“Promise me you won’t mention ‘Walking in Memphis’ in your story,” said the Memphian sitting next to us on the plane. “Man, are we sick to death of that damn song!”
Point taken. They are also quite tired of being mistaken for Nashville, or being compared to same. Memphis, population 1.5 million — a blue dot in a red state, politically speaking — is a different kettle or fish, or should we say, pot of grits. Even after a few days of biscuit-and-gravy-fueled sightseeing, you’ll barely capture its flavor. Sure, everyone asks about Elvis, and every oldster has an Elvis connection, but locals are quick to mention Justin Timberlake and rapper BlocBoy J.B., both Memphis natives. You can eat barbecue here, and you should, but everyone’s buzzing about Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, a James Beard award semifinalist this year. (So much so, we couldn’t get a table.)
Admittedly, all we really knew about the city, we learned from Marc Cohn’s 1991 song. (Sorry, Heather Whitman in seat 16C.) Among the call-outs are Beale Street, the ghost of Elvis, and Reverend (Al) Green, who still preaches at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. But our favorite things about Memphis turned out to be . . . none of the above. If you haven’t made it to the Bluff City on the Mississippi yet, now would be a good time to go: The city is celebrating its 200th birthday. “Memphis is the place to be right now,” says Kevin Kern of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, citing events like the biSoultennial at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (June 30) and the Delta Fair & Music Fest (Aug. 3-Sept. 8). See www.mem200.com for a list of bicentennial events. Here are a few reasons we were charmed by the city — and why we vow to get better acquainted (and eat more of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken).
Have a Coke (that’s actually a Sprite) in a pyramid
You’ll quickly learn that any flavor of soft drink is called a Coke in Memphis, home to a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Better to go with a sweet tea (this is the South), or an ale from Ghost River Brewing Company.
Then there’s the pyramid. Yes, there was an ancient Egyptian city called Memphis, but that doesn’t explain the giant glass pyramid that sits on the Mississippi River, punctuating the city skyline. It’s a former sports arena, now Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, one of the largest retail destinations in the world, complete with aquariums, an aquatic-themed bowling alley, a 103-room hotel, and . . . an indoor swamp. Take that, Copley Place! If you want to shop, not gawk, head to Crosstown Concourse, an old Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center that sat empty for 20 years, now transformed into a multi-use space with interesting (and local) retail.
The King lives
Every first-timer makes a pilgrimage to Graceland (www.graceland.com). Elvis lived in the mansion — which looks somewhat dated, but not over-the-top — from 1957 to 1977. And it sure gets the love: “The only residence that gets more visitors is the White House,” said Graceland’s Christian Ross, some 600,000 guests per year. Lisa Maria and Priscilla Presley still stay at Graceland now and then, after the last tour of the day has wrapped up, he added.
The King lives on at Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened in 2017. Even if you know nothing of Elvis upon arrival, you’ll be a virtual Elvis-opedia when you leave. You’ll see the King’s custom jets, his pink Cadillac and 20-plus other vehicles, and you’ll wander amid gold records, vintage Elvis TV clips, Elvis movie posters (lots of bikinis), and Elvis movie trailers playing continuously. Did you know the King made 31 films, and had 151 gold, platinum, or multi-platinum records? Fun fact: He did not eat bacon and banana and peanut butter sandwiches. “That’s an urban myth,” says Ross. “No bacon was involved.” Coolest element: A wing devoted to costumes worn by entertainers inspired by Elvis, including Bruce Springsteen. And, of course, there are sparkly jumpsuits galore, worn by the King himself.
If you can see only one museum . . .
Make it the National Civil Rights Museum, www.civilrightsmuseum.org. Be warned — “It’s so immersive, you’ll take part of it with you. You’ll leave transformed,” says the museum’s Connie Dyson. She doesn’t overstate. The museum is set in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in 1966, outside of room 306. The motel was foreclosed in the 1980s, and opened as a museum in 1991. You can enter Dr. King’s room, and the boarding house where the fatal shot was fired. As you walk through the (massive) museum, you’ll time-travel through key episodes in the American civil rights movement, from slavery to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus, sit-ins, the march on Selma, Black Power, and Black Pride. “Slavery in America lasted nearly 250 years, and held captive at least 12 generations of black people,” the guide said. “Parents were separated from their infants on the auction block. But there were always people fighting back.” That’s the takeaway message here.
What’s Tina got to do, got to do with it?
Can’t wait for the Tina Turner musical to come to Broadway this fall? Nor can we. So you’ll be down for a side-trip to Brownsville, Tenn., home of the Tina Turner Museum. Located 50 miles west of Memphis, the museum was formerly a Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse. Although Turner lives in Switzerland now, her assistant comes by once or twice a year, says Sonia Outlaw-Clark, director of the Delta Heritage Center (www.westtnheritage.com).
The main event is the one-room Flag Grove School where the former Anna May Bullock was a student. The circa 1889 building was moved from nearby Nutbush in 2012. Tina’s great-great uncle built the school, says Outlaw-Clark. The school now houses a collection of the star’s memorabilia, including costumes, gold records, and her 1958 high school yearbook. (The prophecy for Ann Bullock? “Entertainer,” duh.) “She was kind of a tomboy,” says Outlaw-Clark, who went to school with the Queen of Rock. “If she saw a stump, she could turn it over, jump on it, and perform.” If you love Tina, you’ll love her more after this. Tina fans show up in force during the fourth weekend of September for Tina Turner Heritage Days.
Eating (and drinking and sleeping) in Memphis
In a city famous for barbecue, Central BBQ reigns as the go-to joint for slow-smoked Memphis-style ribs. But the city’s food scene is evolving beyond that. One of the best entrees we had was all-veg: General Tso cauliflower with coconut rice, at Sweet Grass, a farm-to-table spot in the Cooper Young district. Start the day at Sunrise Breakfast, where you can order anything from an overstuffed breakfast burrito to the wonderfully decadent “King’s oatmeal” with coconut, peanut butter, and bacon. They serve breakfast all day at the Liquor Store, a former liquor store-turned-eatery helmed by a female chef. It’s worth the hourlong wait on weekends to try Chef Jess’s Cubano platter (she roasts the pork for 14 hours). Another female chef who’s doing exciting things — a trending topic here — is Karen Carrier at the Beauty Shop. This former 1940s hair salon in the Cooper Young neighborhood is a hot spot for cheesy grits and succotash, watermelon and wings, chicken and waffles, and other fun pairings. And of course, there’s Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken. Granted, there are 20-some Gus’s restaurants now, but anyone in these parts will tell you, there’s nothing like the OG downtown Memphis outpost.
If you like “classic” and “old school,” you’ll appreciate the Peabody Hotel (from $209; www.peabodymemphis.com), famous for its charming daily parade of ducks in the lobby. We liked the sleek vibe of the 110-room Hu. Hotel (from $229; www.huhotelmemphis.com). Our favorite element of the Hu.: the rooftop bar, with good cocktails and great views of the Hernando DeSoto bridge, all lit up at night.
And of course, the music
We’d need another 3,000 words to do justice to the music scene in Memphis. Music lovers travel between Memphis and Nashville to take in the sites and festivals devoted to the region’s rich musical heritage (for details, see www.tnmusicpathways.com). Of course you’ll meander neon-lit Beale Street Historic District, touristy as heck, but home to live music clubs aplenty. For a true bluesy, dive bar experience, head to Earnestine and Hazel’s, a former pharmacy and brothel-turned-haunted (so they say) blues club. And what fan of soul music would miss the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, home of Stax Records, where stars like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes recorded music? The original building was demolished, but it was rebuilt on the same site and displays 2,000-plus exhibits from the golden era of soul. There’s the Memphis Rock ’n Soul Museum on Beale Street, a mash-up created by the Smithsonian Institution, plus Sun Studio, the Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll, the Blues Hall of Fame . . . not to mention, Memphis is considered one of the top five places in the United States for hip-hop. In Love Memphis is the place to go for that. Drake (who spent summers here with his father) hosted a party there. “There are Drake sightings around town, and Memphis keeps popping up in his songs,” says Kern of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Alas, even if you choose a category like “music” or “food” to focus on, you won’t cover it all in one visit to Memphis. Perhaps, like us, you’ll plan to come back . . . for Tina Turner Heritage Days. And chicken.