If Memphis is part of your travel plans anytime soon, you’re going to want to keep reading. These are 20 places you must visit during your stay. Paying tribute to Memphis’ cultural, musical, and artistic history, these attractions provide visitors with education and entertainment, ensuring your trip is full of enlightenment and adventure.
The former home of Elvis Presley, Graceland is an estate located about nine miles (14.5km) from downtown. The mansion is 17,552 square feet (1,630.6m²) and has a total of 23 rooms. Graceland is the second most visited house in America, after only the White House. When you visit Graceland, you take an interactive iPad tour hosted by John Stamos, with commentary from Elvis and his daughter, Lisa Marie. The tour takes visitors through several rooms in the house, including the living room, the kitchen, the pool room and the famous Jungle Room. The second floor is not open to visitors out of respect for the Presley family, since the bathroom upstairs is the site of Elvis’ death. The floor has been untouched since the day Elvis died and is usually only seen by family members.
Tours also showcase Elvis’s airplanes and automobiles, as well as exhibits that feature artifacts and memorabilia from the singer’s life. Outside is the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his stillborn twin brother are laid to rest.
National Civil Rights Museum
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 is leased to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, which operates the motel as part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum 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.
After renovations took place to increase the number of interactive exhibits, the museum re-opened in 2014. It was honored as a Smithsonian Affiliate museum in 2016.
Originally called Memphis Recording Service, radio engineer Sam Phillips opened the Sun Studio recording facility in 1950. 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 the most famous singers to record at Sun Studio was the late 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.
Many claim that “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston, which was recorded by Phillips at Sun Studio, was the first rock ’n’ roll song. It is rumored that what gave the song its unique sound was an amplifier stuffed with wads of newspaper.
Sun Studio, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN, USA, + 1 800 441 6249
Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum was created in conjunction with the National Museum of American History. It was the first exhibition ever developed by the Smithsonian Institution with another museum, and 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.
The museum features three audio-visual programs, seven galleries and over 100 songs that were recorded in Memphis between the 1930s and the 1970s.
For more than 100 years, the Memphis Zoo has been a tenant of Overton Park. Set on 76 acres, the zoo has 19 exhibits and is home to more than 3,500 animals. The exhibits mimic the various animals’ natural habitats and the animals reside in three different zones within the zoo. One of these exhibits is ‘China,’ where giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le live. Memphis is one of four zoos in the United States to exhibit giant pandas. It is also the one-time 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.’
The Peabody Memphis Hotel
You can’t miss the neon red ‘The Peabody’ sign atop the roof of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis. What’s inside is even more intriguing. The hotel features a heated indoor pool, an athletic club, a spa, and a galleria of shops. But the main attraction at the hotel is the Peabody ducks. Back in the 1930s, then general manager of the The Peabody, Frank Schutt, returned home from a hunting trip with friend Chip Barwick. The two became slightly intoxicated and thought it would be funny to put their live duck decoys in the fountain. The reaction was one of positive reception, and the tradition of the Peabody ducks began.
In 1940, bellman Edward Pembroke helped deliver the ducks to the fountain each day, teaching them the Peabody Duck March. He served as the hotel’s resident Duckmaster for 50 years until he retired in 1991. The Peabody ducks still visit the fountain for their duck march each day between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The Cotton Museum
In 2006, The Cotton Museum opened in Memphis on the former trading floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange. The historical and cultural museum preserves the history of the cotton business and tells the story of the cotton industry and the effects it had on the mid-south region. Using interpretive exhibits, original films, and oral histories, The Cotton Museum takes visitors through the process of cotton trading. Education includes the transformation of cotton from crops into fabric.
Memphis Botanic Garden
The 96-acre Memphis Botanic Garden has 23 specialty gardens, including a children’s garden called My Big Backyard. The garden grounds are open to the public daily. 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.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
The 17,000 square foot (1,579.3m²) Stax Museum of American Soul Music was opened in 2003 and is adjacent to the Stax Music Academy. The museum is a replica of the Stax recording studio and is one of 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’ 1972 restored blue Cadillac El Dorado.
Somewhere to take the kids on a nice day is Peabody Park in Midtown. The urban park 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. She’s been described by witnesses as having braided brown hair and a white dress.
Even performers at the Orpheum Theatre have reported sightings and strange happenings. Things like flickering lights and doors swinging open and shut have spooked performers, many of whom have also claimed to see a young girl in a school uniform sitting in a side box on the mezzanine.
National Ornamental Metal Museum
Also known as the Metal Museum, the National Ornamental Metal Museum features exhibits of metalwork, with over 3,000 items in its permanent collection. The museum also offers classes and workshops featuring metalsmiths. In addition to the exhibits and events, there is a foundry, working smithy, and library onsite. These renovated buildings are the brainwork of blacksmith and artist James Wallace, who led the museum for nearly 30 years. Much of the museum’s success can be attributed to his leadership.
Blues Hall of Fame
In 1980, the Blues Foundation started the Blues Hall of Fame. At that time, it wasn’t an actual building, but a list of people who made significant contributions to the blues music scene. The actual building opened to the public in May 2015. Now the museum features exhibits that highlight over 400 inductees in five categories—performer, individual, album, single, and literature. There are interactive touchscreens that provide visitors with music and videos of those honored in the musuem.
Each gallery also houses memorabilia such as Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica, album covers, tour jackets, Mavis Staples’ Grammy gown, and Otis Spann’s piano. Upstairs, guests enjoy traveling exhibits that rotate every four months.
Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Indoors, Dixon Gallery and Gardens is an art museum that features works by French and American Impressionists such as 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.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Designed by Memphis architect Everett Woods, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art opened in 1955. The building was originally donated by Bessie Vance Brooks, in memory of her late husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks. The museum features 29 galleries with over 7,000 works of art that include paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures. There is a selection of 19th and 20th century decorative arts and paintings by Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Impressionist, and 20th century artists.
Also on the property are the Brooks Museum Store, the Brushmark Restaurant, the Holly Court garden, and a terrace that overlooks Overton Park.
Children’s Museum of Memphis
With an emphasis on making learning fun, the Children’s Museum of Memphis uses hands-on exhibits and programs to promote playful learning 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 birthday parties, which are only available to museum members.
Lichterman Nature Center
Located in East Memphis, the Lichterman Nature Center is a certified arboretum and nature center. The center strives to increase people’s appreciation and understanding of nature through hands-on explorations and environmental education. There are several indoor and outdoor exhibits, including a 65-acre wildlife observation area. This area includes a three-mile (5km) nature path where a variety of plants and animals live. One of the nature center’s attractions is the Visitor Center, which has interactive exhibits, a lake cam, a nature store, and the Backyard Wildlife Center. This area has exhibits that provide information about the three habitats represented at the Lichterman Nature Center: lake, meadow, and forest.
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
Formerly the Burkle Estate, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum opened in 1997. The original home was 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. Part of the museum includes stairs that descend into a dark cellar with hidden passages, where fugitives were once harbored.
The house is decorated with 19th century furnishings and artifacts, and documents the history of the Underground Railroad and the everyday lives of slaves in the Memphis area.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame
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 a brick-and-mortar exhibit hall in July 2015. The exhibit hall features interactive exhibits, video interviews and memorabilia.
The Levitt Shell is an open-air amphitheater in Overton Park where Elvis Presley gave his first paid concert in 1954. He opened for Slim Whitman, and many music historians consider this concert the first ever rock ’n’ roll show.
The Levitt Shell was built in 1936 by the City of Memphis and designed by architect Max Furbringer. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Shell was the site of Memphis Open Air Theatre orchestral shows and musicals. Each year, more than 50 free concerts are put on by Levitt Shell.