With its location right along the Mississippi River, Memphis has always been a major transportation hub—it was actually one of the first places in the lower Mississippi where travelers could cross by car. Consequently, it later became a hub for the Civil Rights Movement, as striking sanitation workers enacted one of history’s most important civil rights protests; and, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic assassination here, the National Civil Rights Museum was constructed. We’d be remiss not to note the other, major cultural significance of this city: It’s the home of blues and rock ‘n roll, as championed by the likes of BB King, Elvis, and Johnny Cash. (Meanwhile, Memphis is having a major culinary renaissance, so a proper revisit is long overdue.)
Bars & Barbecue
Mollie Fontaine Lounge679 Adams Ave. | 901.524.1886
Memphis’s Victorian Village is home to many 19th-century gems, boasting twelve sites on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s lovely area to walk around during the day, as several of the homes are open for historic tours. If you’re there in the evening, head to Mollie Fontaine Lounge, an old painted lady that’s been converted to a quirky bar with live music and brocade-covered walls—all lined with portraits of Memphis greats.
Paula Raiford’s Disco14 S. 2nd St. | 901.521.2494
Memphis is mostly know for blues and rockabilly, so it’s easy to forget that disco had a major heyday here, too. Run by local legend Paula Raiford (she reopened the business after her father, Robert, retired, though he still mans the DJ booth in custom rhinestoned capes and sunglasses at age 75), this disco is a relic of that time. The clientele is all over the map, as it’s a staple for folks close to Robert’s age bracket as well as the younger set. Though there’s a full bar, everyone orders 40s, per tradition. The music is a lot of old-school hits, but it’s the kind of place where the Cha Cha Slide gets everyone onto the (plexiglass, multicolored) dance floor without making you feel like you’re at a cheesy bar mitzvah. It’s unlike anything else.
Memphis is famous for barbecue, but the jury’s still out on where to find the best of the best. Our solution: Try as many of the top contenders as possible. Corky’s, which has two Memphis locations (and outposts all over Tennessee and Arkansas), brushes their dry ribs with sauce as they’re shifted from the smoker to the grill, for perfectly smoking half-and-halfs. Downtown, there’s Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous—it’s been owned by the same family since 1948 and claims to set the standard for “Memphis style” dry ribs. In Idlewild, with the most wonderfully retro sign and neon out front, The Bar-B-Q Shop is most famous for its Dancing Pigs sauce. Other honorable mentions include Tops, Central BBQ, and Cozy Corner.
Beale Street may be notoriously touristy, but even born-and-raised locals will admit that a visit to Memphis isn’t complete without it. Start at BB King’s, which is full of out-of-towners but hosts great live blues music—the speakeasy-style restaurant upstairs (named Itta Bena, for King’s Mississippi hometown) is a great bet, too. Though it’s really for the novelty more than anything, locals will insist on a visit to Silky O’Sullivan’s down the street, where the backyard is home to real-live goats that are known for sipping beer and climbing up and sliding down a specially designed goat tower. When you’ve tired of Beale’s flashiness, wander a few blocks over to Earnestine & Hazel’s, a notably tourist-free piano bar housed in a—potentially haunted—former brothel.
The Great Outdoors
Big River Crossing
In 2016, the city of Memphis opened Big River Crossing, a path that takes pedestrians and bikers across the Mississippi via the Harahan Bridge. It’s far and away the best way to get a feeling for the hugeness of the Mississippi, and from the west side, you can access more than 70 miles of biking trails that snake their way down the river along the levees. For a more intimate river experience, walk over to the Mud Island River Park, which, in addition to being a great picnic location and dog-walking green, features an exact scale model of the lower Mississippi’s path from its convergence with the Ohio River in Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Summer Drive-In5310 Summer Ave. | 901.767.4320
This old-school drive-in (which opened in 1966) is nostalgic through-and-through, starting with its neon signage. While there are snacks and concessions available, most people bring takeout or homemade snacks along with a bottle of wine or two. It’s $7.50 for a double-feature, and kids get in free.
Museums & History
GracelandElvis Presley Blvd. | 901.332.3322
Memphis has a miles-long list of museums and venues where tourists can learn about the city’s rich music culture and history, but if you’re only in town for the weekend, opt for the classic trifecta of Graceland, Sun Studio, and the Rock ‘n Soul museum (free shuttles between the three make it blessedly easy). Start with Sun Studio, which is right near downtown, and offers tours through the building where everyone from BB King and James Cotton to Johnny Cash and Elvis recorded albums. Next, head to the Rock ‘n Soul Museum, just down the street, which is actually a creation of the Smithsonian. They have a huge collection of artifacts and really well-executed storytelling, so it’s probably the best place to learn about Memphis’s musical history from start to finish. End the day with the epic kitschy-ness of Graceland, which has tours all day until 4pm—two hours is plenty of time to get the gist of the place, and most people recommend visiting just before close, when the crowds start to dwindle.
National Civil Rights Museum450 Mulberry St. | 901.521.9699
The National Civil Rights Museum is fresh off a $27 million renovation (completed in 2014) that updated its capacity to provide interactive exhibitions, including a treasure trove of video footage. The museum itself is located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, with King’s room preserved as it was the morning he left it, down to the day’s newspaper. It’s a beautiful, well-considered, incredibly important, truly moving experience to see it in person.
Restaurants & Specialty
Soul Fish862 S. Cooper St. | 901.725.0722
Catfish is a staple for many cities along the Mississippi, and for the best in Memphis, go to Soul Fish and order their fried catfish tacos (served with pico de gallo and fresh guacamole). The quintessentially Southern sides alone are worth the trip—think: hush-puppies, pickled green tomatoes, collards, and fried okra.
Hog & Hominy707 W. Brookhaven Cir. | 901.207.7396
Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s first restaurant, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, was the first place that put them (and, in some ways, Memphis’s food scene) on the map. But if you’ve only got one night in town, we recommend sister restaurant Hog & Hominy, which boldly blends flavors from their Italian upbringings with Memphis classics, like collards with pepper vinegar and hominy, grits al forno, and biscuit gnocchi. They don’t take reservations, so arrive early, especially if you’re coming with a large party.
Porcellino’s Craft Butcher711 W. Brookhaven Cir. | 901.762.6656
Like several of the best contemporary eateries in Memphis, Porcellino’s is the creation of Hog & Hominy chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. The team sources meats from local purveyors and focuses on whole-animal cooking, both at their butcher counter and on their menu. Delicious quiches, toasts, and sandwiches are served for lunch, and at night, you’ll find satisfying small plates and great wines to enjoy them with. Their coffee shop—which serves some of the best espresso drinks in the city—is open from 7am.
Iris Restaurant2146 Monroe Ave. | 901.590.2828
Chef Kelly English is one of Memphis’s culinary celebrities, in part because he has such a strong handle on traditional French-Creole cuisine (he grew up cooking in Louisiana, and held his first restaurant jobs while studying at the University of Mississippi). Housed in a cozy home that feels simultaneously intimate and dressed-up, it’s perfect for a special occasion—call ahead and they’ll decorate your table in honor of an anniversary or birthday.
River Inn50 Harbor Town Square | 901.260.3333
Located in a sweet neighborhood development north of downtown, we like the River Inn for its quiet intimacy—there are only 28 rooms, and it feels quiet and secluded compared to the noise of downtown. The rooftop terrace has great views of the Mississippi River, and it’s a great place to watch the sunset.