Memphis: An Insider's Guide to This Funky Southern City

Experience the city's lesser known wonders.

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For most people Memphis is best known as Elvis Presley’s home town with Graceland leading the list of attractions along with the landmark Peabody Hotel and its marching ducks and Beale Street with its rich history of blues, jazz and other American roots music. Equally significant is the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated) which first opened in 1991.

Sun Studio in Memphis

Sun Studio in Memphis

Sun Studio is the famous site of where independent record producer Sam Phillips launched the careers of rockabilly legends Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and other musicians.

Photo by: Brand USA/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Brand USA/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

All of these are highly recommended for first time visitors to the city but if you want to dig a little deeper and experience the real Memphis, here are some additional suggestions from Holly Whitfield, who operates the I Love Memphis blog. Her speciality is covering local events and getting the inside scoop on pop culture hot spots, fun activities and what’s popular on the food and cocktail scene.

History

No exploration of the city’s history would be complete without acknowledging Memphis’s vital role in the development of soul music and rock ’n’ roll. Rivaling New Orleans and Nashville as a Southern music mecca, Memphis is home to such attractions as the Gibson Guitar Factory (you can take a tour), the Memphis Rock ’n Soul Museum and Sun Studio, the independent record label founded in 1952 by Sam Phillips and the birthplace of rockabilly. But an essential destination for any music fan is the Stax Museum. The Stax record label was founded in 1959 and such soul music legends as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MGs and William Bell helped craft the distinctive Stax sound. The original studio was torn down in 1989 but the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built on the same site and opened its doors in 2003. Among the cool exhibits are Isaac Hayes’ custom Cadillac Eldorado and an exact replica of Studio A where the Stax artists cut their records.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Located at the original site of Stax Records, the Stax Museum pays tribute to all of the artists who recorded there with a rare and amazing collection of more than 2,000 interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, items of memorabilia, and galleries.

Photo by: Dan Ball/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Dan Ball/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

There are also several historic neighborhoods to explore in the city but Victorian Village is often overlooked. Situated on the edge of downtown along Adams Avenue, this is where the elite used to live in the mid-to-late 1800’s and a visit to the still existent, beautifully restored mansions such as the Mallory-Neely House is like stepping back in time. A different kind of historic perspective is offered at The Withers Collection Museum on the east end of Beale Street. One of the most important photojournalists of the Civil Rights era, Ernest Withers is famous for his coverage of that movement and African-American culture, particularly sports and music figures, and you can see his iconic work in this collection.

Dixon Gallery and Gardens

Dixon Gallery and Gardens

Set amid 17 acres of formal and informal gardens, Dixon features Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, the Stout Collection of 18th century porcelain, and changing exhibits.

Photo by: Baxter Buck/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Baxter Buck/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Culture

There are several fine art museums in Memphis with the Brooks Museum of Art and The Belz Museum (Asian and Judaic art) among the offerings. Equally prestigious is Dixon Gallery and Gardens, which was founded in 1976 and offers new and permanent exhibitions. The latter is notable for its collection of French and American Impressionist paintings and European porcelain. The adjoining gardens (pictured above) are especially inviting in good weather and host seasonal events such as Hello Holland, a spring festival of tulips, narcissus and other flowers.

Gates of the National Ornamental Metal Museum

Gates of the National Ornamental Metal Museum

Located high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the Metal Museum is the country's only institution devoted exclusively to the presentation and promotion of fine metalwork. Come by for changing exhibits of historic and contemporary metal art, a working blacksmith shop, shaded sculpture garden and a gift shop featuring jewelry, sculptures and much more.

Photo by: Andrea Zucker

Andrea Zucker

Another lesser known attraction and one of the most unique is The Metal Museum (pictured above), located across from Chickasaw Heritage Park with great views of the Mississippi River. Focusing on artists and artwork from the post-Craft Revival period of the 1970s to the present, The Metal Museum is an excellent introduction to the art of metalsmiths and even offers classes in metal casting, blacksmithing and welding.

Activities

If you want to see what Memphians like to do in their leisure time, you need to check out Overton Park, a 342 acre green space in the heart of Memphis that includes a nine hole golf course, Rainbow Lake, the Memphis Zoo and the Levitt Shell which offers more than 50 free concerts each year. Among the upcoming live acts are The Legendary Shack Shakers, Shannon McNally and Ruthie Foster.

Go Ape at Shelby Farms Park

Go Ape at Shelby Farms Park

Experience an incredible obstacle course at Shelby Farms Park near Memphis, Tn.

Photo by: Allen Gillespie/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Allen Gillespie/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Another popular destination is Shelby Farms Park. Whitfield states, “Most people don’t know that we have one of the largest urban parks in the country that just underwent an awesome renovation. It also has this crazy obstacle course, Go Ape” (pictured above). In addition, Shelby Farms Park offers horseback riding, kayak, canoe, paddle boards and bicycle rentals and an urban trail (the Greenline) that connects pedestrians and cyclists in the park to midtown Memphis.

Charlie Vergos'  Rendezvous in Memphis

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous in Memphis

The Rendezvous has been serving up its unique style of barbecue since 1948 when the owner discovered a coal chute in the basement of his restaurant and decided to put his grilling skills to work. Rendezvous is famous for its dry rub seasoning which makes them unique amongst other restaurants who serve ribs mopped with barbecue sauce.

Photo by: Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson

Food, Libations & Nightlife

When it comes to a signature dish from the city, barbecue is probably what most people associate with Memphis and there are countless local favorites that serve it up from Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous to cult faves like Central BBQ and Payne’s Bar-B-Q. But there are so many other types of cuisine awaiting first time visitors such as Phuong Long, the go-to destination for stellar Vietnamese food, and Maciel’s Tortas and Tacos, which serves super fresh Mexican fare. 

Sweet Grass restaurant in Memphis

Sweet Grass restaurant in Memphis

Sweet Grass is a neighborhood bistro offering low country style cuisine prepared with local ingredients set in heart of Midtown's Cooper Young district.

Photo by: Andrea Zucker/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Andrea Zucker/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Much more upscale is Catherine & Mary’s which specializes in Italian dishes from Tuscany and Sicily and is located in the newly renovated Chisca Apartments in downtown Memphis. Another trendsetter is Sweet Grass, a farm to table operation (pictured above) offering Low Country style dishes such as oyster stew, roasted Louisiana redfish and Hoppin’ John. Whitfield is particularly fond of The Cove: “They’ve been around for a while, but I think their food and cocktail program is underrated. They’re a pirate themed bar that shows weird old movies and also hosts a pop-up ramen shop on Sunday nights. It’s also a music venue…just a cool place!”

Jerry's Sno Cones in Memphis

Jerry's Sno Cones in Memphis

Memphis' most famous sno cone stand at Jerry's offers shaved ice and soft serve ice cream delights.

Photo by: Allen Gillespie/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Allen Gillespie/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you really want to do what the locals do, you need to experience Jerry’s Sno Cones where Memphians line up in droves to sample the numerous shaved ice and soft serve ice cream delights. Another iconic institution is Gibson’s Donuts which first opened in 1967 and is still going strong. Try their signature glazed donut or go creative with a maple bacon or red velvet option.

Memphis Beer

Memphis Beer

Craft beer has caught Memphis by storm and now small-batch breweries are popping up all over town such as Ghost River Brewery.

Photo by: Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson

When it comes to bars and cocktail lounges, you should definitely visit the atmospheric Mollie Fontaine Lounge, a former two story residence located in Victorian Village. “The lights are low, there are two bars (one on each floor), and the place is full of comfy chairs and sofas arranged in small groups. The decor is like if shabby chic and bohemian and contemporary styles had a baby.” Serious cocktail connoisseurs will want to check out Dodici, which Whitfield describes as “a 12-seat ultra mixologist cocktail bar in the 'secret' upstairs of Bari Italian Restaurant. The only place I’m not mad about paying $14 for a drink because they're all amazing.” Craft beer enthusiasts also have plenty of local options with popular hangouts like Hammer & Ale and breweries such as The Ghost River Taproom.

For those who want to experience something less touristy than Beale Street nightlife, Bar DKDC offers an intimate lounge experience with late night entertainment, global street food and classic cocktails. Wild Bill’s Blues Club is another quintessential late night juke joint that serves up blues, soul food and 40 ounce beers. And there is Hi-Tone which is “an iconic dive bar that's located in the interesting Crosstown neighborhood and features traveling and local bands.” For more insider info on what to see in Memphis, check out the I Love Memphis blog.

Gibson's Donuts in Memphis

Gibson's Donuts in Memphis

An exterior view of Gibson's Donuts, a local hot spot for donuts in Memphis

Photo by: Allen Gillespie/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Allen Gillespie/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

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