Covering 279 square miles, Memphis is actually a large city, area-wise. Though there is public transportation, it's definitely the kind of place where it's better to have your own car. Many, but by no means all of the interesting sights for visitors are contained within the downtown area. Some of the most iconic places, like Graceland, are actually quite a bit farther afield. When traveling in Memphis, keep in mind that the city does have a crime problem in certain areas. The well-trafficked areas of downtown are fine, as is much of Midtown. But always keep your eyes open and consider your surroundings.
Midtown is where the locals come to play. This mid-century neighborhood, full of charming Craftsman-style bungalows and cottages, is one of the city's prettiest. It's full of restaurants, boutiques and bars, especially in the Cooper-Young area surrounding the junction of Cooper Street and Young Avenue. In spring, Midtown gets some of the lushest flowers in Memphis—drive up and down Poplar Avenue and Madison Avenue to see the hundred-year-old gardens in bloom. If you want to get away from the Beale Street crowds, this is definitely the place.
Don’t let the name fool you. This peninsula, jutting into the Mississippi River near downtown, is not particularly muddy these days. Its south end is occupied by Mud Island River Park, while its north end has been transformed into the pleasantly suburban-feeling Harbor Town. If you get tired of the grit and noise that characterizes downtown Memphis, this is a lovely escape. The peninsula's amphitheater, which seats 5,000, is a popular site for summer concerts. Reach Mud Island by foot, car or monorail.
Once the center of a thriving cotton industry, Memphis's downtown fell onto hard times in the middle of the 20th century. Many of the splendid brick buildings were abandoned, and the area became something of a ghost town. Today, downtown revival efforts have gone a long way toward rebuilding what the city once had. Beale Street, birthplace of the blues, is thriving again—on any given night it's so crowded it looks like a street carnival is happening. The South Main Arts District (on Main Street) has a lively little collection of bars, restaurants and galleries, as well as several upscale new condo complexes. Visitors will probably spend most of their time in this area.
East Memphis has a tonier vibe than much of the rest of the city. It's home to the Memphis Botanical Gardens, the University of Memphis, the Audubon Park Golf Course and a number of shopping centers. The city is fairly spread out here, so you'll definitely need a car. If you head even farther east, you wind up in Germantown. This upscale Memphis suburb has a number of the city's best restaurants.
Marked by sprawl, suburban South Memphis has two major pieces of interest for the traveler: the airport and Graceland. It's not the most attractive part of town, with wide roads lined with fast food restaurants and dollar stores, but it does have a handful of hidden gem barbecue joints. The main road is Elvis Presley Boulevard, which runs past Graceland. If you keep heading south, it'll take you across the border to Mississippi.