What to Do in Memphis
Music lovers may find their mecca during a trip to Memphis. While many Memphis visitors consider a quick jaunt to storied Beale Street a sufficient means of understanding Memphis’s music and vibe, they'd be more than remiss to skip the city's other, important attractions, like Graceland and Sun Studios. Still, there's more to this city than its music: Memphis has also served as an iconic destination for the civil rights movement. Discover our top picks for what to do in Memphis, and embrace the city's soul and sound.
Forget the sexy sneer and hip swivels that left a generation swooning; Elvis Presley was also one of his era's most innovative and talented musicians and actors. Pay homage to the King of Rock and Roll at Graceland, the sprawling, white-columned mansion -- and Memphis's most popular attraction -- that Elvis and his family called home from 1956 to 1977. During the self-guided audio tour, you will see the infamous "Jungle Room," and gawk at the home's bizarre, over-the-top gilded decor, fake waterfall, green shag-carpet ceiling and yellow vinyl walls. Visit the King's private jets, the Lisa Marie (named after his daughter) and the Hound Dog II, and take your time exploring the "Sincerely Elvis" exhibit, which highlights many of his personal belongings. Tours conclude at Elvis's gravesite on the property (next to the swimming pool), where Elvis fans can be found weeping and leaving tokens of their devotion.
There's a saying at Sun Studio: "If music was a religion, then Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun Studio its most holy shrine." Sound grandiose? Maybe. But it comes darn close to being true. Founded by Sam Phillips in 1950, Sun Studio's goal was to capture the so-called "Memphis sound" played by musicians on Beale Street. Many music historians argue that rock and roll was born in the hallowed rooms of this recording studio after Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner recorded "Rocket 88" here in 1951. Just a few years later, unknown 18-year-old Elvis Presley popped in to record a song as a birthday present to his mom, and so became the King of Rock and Roll. Sun Studios also recorded the incomparable likes of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and Roy Orbison. Tours of the space take visitors on a rollicking journey through the history of the studio and rock and roll, where you'll listen to outtakes from epic recording sessions and even get the chance to hold Elvis's microphone.
During the 1960s and 1970s when soul music reigned, Stax Records was part of the genre's epicenter. It was in this recording studio that legends like Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Al Green, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind & Fire churned out many of their greatest hits. Today the Stax recording studio has been replaced by the extraordinary Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which celebrates the history of, you guessed it, soul music. The sprawling museum houses 2,000 videos, films, photographs, instruments and stage costumes. Multimedia exhibits explore the genre's past, including Stax's role as a rare, integrated business during segregation. Highlights include a 101-year-old Mississippi Delta church that underscores soul music's gospel roots; the Soul Train psychedelic dance floor, and Isaac Hayes' restored 1972 gold-trimmed, peacock-blue Cadillac Eldorado.
The National Civil Rights Museum is the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Visitors can step into that painful past, visiting the motel balcony where King was shot and killed, as well as Room 306, where he was staying. The museum details the struggle for equal rights. Exhibits include a Montgomery, AL, public bus similar to the one on which Rosa Parks took her memorable ride; a Greensboro, NC, lunch counter, and a burned out Freedom Ride Greyhound bus. The museum has expanded and acquired surrounding historic properties, including the Young and Morrow building, the former Canipe’s Amusement store and the Main Street Rooming House, which all played integral roles in Dr. King’s assassination investigation.
One of Memphis's most popular attractions, the Memphis Zoo, opened in 1906, and the aquarium was completed decades later, in 1959. Today, the zoo houses more than 3,500 animals from 500 different species, which reside in a collection of diverse habitats that emulate the animals' natural homes, including "Teton Trek," "African Veldt" and "Northwest Passage." The zoo sprawls across 70 acres, and a seasonal tram service takes visitors to the various exhibits, which can save quite a bit of time and energy. Be sure to visit "Cat Country," an open-air exhibit housing big cats like lions, tigers and panthers. Zoo fun fact: The lion's roar heard at the start of classic MGM movies was recorded at the Memphis Zoo.