Memphis in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in Memphis.
Day 1: MorningMemphis is known worldwide for its music and its smoky, slow-cooked barbecue. Today's agenda, all centered in the downtown area, gives you a thorough introduction to the city's blues and rock ’n’ roll heritage and that aforementioned smoked pork. What's not to love?
Begin your Memphis musical journey at the W.C. Handy Memphis Home & Museum . The celebrated music pioneer lived in this unassuming wood-frame shotgun house when he wrote “Beale Street Blues” and “Memphis Blues.” It seems only appropriate that the Memphis home of the “Father of the Blues” was moved from its original location to Beale Street, where Handy worked and played music in the early 20th century.
The blues, derived from the mournful tunes of slaves and sharecroppers, was a major influence on early rock ’n’ roll musicians. The Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum , just a few blocks away next to the FedExForum, traces rock ’n’ roll from its rural Mississippi Delta roots through rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and soul. The mid-20th-century rock ’n’ roll revolution that shook the nation began here in Memphis when a young truck driver named Elvis Presley recorded his first song at Sun Studio. Instruments, costumes and memorabilia help document the development of this musical genre.
For a building that played such a pivotal role in rock ’n’ roll history, Sun Studio is remarkably small. Sam Phillips recorded an amazing number of future stars in the studio's three-rooms. In addition to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison began their careers at this landmark studio.
Day 1: AfternoonIf all this music history has put you in the mood for some down-home comfort food, head west back toward the river and make your lunch choice the Blue Plate Café on Court Square, where you can indulge in the Southern tradition of “meat and three” (your choice of a meat entrée and three home-style vegetables or side dishes). You can also choose from the breakfast menu, if you prefer; the café is renowned for its biscuits and gravy, omelets and waffles. Either way, portions are more than ample and you won't leave hungry.
Eclectic is an apt word to describe the Center for Southern Folklore , an easy walk from the guitar factory. Galleries exhibit folk art, crafts and photography documenting the Southern experience, and visitors can watch shows filmed by the center about the artists and musicians who have kept these regional traditions alive. If you're lucky, you might be able to catch a live performance.
You'll have to get in your car and drive a couple of miles to reach your next destination, an important part of Memphis' music scene in the 1960s and '70s. In addition to blues and rock ’n’ roll, Memphis' musical heritage also includes soul. Stax Museum of American Soul Music sits on the site of the former Stax Records, which launched the careers of such soul stars as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Booker T. & the MG's. Soul's gospel roots are explained in a century-old church from the Mississippi Delta, and other exhibits display stage costumes, instruments and photographs, including a sequined dress belonging to Tina Turner and Isaac Hayes' '72 “Superfly” Cadillac Eldorado.
A visit to Memphis isn't complete without stopping at A. Schwab Dry Goods Store , a Beale Street institution since 1876, so head back to the city's downtown core. The dry goods store, still owned by the same family, retains its squeaky wood floors and aisles stocked with such out-of-circulation items as voodoo supplies, size 74 overalls, lye soap and top hats. If you rummage around, you'll also find a good supply of reasonably priced Elvis souvenirs.
Day 1: EveningStart your first evening in Memphis by observing a tradition begun in 1933. The marble fountain in the elegant lobby of The Peabody Memphis hotel is the site of a twice-daily ritual—the march of the Peabody's resident ducks. Five mallards, who have their own suite on the hotel's rooftop, travel with their Duckmaster by elevator to the lobby, waddle across a red carpet to the cadence of John Philip Sousa's “King Cotton March” and plop with five splashes into the fountain. The ducks make their grand appearance at 11 a.m. and float to their hearts content until 5, when the ceremony is repeated in reverse and they return to their rooftop penthouse. Try and get there early; the ritual is wildly popular, and crowds of spectators congregate in the lobby for the show.
By now it's time for dinner, and our restaurant choice is the perfect place to sample some of Memphis' famous barbecue. The grill at the Rendezvous , in an alley just across the street from the Peabody, has been smoking since 1948, and the restaurant has earned a stellar reputation for its “dry” ribs, a Memphis specialty. Dry ribs (pork, of course) are liberally massaged with a special blend of spices before being grilled or smoked. Typical accompaniments include baked beans, the Rendezvous' mustardy coleslaw and a pitcher or two of beer. The walls are covered with memorabilia; the place can be downright crowded, especially on weekends; and the waiters, most of whom have worked at the restaurant for decades, are characters in their own right.
For a night on the town, head a few blocks south of the Peabody to Beale Street. Although the city of Memphis was declared “Home of the Blues” by Congress in 1977, once vibrant Beale Street by that time had lost much of its appeal, with most of its music halls, saloons, pawnshops and stores shuttered. The street underwent a metamorphosis in the 1980s, however, and the result is now the focal point of Memphis' nightlife scene. Street performers provide entertainment as locals and visitors barhop from jazzy blues emporiums to lively rock clubs, and bright neon signs serve as an enticement to a variety of shops and restaurants.
For a perfect end to your evening, return to The Peabody for a nightcap in the hotel's elegant Lobby Bar.
Day 2: MorningDowntown Memphis sits on a high bluff overlooking the muddy Mississippi—Old Man River himself. The perfect place to begin your day is Mud Island Park , which is actually not an island but more of a peninsula jutting into the river. The park incorporates both indoor and outdoor diversions. The Mississippi River Museum has 18 galleries that trace the city's history from the days when its river banks were inhabited by Chickasaw Indians, through explorer Hernando de Soto's visit, its strategic importance during the Civil War and the evolution of its musical traditions. The highlight of the outdoor segment of the park is the River Walk, a scale-model of the lower portion of the Mississippi. Children (and grown-ups) delight in taking their shoes off and walking barefoot through every curve and bend of the river as it meanders from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans.
Memphis is, unfortunately, also known for a tragedy—the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His death and the history of the Civil Rights Movement are remembered at The National Civil Rights Museum , housed in the Lorraine Motel, the site where King was shot. Interactive exhibits and audiovisual displays explain the struggle for equality in the U.S. and the racial tension surrounding his visit to Memphis. King's legacy and the continuing struggle for both civil and international human rights are examined.
Day 2: AfternoonIf you're really, really hungry about now, you can try to down an artery-clogging 4-pound Kookamonga Burger at Kooky Canuck , a Canadian-themed eatery in downtown Memphis. If you accomplish that feat in less than 60 minutes, the burger is free (and you'll get your picture on the wall). Regular-sized hamburgers, fried ham and cheese sandwiches and Canadian poutine are other specialties. For dessert, save room for the do-it-yourself s'mores or the 18-scoop ice cream sundae called The Avalanche.
Visiting Memphis and not making a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley's Graceland is akin to going to New York City and ignoring the Statue of Liberty. Adoring fans flock to the King's Southern-style white-columned mansion about 8 miles south of downtown throughout the year, making it the second most visited U.S. residence after the White House. Depending on your choice of tour, you'll be able to see Graceland Mansion (including the living room, shag-carpeted Jungle Room, music and TV rooms, Elvis' racquetball and trophy buildings and the Meditation Garden), Elvis' Automobile Museum and his custom jets. If you're heading back toward downtown, plan a stop at the Metal Museum where you can view exquisite examples of the metalsmith's craft, both historic and contemporary; an outdoor sculpture garden; a smithy, where you can watch works being created; and a foundry. This unique museum is said to be the only one of its type in the country.
Day 2: EveningOverton Square, centered around Madison Avenue and Cooper Street, is a great place to spend an evening checking out the music scene and watering holes. Not far away is the Cooper-Young district, encompassing the area around Cooper Street and Young Avenue, which has an interesting mix of bars, restaurants and shops.
Day 3: MorningYou can easily spend a full day in Overton Park, 350 acres of green in midtown Memphis. Depending on your interests, you can pick and choose from visiting Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Memphis Zoo , playing nine holes of golf, enjoying a picnic lunch, and hiking through an old-growth forest. If your timing is right, you might even catch a concert at the Levitt Shell outdoor amphitheater.
For a cultural interlude, spend some time at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art exploring its wide-ranging collection that includes Renaissance masterpieces, Baroque paintings, works by French impressionists and an impressive group of English portraiture.
The Memphis Zoo welcomed its first visitors to its Overton Park digs in 1906. More than a century later a greatly expanded zoo gives visitors a chance to watch polar bears swimming and playing underwater, marvel at birds of prey and observe big cats in a 4-acre natural habitat.
Day 3: AfternoonContinue east from midtown. When you see what looks like a huge pink marble mansion, you've reached the Memphis Pink Palace Museum . This elaborate building, begun in 1922, was to be the grand home of Clarence Saunders, the founder of the first self-service grocery, Piggly Wiggly. Saunders, unfortunately, lost his fortune, and his unfinished mansion was turned over to the city. Initially a natural history museum, the Pink Palace now also explores the cultural history of the Mid-South. So, in addition to dioramas featuring animals that once roamed the region, you'll also learn about the history of Memphis from its early native residents through the political regime of Boss Crump and the reign of the King. If you have time, see what's playing at museum's 3D theater or its planetarium.
Two gardens and a collection of impressionist art are next on this east Memphis itinerary. Dixon Gallery and Gardens , as the name suggests, combines both of those elements. The expansive 1942 Georgian Revival-style home of philanthropists Hugo and Margaret Dixon is the setting for their impressive collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Visitors are also treated to collections of pewter and 18th-century German porcelain. Sculpture and statuary enhance the estate's 17 acres of formal and informal gardens, which are landscaped in the manner of an English park. The gardens are particularly lovely in spring when dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom.
Directly across the street in Audubon Park is the 96-acre Memphis Botanic Garden , where you can stroll through woodlands and more than 25 specialty gardens, including spaces devoted to roses, irises, azaleas, hydrangeas, daylilies, daffodils, wildflowers, dogwoods and magnolias. One of the most popular spots in the garden is the Japanese Garden of Tranquility, where a red bridge gracefully arches over a lake filled with koi.
Day 3: EveningIt's time for more barbecue. Corky's Ribs & BBQ has been serving tender ribs and hand-pulled pork since 1984. The wood-paneled dining room, oldies music and photos of celebrities who have dined on-site add to the casual ambience. You can have your ribs either “dry” (rubbed with a dry seasoning mix) or “wet” (basted with a special barbecue sauce), and your pulled pork sandwich will come topped with coleslaw, unless you request otherwise. Additional specialties include Bar-B-Q Nachos, pulled pork salad and crispy fried onion loaves. Slow-smoked chicken and brisket also are on the menu.
About an hour's drive south of Memphis is an unlikely spot for a gambling mecca, but a great way to spend an evening. Cotton fields line one side of the highway leading into Tunica, Mississippi, while just off the other side are clusters of Las Vegas-style casinos, all on or near the Mississippi River and all offering 24-hour, non-stop action. Try your hand at poker, slots and an assortment of table games—maybe you'll win enough for a return trip to Memphis.
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.
State sales tax is 7 percent; occupancy tax is 6 percent; and Memphis sales tax is 2.25 percent, for a combined lodging tax of 15.25 percent.
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Baptist Memorial Hospital, (901) 226-5000; Delta Medical Center, (877) 627-4395; Methodist North Hospital, (901) 516-5200; Methodist South Hospital, (901) 516-3700; Regional Medical Center at Memphis, (901) 545-7100; Saint Francis Hospital, (901) 765-1000.
3205 Elvis Presley Blvd. Memphis, TN 38116. Phone:(901)543-5300 or (888)633-9099
Domestic and foreign airlines serve
Discounts are offered to AAA members by Hertz, (901) 345-5680 or (800) 654-3131.
Amtrak offers passenger service from Central Station, 545 S. Main St.; phone (901) 526-0052 or (800) 872-7245.
The Greyhound bus station is at 3033 Airways Blvd.; phone (800) 231-2222.
The major company is Yellow Cab, (901) 577-7777. Fares are metered, with the basic rate $3.80 for the first mile, then $1.80 for each additional mile. One dollar is added for each additional passenger. A $3 surcharge is added to fares originating from the airport.
Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) buses operate Mon.-Fri. 4:30 a.m.-11:15 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. and holidays 8-5. Base fare is $1.75, with increases for zones outside city limits; a day pass can be purchased for $3.50, and covers unlimited bus rides. Ages 65+, students and the physically impaired pay reduced rates with a special MATA ID card. Park 'n' Ride service is available at multiple locations within the city. Not all routes operate nights and Sundays.