To be clear, Memphis is an awesome place to visit any time of the year, any year -- blues clubs and barbecue joints are timeless and know no season. But we'd venture to say that August 11 through 19, 2017, is a particularly great time to go to Memphis, as the city will be in the throes of Elvis Week, a nine-day event commemorating Memphis legend Elvis Presley. (August 16 marks the 40th anniversary of his death.) Whether you booked tickets for the Elvis Week tribute artist contest months ago or you’re just looking for a fun excuse to check out a cool city (not that you need one), here are some don’t-miss things to do in Memphis.
1. Pay tribute to The King.
No way are you going to Memphis without making a pilgrimage to Graceland, Elvis’ private mansion (and the hub of Elvis Week activity). Past the music-themed front gates, the temple of kitsch remains a perfect snapshot of how it was when the music legend left the stage in 1977 -- animal-print furniture, stained glass, gaudy chandeliers, and all. Depending on your tour, you'll see family photographs, bedazzled jumpsuits, Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding garb (she’ll be on-site during Elvis Week), mint-condition cars and planes, and Elvis' personal set of keys to Graceland. You'll walk past the blue-and-yellow TV den, the pristine white living room, and the Polynesia-meets-60s-style parlor in all of its green-shag-carpeted glory.
Elvis Week's slew of special events include film screenings, discussions with Elvis' musicians and back-up singers, and concerts, including ELVIS: Live in Concert on August 16 at the FedExForum in downtown Memphis. Several tour options are offered year round for those whose visits don't coincide with Elvis Week (the 1939-built home became a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and is the most-visited house in America after the White House). Even if you’re not an Elvis diehard, go into it knowing that seeing Graceland can be an unexpectedly moving experience.
2. Hold Elvis’ microphone stand.
Two months out of high school, a teenage Elvis sauntered into Sun Studio on Union Avenue (then Sun Records) and recorded two tracks: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” The initial studio session didn’t lead right to music superstardom, but Elvis kept at it, eventually recording a version of "That's All Right” at Sun about a year later. The rockabilly number was picked up on a local radio station, and just like that, Elvis was launched into the music stratosphere. Today, the landmark Sun Studio -- arguably the most iconic the most recording studio on earth -- is open daily for tours. The tiny two-room stop is presented as it was during the time of Million Dollar Quartet, the famous 1956 jam session with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Elvis' microphone is among the original instruments and pieces of equipment on display (if you’re lucky, you might even get to sing into it). Afterward, treat yourself to a milkshake from the old-fashioned soda fountain and an Elvis original 45 from the gift shop.
3. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum - Lorraine Motel.
The National Civil Rights Museum is across from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968. (Two months later, Elvis recorded "If I Can Dream," a heart-rending tribute to the slain Civil Rights activist.) Using video, audio, photography, and interactive elements, the museum tells the story of the black experience in America, from slavery to major moments of the Civil Rights Movement, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and the Student Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. In 2014, the museum completed a renovation to the tune of $30 million.
4. Hit Beale Street.
Neon lights flash, foot traffic flows, and electric guitars and harmonicas wail on Beale Street, Downtown Memphis' music and entertainment nerve center. Comparisons to New Orleans' Bourbon Street are common, but Beale Street is considerably smaller than the French Quarter's main drag, and far less X-rated (though still rowdy). Nonetheless, Beale Street, called the "Home of the Blues," is filled to capacity with bars, juke joints, restaurants, and music clubs like B.B. King’s Blues Club and Blues City Cafe, where live music is on every night of the week. Yes, the few blocks of Beale Street are very touristy, with horse-drawn carriages, souvenir shops, and expectedly high prices at many of the venues, but they're fun even for just people- and street-performer-watching with a cold beer. The hopping heart of Beale Street is flanked by the Orpheum Theater, a performing arts center dating to the 19th century, and the FedExForum sports and entertainment complex. For live music outside of Beale Street, try rock and cocktail lounge Hi-Tone and beer bar Young Avenue Deli (both in Midtown).
5. Feast like a king.
Elvis' appetite is legendary (Italian-loaf PBJs loaded with a full pound of bacon, anyone?), so while you're in town, do right by him and get your fill of rib-sticking Southern food. Many Memphis visitors start every day of their trip at Blue Plate Cafe, a down-home local legend on Court Square that serves big and fluffy pancakes, chicken-fried steak, zesty hash browns, and free biscuits and sawmill gravy. Others swear that the best breakfast around is found across town at Brother Juniper's, a no-frills, family-run spot famous for its three-egg open faced omelettes with cheese grits, plus toast or a homemade biscuit. For a more upscale experience, try the acclaimed brunch at Paulette's at River Inn of Harbor Town.
Barbecue is big business in Memphis, with locals and visitors endlessly debating the superiority of smokiness, seasoning, and sauces at joints like Corky's BBQ, Central BBQ, and Marlowe's Ribs and Restaurant (which uses its decor and soundtrack to sing Elvis' praises). Other Memphis favorites include Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken and Flight Restaurant & Wine Bar, where, true to the name, guests can sample flights of seafood, steak, and Southern fare.
6. Walk it off.
Memphis is full of lovely places for a post-Southern-meal stroll. Shelby Farms Park, about a 20-minute drive from downtown, is one of the largest urban green spaces in the U.S., with around two dozen lakes for fishing and kayaking and more than 40 miles of nature trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Occupying 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms could contain five of New York's Central Park. The park will host the inaugural MEMPHO Music Festival on October 6 and 7. The beautiful Overton Park is much smaller in scale, but closer to the heart of the city. Overton holds more than 100 acres of old forest, as well as the Memphis Zoo and Levitt Shell, where many free concerts are held. Over at Memphis Botanic Garden, located between Shelby Farms and Overton Park, the Japanese Garden is among Memphis' most-photographed spots.
7. See the parading ducks.
Every day at 11 a.m., a team of trained ducks -- yes, ducks -- is ceremoniously led through The Peabody Memphis' lobby to a large marble fountain. There, the ducks swim all day before being paraded back up to their home on the roof at 5 p.m. sharp. The twice-a-day Peabody Duck March has been a tradition at this grand hotel since the 1930s -- years before Elvis had his senior prom here.
Need a place to stay? Check out our reviews and photos of 27 hotels in Memphis.
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