MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This city loves its music. It protects its history. And it’s really starting to like its beer.
Travellers to Memphis need to know the basics of this Tennessee city nestled along the Mississippi River. It is a capital of blues, rock and roll and soul music, a gritty city where influential musicians like B.B. King, Elvis Presley and Otis Redding lived and worked.
It is a city rich in history, where cotton trading was once the main economic engine, where Confederate and Union gunboats battled on the river during the Civil War, where Martin Luther King Jr. came to support striking city sanitation workers and was assassinated.
And, it’s a city that likes to have fun, whether it’s on world-famous Beale Street or in the breweries that have started making craft beers in recent years.
Here are some essentials for visiting Memphis.
It took 34 years, but the Blues Hall of Fame finally opened in May on South Main Street, a neighbourhood undergoing significant revitalization.
Founded in 1980, the non-profit Blues Foundation has inducted about 130 performers and dozens of others into the Hall of Fame, but only now does it have a brick-and-mortar location for where music-lovers can see memorabilia attached to their favourite blues musicians, from B.B. King to Robert Johnson to Pinetop Perkins.
The building sits across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum and near art galleries, restaurants and bars just south of the downtown area. Artifacts include clothing, paintings, bronze busts, records and magazines tied to the world’s most influential blues masters. There’s also an interactive database where visitors can access biographies, photos, videos, songs and album covers related to specific artists.
The museum is open seven days a week. Admission prices are $10 for adults, $8 for students and free for children.
One of America’s most popular attractions sits in Memphis: Graceland, the home-turned-museum celebrating all things Elvis. The house is open for tours, and the attraction across the street features Elvis-related exhibits, including a neat one displaying vehicles owned and used by Elvis, from a Ferrari to a Harley Davidson. A new 450-room hotel, Guest House at Graceland, is under construction, scheduled to open October 2016.
Other classic music spots include Sun Studio, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich recorded music; and Stax Records, where Redding, Sam Dave, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and others cut songs in the raw, soulful “Memphis sound.”
A walk down Beale Street reveals well-worn, but fun, live music venues in Rum Boogie Cafe and W.C. Handy’s Blues Hall. There are plenty of shops to get that shot glass or T-shirt for a friend or relative. A visit to Blues City Cafe will not disappoint, as it serves four of Memphis’ main food groups: barbecue ribs, fried catfish, hot tamales and Jack Daniel’s.
The National Civil Rights Museum tells the story of the history of the civil rights movement, and its important moments and figures. Built on the location of the old Lorraine Motel — where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 — it features a view of the room where King stayed at the hotel.
Finally, a visit to the Memphis Zoo, ranked as one of the nation’s best zoos annually, is a must-do. Giant pandas, hungry hippos and playful penguins are among the living attractions. During the winter holidays, the zoo has a Christmas lights display and ice skating.
With a few exceptions, most of Memphis’ main tourist attractions are near the downtown area or a short drive from there. Staying at a hotel in the downtown area, such as the opulent Peabody Hotel or the more modern Madison hotel, is key, especially if you don’t want to rent a car.
Memphis taxi service is OK. The city also has Lyft and Uber car services. Tour buses take people to several attractions in one day. Some hotels have airport shuttles.
Those seeking to have fun in the electric Overton Square area, or the upscale-bohemian Cooper-Young neighbourhood, can “Ride the Roo” to get from one stop to another. It’s a bus with a sunglasses-wearing kangaroo on its roof. Riders can shuttle back and forth from the bars and restaurants of Overton Square and Cooper-Young for a $5, all-night pass.
A beer-brewing revolution has hit Memphis in recent years. Labels such as Wiseacre and Memphis Made have become a source of pride for the city, right up there with its great barbecue restaurants or NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies team. The breweries are casual spots offering a variety of craft beers with the large brewing vats right on the premises.
At Memphis Made brewery, long tables give it the feel of a German beer garden, and Wiseacre has an outdoors area for chilling out. They don’t make food, but there is easy access to food trucks and nearby restaurants.