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Best Things To Do in Memphis

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Although you’re likely to spend a lot of time here with beer, blues and barbecue, Memphis has far more museums, historic homes, parks and other sights than you could pack into a week. As the birthplace of much of American music, it's got museums dedicated to rock-'n'-roll, soul and blues and several historic music studios open for tours. You could dedicate an entire trip just to Elvis-related travel—Graceland, Sun Studio, the Levitt Shell and the juke joints of Beale Street. Memphis has long been an important city in the Civil Rights movement, as have several museums and sites dedicated to the struggle of blacks.

Overton Park

Neighborhood: Midtown
Memphis's answer to New York's Central Park, 342-acre Overton contains the Memphis Zoo, the Brooks Museum of Art and the iconic Overton Park band shell. The century-old zoo is one of America's best, with 3,500 animals, from penguins to hippos. Don't miss the zoo's stars, giant pandas Le Le and Ya Ya. The art museum, Tennessee's largest, has collections ranging from ancient Greek sculptures to photo exhibits on the history of rock-'n'-roll. The band shell, site of Elvis's first-ever concert in 1954, recently reopened under the new name "Levitt Shell." It offers free concerts throughout the summer. There's also a terrific arboretum and miles of walking trails, a welcome respite from gritty downtown Memphis.

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Sun Studio

Neighborhood: Downtown
Often called "The Birthplace of Rock-‘n'-Roll," this small storefront recording studio launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and other mid-century giants. If you've listened to music in the past, oh, six decades, chances are you've already been touched by the "Sun Sound." Excellent guided tours (many of the guides are local musicians) take you through the artifact-filled upstairs and into the actual studio. Here, you'll get the chance to pose, Elvis-style, with an old-fashioned microphone. On your way out, pick up a CD of the "Million Dollar Quarter"—a spur-of-the-moment Sun jam session between Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

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Pink Palace Museum

Neighborhood: Midtown
The former home of Clarence Saunders, the founder of the Piggly Wiggly chain of supermarkets, this enormous brownish-pink mansion is now part of a museum with exhibits dedicated to Memphis's history and culture, from the dinosaur era to the present. The highlight is a life-sized, walk-through replica of the original Piggly Wiggly, which was America's first self-serve grocery store. The cases of Confederate memorabilia are also pretty cool. The museum also runs an IMAX theater, a 130-seat planetarium and two downtown historic homes. The homes were closed at the time of writing due to budget constraints, but are tentatively scheduled to reopen in late 2010 or early 2011.

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National Civil Rights Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Today, the motel is part of a powerful museum dedicated to the history of the Civil Rights movement. Exhibits trace the history of the struggle of blacks, from the early days of slavery, through the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and into the mid-20th century fight for desegregation and equal rights. The few interactive exhibits are particularly affecting—step aboard an old-fashioned bus and sit down next to a statue of Rosa Parks, only to have a recorded voice jeer "get to the back of the bus!" Prepare to shake with anger, to question your own beliefs about race and history, to cry.

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Orpheum Theater

Neighborhood: Downtown
This Beale Street institution is one of the last remaining vaudeville palaces in America. The 1928 building has been restored to its full Jazz Age glamour, with dangling crystal chandeliers, plush balcony seats and an opulent red stage curtain. Today the stage features touring Broadway musicals and big-name music and comedy shows. Watch out for the resident ghost, a little girl named Mary who, the story goes, was killed by a streetcar outside the theater and likes to giggle maniacally during performances.

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Rock and Soul Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown
This Smithsonian-run museum traces the history of rock and soul music, from the rhythmic chants of African slaves working the cotton fields to the hip wigglin' antics of Elvis Presley. It particularly focuses on how music brought together blacks and whites in the deeply segregated Mississippi Delta. The museum's personal audio guide has more than 100 songs, so touring the exhibits is like having your own private concert. It's in the FedEx Forum, a massive sports and entertainment complex around the corner from Beale.

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Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Neighborhood: South Memphis
Memphis is not just the birthplace of rock-'n'-roll and the blues. It also gave rise to a unique style of Southern soul music whose pioneers included Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. Stax Records, a Memphis recording studio, was at the heart of this new soul movement. Though the studio is gone, in its place stands the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, with interactive exhibits tracing the evolution of soul back to its African-American gospel roots. Walk through an authentic reconstructed Mississippi Delta church, admire Isaac Hayes' restored, peacock-blue 1972 Superfly Cadillac El Dorado, and check out the funky cover art on the thousands of albums in the Hall of Records.

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Beale Street

Neighborhood: Downtown
While these days Beale Street may resemble an endless outdoor fraternity party, 100 years ago it was the heart of Memphis's thriving black business community. Brass bands used to play on the street corners, over time giving rise to the style known as the Memphis blues.  A young Elvis used to sneak out to Beale Street at night to listen to blues musicians, crucially influencing the development of rock-‘n'-roll. Today, Beale Street is lined with neon-lit bars and blues clubs spilling over with drunken revelers. The music starts early and goes late into the night. The main drag is closed to cars, and you'll often see street performers doing flips or break dancing in the middle of the road. Visit in the morning or early afternoon for a calmer Beale experience, or come at night prepared to go hog wild. Your choice.

Mud Island River Park

Neighborhood: Downtown
Ignore the name. Mud Island, a peninsula jutting out into the Mississippi across from downtown Memphis, is far from muddy. A monorail whisks visitors over the water to the Mississippi River Museum (and it’s worth coming here just for the monorail trip alone), whose proudest exhibit is a life-sized replica of an old-fashioned steamboat. Outside is a scale model of the Mississippi River, and if you’re traveling with kids, it’s the perfect depth for wading. It empties into a miniature Gulf of Mexico, where you can rent paddle boats for an afternoon of splashing. Park in the Mud Island parking deck at Front Street and Poplar Avenue.

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Graceland

Neighborhood: South Memphis
As the ultimate pilgrimage for rock-‘n'-roll lovers, Elvis's former mansion is a shrine to the King's eccentricity and gaudy taste. Exhibit A: The "Jungle Room," with its lime green shag carpet and indoor waterfall. Other highlights include the basement TV room, where Elvis often watched multiple screens at once, and the 1970s-style kitchen. Guests are not allowed in the upstairs rooms where, in 1977, Elvis was found dead on the floor of a drug-related heart attack at the age of 42. You can, however, visit his grave—it's outside, next to the swimming pool. Various outbuildings on the Graceland property contain exhibits and artifacts, like Elvis's gold records, jumpsuits and old movie posters. For an extra fee, you can visit the car museum (check out the King's pink Caddy) and the airplane museum. To visit Graceland, purchase tickets at the visitor's complex across the street—come early, as there's often a line. You'll be given an audio headset and shuttled by bus onto the property to begin a self-guided tour.

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