There are so many reasons to visit Memphis! Admittedly, the top of mind for me was the barbecue and other Southern delicacies, but this gem has so much more to offer.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Memphis has a deep history related to the Civil Rights Movement and Blues music. All of these are centered in the downtown area, so that made planning a trip easy. If you have a weekend, you will be able to hit all the historical spots and sample Southern food too in Downtown Memphis.
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1. Listen to Blues music
Immerse yourself in the music scene and the birthplace of Blues on Beale Street. Anchoring the street is B.B. King’s Blues Club which often has a line. Music can be heard tumbling out from all the venues lining the street.
Scattered around the city are other sites that are important to the history of Blues, like Sun Studio, the Soul Museum, and Blues Hall.
Memphis is also where the Mississippi Blues Trail starts and snakes its way to Mississippi. Along its stops are famous American Soul music venues, museums, and restaurants Blues legends once frequented.
2. Take a deep dive into history and see the connection of Memphis to the Civil Rights Movement
It was really interesting to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The site is where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The museum has a set circuit that starts at the ground floor and includes exhibits, a short film, and lots of history about the Black experience in America. It takes about one to two hours to see everything and ends at MLK’s room which has been preserved.
Adjacent to the Lorraine Motel is another building, the boarding house where the shooter was staying and fired the shot that killed MLK. On display are artifacts and theories on why James Earl Ray committed the crime.
I got a refresher on American history and the Civil Rights Movement during my visit, and it is one of the best things I did in Memphis.
The reason why Martin Luther King visited Memphis was to show support for the sanitation workers that were on strike. The plaza is outside the Clayborn Temple, where the workers gathered with their I AM A MAN signs and marched to City Hall.
Today, I AM MAN Plaza has a timeline of the strike and includes details of MLK’s support and eventual assassination, as well as how the strike ended with the workers getting more benefits.
In the center of the plaza is a striking monument that declares I AM A MAN.
3. Try some good, old-fashioned Southern cuisine
Admittedly, I travel to try local cuisines and Memphis didn’t disappoint!
Across the street from the Lorraine Motel is Central BBQ, one of the best Memphis barbecue restaurants! What I really liked is their different kinds of barbecue sauces – mild, hot, sweet heat, mustard, and vinegar. It brought the smoked meats to a different level. The food is affordable with humongous servings too.
One of the oldest restaurants in Memphis is the Arcade restaurant. It is a classic diner on South Main Street that has been serving locals and tourists since 1919. It even has a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich that is said to be Elvis Presley’s favorite.
The Arcade is a popular movie site too. Jerry Lee Lewis’ biopic Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line, The Firm, and The Client are just some of the movies filmed there.
Gus’ Fried Chicken
What’s a stop in the South without some fried chicken? Luckily, another Memphis institution, Gus’ Fried Chicken, is also downtown. Aside from the super juicy and well-spiced chicken, you can also try other Southern specialties like fried green tomatoes, fried okra, and chess pie.
4. Start your adventure on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail
The Old Dominick Distillery recently opened in the city, and they offer tours and tastings. The liquor maker has an interesting history that includes their whiskey recipe lost because of the business closing during The Prohibition Era and found by chance recently by the family. They also have vodka, gin, and souvenirs for sale in their gift shop.
It is part of the Tenessee Whiskey Trail, a group of craft distillers and big-name brands, like Jack Daniels and George Dickel, that are part of the trail that crisscrosses the state. At each stop, you can get a passport stamped and a poker chip as a souvenir. When you fill up the passport, you will receive a special Tennessee Whiskey Trail Poker set.
Fun fact: for a whiskey to be called “Tenessee Whiskey,” it needs to be distilled in Tennessee, filtered through maple charcoal, and aged in charred oak barrels.
5. Walk around Downtown Memphis
The downtown area is surprisingly walkable. And if you like walking, you will be able to get a better feel of the city. Of course, no trip is complete without seeing the mighty Mississippi River. You can start at the Memphis Pyramid, which currently houses a Bass Pro Shop. There is an elevator that you can ride to see the Memphis skyline. It is also the way to go to the restaurant at the pyramid tip and have dinner or happy hour.
Then venture south along Main Street to imagine the bustling thoroughfare that was full of shops and businesses that shipped their goods on the Mississippi.
The Memphis Cotton Museum is a small but informative site that explains the importance of cotton to the region. Their display of cotton prices is so interesting and well-preserved.
The Peabody Hotel is famous for its brunches, so if you want (or need!) a lux meal, then get ready to eat your heart out. It is also iconic because of its Mallard ducks that stroll through the hotel lobby every day at 11 am and 5 pm.
Markers of the Blues trail and other historical facts can be found throughout the downtown area, which makes the walk entertaining and educational. Plus, there is a ton of street art to see and snap pictures of.
There are plenty of kid-friendly activities in Downtown Memphis too:
- Memphis Zoo
- Memphis Botanic Garden
- Pink Palace Museum aka The Memphis Museum of Science & History
- Memphis Brooks Museum
Where to Stay in Memphis
We recommend staying at Central Station Hotel. Located in Memphis’ iconic South Main District, Central Station Hotel is a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors. A 105-year-old property housed inside an early-1900s train station, the hotel captures the city’s vibrant spirit with stunning mid-century architectural design, captivating local art and a world-class Memphis music experience. The property retains its architectural integrity as the oldest building and remains an active train station, served daily by the City of New Orleans and the local Main Street trolley line.
Other places to inspire your travel lust in Tennessee
If you want to venture out of downtown, there are other cute neighborhoods and even more restaurants to try! Over by the airport is Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Where for a pricey ticket, visitors can walk through the home and property to take a peak into the King of Rock n’ Roll’s life.
In case you have time for an extended stay or road trip, here are other things to do around Tenessee:
Nashville is about four hours away by car, and if you are a country music fan, Lower Broadway or Honky Tonk Highway is a must-visit.
While you’re in Nashville, try some hot chicken from Hattie B’s. The chicken is battered, fried, and covered in a spicy sauce. How spicy, it depends on what you can handle! I also recommend the pimento mac n’ cheese, it is so good!
The Great Smokey Mountains has all kinds of hiking trails for people who want to see the incredible vistas to hard-core hikers. The national park is nearer Knoxville, about an hour away by car.
The Tennessee Whiskey Trail continues out east into the state, with most of the distilleries centered around Nashville and Knoxville. You should definitely make plans to visit the Jack Daniels Distillery, which is an hour away from Nashville.
Are you ready to travel to Memphis?
These are just some of the five things to do in downtown Memphis and the rest of Tennessee. Obviously, this isn’t extensive to any extent! Where have you been in Memphis that you loved visiting?