The Ultimate Memphis Travel Guide

Beale Street Memphis Blues Music Sound Outdoor

Memphis is the second largest city in the state of Tennessee, after Nashville. The state rests in the southeastern portion of the United States. Memphis, with a population of more than 651,000, is also the county seat for Shelby County. The city’s claims to fame include Graceland, the mansion Elvis Presley lived in during his later years. Perhaps more importantly, Memphis is considered by many to be the home of blues music.

Although downtown Memphis has experienced quite a rebirth and renewal in the last few years, the center of the city is older; it is full of new development, teeming with change and coming into its own. In the past few years, the city has emerged to boast one of the largest downtown populations among US cities. Citizens again have a vested interest in making downtown a safe, exciting place to visit and relax in after decades of abandonment.

Memphis is extremely hot in the summertime, and the humidity can make you feel even hotter! Those who have trouble tolerating high heat and humidity may wish to avoid visiting in July and August.

How to get around Memphis

  • Driving: Travel by car is really the only way to get around Memphis if you want to do anything other than see Downtown.
  • Public Transit:
    • The Main Street Trolley operates along Main Street within the Downtown area.
    • Bus service provided by the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) is available across the city. Some routes are very poorly served in the evenings. At nights and weekends some buses take a different route than during the day which can be a trap for visitors.

Memphis is laid out in a more or less east/west fashion. Roads primarily go east/west and north/south. The expressway cuts directly through the city.

Downtown is on the west; it sits atop the bluffs, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. (It is referred to as Downtown, not as West Memphis, which is a town just across the river in Arkansas.) Moving east you’ll come to Midtown, a charming part of the city thought by some as the best part of Memphis. Beyond that, you will find East Memphis, and then the suburbs of Germantown, Collierville, Cordova, and Bartlett. The area between downtown and Midtown, referred to by locals as “Crosstown,” is coming to life slowly but surely. There is a movement to turn it into an artist community. Members of this movement call the area “the Edge”. However, most of the “art district” is on South Main.

Things to see in Memphis

Downtown

  • Downtown Memphis. Buy a ticket and take the trolley to get a good overview of the area.
  • Beale Street. “Home of the Blues”. Dozens of bars and clubs, most of them featuring live music. At night the street is closed to vehicles and you can drink on the street; some bars have “drinks to go” windows where you can get a 32-ounce cup of beer for $5 and go bar-hopping. Many bars have no cover charge. Peabody Place is largely a wasteland, as nearly all the stores inside have closed. 
  • Mississippi River. River tours available most days through a variety of providers. 
  • Tom Lee Park is a nice place to view the river
  • National Civil Rights Museum (Lorraine Motel), 450 Mulberry St (Near the Amtrak station.), ☏ +1 901 521-9699. W-M 9AM-5PM (closed Tu). The museum was built out of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, and out of the boarding house across the street, from which came James Earl Ray’s shot. The museum features exhibitions on the whole civil rights movement, segregation and slavery in American History from the 1800s to the 1960s including the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. amongst others in the civil rights movements. (ages-0-3) Free; (ages 4-17) $12; (ages 18+) $15 or $14 student discount with valid student ID.   
  • Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art, 119 South Main St, ☏ +1 901 523 ARTS (2787). Tu-F 10:30AM-5:30PM; Sa Su noon-5PM. Downstairs from the Center for Southern Folklore, this wonderful museum holds a collection of over 900 Asian and Judaic artifacts. $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for students, free for children 12 and under. 
  • Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive. Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. Displays art jewelry, architectural pieces and sculpture. The grounds are full of permanent installations, and the museum boasts one of the best views overlooking the Mississippi River. They also have a working smithy. Adults $8. 
  • Fire Museum of Memphis, 118 Adams Ave. M-Sa 9AM-5PM. An interactive museum designed to teach children and adults about fire safety. Also features a realistic room to show how much damage a dropped lit cigarette can do. Adults $6.     
  • Mud Island River Park, 125 North Front St. Apr 14 – May 26: 10AM-5PM, May 27 – Sep 4: 10AM-6PM, Sept 5 – Oct 31: 10AM-5PM. The park is accessible by monorail, made famous by a chase scene in the movie The Firm. The park contains a museum of the Mississippi River and a scale model of the river. Visitors are welcome to remove their shoes and wade through the replica mighty Mississippi. The “Gulf of Mexico” is a large pool in which visitors may rent paddle boats. At the tip of the park is an excellent vantage point of the city and the river. The northern end of the island is occupied by HarborTown, a model community. Entry to the park is free. Adult $8 (Mississippi River Museum, Roundtrip Monorail Ride, Guided River Walk Tour).
  • Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, 191 Beale St (corner of Third St; on the plaza of FedExForum). Daily 10AM-7PM (last admission 6:15PM). A short video is shown at frequent intervals and then you are given a headset so that you can listen to commentary and numerous songs as you walk through the exhibits. Sponsored by the Smithsonian. The museum used to be housed in the Gibson guitar factory across the street, which puts visitors right on the factory floor. Famous musicians periodically visit to pick up custom guitars or to play a set at the Gibson Lounge, in the west end of the building. Adults $13.     

The Edge

A wreath marking the spot where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum

  • Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave (Union and Marshall, a block west of the Health Sciences Park), toll-free: +1 800 441-6249. Numerous blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and rockabilly recordings were made here, including Elvis’s and Johnny Cash’s first recordings. Tours are available, usually given by wallet-chained and mutton-chopped local musicians. Tour tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the cafe and gift shop inside the front door of the studio. Free parking is available in the back of the building.     

Midtown

  • Memphis Zoo, ☏ +1 901 333-6500. Pandas and other animals galore – consistently ranked as one of the top zoos in the country. Lots to do for children and adults. Seasonal events include numerous educational events, Zoo Lights in wintertime for all ages, annual Zoo Brews beer-tasting from around the world and Thursdays Unplugged at the Lodge, drinks and music in the Yellowstone-inspired Teton Trek Lodge for adults.   
  • The Pink Palace Museum (Memphis Museum of Science & History), 3050 Central Ave (Central Ave & Lafayette Ave), ☏ +1 901 636-2362 . M-Sa 9AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. Built as a private residence by Clarence Saunders, the man who introduced Piggly Wiggly, the world’s first self-service grocery store, the Pink Palace Mansion was later taken by the tax man and subsequently turned into a museum. (Saunders never actually lived in the house.) It is a very eclectic place, with everything from shrunken heads to animatronic dinosaurs with a life size copy of the first Piggly Wiggly in between. Also has an IMAX theater and a planetarium. Well worth a visit. Exhibit only $9 (ages 3-12); $12.25 (age 60+); $12.75 (ages 13-59); More for planetarium and/or CTI 3D Theater presentation.     
  • Overton Park. Encompasses the Memphis Zoo, Memphis College of Art (MCA), the Brooks Art Museum, the Overton Park Golf Course, and the largest stand of old growth forest in a US city.   
  • Cooper-Young. This neighborhood of restored homes is centered around the intersection of Cooper Street and Young Avenue, known by some as “the intersection of Memphis.” This intersection has several cool bars and restaurants, as well as numerous shops. Be sure to come for the free annual Cooper-Young festival in September. Also, just north of the Cooper-Young intersection is Black Lodge Video. This rental store in a house, has almost every video imaginable. Be sure to look for the “This is s••t–the worst we could find” section. 
  • Overton Square. Overton Square has undergone many changes over the years but is still the hottest place in midtown Memphis for locals and tourists who are looking for somewhere to eat, shop, or be entertained.

Top Things to do in Memphis

  • Riding a trolley around the downtown area is loads of fun, and a great way to get around.
  • Check out live music on Beale Street
  • Memphis Redbirds, 200 Union Ave, ☏ +1 901-721-6000 . Minor League Baseball team that plays at 
  • AutoZone Park, in the middle of downtown. They are the Triple-A affiliates of the St. Louis Cardinals. $9-75. 
  • FedExForum, 191 Beale Street at Third Street. FedExForum is the largest public building construction project in Memphis history. Managed and operated by the Memphis Grizzlies, the facility is home to the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA and the University of Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team.   
  • Memphis Tigers. Teams representing the University of Memphis, which participate in NCAA competition as members of the American Athletic Conference. The most visible Tigers team by far is the men’s basketball team, regularly a conference contender and occasionally a national contender as well. As noted above, the men’s basketball team plays at FedExForum (though not the women’s team, which plays on campus). The football team also plays off campus at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on the Mid-South Fairgrounds.   
  • Memphis 901 FC, ☏ +1 901 721-6000 tickets@memphis901fc.com . The city’s newest sports attraction is this men’s soccer team, which begins play in 2019 in the second-level USL Championship. The team will share AutoZone Park with the Redbirds. 
  • Memphis Backbeat Mojo Tour, Picks up at Elvis Presley Plaza on Beale, toll-free: +1-800-979-3370 . You can see most of Memphis’ historic musical attractions on this fun, funky, educational bus tour. It’s the only tour in town to put Memphis’ musical heritage in the hands of real musicians, who will combine story, comedy, and live music in a one-of-a-kind show on wheels. Audience participation is encouraged with drums and other percussion pieces provided on the restored 1959 transit bus. Tour is 90 minutes, but if time allows, go for the extended 2½ hour version. Well worth the time and money. Tours sell out, so reserve online in advance. $25.
  • Memphis Hustle. The Grizzlies’ affiliate in the NBA G League, playing at Landers Center on the Mississippi side of the border in Southaven.
  • Take a carriage ride around downtown and see Beale Street, Court Square, Confederate Park, the Mississippi River, Hernando DeSoto bridge, several movie locations on Front Street, the original and the current Peabody Hotel, all while learning about the great city of Memphis
  • Fourth of July Fireworks, Tom Lee Park, Mississippi River: These fireworks have improved immensely since two fireworks shows merged into one at the river in 2007. There is also food, music, and other entertainment.

Now You Know

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