Memphis might be the youngest of the major cities in the state of Tennessee, but locals will argue that it has the richest history of them all. And they’ve got a point. It was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. A place where old-school blues trickled up from its birthplace in the Mississippi Delta and became both the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A place both musical and industrial, beautiful and authentic, that maintains its historic, musical Southern charm decade after decade. Fittingly, Tennessee Music Highway cuts right through the city, leading straight to Nashville, while the Blues Highway connects Memphis to the Mississippi River town of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
While 48 hours isn’t nearly enough to explore such a notable corner of American history, you can still flip through its pages and explore a few of its chapters while you’re passin’ through "Bluff City" —a nickname originating from Memphis’ original downtown, which was situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Now it’s gotten quite a bit bigger, and there’s so much more to explore. Here’s how we recommend spending 48 hours.
Begin your first day exploring Memphis’ roots in the Civil Rights Era and paying homage to the late Martin Luther King Jr.—it’s practically a required stop when visiting the city. In the 1960s, it was within Memphis that the history-changing events of the Civil Rights Movement came to happen, many of which followed the assassination of MLK at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. The motel has since become the National Civil Rights Museum, exhibiting stories and artifacts from one of the most important turning points in American history. You can visit King’s motel room where he spent his final hours or have a seat on the original bus Rosa Parks once sat, protesting her right to sit anywhere she’d like.
Once you’ve had your history fix, take a walk just around the corner to The Arcade, Memphis’ oldest restaurant. Serving diners since 1919, it’s an old school go-to for breakfast. The Arcade is also a regular filming spot, having been featured in movies like _Elizabethtown *and *Walk the Line—_an appropriate setting for the tales of Johnny Cash and June Carter. They serve lunch and dinner, too, or you can get breakfast all day. And your day just got started.
Next up, dive into the city’s musical roots. Considered the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, Memphis is home to many iconic sites that are worth a stop-through during your visit, but because you only have 48 hours, we’ll stick with the top two. We recommend whichever musical fieldtrip you find more intriguing—Graceland or Sun Studio—or both, if you’re equally fond of rock and the blues.
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, called Memphis home and lived at the world-famous Graceland Mansion, one of the most celebrated rock ‘n’ roll attractions in the world. The 17,552 square foot mansion was added to the American National Register of Historic Places in 1991, and over 600,000 visitors tour the property every year.
And then there’s Sun Studio, another iconic piece of music history demanding a visit. While it’s changed ownership, names, and even locations over the years, it’s current home is in the original Sun Studio building, which reopened in 1987. It’s where B.B. King once recorded, where Elvis was discovered, where Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash produced records, and, later, became a studio for folks like Ringo Starr and Bonnie Raitt. With its original charm and just enough kitsch, studio tours take you back more than 50 years to the heart of recorded music as we know it.
After a full day exploring some of Memphis’ most important landmarks, you deserve a good dinner. And when you are in Memphis, there is nothing better than some serious soul food. Head over to The Four Way for real Southern cookin’—country fried steak, liver and onions, white or dark fried chicken (we never said it was healthy). Don’t forget a side of boiled okra or fried green tomatoes. But get there early—The Four Way closes at 7 pm Tuesday through Saturday, and 5 pm on Sunday. If you can’t get there in time, try the Soul Fish Cafe or Mot & Ed’s instead.
When it’s time to rest your head, there are plenty of chain hotels in downtown Memphis that cover a variety of budgets (with some great options along the Mississippi River), but if you want to go all out, book a room at the luxurious Peabody Memphis. This historic hotel originally opened in 1925, and is best known for it’s daily "Duck March", a tradition that started in the 1930s (though some argue it goes back even further). Every day at 11 am and 5 pm, the ducks are ushered down from their rooftop habitat, down a red carpet no less, to play in the fountain in the lobby. It’s the only hotel in the world with a “Duckmaster.”
Begin the day by packing a blanket (we’ll explain later) and heading to Miss Cordelia’s, a local butcher/cafe/and grocery. Have a cup of locally roasted coffee and put together a picnic lunch. Between the grocery and cafe, you won’t have any problem finding enough food for your day. Make it hearty and grab snacks too, because you’ll be spending day two outdoors.
In the heart of Shelby County, but just far enough outside the city, is Shelby Farms Park. This 4,500-acre park is one of the 20 largest urban parks in the country, but feels a world away from the big city just over yonder. While the farm is laced with more than 10 miles of trails, ponds, and horse stables, it’s also host to seasonal events all throughout the year, including hayrides in the fall and light displays during the holidays.
Take your pick of activities. Whether you choose to take a hike, go for a horseback ride, play a round of disc golf, or throw down the aforementioned blanket for a picnic beside the pond, you can easily spend a whole day here. Beyond that, Shelby Farms has one of the most magnificent off-leash dog parks in the country, so if your pup is with you, (s)he’ll have plenty of space to run wild and free for a bit.
If you’d prefer to spend a lazy day on the water, take a day trip to the Wolf River instead. The picnic and snacks will still come in handy! The Upper Wolf River is particularly beautiful, though parts of the Ghost River section can be challenging, and a guide is recommended if you’re inexperienced. Guided paddles along the Wolf River are available through the Wolf River Conservancy, or you can rent a canoe or kayak from Wolf River Canoe & Kayak for your own river adventure. They even provide shuttle service from the put-out areas within Fayette County.
Whichever outdoor adventure you prefer, you deserve a night out, and it wouldn’t be a proper Memphis journey without a night on Beale Street. The three-block section of Beale Street is a National Historic Landmark and has been declared the official "Home of the Blues," thanks to a kind act of Congress.
Find a cozy place to hole up and enjoy a rack or ribs and live music. Blues City Cafe is both a venue and restaurant, with a menu featuring "Beale Street’s Best BBQ Ribs" and a stage that has welcomed artists like B.B. King, Ivan Neville, and Levon Helm. With music every night of the week, Blues City Cafe is a guaranteed one-stop shop on the infamous Beale Street, whose motto is “Dance your meal off!” Beyond Blues City Cafe are many other local places to get your grub and music fix. Just take a gander down the block and take a peek into any place that appeals to you.
If you’d like to visit another great venue in downtown Memphis, head to the Orpheum Theater, a restored 19th-Century theater featuring Broadway shows, concerts, and ballet. Opened in 1928, the theater is a beautiful reflection of old Memphis, even before it was considered the Home of the Blues or the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. After a plate of ribs and whatever entertainment option you go with, you should have a full bully and ringing ears, which is exactly how one should feel after a day and night in Memphis. That’s how you know you did it right.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.