During our recent trip to Tennessee, I fell in love with so many things and places (this happens everywhere we go, which is why I need to win the lottery so I can buy houses in each place). Our first stop, Nashville, was just as fun, lively, and magical as I thought it would be (between the food and honkey tonk bars, I was in heaven). And our other stop, Memphis, was so special in a way that I really hope I can describe.
The city is so rooted in history, and walking around the streets will truly make you feel like you stepped back into the ’60s. In addition to the old-fashioned drug store signs, there are also vintage Coca-Cola murals painted on buildings, iconic old haunts that were frequented by some of the world’s most famous musicians, and jazz music that will float through your hotel window and right into your soul. Yeah, Memphis is that cool.
We spent two days there, and we tried to squeeze in as much as we could while still taking our time and relaxing. We stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites right off Beale Street — the main area with all the bars. While it’s not the most peaceful place to stay (they tell you that when you arrive) since it’s so close to the nightlife, it’s so convenient since it’s right in the middle of everything. We had a room that was facing away from the noise, so we actually had a great night’s sleep.
Keeping reading for everything you need to do and see in Memphis!
Visiting Elvis Presley’s former home is probably the biggest Memphis travel tip you’ll hear from everyone. Is it worth it? Yes, yes, and YES. What I had no idea about, however, is that visiting Graceland is literally an all-day affair. Before we got there, I thought it would just be his house, we would do a tour, and that would be it. Not.at.all. Graceland is basically a mini theme-park with more attractions than you’ll probably have time for.
There are different levels of tickets that give you different access. We got the Elvis Experience Tour tickets plus his airplanes, which included a tour of the mansion, access to his all his cars, planes, and so much more (see — all day!). Since you can’t go up to the house on your own and have to wait until your time slot (a shuttle bus takes you over), we spent hours in the massive exhibits that featured everything from props from his movies to Christmas gifts from Priscilla to so many of his infamous outfits. Everything was laid out with every last detail in mind, and it was truly spectacular. There was also a movie theater room where you could pop in and watch his feature films for a few minutes to rest your feet.
The mansion tour is probably one of the coolest and eeriest things I’ve ever done. Walking through his front door is so surreal, especially since his bathroom, where he passed away, is right above you in the foyer (the entire upstairs is closed to the public out of respect for him and the Presley family). During the tour, you walk through the dining room, kitchen, Jungle Room, basement TV room, game room, and more while learning fun facts about things that happened in each room. You then tour the grounds, where you see even more memorabilia from the Presley archives, including Priscilla’s wedding dress, Elvis’ wedding tux, furniture from Lisa Marie’s nursery, and more. I could honestly talk all day about it (I might do an entirely separate post), but visiting Graceland was a day I will never, ever forget. It’s a must-do in Memphis!
2. Sun Studio
If you’re a music fan, visiting Sun Studio will send chills up your spine. It’s a little overwhelming just walking up to this building considering how many legends were discovered here and recored some of their greatest hits under the direction of Sam Phillips (Elvis, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis). There’s a photo of the Million Dollar Quartet on the side of the building, a jukebox in the small cafe through the front door, and numerous memorabilia from the singers that recorded there in the ’50s. Tours are about 45 minutes, and let you do things like stand in the spot Elvis first recorded and listen to outtakes from various recording sessions.
3. Lorraine Motel/Civil Rights Museum
Visiting the Lorraine Motel will also send chills up your spine, but for an entirely different reason. You would never know this motel, which looks exactly the same as it did in the ’60s, is there until you’re right around the corner. But the place that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed is a place that will stay with you forever. The original structure of the Lorraine Motel, including the balcony where Dr. King was shot, is still standing, and the room he was staying in, 306, is just how he left it before he died. The eeriest thing, however, is if you’re looking at the motel, you can turn around and see the window from which James Earl Ray shot him (there was a white cloth blowing in the open window when we were there).
In addition to Dr. King’s room, the motel is now home to the Civil Rights Museum that features numerous exhibits about influential people that helped fight for equal rights. You’ll find a replica of the bus Rosa Parks sat in, and the original lunch counter from the student sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Give yourself a few hours here so you can really take your time reading and learning about all of this amazing history.
4. Beale Street
If you want a night out on the town, Beale Street is the only place you need to be. No cars are allowed, so the people (and booze) flow freely down the street. You’ll find Irish bars, jazz clubs, an old-school soda fountain/pharmacy, and walk-up drink stations. Things were definitely a little rowdy when we were walking around, so we didn’t stay too long, but it’s definitely a must-see when you’re in Memphis. Also, a lot of the jazz and blues bars were once frequented by Elvis when he was a teenager.
Oh, and if you’re anything like me and really enjoy getting up early on vacation to get unique views of places, walk down Beale Street at 7 a.m. It’s a ghost town, and it’s actually really fun to have the entire area to yourself!
5. The Beauty Shop
Most of our meals in Memphis consisted of snacks, but we went out to dinner on Saturday at The Beauty Shop Restaurant, and oh my God, it was one of the coolest places I’ve ever eaten! The restaurant is the former Curl-and-Dye hair salon where Priscilla Presley used to get her hair done. The entire place is stuck in the ’60s, with diners eating original and delicious food under hooded Belvedere hair dryers. Dishes like the Warm Famers Market salad and Curry Coconut Stew are top-notch but won’t break the bank, and for dessert, don’t leave without trying the Caramel Cake.
Side note about this place: it’s a little bit of a hike from the city center, so you’ll need a car, but the 10-minute drive is so worth it!