7 of the Best Music Museums and Experiences in the U.S.
Updated: April 19, 2023
AAA Travel Editor Patricia Miller
Courtesy of American Jazz Museum
American Jazz Museum
Kansas City, Missouri
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” You might find yourself humming that tune at this museum that celebrates the days when swing was the thing. Glowing neon lights advertising 1940s’ juke joints greet you in this shrine to a style of music that's truly American. Music memorabilia like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Ella Fitzgerald’s dress and Charlie Parker’s saxophone are next in line. Kids will find jazz storytelling sessions one of many fun things to do, while jazzophiles enjoy toe-tapping selections from the music library. Stay late for live jazz performances in The Blue Room, a copycat of a 1930s nightclub.
Elvis Presley's Graceland
Graceland is on the bucket list of every Elvis devotee, and 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. The king of rock ‘n’ roll’s former residence doesn’t disappoint; it’s heavy on 1970s décor like shag carpets, chandeliers, mirrored walls, stained-glass peacocks, brass accents and white furniture everywhere you look. Don’t miss the Jungle Room, with carved-wood chairs, monkey statues, a waterfall and tropical foliage. Other buildings house glitzy jumpsuits, countless gold and platinum records and oodles of memorabilia.
MoPOP (Museum of Pop Culture)
There are lots of things to do here, not just see: Record a song, jam with other wannabe rock stars in a soundproof room and take a computer-led guitar lesson at this AAA GEM attraction. Without a doubt, this museum is one of the most fun places to go with kids on vacation. “IF VI WAS IX,” a 2-story-high sculpture composed of 500+ instruments, plays mind-blowing music through earphones. Jimi Hendrix devotees will be in seventh heaven—the Seattle-born artist has his own gallery jam-packed with memorabilia. Finally, forget stage fright and indulge your inner rock god as you perform on stage while the audience shouts for more.
flickr/Dig Downtown Detroit
Step inside this shrine to the Motown Sound and the early days of artists like The Supremes and The Jackson Five. Peek into the second-floor flat where founder/mogul Berry Gordy lived, above the first-floor recording studio of Hitsville USA, where songs like “Baby Love” and “Dancing in the Street” were recorded in the early 1960s; you’ll see a lot of original recording equipment and instruments like Stevie Wonder’s piano. Ogle tons of memorabilia and elaborate costumes (Michael Jackson’s glove! Sparkly girl-group gowns!) and sing an a cappella rendition of “My Girl” in the studio at this AAA GEM attraction.
Courtesy of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Cleveland rocks, in part because it’s home to this AAA GEM attraction’s comprehensive collection. You’ll find an immense range of artifacts from a myriad of artists representing many subgenres, including alternative, soul, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, gospel and punk. The huge collection of prized memorabilia includes 70 Beatles’ pieces such as John Lennon’s black coat from “Help!,” Jimi Hendrix’s handwritten lyrics to “Purple Haze,” Johnny Cash’s acoustic guitar, Notorious B.I.G.’s leather jersey and Joey Ramone’s leather jacket. The museum also pays tribute to popular artists like Rihanna and Bruno Mars.
Courtesy of South by Southwest (SXSW)
South by Southwest (SXSW)
This music festival started in 1987 with 700 attendees and has grown exponentially since; in 2019, 1,964 bands from 62 countries played on 94 stages. That’s a lot of music! Of course, the crowds are humongous, but that doesn’t stop many thousands from attending this event every year in March. If you take a trip to Austin to go to SXSW, your biggest problem will be deciding who to see, but we suggest creating a list that includes your favorite artists, add some you’ve heard about but never heard and, if there’s time, throw in a few who just have really cool names.
Courtesy of Sun Studio
Housed in a nondescript brick building, Sun Studio may not look very impressive (except for the gigantic guitar suspended outside) but it figures prominently in rock history. In 1953 young Elvis Presley cut his first single at this little recording studio that still looks exactly the same, and Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins recorded on-site in the 1950s. Some great blues and country artists also laid down tracks here early in their careers, including B.B. King, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty.
AAA Travel Editor Patricia Miller
Patricia Miller is a AAA Travel Expert.