Memphis, Tennessee, is the second largest city in the state, behind Nashville, and is a city full of music history, nightlife, museums, and food. I didn’t know what to expect before I spent a week in the city, but I loved exploring Memphis and found many great spots throughout the city. I am splitting this post into two as I want to cover Memphis food in its own post. Let’s jump into some of my favorite spots in Memphis, Tennessee, and let me know what I left off in the comments.
Check out the video above that I made on Memphis.
Beale Street is the nightlife center of Memphis and is home to bars, restaurants, history, and entertainment. During the day, you can walk the street, grab food, see the big guitars or get an old-fashioned soda at A Schwab. At night, you will see a whole new part of the city, with street performers like the famous Beale Street Flippers. Plus, there is music in almost every bar on the weekends, and you will surely find some great local acts as I did. I enjoyed Beale street as it felt more laid back than Broadway, its neighbor party street in Nashville, and I had a great time during my few visits.
Next up, we have the Peabody Ducks, one of the quirkiest parts of the city’s history. The ducks spend their day in the fountain in the lobby of the hotel, but what makes them such an event is the parade they do from their posh duck palace on the hotel roof down to the lobby in the morning and back up in the evening. They roll out the red carpet, literally, for the ducks and then ride the elevator each way. The event has a duck master who asks everyone through the history and leads the ducks on their path. People start lining up for this almost an hour before it happens, and I have to say I had a lot of fun with it.
National Civil Rights Museum
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the National Civil Rights Museum shines a light on the horrible history of slavery in the country. The museum is a sobering experience for which you need to plan a half day. It features many well-laid-out exhibits which show the progression of African American rights in the country and spotlights many of the crucial moments in the cause. The museum was built at the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and allows you to see into the room he stayed in and learn all about the process of finding his killer. As I said, you need a lot of time for this one, and it is a very moving experience that you can’t leave Memphis without seeing.
Next up, we have Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis. This sprawling property allows guests to tour his home and see how it was decorated when he lived there. It is a blast to see, and you are given an audio tour that tells you about each room you are looking at. After exploring the home, you can visit a half dozen museums on the property dedicated to everything from his cars and his stage outfits to his gold records. They also have two of his planes on the property, and you can walk into each one. It is amazing to see how his plane was decorated, and he called it his “Graceland in the sky.” I learned a ton about Elvis on this tour and enjoyed it. It is expensive though, so know that going in.
Sun Studio is one of the two world-renowned music studios in Memphis. This small studio was the first to record Elvis and was where both he and Johnny Cash recorded many of their hits, among other artists. The studio is open for guided tours, which take you through an upstairs area where there is memorabilia and photos from the studio’s history. The tour was a blast as we listened to the music from many of the artists, heard stories about the production, and learned about Elvis’s roots. The tour also goes into the recording studio, where you can take photos of the equipment and even take a photo of yourself with the microphone many artists used when they recorded. It was a great 1-hour tour that I enjoyed, and you can’t get a good understanding of the Memphis area’s impact on music without touring Sun Studio and our following recommendation Stax.
Stax Museum sits in the same location that the Stax Recording Studio once did. The museum is easily the best music museum I saw while in Memphis, and I loved learning all about the history of soul music and how Stax eventually helped many famous artists in the genre to flourish. Stax Records recorded artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave just to name a few, with songs like Sitting on the Dock of the Bay coming out of the studio. You can easily spend a few hours here and make sure you don’t leave without seeing Isaac Hayes Cadillac, which is pretty spectacular.
Big River Crossing
The Big River Crossing is a great active recommendation on this list. The bridge is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the USA and the longest that crosses the Mississippi River. It is almost a mile across and at the half way point you will actually cross over from Tennessee to Arkansas. I walked the whole bridge one afternoon and there were a lot of people and families all enjoying this walk and the great views of the city. Its a great spot to be active in the city.
When you see the city skyline, you will notice the giant pyramid. It was once an auditorium but is now a Bass Pro Shop. I love Bass Pro Shop, so I was excited to see this one, and it is incredible. It feels like a swamp as you walk the floor while shopping, and it has massive fish swimming in the water you can see. There is also a hotel here that has rooms facing the Bass Pro Shop from above, which is cool as it has that swamp-type vibe while still being entirely inside. Plus, you can pay to go to the top of the pyramid, which has a restaurant and two balconies that you can go out on. The balconies have a fantastic view of the city and our next recommendation, Mighty Lights.
Mighty Lights is the light show that happens on the Big River Crossing bridge and the Hernando De Soto Bridge. At night the bridge is lit up a solid color, but every 30 minutes, there is a 10-minute show where the bridge slowly changes to different colors and even a Go Grizzlies sign if they are in the playoffs. The top of Bass Pro is a great place to watch this show, but you can also see it from the riverfront.
Speaking of the Riverfront, Mud Island Parks is one of the best places to walk along it. This island is right across from Downton Memphis, and it has a monorail that can take you to it (which wasn’t open when I went) and a museum and walking path you can explore. The walking path is great as it has a small-scale topographical representation of the Mississippi River as it runs its entire course to the sea. You can walk the whole thing and see its bends, plus the big cities that it passes. It is surprisingly long, and it took me about 15 minutes to trace it to the end. Indeed, a fun thing to see while exploring the riverfront.
The Crosstown Concourse is an apartment building mixed with storefronts, gyms, and restaurants. It started its life as a Sears distribution center and store in the 1920s until it closed in the 1980s. It fell into disrepair after that. Eventually, the building was bought and revitalized to become the community meeting place it is today. It is fun just to walk the halls of this historic structure while looking at the art on display and trying the many different restaurants. I like the burgers at Farm Burger, but you can get everything from coffee to ice cream as you explore. Let me know what it is like to live there if you do!
The Memphis zoo is over 100 years only and is home to over 500 species of animals. It is often voted one of the best zoos in the United States, and it was easy to see why when I visited. The zoo here is massive, and it has a vast variety of animals on display, ranging from lions and elephants to hippos and polar bears. All the animals were active when I went, and the exhibits were massive and pristine. The zoo is one of four in the USA that has pandas, so if you want to see a panda in real life, this is a great place to see one. My favorite area is the nighttime enclosure, as I have never seen the nocturnal animals as active as they were here. There was a wide area where the bats could fly, which was incredibly cool. You need at least a half day to see the whole zoo, but as far as zoos go, it is a pretty great one.
Shelby Farms is a sprawling urban park that encompasses over 4,500 acres. It has many lakes with boating activities, horse stables for trail rides, a fantastic children’s playground, and even a herd of buffalo. This is all in addition to the miles of green space for nice weekend drives and the biking and hiking trails that cross throughout the park. It is one of those places that you will find tons of people enjoying on a nice spring day, and it is easy to see why as there is a lot of room to spread out throughout the public park.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the Crystal Grotto because it is unique. This area was built in the 1930s and is the only man-made crystal cave I have ever heard of. It sits in the middle of the Memphis Memorial Park Cemetery, which is pretty incredible. Outside the cave sits a beautiful pond with a fountain in the middle and a hollowed-out tree. Inside, you will find yourself in a good-sized cave with multiple different artistic representations of Jesus’ life and ministry, all surrounded by quartz crystals hanging from the walls. Many different colorful lights shine on the crystals, creating an almost psychedelic experience in the cave. I love this sort of thing, and I was excited to see it here; I am so glad that it has been preserved so well.
There you have it, some of my favorite things to do in Memphis. I planned to include food on this, but it got so long that I am putting food in another post. Let me know what I left off in the comments!