words: Marcus Coker
images: Marcus Coker; courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourist Development; The Peabody Hotel; Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
When I visited Memphis a few years ago, I stayed at the Peabody Hotel and saw their famous ducks march into the grand lobby where Elvis himself used to socialize. I ate barbeque and strolled down Beale Street, the avenue that literally gave the Beale Street Blues Boy (B.B. King) his name. Sadly, I took these things for granted. But recently I revisited Memphis and saw it in a whole new, soulful light.
This time, while a guest of Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, I stayed at the Hotel Napoleon. This gorgeous boutique hotel is downtown, the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. Memphis itself is hot and gritty, a place where people have always struggled for a better life, where the Civil Rights Movement dug its heels in. Walking along Main Street, I came upon the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on April 4, 1968, just outside Room 306. Now the home of The National Civil Rights Museum, it is hallowed ground.
My favorite attraction was Elvis Presley’s Graceland, the house he bought as a twenty-two-year-old. Now it’s one of the most visited homes in America. I didn’t realize Elvis was just nineteen when he recorded his first hit, “That’s Alright Mama,” at Memphis’s Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis also sang.
I could go on, but to fall in love with Memphis like I did, you’ll need to go there yourself. Let it wrap you in its big southern arms and transform you with its music and comfort food. Plus, it’s only a five-hour drive from Fort Smith. Here are my top recommendations for visiting Memphis and Western Tennessee, a trip I’m sure you’ll never forget.
THINGS TO DO
Graceland, The Home of Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis
901.443.3000 | graceland.com
Graceland is preserved just as it was when Elvis lived there. Recently added is the nearby forty-acre museum that houses Elvis’s gold records, car collection, wardrobe, and even a television that Elvis shot with a pistol. Stay at the newly opened Guest House at Graceland. Consider going during Elvis Week (this year it’s August 11-18), which commemorates The King’s death.
706 Union Avenue, Memphis
800.441.6249 | sunstudio.com
This is where young Elvis got his start and where the Million Dollar Quartet sang. Go. Get the tour, stand where Elvis stood, sing into the microphone he used. Ask for Tiffany, the most entertaining tour guide in the South.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E. McLemore Avenue, Memphis
901.261.6338 | staxmuseum.com
Stax was a recording studio during the heyday of soul music. At first a scrappy operation, it became home to Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Jean Knight. Now a museum dedicated to the history of soul music, it’s a place not to be missed. (You can see the organ that Booker T. & the M.G.’s used to record “Green Onions.”) Proceeds go to support Stax Music Academy, a program that uses the language of music to educate and uplift underprivileged youth.
National Civil Rights Museum
450 Mulberry Street, Memphis
901.521.9699 | civilrightsmuseum.org
Tracing the history of the Civil Rights Movement from slavery to today, this is a beautiful tribute to the fight for equality. Located where Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically shot, it brings hope for a better tomorrow.
Memphis Botanic Garden
750 Cherry Road, Memphis
901.636.4100 | memphisbotanicgarden.com
For a relaxing afternoon, go to the gardens, a ninety-six-acre getaway in the heart of town. There’s a traditional Japanese garden, a sensory garden, and countless places to get married if you want to. There’s even a charming play area for children, complete with whimsical treehouses and flower “beds” with actual twin-sized headboards.
2000 Prentiss Place, Memphis
901.333.6568 | memphiszoo.org
Oh my gosh, go to the zoo. There are polar bears, giraffes, hippopotamuses, and even a monkey with a rainbow-colored behind. This is a must for families and animal-lovers.
THINGS TO EAT
77 S. 2nd Street, Memphis
901.527.2700 | hueyburger.com
The best place to get a burger and shoot toothpicks through a straw into the ceiling! Go here to chill out, grab a drink, and quench your hunger.
Blues City Café
138 Beale Street, Memphis
901.526.3637 | bluescitycafe.com
Put Some South in Your Mouth! If you love barbeque and good southern eatin’, this is the place for you. Here you can get a tasty meal and listen to live music. Reserve the Cadillac Room for your private party.
145 S. Main Street, Memphis
901.522.8555 | majesticgrille.com
Located in an old silent-movie theater, here you’ll find delicious food and impeccable service. I had one of the best steaks of my life, topped off with a chocolate cheesecake dessert that came in a shot glass. Ask for Wesley.
The Gray Canary
301 S. Front Street, Memphis
901.249.2932 | thegraycanary.com
The perfect blend of swank and whimsical, this is one of Memphis’s newest and hottest restaurants. Located on the river in an old distillery, The Gray Canary is where you’ll want to spend your special occasions. A new twist on seafood and fine dining.
Drive east for more adventures, and be sure to stop in Jackson, the city that’s the subject of a famous Johnny Cash song. Whether you’re into history or food, it has something for everyone. Check out the West Tennessee Farmer’s Market then walk over to The Local, a collection of small businesses where you’re sure to find the perfect souvenir.
If spirits are your thing, visit these two family-owned businesses, Century Farm Winery and Samuel T. Bryant Distillery. Get a tour. Drink up. Century Farm often has live music in the evenings, so watch their calendar online. When it’s time for dinner, Rock’n Dough, located close to the Farmer’s Market, boasts local beer and pizza so big you’ll need both hands to hold it. For finer dining, go to Chandelier, an eclectic restaurant located in an old whistle-stop hotel. The fried green tomatoes and chocolate crème brûlée are second to none!
Samuel T. Bryant Distillery
1331 Lower Brownsville Road, Jackson
731.467.1221 | samueltbryant.com
Century Farm Winery
1548 Lower Brownsville Road, Jackson
731.424.7437 | centuryfarmwinery.com
Rock’n Dough Pizza & Brew Company
16 Jackson Walk Plaza, Jackson
731.300.0404 | rockndoughpizza.com
575 S. Royal Street, Jackson
For history lovers, the Carnegie Center for Arts and History features an entire room dedicated to Carl Perkins, the man who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” as well as a tribute to the Jackson native who started Hard Rock Café. Then head to the Casey Jones Museum and learn about the famous railway man who gave his life to save his passengers. If you like all-you-can-eat downhome cookin’, walk across the parking lot to The Old Country Store. You won’t go away hungry!
Carnegie Center for Arts & History
305 E. College Street, Jackson
Casey Jones Museum & Village
30 Casey Jones Lane, Jackson
731.668.1222 | caseyjones.com
For more information, visit memphistravel.com & jacksontn.com. If you’re willing to go exploring between Memphis and Jackson, I suggest the Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, which hosts a Tina Turner exhibit.
For a day on the lake or to see live bald eagles, go to Reelfoot Lake State Park in Tiptonville, and for a fabulous family outing, Discovery Park of America in Union City is worth the drive. They have one of the fastest slides in the world!