Things to Do in Memphis
From 1920 to 1940, artists descended on Beale Street to collaborate, creating a new music style that blended smooth jazz with hard-charging rock 'n' roll. This mix eventually gave birth to the blues, a new and distinctly American genre of music that gradually made its way into the United States' pop culture mainstream. A visit to today's Beale Street, now a U.S. National Historic Landmark District, allows travelers to check out the blues clubs that served as the launching sites for some of the most famous American blues musicians of all time.
Built around the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the National Civil Rights Museum immediately emits its cultural and historical significance to all who visit. Exhibits chronicle some of the most important episodes of the Civil Rights Movement, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Little Rock Nine, Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the famous sit-ins of the 1960s.
The second most-visited home in the United States (behind only the White House), Graceland was home to Elvis Presley during the height of his career. Although the rock ’n’ roll singer and pop culture icon died in the white-columned mansion in 1977 at the age of 42, touring the wacky rooms of this 17,552-square-foot (1,630-square-meter) estate offers insight into the mind of The King, who is buried in the estate's Meditation Gardens.
A veritable icon of music and a Memphis landmark, Sun Studio is known as the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In fact, the very first rock single, “Rocket 88,” was recorded here in 1951, when it was called the Memphis Recording Service. The former recording studio’s musical heritage—made famous thanks to the superstardom of artists such as Elvis and Johnny Cash—and collection of one-of-a-kind memorabilia makes for an unforgettable stop in Memphis.
Peabody Hotel has some unique permanent guests in the famous "Peabody Ducks," who live on the hotel’s rooftop and perform a march toward the Grand Lobby twice daily. The tradition dates to 1933 when the general manager returned from a hunting trip and placed several live duck decoys in the hotel’s fountain. The guests’ positive response prompted their stay.
No trip to Memphis, Tennessee—often called the birthplace of rock and roll—would be complete without learning about its music history, and the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum is just the place. Originally a Smithsonian Institute research project, the collection focuses not only on the music itself, but also the artists and socio-economic and racial struggles that led to its creation.
A. Schwab is a dry goods store that has become a local landmark and Memphis institution. Since being opened in 1876, the store has transformed from a men’s clothing and goods shop to a collection of seemingly every item imaginable. It is the only remaining original business on Beale Street.
With two floors of displays filled with everything from regional arts and crafts to historic books, records, and artifacts, it is only fitting that the Beale Street Museum, located on a small balcony above the first floor, is also housed here. A. Schwab even has quirky memorabilia such as love potions and corn cob pipes. The store’s creaky wooden floors, dim lighting and original architectural details keep the building’s historic feel, making a visit feel like a step back in time. Their motto is “if you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it.”
Built in 1928, the Memphis Orpheum Theater is a historic theater and one of America’s few remaining “movie palaces” from the 1920s era. Before it was the Orpheum, it was the site of the Grand Opera House and home to vaudeville performances for nearly two decades. Since then it has withstood the threat of bankruptcy, demolition and being burnt to the ground to become known as the “South’s Finest Theater.”
Decorated with ornate crystal chandeliers, luxe draperies, carved moldings, and a large pipe organ, the theater was restored in 1996 to its former glory along with an expansion of the stage and backstage areas. Today, the theater hosts top Broadway shows, concerts, comedy shows, and special events year-round. Many famous faces have graced the Orpheum stage, and it continues to be a center for arts and entertainment and culture of Memphis.
The park at Court Square is a beautifully landscaped open space offering a change from the urban structures of the city. With a large fountain, gazebo, and benches, it is a popular spot for locals to enjoy a lunch break or a relaxing afternoon. In the summer months the park is home to outdoor concerts, food truck gatherings, karaoke contests, and other community events.
Situated right at the center of downtown Memphis, it is considered by many to be the heart of the city and thus is also a frequent meeting place. The square is surrounded by some of the most architecturally significant buildings in Memphis, and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a great place to sit and relax in the shade while taking in some of the sights of Memphis, as the antique trolleys roll by.
Handy Park is a large public park known for its wide, open fields and stage, making it a great outdoor concert and event space in Memphis. The park was named for W.C. Handy, the “Father of Blues.” A large statue of W.C. Handy stands tall in the park.
Events that take place in Handy Park are always free and open to the public, often attracting large crowds. With an outdoor amphitheater that seats 2,000, it is a favorite local spot to enjoy a cold beverage and the great outdoors. There is also a small stage that often is home to impromptu blues performances on afternoons! The park is right off of the famous Beale Street, also home to a vibrant music culture and known as the “home of the Blues.” The local Memphis music scene often comes to life in Handy Park.
More Things to Do in Memphis
Discover the story of soul music at the historic home of Stax Records, now the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum lays out the legacy of one of soul music’s top record labels while also unraveling the evolution of soul music in America. Along the way, discover the backstory of artists ranging from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin.
Offering the beautiful outdoors, music, and history, this 342 acre (138.4 hectare) public park is what Memphis is all about. A visit to Overton Park can provide you with a relaxing afternoon filled with whatever activities you desire. If you're in the mood to lounge in the sun, play a game of Frisbee, or have a picnic, head over to Greensward, one of the largest open areas (about 3 acres/1.2 hectares) in Memphis with no designated purpose other than outdoor recreation.
If you came to Memphis for the music, then be sure to check out the historic Shell Theatre, the site where Elvis Presley gave his first paid concert in 1954. Nature lovers should visit the Old Forest Arboretum, a forest tract and natural arboretum. Walk along its trails and see over 300 different kinds of plants, and 32 species of trees. Veterans Plaza, which contains memorials to the veterans of Memphis and Shelby County, is also worth checking out.
Overton Park is also home to the Memphis Zoo and a 9-hole golf course.
Victorian Village, an historic neighborhood once known as Millionaire’s Row, is lined with grand mansions dating back to the mid to late 1800s. Some of these Victorian-era estates, including the Mallory Neely House, James Lee House, and Woodruff-Fontaine House, have been converted into museums, inns, and even a nightlife hot spot.
Arguably America’s musical heart, a cultural melting pot that created the rhythm and blues sound, Memphis has a number of tourist attractions dedicated to the craft. Local favorites—some well-known, some more obscure—are celebrated in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, a small upstairs Smithsonian-branded museum, which shares a building with the Hard Rock Café Memphis and a retail outlet of Memphis clothier Lansky Bros. The museum is the headquarters for an off-site annual induction ceremony that adds new note-worthy blues, soul, and rock musicians from the city to its ranks—among its honored acts Al Green, Justin Timberlake, Johnny Cash, David Porter, Elvis Presley, and B.B. King.
Visitors can read about the perfect storm that led to a burgeoning music scene in Memphis, and browse interactive displays offering information about inductees’ and their discographies. There’s also videos and large glass cases housing prized possessions including a playbill and guitar used by Johnny Cash; Isaac Hayes’ white, electric organ; Elvis Presley’s briefcase telephone; and one of Al Green’s green suits. There’s also a bevvy of outlandish, shiny and ostentatious costumes worn by inductees (including one ornamented with a stuffed snake), an Oscar from the movie Hustle and Flow, and ½ of Jerry Lee Lewis’ baby blue Cadillac protruding from a wall.
Built in 1871, this iconic home was a top attraction on what was once known as Millionaire’s Row. Today, it draws visitors from across the country eager to see how the wealthy set once lived.
Visitors who tour the grounds will learn about the life of Amos Woodruff—a famous carriage maker, president of the city council and candidate for mayor who first owned this stunning home. They will also hear about the life and times of Noland Fontaine, who ran the largest cotton business in the US and owned the Woodruff-Fontaine house between 1861 and the late 1920s. Travelers can step back in time as they explore the French Victorian architecture and family heirlooms that line the halls and rooms of this iconic home.
With seats for 20,000, The Pyramid is an arena that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. Designed to resemble the Great Pyramids of Giza, it stands tall at 321 feet high and is one of the largest pyramid structures in the world. It is slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty and has become an icon of the Memphis skyline.
The arena was first constructed as the Great American Pyramid in 1991 with an exterior of stainless steel and was originally conceived by a local artist to replicate the Great Pyramid of Memphis in Egypt. A statue of Ramesses II stood at the Pyramid’s entrance until it was moved to the University of Memphis campus in 1991. The interior has nearly half a million square feet of space and was used primarily for sporting events up until 2004.
When Elvis played on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, he was wearing a sport coat made by local Memphis clothier, Bernard Lansky. Explore the legacy at Lansky Bros., a shop that's been outfitting musicians for decades. From Elvis-inspired sweaters to vintage accessories, Lansky at the Peabody hotel is a beacon of Memphis style.
Consistently ranked among the top zoos in the United States, the Memphis Zoo is a favorite due to the diversity of its animals, its numerous attractions, and its cherished giant pandas. Home to more than 3,500 animals representing over 500 different species, the Memphis Zoo is a great place to spend a family-friendly day.
Located on the southern end of Mud Island—which is actually a peninsula between the Mississippi River and Wolf River Harbor—Mud Island River Park is a gathering place that is home to a museum, an amphitheater, water features, and outdoor spaces perfect for picnicking and admiring views of the river and the Memphis skyline.
Whether you're a museum buff, or just want to see a massive pink building, the Pink Palace Museum is well worth stopping by when you're in Memphis. Covering a diverse array of subjects ranging from archaeology to chemistry, the Pink Palace Museum serves as the mid-south's major science and historical museum.
The headquarters for the museum, a mansion made from pink Georgian marble, served as the private residence of a wealthy entrepreneur until he faced some financial misfortunes. He turned it over to the city of Memphis, and since the late 1920s it has contained a variety of exhibits, many of them focusing on Memphis history. Exhibit topics today range from a commemoration of the invention of the supermarket, to features of Native American pottery, dinosaur fossils, and a miniature circus.