Perched above the Mississippi River, Memphis welcomes visitors to celebrate the city that gave the world blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll, as well as to chow down in the unrivaled barbecue capital of the nation. If it's the Elvis connection that draws you here, you won't leave disappointed. But even the King represents just one small part of the rich musical heritage of the home of Sun and Stax studios.
Culturally and geographically, Memphis has always had more in common with the delta of Mississippi and Arkansas than with the rest of Tennessee. Founded in 1819 and named for Egypt's ancient Nile capital, its fortunes rose and fell with cotton. The Confederate defeat that ended slavery briefly plunged the city into economic chaos, but thanks to its potential for river and rail transportation it soon bounced back. The nation's second largest inland port became a major stopping-off point for black migrant farmers and sharecroppers escaping the poverty of the Delta, and many stayed, significantly shaping the city's identity.
In the 1950s and 60s, Memphis had a confidence that belied its size. The city reached its lowest ebb, however, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated here in 1968, and for a couple of decades thereafter it tottered on the brink of terminal decline, with downtown blighted by white flight. In the 1990s the city regenerated itself, pouring money into projects like the transformation of Mud Island and the construction of the 321ft stainless-steel Pyramid. More recently, downtown has seen the arrival of not only the huge Peabody Place mall, but also a handsome minor league baseball stadium – Autozone Field, home of the Redbirds – and a major performance arena, the Fed Ex Forum. The fabled blues corridor of Beale Street is booming once more, while the recent Rock'n'Soul Museum, Gibson Guitar Plant and Stax Museum keep true to the city's musical heritage. Then there is Graceland – a refreshing change from the usual "gracious southern home" – which provides an intimate glimpse of the city's most famous son.
Bordered on the south by the state of Mississippi and on the west by the river of the same name, the City on the Bluffs has long been spreading eastward, taking in more and more of Shelby County. Hot and humid in July and August, Memphis delightfully enjoys a mild climate the rest of the year.
Downtown Memphis grew from the warehouses that stored cotton and other goods shipped up and down the Mississippi River. For much of Memphis' history, this meant that the riverfront was solely a place for commerce. Today, however, some things have changed. Now, when you take a ride on the paddlewheel boats that run regular tours from the Memphis harbor, you're likely to spot joggers on the Riverfront Walk, visitors on Mud Island and elegant homes along the bluffs (including Cybill Shepard's—look for the round window). Visitors can take a beautifully restored trolley car up Main Street—parallel to the River—and stop at the Pyramid arena, grab a bite and a brew in one of the Pinch Historic District pubs, loop back to the south to see the Orpheum Theatre and continue on down to the Civil Rights Museum , located in the old Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. A ride up to Union Avenue and a walk two blocks East brings you to the Peabody Hotel , where the downtown comeback started. After a visit with the ducks in the lobby fountain, walk to the new Peabody Place entertainment center to see a movie, or visit the Center for Southern Folklore and learn more about local culture and history. Cross Union for some popcorn and crackerjacks while the Memphis Redbirds play baseball in Autozone Park .
Brought back from a downward spiral in the 1960s and 70s, Beale Street—"Home of the Blues"—now features lively bars, clubs, restaurants and souvenir shops. Closed to traffic on weekend evenings, the area teems with a mix of tourists, suburbanites, downtowners and kids turning flips for quarters. Here you can visit Alfred's Bar & Grill restaurant, with its souvenirs and videos of Memphis' favorite son. Visit B.B. King's Blues Club and the Hard Rock Cafe for music, food and dancing. More of Memphis' fabulous musical heritage can be soaked up at the original Sun Studio , just a short distance from Beale Street. This studio, made famous by Elvis Presley and B.B. King, still records major musical acts.
Situated on the east side of downtown, Victorian Village features homes built at the turn of the century, still standing in their original, tree-lined setting. Some of these homes offer public tours.
The Midtown area stretches from I-240 on the West to the University of Memphis area on the East, and from Southern Avenue to Jackson Avenue. This lively neighborhood harbors beautifully restored residential areas, the city's highest concentration of ethnic restaurants, trendy clubs and live theater, along with some of the best places for antiques shopping.
At the heart of Midtown lies the Overton Square Entertainment Complex , home of Playhouse on the Square , the Malco Studio on the Square movie house and wine bar, Loony bin Comedy Club, and a selection of restaurants and funky shops. To the north are the rolling lawns and shade trees of Overton Park , home of the Memphis Brooks Museum , and the Memphis Zoo .
The Cooper-Young Historic District forms the south border of Midtown. There are annual tours of the neighborhood and its Cooper-Young Festival show off the turn-of-century homes, which have been lovingly restored. The area supports some first-rate restaurants, too. Farther East is Pink Palace , which houses exhibits on natural history, the Sharpe Planetarium and an IMAX Theater .
University of Memphis Area
The University of Memphis is largely a commuter campus, thus not developing the usual collection of businesses catering to students. Instead, the stretches of Highland and Park along the borders of the campus have an odd collection of bars and a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mojo's , which looks like a fast food place, but isn't.
In an area ranging roughly from just East of the University of Memphis to just outside the I-240 perimeter, East Memphis encompasses the Laurelwood Shopping Center , Oak Court Mall , and the Poplar Plaza Shopping Center , the best locations in Memphis for designer boutique shopping.
East Memphians have the Dixon Gallery and Gardens , which features a collection of Impressionist paintings and first-rate traveling exhibits. Restaurants, such as Sekisui and Napa Cafe , can also be found to suit every price and palate.
North Memphis is the kind of heterogeneous ethnic neighborhood common in cities such as Chicago and New York. With a recent influx of immigrants from Mexico, authentic taquerias and restaurants have sprung up near Jackson Avenue. Asian shops with exotic produce and merchandise are helping the area take on an appealing international flavor.
Mention Memphis in Paris, Beijing, or Budapest, and who comes to mind? Well, Elvis Presley, of course. The King is more connected with his hometown than are most celebrities, and his home, Graceland , brings more visitors to Memphis from all over the world than any other single attraction in the area. While you're in the area don't forget to check out the C.H. Nash Chucalissa Archaeological Museum . The museum displays a fantastic re-creation of a Native American village, including offering visitors the chance to see an archeological dig in progress.
Germantown, Bartlett and Cordova
While largely residential, Germantown brings in visitors for the international horse show. The area provides some excellent dining and shopping as well. Current favorite places to dine include the Greek/Mediterranean-inspired Yia Yia's Eurocafe and Chapultepec Mexican Restaurant For shopping, Germantowners and East Memphians flock to the Shops of Saddle Creek and the smaller Carrefour , located at Kirby Woods. Bartlett and Cordova have Cordova Cellars, where visitors can taste local wines and learn about wine-making, and the Davies Manor Plantation , a restored log home from the 19th century. Many national chain restaurants and shops along with the Wolfchase Galleria shopping mall have made this area a major draw for out-of-towners.
If you have not been to Memphis in the last ten years, you might be surprised by the changes in the range and type of dining available. A boom in immigration, especially from south of the border, combined with a surge in downtown development, has resulted in an exciting breadth in Memphis cuisine. No longer is Memphis home to only wet and dry barbecue ribs: it now boasts Asian, Mexican and other ethnic restaurants in virtually every area of the city. The nightlife, which has always centered around the high quality of musical talent developed in and attracted by the region, continues to be more suitable for those who want to sit and listen than those who want to dance and party.
Downtown restaurants tend to fall into two categories: those catering to the business-lunch crowd, and those catering to tourists. In the former category visit restaurants like The Cupboard with its traditional Southern plate lunches or the Woman's Exchange of Memphis for the down-home food Memphis mothers made famous. In the second category, the standout is Chez Phillippe in the Peabody Hotel , with award-winning chef Gutierrez serving up innovative Continental cuisine to society folks and the out-of-town crowd. The Rendezvous , on the other hand, attracts tourists looking for good barbeque in a decidedly low-key environment. Next door, locally-owned Sekisui serves up authentic sushi and tempura for those looking for something lighter. Around the corner, Automatic Slim's makes powerful martinis and a wicked Voodoo Stew for the adventurous.
Beale Street is a place where people go for music, dancing and people watching. Excellent gumbo is served at the King's Palace Cafe and the Rum Boogie Cafe . The Blues City Cafe is notable mostly for appearing in the Tom Cruise movie "The Firm", and the food is just as exciting. After you've gotten your fill, stop by Gibson Lounge for an après meal cocktail and snack. The stylish lighting and plush couches will offer you all the atmosphere of a similar space in New York or San Francisco.
The only restaurant currently open in Harbor Town is the River Terrace. The breathtaking views of the river from the floor-to-ceiling windows dare to steal the spotlight from the sparkling seafood dishes and lush desserts.
Midtown is where locals go when they're in the mood for innovative cooking or for the perfect place for a special celebration. A dinner here can be combined with an evening of theater or a visit to the Overton Square Entertainment District . Some nights you may be in the mood for Continental cuisine in the formal settings of La Tourelle or Paulette's (also a favorite spot for after-theater dessert and coffee). On the nights you may be feeling adventurous, see what Pacific Rim dishes Tsunami is serving or try a noodle dish at Saigon Le . For light appetites, there's Lilly's Dim Sum & Then Some with its small plates of steamed dumplings and other delicacies. When you're feeling ravenous, head for the all-you-can-eat buffet at India Palace . Whatever your mood, you'll definitely find a place to eat in Midtown.
University of Memphis
Students usually want cheap food and they want it fast. To fill that niche, there's no lack of places in the University of Memphis area. But for those who want something other than the standard hamburger and French fries there are a number of other options. At the corner of Poplar and Highland sits a cluster of restaurants including McAllister's Deli for thick, meaty sandwiches on excellent bread and A-Tan's for solid Chinese fare. Down Highland are a few more exotic choices. MoJo's , occupying a former fish-and-chips establishment, serves up Middle Eastern fare with outstanding onion rings on the side. Around the corner is the International Grocery Store, featuring Middle Eastern and Latin American fare along with plate lunches of kebab. Just down from the Park is La Montagne , where you can satisfy a craving for healthy food, fortified with bean sprouts and natural grains. These are places where locals stop for a meal when they're in the neighborhood, not necessarily destination spots. However, they do offer a good variety at reasonable prices for those who live, work and study nearby.
East Memphis is not the best place to go for cutting-edge cuisine or authentic ethnic dishes. The affluent local population tends to be a bit conservative in its eating preferences. Corky's Barbecue serves up a barbecue sandwich that is consistently voted "Best in Memphis" despite (or perhaps because of) the mildness of its sauce. Owen Brennan's is popular with those who like the elements of Creole cuisine from New Orleans, while the Cooker offers a slightly upgraded version of traditional Southern fare. Erling Jensen's has such a well-established reputation among long-time Memphis residents that it doesn't bother to advertise anymore, so only those visitors who ask their concierge for a recommendation are likely to know about it. Down Ridgeway is Shu's , where there are excellent options from their Chinese or Thai menus.
North Memphis is primarily residential, except for the Summer Avenue strip where fast foods abound. One notable exception is the Taqueria Guadalupana . This authentic eatery is the best place in town for over-stuffed burritos and enchiladas or more unusual dishes like barbequed goat and menudo (tripe) stew. A little further north, beyond the car dealerships on Covington Pike, is Asian Palace , widely acknowledged as the place to go for those who understand what Chinese cooks can do with squid, jellyfish and octopus. Be sure to ask for the "authentic menu."
Visitors to Graceland have few choices for dining other than low-priced, family-oriented chains. However, many locals think some of the best barbecue in town (and locals are picky about their barbecue) comes from Interstate BBQ .
Germantown, Bartlett and Cordova
Yia Yia's Eurocafe in Saddlecreek, features huge appetizer plates which are more popular than the entrees. Bahama Breeze , is popular at least partly because of its location adjacent to the newest and largest shopping mall in the area, the Wolfchase Galleria . Perennial favorite, Cozymel's, is home to several fanciful varieties of margaritas.
While Memphis has had a long and varied history, visitors may get the initial impression that nothing ever happened here that didn't involve Elvis Presley! However, visitors will find museums, historical sites and exhibits, and cultural activities abound.
Peabody Place Tour the historic Peabody Hotel , located on Peabody Place , a strip of downtown that has been rennovated and now houses a museum, theaters and several restaurants, such as the Capriccio Grill . Wander down to the banks of Tom Lee Park , then enjoy the music at B.B. King's Blues Club , owned by the legendary blues man. National Civil Rights Museum Visit the National Civil Rights Museum , where you can learn about Martin Luther King, Jr and others. Catch a concert at the Gibson Beale Street Showcase , then grab a bite to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe . Browse the collection of 17th Century Manchu Dynasty art at the Belz Museum and Gallery , just a few blocks away. Take the trolley to Mud Island , and explore its many attractions.
Beale Street The Orpheum Theater is home to the Symphony Orchestra and the Opera , which put on several productions throughout the year. Walk the gardens and admire the architecture at the Danny Thomas-ALSAC Pavilion , then walk over to have your picture taken with the Statue of Elvis and enjoy a meal at the popular Elvis Presley's Memphis restaurant.
Graceland You'll want to visit Graceland , of course, where you'll see Elvis' preserved home. Pick up some official Elvis souvenirs at Loose Ends . Visit the nearby C.H. Nash Chucalissa Archaeological Museum , which chronicles the history of Memphis' early days, then dine at Interstate BBQ , which has some of the tastiest ribs in the city.
St. Mary's Cathedral Tour the Gothic St. Mary's Cathedral , the oldest Episcopal cathedral in the South, then walk to Overton Park . The Park contains the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art , the Memphis Zoo and Aquarium and the Memphis College of Art . Have dinner at Cielo in Victorian Village .
Getting around Memphis is easy when you book a professional tour. Enjoy the air conditioning on a bus, go on a crusie or take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Walking Tours Gibson Beale Street Showcase Tour ( +1 901 544 7998/ http://www.gibson.com/ )
Bus Tours Blues City Tours ( +1 901 522 9229/ http://www.bluescitytours.com/tours.html ) Ride the Ducks of Memphis ( +1 901 521 3825/ http://www.memphisducks.com ) Heritage Tours ( +1 901 527 3427/ http://www.heritagetoursmemphis.com/ ) Backbeat Tours ( +1 800 979 3370/ http://www.backbeattours.com/ ) Memphis Tours ( +1 901 527 2797/ http://www.gomemphistours.com/ )
Trolley Tours Main Street Trolley ( +1 901 543 5333 )
Carriage Tours Carriage Tours of Memphis ( +1 901 527 7542/ http://www.carriagetoursofmemphis.com )
Boat Tours Memphis Queen ( +1 800 221 6197/ http://www.memphisqueen.com/ ) Ride the Ducks of Memphis ( +1 901 521 3825/ http://www.memphisducks.com ) Memphis Riverboats ( +1 901 527 2628/ http://www.memphisriverboats.net )