“For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland” –Paul Simon.
Graceland has been on my bucket list since the first time I heard Are You Lonesome Tonight? by the king himself. That is one of my mom’s favorite songs and she used to play the hell out of it when we were kids, so Elvis has a special place in my heart.
Memphis is a crossroads of music, culture, social consciousness, food. This is the city of three Kings: Elvis, MLK, and BB. There’s so much to take in that a weekend isn’t enough, but that did not stop me from trying. You can’t help falling in love with this town.
everybody let’s rock…
I traveled through Memphis on a road trip, setting aside almost three days to explore the city. Upon arrival, the first must see on my list was the National Civil Rights Museum, at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
This is an excellent museum. It’s powerful, evocative and a must see. It’s very informative, with the use of a lot of multi-media and short films to convey the importance of this movement. They have kept the motel rooms in which Dr. King was staying at the time of his death in pristine condition as a moment frozen in time. There’s replicas of both Rosa Parks’s bus and a burnt out shell of a Freedom Riders bus. You can sit at a lunch counter whilst a movie detailing the Woolworth’s sit ins plays above you. The issues addressed here are still so relevant today, which is a shame. There’s no progress without knowing about your past, so I think everyone should visit.
It is located in a revitalized neighborhood with coffee shops and boutiques, and the Blues Museum, so there are plenty of places to go after spending a morning here. I had picked up a latte at Bluff City Coffee & Bakery while I walking around the grounds. And for lunch after the museum, there’s a branch of one of Memphis’ famous BBQ joints, Central BBQ in its vicinity. Memphis style BBQ is very different from Kansas City BBQ, in that it is almost completely dry. There’s BBQ nachos, y’all. Drink lots of water, you’ll puff up like a balloon after your trip here, but it sure is tasty.
I drove through downtown towards my (heartbreak) hotel near Beale Street to start walking in Memphis (shoutout Marc Cohn), but not in blue suede shoes. This is Memphis’ famous avenue of blues clubs, BBQ and boisterousness. FedEx arena where the Grizzlies play sits at the southeast end, and there are tons of souvenir shops, restaurants and things to see all along this road. The Gibson guitar factory is located down here, too, and there are tours available. Their minor league baseball Autozone stadium also looks like it would be a fun time for the family.
You can walk from Beale street all the way down to the river front, where there is area of walking/jogging/biking trails along the Mississippi. Walk all the way north and reach Memphis Park and Civic Center where there’s a nice outlook over the harbor to Mud Island or to the north at the inexplicable glass pyramid that is the Bass Pro shop. There’s also a large statue of Jefferson Davis, to remind you that you’re in the South.
At this point you may want to get in your car again, but if you’re still up for a walk continue south a few blocks from Beale street on Main and you’ll pass the historic Orpheum theater.
Just two more blocks down, you’ll start to see the line for Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. This place lives up to its name and is the original location. This is the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, and I’ve had A LOT of fried chicken in my life (had some this morning). It’s got a nice hint of spice which is that little extra bit that elevates it above others. It’s not particularly fast, so plan on spending a lot of time here. It’s worth it. Love me (some) tenders.
The next morning I grabbed a coffee and pastry at Tamp and Tap. This is near a slightly run down pedestrian mall where there’s some shops, a random asian/judaic art museum, and snack shops. It’s very older downtown-esque and hopefully they will fix it up one day. Walk about a 1/2 mile north and you’ll end up at the Peabody Hotel, one of the finest hotels from a bygone era. This is a must see if you have kids. Or if you’re a giant kid, like me. Every day, the Peabody ducks get led from their home on the top floor of the hotel, down through the elevator and parade to much fanfare and music into the fountain in the middle of the hotel’s elegant marbled lobby. In the evening they get led back up. It’s very cute.
Now Graceland is about 15 minutes south of downtown, but you want to get there early to beat the line of cars waiting to get into the parking area. You will pay $20 for parking, just get used to it, everything’s a hunk-a hunk-a burning cash.
The whole street across from Elvis’s home is filled with shopping centers devoted to Elvis gift shops and small points of interest. It really is like a little theme park. You stand in line to buy a ticket and they give you a designated time to stand in line for your shuttle into Graceland.
While you’re waiting, you can tour Elvis’ private planes (extra charge), stare at his sequined jumpsuits, and see his extensive collection of cars. There’s films and artifacts from his childhood; there’s an actual Heartbreak Hotel. There’s basically everything Elvis Aaron Presley related, including cafes and soda shops. You definitely have to get a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich, his alleged favorite.
Once it’s your turn, you get into a shuttle that will take you through the storied music note gates of the mansion, and you get dropped off right in front. They give you iPads and you tour the rooms while your celebrity narrator, John Stamos (have mercy!), regales stories about EP and tidbits about each area of the house.
The home is not as big as I thought it would be, but it’s superbly decorated in accordance to the times, which were the gaudy 70s. If you can’t get down with this, then you ain’t no friend of mine.
There’s rooms filled with his gold and platinum records, more costumes and outfits, and a lot of velvet. So glamorous. I loved it.
The end of the tour takes you past the stables with a few horses still present, the pool and his burial site right in the backyard. Of course there are those with suspicious minds who think he’s still alive, but I’m pretty sure he’s left the building.
After getting all shook up, you’ll want to head back in town and probably have more BBQ. YOLO, right? Rendezvous is a Memphis mainstay for over 50 years, and they are known for their ribs, don’t be cruel, get yourself some. Their BBQ shrimp is also apparently amazing. Felicia Suzanne’s fried green tomato BLT is also as Southern as you could get and is another Downtown dining option.
Before leaving town, I wanted to drive around a little more and enjoy the public art in the city. Memphis is a city of murals, and I’m here for it. It’s now or never, right?
Muddy’s Coffee has a great local feel to it and located around the corner from it is the I heart memphis mural (📷) at Cooper and York. It’s a great way to start the morning, with a cup of joe and one of their delicious Prozac cupcakes. The really cute area around Cooper Street has some great eateries and a farmer’s market on the weekend.
Midtown Memphis has its own art vibe (it is near the art institute), and nestled nearby is Overton Park, which boasts the Brooks Museum of Art and the Zoo. There’s also a sweet midtown Memphis mural (📷) at Rembert and Poplar across from the park. Midtown is a burgeoning area of hip eateries including Fuel Cafe and Cupboard. There’s also Overton Square which is a fun area of restaurants and shops.
Driving back towards downtown, just after you see the University of Tennessee Hospital, you’ll see the famous Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock n’ roll. This studio was started by the very enterprising Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis. If you’re a music head like me, you’ve probably seen the picture of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis doing a recording there, so you know the history in this place.
It is open for tours and there’s even a counter where you can get milkshakes. Shake, rattle and roll.
On the same street, there’s a “Rockwalk” and a cool BB King mural celebrating the legendary axe man himself to wrap up your stay in Memphis (645 Marshall Ave). Hopefully you won’t be singing the blues from your visit to this vibrant and historic city.
Suggested Souvenirs: Something from Graceland/Elvis related, Gibson guitar if you can swing it (and if you can, let’s be friends)
Listen to: Umm, Elvis Presley? BB King, Three 6 Mafia, Big Star. “Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry, “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn
Memphis food: BBQ and fried chicken (Memphis is the best)