When you think of Memphis, the first things that pop into your mind might be Elvis Presley and barbecue. While these are both great reasons to visit Tennessee’s second-largest city, there’s so much more to see in Memphis.
Memphis first developed into a major city thanks to its position along the Mississippi River. The city played an important role in the country’s Civil Rights Movement, and it has also been a hub of blues music along with country, rock’ n’ roll, soul, and hip hop.
I first started visiting Memphis while in undergrad at a college about an hour’s drive from the city. Even before I moved to Tennessee, I was interested in Memphis’s unique culture, museums, boutiques, and restaurants (including the barbecue ones). There are so many things to do in the city that it can be difficult to narrow down all the places you should visit to just a few, but I’ve put together a list of a few of the must-do activities.
If you’re planning to visit the Home of the Blues, here are a few of the best things to do in Memphis.
See the Ducks at the Peabody Hotel
The Peabody Hotel in Memphis is known for two things–the red neon sign that sits on top of the Skyway Ballroom and the ducks that spend their days in the hotel fountain.
The Peabody Ducks have their own penthouse on the rooftop of the hotel. Every day at 11:00 am, the ducks are led from their home across a red carpet to the hotel’s fountain. They make their way back to the penthouse each day at 5:00 pm. Visitors show up and line the red carpet to watch these processions take place.
You can watch the ducks march regardless of whether you’re staying at the Peabody or not. It doesn’t take too long to watch, and it’s a fun activity for people of all ages. One tip for seeing the ducks march is to order from the bar and get a table with a good view of the fountain. Of course, you can always stand next to the red carpet, but it’s nice to have a seat and something to do while you’re waiting. The lobby gets crowded in advance with people waiting to see the ducks march each day.
Make sure to have your phone out and ready for photos or videos. The ducks move quickly down the red carpet!
Pay Your Respects at Graceland
No trip to Memphis would be complete without a trip to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion. The King of Rock’ n’ Roll’s home, which is owned by his daughter Lisa Marie Presley, is open to the public for tours.
Elvis fans can visit the mansion, walk the grounds, and even view some of his personal vehicles and aircraft. A tour of the mansion allows visitors to access rooms on two levels, including the famous Jungle Room.
A new complex located on the property contains new exhibits for visitors to enjoy. One of the new in-depth exhibits contains more than 100 costumes worn by Elvis while performing. You can even see some of the original designer sketches used to create these outfits.
If you’re interested in music or the entertainment industry at all, it’s worth making a stop at Graceland.
Sample the Barbecue
Besides music, Memphis is well-known for its incredible barbecue. Barbecue is a big deal all across the south, but Memphis has its own distinct style of barbecue. Generally, barbecue in the city is made with charcoal briquettes that give the meat a smoky flavor, and the barbecue sauce is thick and tangy.
There are so many barbecue places in Memphis that it would be impossible to list them all. One of my favorites is Rendezvous which has been a staple in the city for over 70 years. Their ribs are some of the best you’ll find anywhere.
For a good barbecue sandwich, try out A&R Bar-B-Que. There are several locations around Memphis, and they make excellent chopped pork sandwiches and rib sandwiches. Another popular barbecue restaurant with multiple locations is Central BBQ. Here you’ll find all kinds of meat options including pork, chicken, and turkey. You’ll even find smoked portobello mushrooms if you want a non-meat dish.
If you can’t decide what kind of barbecue you want, try out the Bar-B-Q Shop. Their half-and-half ribs are dry-rubbed on one side and wet on the other, so you get a taste of both barbecue styles. You can also get barbecue spaghetti here. The recipe for barbecue spaghetti is kept secret, but the base for the sauce is cooked in the pit and combined with noodles and pulled pork.
Stroll Through the Cooper-Young Festival
Every year over 100,000 people show up to one of Memphis’ most popular festivals. The Cooper-Young Festival is held during the fall. More than 400 artisans show up with booths selling a variety of arts and crafts.
The weather is usually hot, but it’s a lot of fun to browse the booths and visit the local businesses in the area. There’s also usually a great music lineup with bands playing on multiple stages. You can get food from one of the food vendors or stop in at one of the local restaurants.
Visit the National Civil Rights Museum
Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum is located at the former Lorraine Motel. This is the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The room where King stayed was never rented again after that day and was preserved exactly as it was left.
In addition to this room, the museum contains historical artifacts and interactive exhibits covering a wide range of civil rights issues beginning with slavery to issues related to the modern day. As you visit, you take a self-guided tour that usually lasts around 2 hours. While the subjects covered in the museum are quite somber, it’s important to learn about the civil rights struggles that occurred in the past and to remain aware of the instances of inequality that still occur in various forms today.
Ride to the Top of the Memphis Pyramid
Towering above the Memphis skyline at 321 feet, the Memphis Pyramid was originally planned to be one of three pyramids overlooking the Mississippi River. Only one pyramid was completed, and it opened to the public in 1991. The giant structure was home to the University of Memphis basketball programs and later the Memphis Grizzlies.
Today, the Pyramid is home to a Bass Pro shops megastore. This location isn’t just an ordinary retail store though. Inside the store, you’ll find a giant aquarium with over 1800 fish, a cypress swamp complete with alligators, and a duck aviary. You can also go bowling at the aquatic-themed bowling lanes, practice at the archery range, or grab a bite to eat at one of the three dining locations in the Pyramid. There’s even a hotel with 103 rooms inside the Bass Pro Shops as well.
Even if you aren’t interested in the retail side of the location, it’s still worth visiting the Memphis Pyramid for the views. You can take a ride on the tallest free-standing elevator in the United States to the outdoor observation deck. Once you reach the top, you’ll be able enjoy beautiful views of the city of Memphis and over the Mississippi River.
Get Outdoors at Shelby Farms
Located in the heart of Memphis, Shelby Farms Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. At 4500 acres, the park is 5 times larger than Central Park in New York City. The space is popular with both locals and visitors looking for an outdoor adventure without leaving the city.
The public park has more than 40 miles of trails that can be used for walking, biking, running, or hiking. There are also multiple bodies of water where you can kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. At Pine Lake, you can even rent a pedal boat. There are places where you can go fishing at Shelby Farms Park, too.
Other fun activities at the park include horseback riding, paintball, and laser tag. For those without a fear of heights, the outdoor ropes course is a fun way to spend the afternoon with friends and family. The course includes a zip line across the lake.
Tour the Iconic Sun Studio
For music lovers, the legendary Sun Studio deserves a spot on your Memphis bucket list. The studio is known as “the birthplace of rock’ n’ roll” thanks to the many artists who recorded here during the 1950s. Legendary names like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis are just a few of the artists who recorded at Sun Studio.
Tours of the studio are available daily. Your tour guide can show you the spot where Elvis made his first record, and you’ll be able to view memorabilia from artists of many different genres. In the evenings the studio still functions as a working recording studio. Musicians can contact the studio engineer for information about recording.
Visit the Rock n’ Soul Museum
Another must-visit site for music lovers is the Memphis Rock’ n’ Soul Museum. The music honors the musicians who created the distinct sounds of soul music and rock’ n’ roll that define the city.
Located on Beale, the museum traces the story of music in Memphis in stages from the beginnings involving rural and working-class artists during the 1930s, to Memphis’ musical heyday during the 1970s, and finally to the way the city’s sound has shaped music around the world.
Plan to spend a lot of time at this museum. The audio tour guide contains over 300 minutes of information and takes you through 7 galleries filled with instruments, costumes, and other artifacts related to Memphis musicians.
Eat Breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant
First opened in 1919, the Arcade Restaurant is the oldest cafe still in operation in Memphis. The original diner was created by Zeros Zepatos after he immigrated from Greece. The building was torn down and rebuilt in the 1920s. Then, it was updated in the 1950s to include the boomerang table tops, neon signs, and hip storefront you see today.
Elvis used to sit in a booth here and enjoy breakfast in the morning. The restaurant is well-known thanks to its connection to Elvis along with its appearance in several movies including Elizabethtown, The Firm, and Walk the Line.
If you like visiting nostalgic restaurants, it’s worth taking the time to get the southern breakfast at the Arcade. While some 1950s-style restaurants are a little too kitschy, the Arcade manages to retain its charming features while still having some modern features..
Today the restaurant is still run by the Zepatos family. You can enjoy the traditional southern-style breakfast served here during the morning or head to the restaurant for lunch options like meats, salads, sandwiches, and pizzas. The sweet potato pancakes are especially popular at the Arcade Restaurant.
See a Musical at the Orpheum Theater
Enjoy a night out at the iconic Orpheum Theater. The theater started out as the Grand Opera House in 1890. The theater was destroyed by a fire in 1923 and rebuilt in 1927. The new building was lavishly designed with ornate draperies, crystal chandeliers, and gilded moldings.
Over the years, the beautiful theater fell out of use before being purchased by the Memphis Development Foundation and being added to the National Register of Historic Places. The theater has since been renovated and updated for modern audiences. Today, the Orpheum hosts Broadway productions like The Lion King, Wicked, and other favorites.
In addition to Broadway shows, the theater is also one of the best places in Memphis to see concerts, comedy tours, and dance companies. Movies are sometimes shown on the big screen as well. A visit to the Orpheum Theater is perfect for a group of friends or as a date night.
Shop at A. Schwab
For a unique shopping experience, you have to check out A. Schwab. This store, which was founded in 1876 by Abraham Schwab in 1876, is the oldest store located in the Mid-South. The store was owned by the Schwab family for 136 years until it was sold in 2011.
The store was originally a dry goods store selling basic household goods and clothing. Today, you’ll find souvenir items instead of flour and other household basics. It’s a fun shop to browse the locally-produced goods like soaps and jams. You could easily spend an hour just looking through all the different areas in the shop.
Make sure to visit the old-fashioned soda fountain while at A. Schwab. Enjoy gelato in waffle cones, order a milkshake, or get a phosphate soda created with homemade syrup. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Enjoy the Memphis Botanic Garden
Explore the 30 beautiful gardens at the Memphis Botanic Garden. The tranquil gardens include the formal gardens, the lowlands, the Japanese garden, the shade gardens, and the woodland. One particularly interesting section is the Urban Home Garden. This area is designed as a resource for home gardens to see effective gardening practices. The educational space shows home gardeners how to combine aesthetics with function.
The botanic garden is lovely to visit year-round. There are special events every month including events for Valentine’s Day, a spring plant sale, and a concert series during the summer. Be sure to check out the gift shop during your visit to pick up one-of-a-kind gifts and plants.
Besides viewing the gardens, you can participate in other events here as well. The center hosts painting classes, yoga classes, and a variety of other workshops.
Get Coffee at Crosstown Concourse
In 1927, the Sears Crosstown facility opened in Memphis. This giant building contained a department store along with a distribution center that fulfilled catalog orders for the company. The center was closed in the 1990s, but today the building has been transformed into the Crosstown Concourse, a unique “vertical urban village” with housing restaurants, retail, and entertainment.
The building is huge, and you’ll definitely want to take a look at Crosstown Concourse’s website to decide where to go when you visit. One of my favorite restaurants in the building is Abner’s. I always get the grilled chicken tenders with Abner’s sauce. I’d also suggest making a stop at French Truck Coffee to try out some of the fresh-roasted coffee. For more food options, check out the Global Cafe where you’ll find food entrepreneurs with immigrant and refugee backgrounds selling delicious, authentic dishes.
You can also enjoy some of the coolest cultural experiences in Memphis at the Crosstown concourse. The building houses the Crostown Theater which hosts performing arts, music, and film events. At the Crosstown Arts galleries, you can view artwork by a range of artists and attend artist talks and lectures. You can also visit the Memphis Listening Lab which contains a curated collection of music and hosts educational talks and engaging performances.
Get a Drink at Beck & Call
Head to the Hyatt Centric rooftop for one of the coolest rooftop bars in downtown Memphis. Beck & Call is a rooftop whiskey bar that overlooks the Mississippi River. The bar offers a food and drink menu, so you can come for dinner or just for drinks. Many of the drinks offered feature whiskey and bourbon, but there are other options if you’re in the mood for a different type of drink.
Pick a seat in the lounge, at the bar, or in one of the outdoor spaces while you enjoy a burger or smaller plates like shrimp with bacon or sweet corn skewers. Beck & Call is the perfect place to visit with friends or just enjoy the panoramic views of the city. You may need to make a reservation in advance, especially on the weekends, to make sure you get a seat.
Try the Oysters at Restaurant Iris
After relocating from midtown to East Memphis, Restaurant Iris’ new location is possibly one of the most elegant restaurants in Memphis. Ann Parker and her team designed the interior to give it a cool, effortless vibe that feels both luxurious and contemporary.
Of course, the decor is only part of the reason to visit Restaurant Iris. The menu is heavily inspired by New Orleans and creole cuisine, so there are plenty of great seafood options. The lunch specials include favorites like red beans & rice and crawfish etouffee. In the evenings, oysters are prominently featured as appetizers, and you can enjoy oyster Rockefeller, fried oysters, and oysters on the half shell.
You can also go straight to the bar instead of the sit-down portion of the restaurant. The bar and bar kitchen is open starting at lunch time with its own separate menu. If you decide to order here, you can’t go wrong with one of the poboys or one of the special plates.
While there are plenty of great restaurants in Memphis’s culinary scene, Restaurant Iris is definitely worth the visit.
Attend the River Arts Festival
Art lovers should make plans to be in Memphis in the fall for the River Arts Fest. This festival, which has been happening in Memphis for over 15 years, is one of the premier fine art festivals in the South. Each year thousands of visitors come to see the booths, try out the hands-on art stations, listen to live music, and eat tasty food from local vendors.
At the festival, you’ll find around 200 artists with paintings, photography, ceramics, wood, drawing, jewelry, metalwork, and other crafts on display. You can go with the intention of buying unique art or show up just to enjoy browsing and people-watching. There’s lots of local and regional artists at the festival, but you’ll find artists representing all 50 states.
The profits from the festival help support the arts community in Memphis. The money is used to award art scholarships, bring master classes and workshops to public schools, and support other arts-related activities that take place in the community during the year. Attending the festival is a great way to have fun while also investing in the city’s art scene.
Watch the Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are Memphis’s professional basketball team. If you’re a sports fan, you absolutely can’t miss out on seeing the Grizzlies play at the FedExForum. In fact, even if you’re not super into sports (like me), experiencing a game in Memphis is still incredibly fun.
Besides the actual basketball game itself, there’s a lot going on in the arena. The entertainment between quarters and during timeouts is always fun. Plus, you’ll get to see Grizz who’s been named the Best NBA Mascot multiple times.
Since this is Memphis, the arena has excellent food. Concessions include pork barbecue nachos from the Rendezvous and pizza from Slim & Husky’s. The ticket prices are some of the lowest in the NBA even though the team is usually decent (according to my limited basketball knowledge), so that’s even more of a reason to check out a game while you’re in the city.
Explore the Art Collection at the Brooks Museum
As one of the largest art museums in the South, the Brooks Museum of Art has an impressive collection of works. The Brooks Memorial Art Gallery first opened to the public in 1916 and has expanded multiple times. The first collection contained 19 paintings, but today the collection contains more than 10,000 different works of art. Items in the collection span for more than 5,000 years.
The museum is moving to a new location in downtown Memphis that will further enhance its ability to share art with the public. Exhibitions and galleries will be located on the ground floor, and a theater will also be part of the new building. Until the new location opens, the current location will be open for visitors.
The museum’s permanent exhibits include 19th-century French art, contemporary art, art from the African diaspora, and American art. Special exhibits and galleries rotate on a regular basis and the museum displays touring exhibitions as well.
Try a Sno Cone at Jerry’s
During the summer, one of the best ways to cool down in the middle of the day is to make a trip to Jerry’s Sno Cones. The 1970s-era shop is housed in a converted gas station and carries an assortment of flavors. You’ll find classic sno cone flavors like grape or vanilla alongside more nontraditional flavors like the Hurricane Elvis and the Legit.
For the best experience, order your snow cone “supreme” to get vanilla soft serve ice cream on top. The thin-shaved ice is delicious on its own, but the added ice cream makes it even tastier.
Unlike many sno cone stands, Jerry’s is open year-round. Besides sno cones, you can also order burgers, pretzels, funnel cakes, and other concession-type foods at Jerry’s. You may have to wait in line for a while depending on the time of day, but once you get your food, you’ll decide that the experience is worth a little extra time.
Eat Soul Food at Four Way
It’s not a trip to Memphis without eating soul food at least once. One of the best places to find soul food in the city is at Four Way. This restaurant has been serving classic meat-and-three plates for over 75 years.
The menu changes daily, but some popular options are always offered. You can order the turkey & dressing, catfish, fried chicken, and salmon croquette any day of the week. Daily specials are served Thursday through Sunday and include options like liver, chitterlings, and pork chops. The sides are equally delicious and include cornbread dressing, black eyed peas, macaroni & cheese, buttered corn, and turnip greens.
Meat-and-three restaurants are incredibly popular all across the south, and Four Way is one of the best. The prices are pretty reasonable for a restaurant in a large city. Plus, it’s cool to eat at a restaurant that has been part of the community for so long.
Get a Cupcake at Muddy’s Bake Shop
Muddy’s Bake Shop first opened in 2008 when cupcakes were having a moment. While other cupcake shops tended to close when the trend died out, Muddy’s has remained a Memphis favorite for baked goods.
The everyday menu includes different combinations of chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, cookies, pies, and puddings. The shop also offers quiche, pies, and cookie dough that you can pick up and bake at home. I usually get the Plain Jane cupcake, which is the vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing.
Be sure to check out Muddy’s baking classes. In-person classes are offered almost every week. You can learn how to make cookies, pies, biscuits, and other baked goods. You can even book a private party where guests get to decorate their own cupcakes and cookies. This is such a fun activity to celebrate a birthday, host a bridal or baby shower, or celebrate another special event with friends.
See a Show at the Overton Park Shell
The Overton Park Shell was first constructed in 1936. At the time, several different cities had similar band shells, but few of them remain in use today. The Shell was first used for orchestras, operas, and musicals during the 1930s and 1940s. The stage was the site of the “first-ever rock and roll show” when Elvis Presley opened for Slim Whitman in 1954.
After a renovation in 2007, the Shell is once again in use and hosting free programs throughout the year. Throughout the summer and fall, the Orion Free Concert Series takes place at the Shell. You can bring lawn chairs, blankets, and picnic baskets with you while you enjoy the show, or you can purchase food and drinks on-site.
While the concert series is free, consider bringing a couple of dollars for the donation bucket if you’re able to. Or buy a ticket to the Shell Yeah! Benefit Concert Series. The money helps to keep this historic landmark open to the community and supports the Free Concert Series.
Enjoy Your Visit to Memphis
With so much history and culture in one city, it’s no wonder that people continue to visit Memphis. You’ll quickly see why the city is a bucket list item for so many people. The only way to understand Memphis is to check it out for yourself.