7 Ideas for What to Do in Memphis

June 28, 2023
What to Do in Memphis

Other than Graceland, BBQ, and music on Beale Street, what to do in Memphis, Tennessee?

A better question is, what else do you need?

Memphis, Tennessee is a culturally iconic town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Known as the birthplace of Soul AND Rock & Roll music, Memphis oversaw the early careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, and so many other storied musicians.

Music is central the Memphis experience. Once upon a time, this small Tennessee town was a world-wide sensation.

What to Do in Memphis
Central BBQ — What to Do in Memphis

Memphis is also the site of MLK’s final “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” speech and subsequent assassination in 1968. “…I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land…”

The city’s civil rights legacy lives on in many ways, including on Beale Street and in the myriad soul music museums. Beale Street has hosted lionized black musicians for decades. The legendary street was also the site of some of the first Black-owned businesses in the South.

What to Do in Memphis

The character of Memphis is pained and profound, full of heart and grit. The town showcases the struggle of a people, to rise out of poverty, to obtain God-given rights, and to express themselves like only they can and as few others have in the gallery of historic America.

We respect the hell out of Memphis. The following are what we found to be the best of what to do in Memphis, Tennessee.

1. Graceland

What to Do in Memphis

Graceland was named after the daughter of Stephen C. Toof, owner of a commercial printing firm in Memphis. Graceland is the name of the house, built on a 13.8 acre plot of relatively unremarkable land. south of downtown Memphis.

Elvis is buried here, as are his parents, paternal grandmother, grandson, and daughter. Tours of this historical residence — perhaps the most famous non-governmental residence in the entire USA — cost a whopping $80. You’ll receive an I-Pad-type device with the voice of John Stamos to guide you through the tour. Tours last about 1.5 hours, but you can stay longer.

The house is funky and we absolutely loved it. Elvis and the “Memphis Mafia”, his hangers-on, were like a clubhouse of teenagers fooling around. They drove golf carts, go-carts, fishing boats, and any motorized vehicle you can imagine all over the town.

Once you’ve finished touring Graceland, spend the rest of the day working your way through the Elvis museums across the street. Learn about every facet of his life. The man was endlessly interesting and quite possibly the coolest cat to ever walk on two legs.

And don’t forget to indulge Elvis’s favorite snack: A peanut butter and banana sandwich, from one of several restaurants on the Graceland campus.

What to Do in Memphis
What to Do in Memphis

2. Beale Street — What to Do in Memphis

What to Do in Memphis

In the 20th century, Beale was a bustling street, and music could be heard in the night clubs and in the churches. Night life was sometimes a dangerous mix of seedy characters, easy money and liquor. This was the atmosphere that gave birth to the Blues.  Music filled the air day and night at the turn of the Century.  Memphis, and Beale became a Mecca for young musicians.

Beale Street is to Memphis is what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans; what Duvall Street is to Key West; what Las Vegas Boulevard is to the City of Hell.

This is the historical hotspot of those hallowed blues musicians: BB King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Rufus Thomas. Notorious haunts continue to promote good blues music; places like Rum Boogie Cafe, Silky O’Sullivan’s, and BB King’s Blues Club, on the same street that invented the classic American sound.

Listening to live music on Beale Street is what to do in Memphis, Tennessee.

3. Mud Island — What to Do in Memphis

What to Do in Memphis
What to Do in Memphis

Nothing pleases me more than being (pleasantly) surprised. Mud Island did exactly that. This may fall into the nerd bucket — like learning that someone discovered a new planet called N193344033288 — but chances are if you’re reading a travel blog you nerd-out like me.

Some genius carved an exact replica of the Mississippi River into brick and cement, at the scale of 30 inches to a mile. The replica spans 2,000 feet of riverfront space, where every sandbar, oxbow, and topographic contour is faithfully reproduced. Dozens of placards tell countless historical accounts of life on this quintessential American river. We recommend you read them all. It’s what to do in Memphis.

This is an accomplishment of extraordinary magnitude. We’ve never seen anything like it.

What to Do in Memphis

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4. Sun Studios — What to Do in Memphis

What to Do in Memphis
What to Do in Memphis

Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service studio on January 3, 1950 in Memphis. Anyone — Anyone! — Could record a two-song record for a fee of four bucks. Elvis Presley was discovered at Sun Studios, along with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and others. Elvis worked all summer to afford that recording. They play a few seconds of him singing. He sounded nervous.

The photo below is called “The Million Dollar Quartet”. We strongly recommend the one-hour tour of Sun Studio for $15. It is precisely what to do in Memphis, Tennessee.

What to Do in Memphis

5. Memphis Rock & Soul Museum

not our photo

The musical history of Memphis and the Mississippi South is well chronicled at the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum (Smithsonian affialiate). Here you can follow this history of soul, from the musically inclined share croppers who migrated to the big city for work opportunities, to the musical genius of Beale Street, to the pioneer DJs and recording studios (Sun Studio, Stax Records) that laid these incredible sounds on wax. 1950/60’s Memphis occupies a special place in the annals of American history, and learning all about it is what to do in Memphis.

6. Civil Rights Museum — What to Do in Memphis

Beale Street, Mud Island, Sun Studio, Civil Rights Museum
What to do in Memphis

The Civil Rights Museum is located at the Lorraine Hotel, the very place that Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. The facility is a complex of museums and historic buildings that trace the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. from the 17th century to the present.

Beale Street, Mud Island, Sun Studio, Civil Rights Museum

7. Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

Beale Street, Mud Island, Sun Studio, Civil Rights Museum
What to Do in Memphis

You will find a multitude of internet hyped restaurants in Memphis. We ate at a few of them: Central BBQ, Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken, Dyer’s Burgers (cooked in 100-year-old grease, allegedly), The Arcade, etc. They were all pretty decent, but we wouldn’t necessarily “recommend” them.

The one place we at that we would absolutely recommend is Charles Vergos Rendezvous. The dry-rubbed ribs were incredibly tasty. The beans, slaw, and potato salad were perfectly on point. When asked what to do in Memphis… go to Charles Vergos Rendezvous.

By the way, the entrance is in a back alley. We weren’t sure if googlemaps was taking us for a ride, or what. Turns out the joint is a little bit hidden.

An Honest Conclusion for What to Do in Memphis

Beale Street, Mud Island, Sun Studio, Civil Rights Museum
Arcade Restaurant — What to do in Memphis

Memphis was the most pleasantly surprising town we visited in the past year. What a cool place! Our expectations were completely reversed: We thought the history would be dull, the crime would be scary, Elvis would leave us wanting, and the food would be amazing… And none of it was correct!

Beale Street and downtown was clean, and we felt safe. The music and civil rights history was super interesting. Elvis was larger-than-life incredible. And the BBQ was supremely disappointing! I guess you can’t win them all, but Memphis comes out a winner nonetheless.

If you don’t know where to take your next vacation, at least you know what to do in Memphis. Maybe put those two things together… I don’t know. It’s up to you.

And if you’re into historic, southern towns, be sure to check out:

Downtown Charleston Things to Do

10 Beautiful Things to Do in Historic Savannah

Two Days in New Orleans

Thank you for stopping by our website! We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. In the meantime, God bless and travel happy!

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