When visiting Memphis you know you’re going to get a healthy dose of Elvis, Blues and BBQ with its renowned Memphis music scene and the lip-smacking Memphis restaurants. Aside from those three very tantalizing reasons to visit, Memphis holds a vital role, not only in the history of American music and cuisine, but also in the history of its civil rights
Duck lovers should make the trip as well, but more on that below!
The Best Bits
- Getting to Memphis
- Staying in Memphis
- Getting around Memphis
- Things to do when visiting Memphis
- Memphis Restaurants
- Other hotels in Memphis
- Tours of Memphis
- Best Bits Cheat Sheet
Getting to Memphis
As of now, there are no direct flights to Memphis from London, but it’s an easy transfer through any American city. I enjoyed flying American Airways Business Class through Chicago. What a treat! The service, food and cocktails were fabulous in equal measure. All of the current films and shows were available on the huge TV, as well. You know the flight is perfect when nine-hours to Memphis goes by too quickly!
Staying in Memphis
Memphis hotels run the gamut, but there is only one with the March of the Ducks. Arriving at The Peabody Hotel Memphis to be greeted by Elvis himself crooning, “Can’t help falling in love” from the lobby piano bar seemed like a set-up. If that is not a warm welcome, I am not sure what is. Elvis impersonators are plenty in Memphis, but I was there to meet a few other residents of this historic hotel.
The Peabody is not just the most iconic hotel in town, dating back to the 1880s and a Memphis institution, but it is home to the most famous ducks in the south. According to the Peabody, The Peabody Duck March was established in 1933. For almost 90 years, twice a day, the Duck Master (yes, that is his official title) has led these willing participants in the March of the Ducks or Duck Parade as it is usually referred. Down the elevator, through the hotel lobby, past the delighted onlookers, and into the lobby’s central fountain they go at 11am and 5pm everyday. Get there early as the crowds gather at least a half hour before to see the fun.
I was lucky enough to receive a private viewing of the Duck March and they were as well behaved for us as they were for the crowds.
Getting around Memphis
The centre of the city is linked by a trolley car which runs up and down South Main Street. For only one dollar, you can drive past Beale Street, the Civil Rights Museum and Central BBQ. There is also a line that runs along the Mississippi River and you can get out to visit Mud Island or take a riverboat for a trip up and down the great river herself.
Things to do when visiting Memphis
National Civil Rights Museum
One of the most tragic events to occur in Memphis was the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King. Dr. King had flown to Memphis to support the African American sanitation workers who were on strike, protesting their inhumane working conditions, Reverend King perished on April 4, 1968 on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel. That building, fraught with the burden of history, now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. Tracing the history of the struggle for civil rights from the 17th century to present day, the museum is a must for anyone visiting Memphis.
For some, there is, and will only ever be, one King – Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll chose to settle down in Memphis and bought himself a property which he called Graceland. It has been a tourist magnet since that very day.
Flocks of Jailhouse Rock loving fans have been coming to pay homage to the King since his untimely death at the age of 42. Visiting Memphis without visiting Graceland just can’t be done. Not only the house, but the cars, the clothes, the memorabilia and the jets, yes, there is more than one, are all larger than life, just like Elvis himself.
From Graceland, jump on the bus that links the house with Sun Studio, one of two music studios in Memphis that changed the sound of music. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and of course, hometown boy, Elvis, all recorded some of their greatest hits here.
Considered by some the birthplace of rock and roll, Sun Studio is still a working music studio, but they give tours, allowing you to be in the same room where the greats laid down their legendary tracks.
At the time it was founded, Stax Studio broke all the rules. Completely integrated at a time when most of the American South was not, Stax Studio gave birth to a new sound – soul. Otis Redding was perhaps its biggest star, but many of the Stax hits have found themselves in the American psyche, including “Hold On, I’m Coming” by Sam and Dave, and “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd, and “Shaft” by Isaac Hayes. Although no longer a working studio, this museum honors its former artists and houses one-off memorabilia that are a part of music history.
Not sure that Isaac Hayes’ gold plated Cadillac is an homage to anything, but it’s a piece of Memphis memorabilia.
One of the most famous streets in the USA, Beale Street is known for bars, blues and booze, especially as it’s one of the only places in the country you can carry around an open container of an alcoholic beverage without getting busted. There is so much history on this one thoroughfare that my suggestion is to grab a tour of Beale Street given by Memphis Back Beat Tours. By touring the street during day and building by building, you discover why USA Today called it “America’s Most Iconic Street.” By night, you will be too busy soaking up the sounds in one of its famous drinking establishments.
As far as I am concerned, BBQ, bourbon and beer are the three B’s of Memphis restaurants and bars. Eating BBQ in Memphis could qualify as an olympic sport. It takes training and planning, since you’ll want to sample as types of BBQ as you can. When you are not eating BBQ, you’re having fried chicken. I planned to eat one for lunch and the other for dinner, but as I was traveling with the 2foodtrippers (who created an amazing guide to Memphis restaurants), this plan fell away as our mission to sample as many Memphis restaurants took hold.
Most BBQ places are family run and have been making their secret recipe for years. No two are the same, making BBQ eating super exciting for those of us who are fans. Central BBQ is the grand dame of them all and, after eating their chicken wings, I can never return to eating any other. I ordered six wings thinking this would be the not-so-filling option. That was a mistake. These were the meatiest wings I have ever had. You can choose a slew of different sauces – I chose Wet, Dry Spice and Sweet Heat. Needless to say, I was too full to try their ribs. A reason to return!
Set in an old garage, Payne’s is another unmissable BBQ stop, with homemade slaw that rivals their tangy BBQ sauce.
The Bar-B-Q Shop
For a twist on BBQ, try BBQ spaghetti at the BBQ shop. I am not sure what the Italians might make of it, but we couldn’t eat it fast enough. Spaghetti and BBQ – one of those combinations that could only emerge from a place where, no matter what type of food you are eating, italian in this case, you can’t imagine it without BBQ on top.
Gus’s Fried Chicken
Fried Chicken is another of my all time favorite dishes and Gus’s Fried Chicken is worth the wait. Sometimes there is a reason that a restaurant has a reputation as far away as London. Just the right amount of black pepper and spice give it that celebrated bite. The only way to stop eating it if you want to leave a little room for that chess pie you saw on the menu.
The Four Way
The Four Way is one of the most historically important restaurants in town, having served Dr. King while he was in Memphis. It’s still serving fried chicken, turnips greens, macaroni and cheese to the throngs of tourist and locals combined
Ernestine & Hazel’s
If you are tired of chicken and ribs, then sample one of the best burgers in town at Ernestine and Hazel’s. Another building thick with history, I was there not to learn anything, but to sample their Soul Burger.
It’s the kind of delicious where you’ve been out on Beale Street and it’s 2am and you need something to a soak up all the bourbon and beer. The pickle juice drips down your hand and the cheese dribbles off the side, it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten – that kind of delicious.
Across the street from Ernestine’s and Hazels is the Arcade restaurant. The oldest cafe in Memphis, opened in 1919, Arcade is the classic American diner, serving up a southern breakfast you can’ eat anywhere else, like heaps of biscuits smothered in homemade gravy accompanied by country fried steak. Eggs are an option, as well as sweet potato pancakes. Don’t even think of ordering a salad!
For Memphis Bars, head over to the Lush Guide to Memphis (soon) to find out where to find the best drinks in Memphis.
I leave you with the dulcet tunes of the Elvis I encountered upon my first minutes in Memphis:
Other hotels in Memphis
Tours of Memphis
Book Backbeat Tours here.
If you can’t find what you are looking for Viator has some great tours as well.
If you want something to read before you go, this is a great guide:
Best Bits Cheat Sheet
- The Peabody Hotel, 149 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103
- National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry St, Memphis, TN 38103
- Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, TN 38116
- Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave, Memphis, TN 38103
- Stax Museum, 926 East McLemore Avenue, Memphis, TN
- Central BBQ, 147 E Butler Ave, Memphis, TN 38103
- Payne’s Bar-B-Q, 1762 Lamar Ave, Memphis, TN 38114
- The Bar B Q Shop, 1782 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN 38104
- Gus’s Fried Chicken, 310 S Front St, Memphis, TN 38103
- The Four Way, 998 Mississippi Blvd, Memphis, TN 38126
- Ernestine & Hazel’s, 531 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
- Arcade Restaurant, 540 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
2019 marks a special year for Memphis as the city celebrates its bicentennial year! Although Memphis will celebrate all year long, the party kicks off during the Memphis in May Festival events. Check out Memphis Travels for all the news. Thank you to them for arranging loads of our visits throughout the city!