Memphis is second to none when it comes to boasting a rich tradition in music, culture, and history. The city, immortalized by Marc Cohn’s classic song “Walking in Memphis” (yes, I love this song and I’m not ashamed!), is probably most famous in pop culture for being the home base for musicians such as B.B. King, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Justin Timberlake. I love Memphis because it never pretends to be something it’s not—it’s a city as authentic as the sounds that come from it. Although I moved away a few years ago, Memphis still feels like home to me, and the two years I spent there teaching high school were life-changing. One plus of my family’s recent move from Alabama to Tupelo, MS, is that I can visit Memphis even more frequently (Tupelo is an hour from Memphis!). Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite Memphis highlights.
- Visit the Orange Mound neighborhood. Located south of Southern Avenue and east of Lamar Avenue, Orange Mound is the oldest community in the south founded by African Americans, and the second largest in US history (behind Harlem in NYC).
While the neighborhood has had its challenges with poverty and crime, the tradition and strength of community is tremendously strong. As a teacher at Melrose (Orange Mound’s only high school) for two years, I was honored to get to know and work with so many of the teachers and community members who make Melrose and Orange Mound so special. Melrose has produced a number of famed athletes, such as Olympian Rochelle Stevens and basketball legend Larry Finch, as well as entrepreneurs such as the Neely family and academics such as Alvin Crawford, an internationally recognized expert in childhood bone disease and Lawrence Madlock, medical director at the UT Medical Center. I recommend a visit to the old Melrose High School, which is designated as a historic landmark. If you are around on a Friday night, nothing beats a Melrose Golden Wildcats home football game! A great documentary about Orange Mound came out a few years ago, and you can watch it here.
- Go for a run through Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River. The views of the city and the river are stunning. In particular, the view going downhill from Riverside Drive at the south of the park is my favorite! You will be treated to this view if you run in the St. Jude marathon or half-marathon, as it’s included in the route. Apart from this hill, the route is relatively flat, so it’s good for your knees! Be sure to notice the statue that honors Tom Lee, the river worker who saved 32 passengers when their steamboat sunk in the river in 1925.
- Spend a night on Beale Street. Whatever your taste in music is, Beale Street has it and does it well. That being said, the blues rule here. My favorite blues spot on Beale Street is the Rum Boogie Café’s Blues Hall. If clubbing is more your style, Club 152 offers the closest thing to a “club” on Beale, and it’s a lot of fun! Visit Silky O’Sullivan’s for dueling pianos, a “beer drinking goat,” and an outdoor band, and visit one of a few karaoke bars along Beale if you’re inspired to start performing on your own. Drinks are cheap, and you’re allowed to carry your drink in a plastic container outside along the street (visit Wet Willie’s if you want a to-go slushie with a punch!)
- Cheer on the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. I really think the Grizzlies are a microcosm of the city itself. The mottos “Memphis v. Errbody” and “Grit and Grind” personify both the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis—both are often considered underdogs, yet both win, even if the process of winning is not always pretty. The Memphis community really gets behind the Grizzlies, and this is beyond evident when you attend a game at the Forum. The atmosphere at a Memphis Grizzlies game is electric! No offense to the NY Knicks or Nets, but those game atmospheres do not hold a candle to the atmosphere at a Grizzlies game! In fact, whenever I’ve attended a Grizzlies game since moving to NYC, it is always easy to spot the other Grizzlies fans, as we are always the most excited, cheering the loudest, and decked out in Grizzlies blue! The Grizzlies have been crushing it recently, and have made the playoffs each year for the past 5 years. Here’s hoping that the trend continues.
- Visit the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The museum has preserved his room exactly as it was that day, which was the day after his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech. It is incredibly moving to not only view this room as he lived in it during his last few minutes on Earth, but to learn about the long history of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as the ongoing struggle (you can read here about how Memphis educators are succeeding in closing the achievement gap). The museum has a special focus on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which brought Dr. King to the city in 1968. I have visited the museum twice, but not since it was renovated in 2013. The museum is a must-visit for any first-time visit to Memphis.
Get into the music. Memphis is a music lover’s mecca. Of course, there’s Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Several of his wild outfits, cars, and guitars are on display, as well as his platinum and gold records. My favorite is the jungle room—you just have to see it to believe it! I also highly recommend the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which has a replica of the dance floor used on Soul Train! You can also visit Sun Studio, where B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded hits. To actually live the music of Memphis for yourself outside of a museum, you have to go to Paula & Raiford’s disco on Second Street (just off Beale). The club is a true disco, where you can dance the night away on a light-up dance floor, relax on red leather sofas, or even play on a drum set. Mr. Raiford will be in a sequined cloak spinning all of the best 80’s and 90’s songs!
- Visit the Peabody ducks. An esteemed Memphis tradition, the feathered residents of the swank Peabody Hotel march to and from their day job (swimming in the lobby fountain) each day at 11am and 5pm, respectively. The march is always closely monitored by the honorable Duckmaster. If you happen to miss the ducks’ march, you can visit their sweet penthouse home on the roof. I also recommend having a cocktail in the lobby and enjoying the people (and duck!) watching.
8. Eat some BBQ! It probably goes without even mentioning, but Memphis has the best BBQ there is. Period. My personal favorites are Central BBQ (both on Central Ave and downtown), the BBQ Shop on Madison, and Interstate BBQ. If you’re flying through the Memphis airport, you have to stop by the Interstate BBQ shop in Terminal B, even if it’s not lunch or dinnertime (they serve amazing Southern-style breakfast biscuits and delicious coffee!) If you’re vegetarian, please disregard…but I guarantee you will find some delicious meat-free “fixins” to indulge in at any of these places!
This is just a short list of the things I find most special about Memphis. There really is so much more that makes this city so amazing. Do you have any other recommendations?
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