If Memphis is part of your travel plans anytime soon, you’re going to want to keep reading. Paying tribute to the city’s cultural, musical and artistic history, the following attractions are both educational and entertaining, ensuring your trip is full of enlightenment and adventure. From Graceland to the Blues Hall of Fame, here are 25 places you must visit during your stay in Memphis, Tennessee.
Graceland, Elvis Presley’s 23-room former home, is located about 9mi (15km) from downtown and is the second most visited house in America after the White House. You can take an interactive iPad tour, which guides you through the living room, the kitchen, the pool room and the famous Jungle Room. Other tours explore the singer’s sizable collection of planes and cars. Outside is the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents and his twin brother are laid to rest.
On April 4, 1968, civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. The motel is now owned by the Tennessee State Museum and houses the National Civil Rights Museum, which traces the history of civil rights in the United States, from the 17th century to the present. There are more than 260 artifacts spanning five centuries on display, covering issues and events related to Jim Crow, slavery, and the Civil War.
Originally called Memphis Recording Service, the Sun Studio recording facility was opened in 1950 by radio engineer Sam Phillips. It shared the same building with Sun Records and is where many prominent blues and rock ’n’ roll musicians recorded in the early 1950s. One of them was Elvis Presley, who walked into Sun Studio shortly after graduating high school and recorded two songs that he claimed were going to be a gift to his mother. Tours of the facility run hourly from 10:30am to 5:30pm.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum opened in April 2000. In 2004, it moved to Memphis’ sports and entertainment complex, the FedEx Forum. The museum highlights the history of the Memphis music scene, covering the urban influences of Beale Street, the story of Sun Records and the impact that the civil rights movement had on music during the 1960s and 1970s.
Watch the marching ducks at the Peabody Memphis Hotel
Back in the 1930s, then general manager of Memphis’ Peabody Hotel, Frank Schutt, returned home from a hunting trip with friend Chip Barwick. After becoming slightly intoxicated, they put their live duck decoys in the fountain, thus starting the tradition of the marching Peabody ducks. Every day, the hotel’s resident ducks march to the fountain on a red carpet and play in the water until 5pm, when they are returned to their palatial rooftop digs.
For more than 100 years, the Memphis Zoo has been a tenant of Overton Park and is now home to more than 4,500 animals. One of the most popular exhibits is China, where giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le live. The zoo was also home to the world’s longest-living hippopotamus, Adonis, who died at the age of 54 in 1965. Because he had approximately 25 offspring, the zoo was given the title of “hippo capital of the world.”
Attend a local event at the Memphis Botanic Garden
Botanical Garden, Park
The 96-acre (39ha) Memphis Botanic Garden has 23 specialty gardens, including a children’s garden called My Big Backyard. Many community events are held at the garden, like the Daffodil Dash Race, the Family Egg Hunt, wine tastings, Memphis Japan Festival and Mother’s Day Brunch. There are several educational programs for both children and adults, and the garden holds plant sales and its annual “Live at the Garden” concert series to benefit both educational and horticultural programs.
Opened in 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a replica of the Stax recording studio and is one of a few museums across the world dedicated to soul music. There are more than 2,000 videos, photographs, musical instruments and stage costumes on display at the Stax Museum. Some of the specialty exhibits include the Soul Train dance floor, an authentic 101-year-old Mississippi Delta church, and Isaac Hayes’s 1972 restored blue Cadillac El Dorado.
Peabody Park, in Midtown, is a great place to take the kids on a nice day. It has a playground, a splash pad and is home to the Raymond Skinner Center, which is a recreation center for people with disabilities. The splash pad is an outdoor area with fountains and misters and is open during the summer. Many local festivals are held at Peabody Park throughout the year. Also found at the park are large metal sculptures by local artist Yvonne Bobo.
The Orpheum Theatre is mostly a venue where various Mid-South events take place, including performances by Ballet Memphis, Memphis in May (a summer movie series), special Elvis Week events and several touring Broadway productions. It’s also a place that has been reported to have paranormal activity for more than 50 years. One of the theater’s most famous ghostly spirits is said to be a 12-year-old girl named Mary, who has been described by witnesses as having braided brown hair and wearing a white dress.
In 2006, the Cotton Museum opened in Memphis on the former trading floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, which is now also a popular venue for parties and corporate events. The historical and cultural museum preserves the history of the cotton business and explores the effects it had on the Mid-South region. Using interpretive exhibits, original films and oral histories, the museum allows you to explore the intricacies of cotton manufacture and trading.
Also known simply as the Metal Museum, the National Ornamental Metal Museum’s permanent collection features over 3,000 items. In addition to the exhibits and events, there is a foundry, working smithy and library on-site. These renovated buildings constitute the legacy of blacksmith and artist James Wallace, who led the museum for nearly 30 years and who is responsible for much of its success. The museum also offers classes and workshops led by metalsmiths.
In 1980, the Blues Foundation started the Blues Hall of Fame. At that time, it wasn’t an actual building, just a list of people who had made significant contributions to the blues music scene. The actual building opened in May 2015 and now highlights over 400 inductees in five categories – performer, individual, album, single and literature. Interactive touch screens provide visitors with music and videos of those honored in the museum, while the upper floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
Learn about Impressionism at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Indoors, Dixon Gallery and Gardens is an art museum that features works by French and American Impressionists including Monet, Renoir and Degas. There is an extensive collection of works by French Impressionist Jean-Louis Forain, and the Stout Collection of 18th-century German porcelain, with almost 600 pieces of tableware and figures. Outside, there are four sculpture gardens – the Cutting Garden, Formal Garden, South Lawn and Woodland Gardens. The museum also features traveling exhibitions that feature fine art and horticulture.
Soak up some culture at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Designed by Memphis architect Everett Woods, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art opened in 1955. Donated by Bessie Vance Brooks, in memory of her late husband Samuel Hamilton Brooks, the museum features 29 galleries with over 7,000 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures. There is a centuries-spanning selection of decorative arts and paintings by Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Impressionist and 20th-century artists. You can also enjoy refreshments at the on-site Café Brooks.
With an emphasis on making learning fun, the Children’s Museum of Memphis uses hands-on exhibits and programs to promote playful educational experiences. There are several indoor and outdoor exhibits to explore, including an airplane cockpit, a disco room, a splash park, a campground and a treehouse. There is also a special “4 & Under” area for toddlers. Special programs and events are held at the museum throughout the year, including members-only birthday parties.
Located in East Memphis, the Lichterman Nature Center is a certified arboretum and nature center, dedicated to increasing people’s understanding of nature through hands-on exploration and environmental education. There are several indoor and outdoor exhibits, including a 65-acre (26ha) wildlife observation area with a three-mile (5km) nature path, where a variety of plants and animals live. The attached Backyard Wildlife Center explores the three habitats represented at the Lichterman Nature Center: lake, meadow and forest.
See a secret slave hideout at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
Formerly the Burkle Estate, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum opened in 1997, in a building constructed in 1849 by German immigrant Jacob Burkle. It is claimed that the Burkle Estate was part of an underground railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom, and you can still see stairs descending into a dark cellar with hidden passages, where fugitives were once harbored. The museum documents the history of the Underground Railroad and the everyday lives of slaves in the Memphis area.
Built in 1936 and modeled on similar structures in Chicago and New York by architect Max Furbringer, the Levitt Shell is an open-air amphitheater in Overton Park. It was the site of Elvis Presley’s first paid concert in 1954, when he appeared as the support act for Slim Whitman in what many music historians the first ever rock ’n’ roll show. Each year, more than 50 free concerts are staged at the Levitt Shell.
Outdoorsy travelers will find plenty to do in Shelby Farms Park, an area of greenery five times the size of New York’s Central Park. Cyclists and joggers can take advantage of 40mi (64km) of trails, including the 10mi (16km) long Shelby Farms Greenline, while fishing enthusiasts have over 20 ponds and mini-lakes to choose from. Also on offer are treetop adventures, horseback riding and an 18-hole golf course. Be sure to go and meet the resident herd of buffalos while you’re there.
Since it was established in 2012, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame has inducted close to 60 Memphis individuals or groups for their lifetime achievements in the music community. Each inductee, who is selected by a nominating committee of nationally recognized leaders in the music industry, receives a Mike Curb award. An induction ceremony and concert is held each year at the museum, which opened an exhibit hall in July 2015 featuring interactive panels, video interviews and memorabilia.
Silky O’Sullivans, a popular Irish pub on Beale Street, is a great place to go for a drink or bite to eat – but there’s also another reason why you should visit. Flanking the beer garden out back is a goat pen, complete with one of only four “Goat Towers” in the world, built solely for the amusement of the four-legged residents (who are rumored to like their beer). You can feed the goats through the fence, but make sure they don’t eat your clothes, too.
Learn about the Mid-South at the Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium
Commissioned by millionaire businessman Clarence Saunders (founder of the Piggly Wiggly chain of supermarkets) in the early 1920s, the Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium is one of the Mid-South’s largest museums. Its permanent collection focuses on the cultural and natural history of the region, featuring animal skulls, fossils and Native American pottery. There’s also a full-size replica of one of the first ever Piggly Wiggly stores. Attached to the mansion is a planetarium and Giant Screen Theatre.
It might seem overly ambitious to aim to walk a 1,000mi (1,610km) section of the world’s fourth-longest river in a single day, but it’s possible at the Mud Island River Park. Here, you can follow a three-quarter-mile-long (1.2km) scale replica of the Lower Mississippi River as it heads south from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, Louisiana, traveling a mile for every step you take, while also learning about the surrounding geography. The Riverwalk culminates with your arrival at a million-gallon replica of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Crystal Shrine Grotto (officially the Cave of Machpelah) is one of the most bizarre attractions in Memphis. Located in the center of the Memorial Park Cemetery, it’s the work of Mexican-born sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez, who was tasked with giving the grounds a facelift in 1935. Clearly inspired, he burrowed 65 feet (20m) into the hillside and filled the resulting cave with dozens of Jesus statues carved out of cement and quartz crystal. The grotto is surrounded by incredibly lifelike trees, also made out of cement.