Destinations

Memphis: The City’s Got Soul

TIMEDecember 30, 2021

The Mississippi flows south along the edge of Memphis, but musicians traveled north out of the Mississippi Delta and the South, arriving there in the 20th century. The birthplace of rock ‘n’ soul and the careers of such legends as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King, Memphis has always been a music lover’s mecca. The tradition continues and each night all along the famous Beale Street, live music spills out the open doors of various clubs, bars, and restaurants.

On a long weekend, you can make your home in the heart of downtown. The AAA Four-Diamond Peabody Hotel is an institution in Memphis and should be at the top of your list. Elegant, early 20th-century interiors feel like the bygone days, and the staff will show you the meaning of southern hospitality. Here you are within walking distance of Beale Street but far enough off the path to grant a quiet night’s sleep. The sunset views of the city and the river from the rooftop terrace should not be missed.

Epoch Times Photo
Beale Street. (Mobilus In Mobili/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Epoch Times Photo
Friends on Beale Street. (Alex Shansky/Memphis Tourism)

Memphis Sounds and Sorrows

Head to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum to get your groove on. From the music of the sharecroppers through the recordings of the 1970s and beyond, the self-guided audio tour takes you through seven galleries filled with instruments, memorabilia, and historical exhibits. You’re already on Beale Street, so stop for lunch at the original B.B. King’s Blues Club for gumbo or po’boy sandwiches. Be sure to come back at night for some live music. Also, purchase a “combo” ticket for admission to the equally unmissable Memphis Music Hall of Fame, a five-minute walk from here, where you’ll find some slightly lesser-known acts as well as the big names that made the city’s reputation.

Memphis was named after the ancient capital of Egypt, and though there was never a pharaoh here, there was definitely royalty. No trip to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland. A tour of the estate takes you back in time to when Elvis (and shag carpeting) was king. Hordes of fans now decades after his death still flock to see the mansion, his car collection (yes, that Cadillac is pink), his private planes, and much more.

Where you go next might depend on your style of music: Sun Studio, where Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded their first hits, or the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on the original site of Stax Records Studio. This is where Otis Redding, the Staple Sisters, and Isaac Hayes began the journey to legend.

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The Sun Studio. (Ciara Johnson/Memphis Tourism)

One of Memphis’s most tragic moments was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4, 1968, the day after he had given his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, King was shot and killed outside the door of his room at the Lorraine Motel. Now the National Civil Rights Museum, the former motel preserves the site of King’s untimely death while chronicling the civil rights movement.

Drinking and Dining

Before dinner, get back to The Peabody for an afternoon drink at the lobby bar and wait to see the famous Peabody Duck March. Every day at 5 p.m., after lounging in the lobby fountain all day, the resident ducks walk (waddle?) a red carpet to the elevator that whisks them up to their penthouse for the evening. The crowd is large; come early for a good perch.

Epoch Times Photo
A trolley in downtown Memphis, Tenn. (Connor Ryan/Memphis Tourism)
Epoch Times Photo
The Four Way. (Alex Shansky/Memphis Tourism)
Epoch Times Photo
The Memphis skyline and the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. (Jack Kenner/Memphis Tourism)

Ride the trolley to the classy Orpheum Theatre for a concert or a Broadway show if you like, but you won’t need tickets for Beale Street. Several blocks of clubs, bars, and restaurants await you and the music flows right into the streets. You don’t have to be a night owl; live bands will get you shaking from the early evening to the wee hours. Many clubs charge no cover so you can bar hop along to the next tune that tickles your fancy. Street musicians and other buskers abound, and the laid-back atmosphere is perfect for a postprandial promenade.

Memphis’s reputation as the pork barbecue capital of the world is well deserved. Roll up your sleeves for lunch at Charlie Vergos’s Rendezvous. Fans of the subterranean restaurant’s dry-rub ribs have them shipped throughout the country via FedEx.

For the gourmand, make a reservation at The Peabody Hotel’s Chez Philippe. French Asian cuisine is served in the hotel’s elegant dining room and is sure to inspire raves. But you can’t leave Memphis without a solid meal of soul food: The Four Way Soul Food Restaurant is a good bet. The eatery has been a hit since its founding in 1946 and its notable patron list includes Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Tina Turner, and that guy from Graceland. Fried green tomatoes, catfish, chicken and chicken-fried steak, and chitterlings. Finish up with some cobbler or sweet potato pie. Then find your way back to Beale Street to dance some of those calories off.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com