the fluffy creatures, there is an expansive aquarium, one of the first parts of the zoo that opened along with the African Veldt, where zebras, elephants and ostriches roam.
After exploring the zoo, head towards downtown Memphis and the Lorraine Motel, the location of Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination. Now transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, you will take a thorough trip through the major moments that shifted the Civil Rights Movement along with several lesser-known events that changed the course of history.
The power of the museum also stems from the tragic location. As you learn about Dr King’s death, you will stand where he stood. Before following the trail of information to try to understand how it all came to be.
The highly rated museum is jarring (as it should be) but educational covering everything from the Freedom Rides to sit-ins and the impact young people had on national civil rights. It will leave you with a greater understanding and appreciation of the movement and the impact it continues to have on the modern day.
From the National Civil Rights Museum, you will have a brief journey to your afternoon adventure on the Mississippi River. The Memphis Sightseeing Tour with Memphis Riverboats is a 90-minute journey down the biggest river in America. With live historical commentary, you will discover the history of the river, along with Memphis and the state of Tennessee.
The 10-mile round trip offers exceptional views of the city along with the landscape up and down the Mississippi River. With drinks and snacks on board, kick back on your classic paddleboat and enjoy the ride.
As the sun sets on Memphis, there is no better place to capture the blazing sky than at Big River Crossing. At just under a mile (1.6km) from one side to the other, this crossing is the biggest bridge along the entire Mississippi River. Under the setting sun, cross from downtown Memphis to Arkansas and back, taking note of the state line marked on the bridge.
Watch the sun sink below the horizon, lighting up the river and return to downtown Memphis as the neon lights of Beale Street spring to life once more.
Another night on Beale Street could very well be on the cards, and we won’t stop you. But if you are looking for something different, you can head a block over to South Front Street or towards Memphis’ Midtown. The Overton Entertainment District may not go as hard as Beale Street but you will find plenty of laid-back bars, live music at Lafayette’s while you can enjoy a late-night snack at Local’s Kitchen which does curbside pickups until 2am on the weekends.
If you want to see who’s playing when you are in Memphis, check the calendar on Memphis Travel.
For an afternoon out of Memphis, take a scenic one-hour drive to the Holly Springs National Forest. In a rustic, country landscape, explore lush pine and hardwood forests, with plenty of outdoor activities to embark on. Hiking trails abound, providing anything from a casual stroll to a leg-burning trek. As for anglers, there are several lakes to throw out your reel along with the rushing Tippah River. You can also get out on the water on a kayak or swim from the many beaches on a sunny day.
Instead of an afternoon river cruise, another option is to reserve a two-hour dinner cruise on the gorgeous boat, complete with live entertainment. After your meal, grab a refreshing beverage and embark to the top deck, where you can cruise the Mississippi River under the night sky.
Where to Eat
Start your morning well with a trip to Sunrise Breakfast, a Memphis institution. The southern comfort food is some of the best breakfast in town. The eclectic diner will keep your eyes entertained and may remind you of your grandma’s living room. Their large plates hit the spot and will have you powering through the adventures to come.
No trip to Memphis would be complete without sampling the goods at Central BBQ. Right across from the National Civil Rights Museum, you’ll see a line coming out the door. Once you’ve tried their mouthwatering ribs, it will all make sense.
Before beginning your night on the town, have dinner at Bishop. This restaurant comes with wonderful craft cocktails and an extensive wine list. Pair that with their amazing seafood selection and vegetarian options.
Day Three: Soul Music and Mud Island
Home to the famous Stax Records, the Stax Records Museum is the perfect place to begin your final day in Memphis. The recording studio played a massive role in creating the sounds of soul music during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
Stax was once home to such artists as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. With soul music being so entwined with black culture, your visit to the Civil Rights Museum will also help you understand the history of the studio. Once a place where it was all about the tunes, as the Civil Rights Movement grew, racial tension within the studio came to a boiling point.
Emotion and lived experiences poured into the lyrics and as the landscape of blues changed, those that couldn’t keep up with the times shifted to other genres. The rise of soul music from an economic point of view came to a crashing end and Stax went bankrupt.
Stax Museum may have a focus on the musical legends that recorded here, but the studio’s story is intrinsically linked to the events and times in which it lived. Tours of the museum will explore the multi-faceted home of Memphis soul. Stax remains a place of live music to this day and if you’re lucky, your experience will line up with a free live concert.
From the Stax Museum, soak up the nature of Memphis by making your way to Mud Island. What was once literally a mud island has come on in leaps and bounds to feature parks, recreational activities and gorgeous downtown views.
One of the top attractions is the Memphis sign, which is sure to make for the perfect picture to commemorate your travels.
Rather than the Stax Museum, another great alternative is the Rock ‘n Soul Museum. This museum was set up by the Smithsonian Institute, telling the story of music in Memphis, from humble beginnings to the current day.
In a city shaped by the tunes of six-string guitars and the hauntingly beautiful voices of Memphis blues and soul, discover the world of early Memphis musicians who had to overcome enormous obstacles to show their talents to the world. Along the way, it will become clear how these efforts also affected culture near and far. Click here to buy your tickets online and in advance — entry is $11 per person.
Where to Eat
For your morning meal on day 3, venture to the Arcade restaurant. This local eatery is the oldest in Memphis and has been welcoming guests since the year 1919. Not much has changed here. Their sweet potato pancakes are still a local favorite and the storefront is as instagrammable as ever.
Before crossing the river to Mud Island, dine out at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. In a throwback brick building, the exterior may leave a lot to be desired, but that’s because they are too busy perfecting their fried chicken recipes. It isn’t a simple takeout restaurant either, as they make each piece to order, coming out crunchy, juicy and delightfully spicy.
It is hard not to think that Memphis is underrated. It may be overshadowed by Nashville by some or out of the picture for others, yet it is a wonderful excuse for an exciting three-day vacation.
Memphis is a walkable town, and easy to get around. Many of the attractions and activities in this itinerary are within walking distance of each other. You can forego renting a car and jump on an e-bike whenever you need to switch things up.
There is an endless list of amazing restaurants, museums that will make you think, and of course, the home of the one and only Elvis Presley.