Memphis is the best city on earth for an Elvis fan to visit, but there is a whole lot more to do in this Tennessee town. If you are visiting for the first or 10th time, we have the best things to do in Memphis, the best restaurants, and favorite hotels for a visit to the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll. The heart and soul of Memphis is an easily walkable 1/2-mile area and where a first-time visitor could easily spend 2-3 days exploring.
While most people might know the second-largest city in Tennessee for its most famous former resident, Memphis has a lot to offer beyond an Elvis pilgrimage. A port city on the Mississippi River, now connected to Arkansas by a beautiful bridge over I-40, Memphis has always enjoyed a mix of diverse cultures which make for a hip, young, vibrant downtown area.
Memphis: What to Eat, Where to Stay & Best Things to Do
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In the daytime, Memphis has more museums and art galleries than you can see in a week. At night, the city comes alive with clubs, bars, dance halls, and restaurants. On weekend nights, the downtown streets are full of folks cruising in loud muscle cars, beer-peddle carts being pulled by tractors, cinderella carriage rides, and party trailers being pulled by cars and trucks.
Beale Street is the place to be in Memphis if you want to be in the heart of the action. It’s where it all began for the city, where DeSoto stopped when navigating the Mississippi River in 1541, where rock n roll began (literally at Sun Studios), and where the unspeakable happened with the assassination of MLK on April 4, 1968, the site of which is now the National Civil Rights Museum.
Best Places to Eat in Memphis
Breakfast in Memphis
Bryant’s Breakfast – Since 1968, this old-style diner has been serving breakfast classics like biscuits and gravy as well as lunch plates like chicken-fried steak with green beans. True to Memphis’s working-class culture, Bryant’s opens at 5am — fill up on pancakes and get an early start to your day of sightseeing.
Bryant’s Breakfast Address: 3965 Summer Ave, Memphis, TN 38122
Gibson’s Donuts – “Donut shop” doesn’t quite do justice to Gibson’s Donuts, considered by locals to have the best donuts in Memphis. Stop in to pick up a light breakfast sweet and you might end up sampling one of each of their daunting variety of treats.
Gibson’s Donuts Address: 760 Mt Moriah Rd, Memphis, TN 38117
The Liquor Store – When 2655 Broad Avenue changed from a local liquor store to an all-day brunch spot, they just hung onto the name. Sample the biscuit beignets or fill up on the cuban platter, and don’t forget to order a brunch cocktail from their full bar, an ode to the diner’s namesake. Visit on the right evening and you might catch Drag Queen Bingo!
The Liquor Store Address: 2655 Broad Ave, Memphis, TN 38112
Gray Canary – If you’re in Memphis on a Sunday, don’t miss one of Memphis’s newer restaurants that offers high-end dishes with a traditional southern flare. Enjoy your choice of oysters from the raw bar, deviled eggs with lump crab meat, shrimp & grits, and an A/M Old Fashioned or a tasty signature mocktail.
Gray Canary Address: 301 S Front St, Memphis, TN 38103
Lunch in Memphis
Dyer’s Burgers – Eating burgers deep-fried in one-hundred-year-old grease may not sound appetizing to everyone, but if you’re a foodie, you won’t want to miss this flavor-packed experience. Opened by Elmer “Doc” Dyer in 1912, Dyer’s is a Memphis staple, and if deep-fried burgers aren’t your thing, enjoy a bowl of house-made chili and an old-fashioned soda float.
Dyer’s Burgers Address: 205 Beale St, Memphis, TN 38103
Payne’s Bar-B-Que – Memphis owes its outstanding music and food to the African American families who’ve made the city their home for generations, and there’s no better way to experience that firsthand than with a Payne’s chopped pork sandwich. If hot tamales are on offer, get an order to go!
Payne’s Bar-B-Que Address: 1762 Lamar Ave, Memphis, TN 38114
Maciel’s Tortas & Tacos – Enjoy a fast and fresh hand-held lunch from this family-owned joint in downtown Memphis. If you’re there on a Friday or Saturday, you can sample their tamales.
Maciel’s Tortas & Tacos Address: 45 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
Dinner in Memphis
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous – You can’t talk about food in Memphis without mentioning BBQ. This family-owned restaurant has been serving barbecue across from the historic Peabody Hotel for over seventy years. You might have to wait in line, but it’s worth it to enjoy ribs so delicious that they get shipped all over the country.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Address: 52 S 2nd St, Memphis, TN 38103
Restaurant Iris – This Kelly English restaurant offers Creole-inspired fine dining and cocktails, but you can also order a family meal like a quart of gumbo or a poboy sandwich kit to-go. Don’t miss the bone marrow app served with house-made bread, the confit duck leg with sage risotto, or the peanut butter & chocolate bread pudding, and be sure to leave room for a signature top-shelf cocktail.
Restaurant Iris Address: 2146 Monroe Ave, Memphis, TN 38104
Earnestine & Hazel’s – This world-famous dive bar is named for the original owners, sisters whose spirits still supposedly haunt the building. Some say the restaurant is one of the most haunted places in Memphis. Their clientele included soul, blues, and rock ’n roll greats like Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and Sam Cook, so it’s fitting that they boast the best jukebox in the country. Don’t miss the Soul Burger, and enjoy a draft beer or a cocktail crafted by Mr. Nate.
Earnestine & Hazel’s Address: 531 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
South of Beale (or SOB to the locals) offers an excellent upscale, but casual gastropub experience in downtown Memphis. As Seen On ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, Dives‘ where Guy Fieri raved about their duck fried rice signature dish duck, they are a go-to spot for locals and tourists. The SOB seasonal menu has many standouts including the general tso’s cauliflower, fried green tomatoes, jack and coke bread pudding, and peanut butter pie. They also offer a wide range of vegetarian and gluten-free items.
SOB Address: 345 S Main Ste 101 Memphis, TN 38103
Things to do in Memphis for a First Time Visit
The National Civil Rights Museum
Once the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last minutes alive, the National Civil Rights Museum is a must for visitors to Memphis.
It offers one of the most comprehensive overviews of the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. The museum does an excellent job highlighting the many leaders and organizations who took part in the Civil Rights struggle.
Permanent exhibits cover race in America from slavery to the Freedom Rides through the Black Power movement as well as featured exhibits.
Another permanent collection is across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum which is the building Martin Luther King was shot from. This exhibit is a part of the museum admission and chronicles what led up to the shooting and the man behind the assassination.
Open 9am-5pm Thursday through Monday, plan for at least 1.5 hours to see the exhibits. There are many interactive exhibits, and one could easily spend half a day or more seeing, reading, and experiencing this museum.
National Civil Rights Museum is located at 450 Mulberry St, Memphis, TN 38103
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
Memphis was a major hub on the Underground Railroad that transported enslaved people from the American south to safety in Canada. Visit Monday through Saturday from 10am-4pm to tour the antebellum home where abolitionists harbored freedom-seekers as well as thirty other historical sites.
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is located at 826 N 2nd St, Memphis, TN 38107
Cruise down the Mississippi River on a Steamboat
Choose from several riverboat tour companies in Memphis to cruise down the Mississippi River on a Steamboat, taking in the scenery that inspired Mark Twain to write his classics. It’s possible to rent private boats for extended cruises, but if you’re on a budget, Memphis Riverboats, Inc. offers sightseeing tours for $20 per person and $45 per adult for a dinner cruise.
You’ll want to leave a lot of time to explore Beale Street as their music, bar, and shopping scene represents the best of Memphis. The Beale Street Entertainment District is pedestrian-only and boasts three museums, two parks, and countless good eats in just three blocks. Memphis is the home of the blues and there are plenty of live music venues to choose from on Beale Street as well as throughout downtown.
Music Lovers Memphis
Memphis is one of the best places to experience live music in the United States, especially if you love blues and jazz. It is also the birthplace of rock n’ roll. From The Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Stax Museum, Sun Studio Tour, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and the numerous live music venues, Memphis is a music lovers paradise.
B.B. King is the king of Memphis blues and began recording in Memphis in the last 1940’s.
Music artists, including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, Warren Smith, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis, recorded in Memphis in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Today’s Memphis live music scene is pretty unbeatable.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Stax Records was a powerhouse for American soul music from 1957 to 1979, recording with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and many more. You can experience the history behind the record company Tuesday through Sunday from 10am-5pm and is located at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis.
Sun Studio Tour
The Sun Studio tour is not only a tour of music history but where Elvis was discovered and recorded his first records. The legendary recording studio still operates today. During the day it is open for tours and every evening musicians from around the globe come to record.
Sun Studio is located at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103 at the corner of Marshall and Union.
Voted the #1 Best Musical Attraction worldwide by USA Today, Graceland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the former home of Elvis Presley & Priscilla Presley. The house was originally built in 1939 and is considered a Southern-style mansion. Elvis bought the home for 100k in 1957 at the age of 22.
The Graceland experience starts with a 7-minute movie and overview of Elvis and Graceland. This is followed by a shuttle ride to the mansion where each guest is given an iPad that offers details as you tour, the house, and grounds that is narrated by John Stamos.
The house tour includes the main floor and basement rooms of the house. Part of the house is kept closed to the public which is upstairs and includes Elvis’ bedroom.
Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, in Memphis. He is buried in the Meditation Garden at Graceland along with his mother Gladys Presley, his father Vernon Presley and his grandmother Minnie Mae Presley. Most recently, Benjamin Storm Presley Keough, the son of Lisa Marie Presley has also been laid to rest in the Meditation Garden.
After Graceland, you’ll shuttle back to the main complex and this is where you’ll find several buildings that house his cars, airplanes, costumes, gold records, and more Elvis memorabilia than you can imagine. The 200,000 square foot entertainment complex features museums, restaurants, gift shops, and more.
There are red carpet ‘entourage and VIP’ tours of Graceland that put you at the front of the line and include a dedicated tour guide. This is the best way to experience Graceland if you are a true fan.
You can easily spend an entire day at Graceland.
Graceland is located at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee.
I will be writing a more in-depth article about Elvis, the Memphis Music Scene, and Studio. Check back shortly for this article as these are must-see stops on any list of Memphis sights.
Historical Haunts Memphis Ghost Tour
The name Memphis comes from ancient Egypt and means “land of the dead,” so a haunted walking tour is a perfect way to get to know downtown Memphis and its fascinating history. Meet other supernatural-seekers at The Broom Closet at 552 S. Main St., a metaphysical shop with a basement that supposedly serves as an open portal for spirits. The Broom Closet is also a great gift shop selling stones, crystals, tarot cards and all things witchy.
This is a 90-minute tour guide led exploration of the most haunted places in Memphis, Tn. Historical Haunts Memphis Ghost Tour covers about a half-mile, and you’ll hear about the most haunted bar in America (Ernestine & Hazel’s), the oldest tavern in the city (Green Beattie), the 600 ghosts of the historic Orpheum Theatre, and Memphis’s most haunted intersection (S Main & GE Patterson).
The tour also includes stops and stories about cemeteries, resident ghosts, Dead Man’s Alley, and many other haunted places in Memphis. These are just a few of the creepy and interesting stories.
These folks know what they’re talking about as they also do paranormal investigations for free in Memphis. This tour is especially fun on a first night to town as it’s a great way to get to know downtown and the Beale Street area.
Where to Grab a Cocktail in Memphis
After a full day of exploring Memphis, sitting down and enjoying a cocktail is in order. There are some great bars throughout Memphis, and here are a few definitely worth a visit.
The Green Beatle (Address: 325 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103) is the oldest tavern in Memphis. Established in 1939, there is a lot of history and stories. They are also known for serving one of the best burgers in town.
For a more upscale experience, head to the Union Station Hotel bar; Eight & Sand. It is home to some great craft cocktails and a one-of-a-kind, Memphis-inspired vinyl record collection with more than 20,000 albums, all connected to Memphis in some way.
Where to Stay in Memphis
Hotels in Memphis range from budget to luxury with many great boutique hotel options. Below are a few of our favorites for a Memphis vacation.
Best Historic Hotel in Memphis
The Peabody Memphis – Opened in 1869, the Historic Peabody is a historic and high-end lodging option that is well worth the expense. Amenities include not only an in-house spa, five restaurants offering fare from sandwiches to fine dining, and luxurious rooms, but also the daily Peabody Duck March of the hotel’s famous resident ducks that live in the lobby fountain.
Check reviews for the Peabody on Tripadvisor.
Best Mid-range in Memphis
Hotel Hu. Hotel – Designed as a contemporary ode to the city’s Soul Music heritage, Hu. Hotel is a mid-range option that is hip and trendy, only a ten-minute walk from the Beale Street Entertainment District. Enjoy a view of the Mississippi River from their rooftop bar.
Check reviews of Hotel Hu on Tripadvisor.
Best Budget Hotel and Hostel Memphis
A budget option that’s not a chain, Hostel Memphis is conveniently located in midtown. The homey furniture and decor give it a hip Memphis feel, including a spacious living room with a piano that guests are encouraged to play.
Check out reviews of Hostel Memphis on Tripadvisor.
Best Boutique Hotel In Memphis
Central Station Hotel – Joining the travel trend of train stations turned hotels, Central Station is a boutique hotel in the historic Memphis Central Station, which continues to operate as a train depot for the city. With 123 rooms and an in-house bar and restaurant, this is a perfect place to enjoy the energetic feel of Memphis’s downtown. If you don’t stay here, you can still experience that atmosphere at the upscale Central Station Hotel Bar.
Check out reviews of Central Station Hotel on Tripadvisor.
Best Luxury Hotels in Memphis
River Inn of Harbor Town is a romantic 28-room hotel on Mud Island. The hotel has an upscale mansion-feel and is definitely a luxury experience. One of the major pluses to the hotel is the included gourmet breakfast at the onsite Paulette’s Restaurant. Additional upscale experiences are the glass of port at check in and nightly turndown service with chocolate truffles.
Check out reviews of River Inn of Harbor Town on Tripadvisor.
Guest House at Graceland has a resort-feel experience that is distinctly Memphis, stay at the Guest House at Graceland. Right next door to Elvis’s famous home, the Guest House is a tasteful rather than tacky homage to the King with up-scale dining and amenities.
Check out reviews of the Guest House at Graceland on Tripadvisor.
As travel today remains uncertain, please keep your safety and the safety of others in mind at all times. If you are comfortable with traveling, please travel responsibly and within regulation as any travel is at your own risk.
If you do decide to travel at this time, here are a few recommendations:
- Wear a face mask.
- Bring hand sanitizer and wash your hands on a regular basis.
- Check official websites before your trip for the latest updates on policies, closures, and status of local businesses and Memphis Travel alerts.
- Book a hotel with free cancellation in case you need to change your plans at the last minute.
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Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.