I defy anyone to visit Memphis without tapping their toes, whistling, singing along or doing a little bit of a sway. It’s a music lover’s dream destination, full of interesting things to see, do and hear. Don’t let the fact that some of them are called museums deter you. They’re spaces full of film, sound, stage gear and all sorts of curiosities that form the foundation of what we hear and enjoy today. If you love good music, here are 7 wonderful things to do in Memphis, Tennessee.
Just spend a moment looking at the picture above. Now feel the sun on your back, hear the gentle buzz of the road, and smell a faint nose of coffee. Isn’t that a perfect start to your time in Memphis? At Sun Studio, you have a little while to wait downstairs for your tour of the building, looking at a whole load of memorabilia cladding the walls. From Elvis to Johnny Cash, BB King, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and Roy Orbison, they’ve all been here. There’s a small shop downstairs to peruse while you wait (and it’s where that coffee smell originated).
Then you’re off upstairs with your guide. I’m not the biggest fan of guided tours, but I have to tell you that this one is superb. It’s full of anecdotes, soundbites, laughter and strange facts. As you walk through the studio itself, your attention is flickering everywhere as there is so much to see. Downstairs, you can do the legendary mic picture if that grabs your fancy – I was way too bashful. The studio itself is full of instruments, posters and gear, and a massive reminder of all that happened in that space. Million Dollar Quartet? They were all here. The tour seemed more focused on Elvis than the others, but that may have been the result of the questioning of the group on our tour.
Sun Studio is open 7 days a week and all tours begin on the half hour. The tour lasts for 40-50 minutes and you need to arrive 15 minutes before it begins. Sun is still a recording studio after the tour groups have gone for the day, so if you have the urge to play where so many legends have played, rates start from $200 an hour. When you’re done at Sun, there’s a courtesy airconditioned bus (with soundtrack, of course) that runs between the music sites in Memphis. We took ours on to the Rock n Soul Musuem.
Rock N Soul Museum
If I can start your visit here with a warning, it would be this. Don’t enter until you’re properly fed and watered, as you could seriously spend hours here. This is a museum like no other when it comes to walking you through so much good music. It’s avowed mission is to preserve and tell the story of Memphis music and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s even located on the corner of legendary Highway 61, Gateway To The Blues and Beale.
Take a deep breath, as this is what it’s got for you:
- field hollers and sharecroppers of the 1930s
- Sun, Stax and Hi Records in the 70s
- Seven galleries worth of instruments, costumes and musical treasure
- An audio tour with over 100 songs
If you’re interested in the social history of music, the first section will fascinate and sadden you. Then as you move onwards, there’s a massive collection covering decades full of music. Each section has a jukebox where you can play as you go, so take a seat and enjoy all that great pleasure for your ears.
Memphis Rock n Soul is open daily from 9.30am-7.00pm.
Your ears are never going to let you forget Stax. Slightly out of the main centre of Memphis, this musuem walks you through the best of soul. It’s atmospheric, stunning and at times almost a party. As one of the things to do in Memphis, it was definitely my husband’s favourite and might have been mine, were it not for an untimely migraine.
Billed as a story about hustle, talent and soul, Stax’s journey starts in a small country church with the roots of Southern Gospel music, and moves on to a dance floor where you can bust your best moves. There’s a wall of sound of every record pressed on Stax and a tribute to the excess of Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac Eldorado complete with fridge, furry footwells and 24 carat door trim.
The Stax Museum has a shop where you can buy the coolest memorabilia ever, so don’t forget your funds. We were lucky enough to be picked up by a taxi driver who has Carla Thomas as a regular, and he shared some stories of working in Memphis. She’s clearly a great woman, and one who does a lot for music in the city. Stax is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00am-5.00pm.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame
The reviews of the Hall of Fame might suggest that it’s not the best visitor spot in Memphis, but we had a brilliant time there. It’s full of 70s film and tributes to lesser known acts of the time, and became, surprisingly, one of my best things to do in Memphis.
You can see a lot of fascinating stuff like the understated and modest stage outfit above. It’s not just about the 70s, but if the decade is of interest to you – or indeed a deep and distant memory – you’ll love it. The Hall of Fame is founded on its nominees, but as a visitor experience, it’s much more about a collection of films, memorabilia and oddities.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame is open daily from 10.00am-7.00pm. You’ll find it, somewhat appropriately, right by the Hard Rock Cafe.
Blues Hall of Fame
The Blues Hall of Fame is on Main Street, on a fabulous trolleybus route. It’s open between 10.00am-5.00pm Monday-Saturday and 1.00pm-5.00pm on Sunday. There are ten galleries to wander, and plenty of opportunity to watch and listen to performances. Some traveling exhibits there are always changing, so keep an eye out for anything that interests you. The husband, more of a blues fan than me, was happy to wander for a couple of hours.
If you visit, I’d highly recommend lunch at Lyfe Kitchen, just down the road. It’s got everything from burgers to flatbreads, all in their healthy incarnations. And if you have any food allergies, it’s an absolute must for quality, safe and interesting noms.
The great monument to a man and legend, a trip to Graceland can take you half a day. It is definitely one of the key things to do in Memphis. From the legendary Jungle Room to those over the top gates, it’s a big experience, even if you’re not the world’s biggest Elvis fan.
All the influences of Memphis seeped into Elvis from gospel to R&B on Beale. By 1954, he was recording at Sun Studio, and by 1956 his star had risen globally. With global sales of over 1 billion records, it’s not surprising he needed a retreat, and that was Graceland. He died there on August 16, 1977.
“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” Elvis Presley
There’s now a 450 room hotel near Graceland. It’s inspired by the decor of Graceland with peacock stained glass windows and a white grand staircase and chandeliers. Graceland itself is open between the hours of 9.00am and either 4.00pm or 5.00pm, depending on season, and a variety of ticket options are available. It is possible to view Elvis’s grave by a visit to the Meditation Garden for free between 7.30-8.30am.
We arrived at Beale on our first afternoon in Memphis and let out a big sigh of anticipation. Beale Street is stuffed with venues, including some that are not just about the music. The lovely Schwab’s store has a fine line in ice cream and some really interesting browsing for all kinds of weird and wonderful purchases.
We had a mixed experience of Beale. The music we enjoyed most was at Mr Handy’s Blues Hall, where I have great memories of the singer wandering the audience while we swayed in unison (there not being enough room to dance). That’s what I was hoping of from Beale. We also caught some other interesting sets, including a couple of great acoustic acts. There are undoubtedly some great venues here, so choose your spot with care, and you’ll have a great time on Beale Street.
Want to Do More In Tennessee?
We had an amazing time in Tennessee in both Memphis and Nashville, and the small but perfectly formed Brownsville, while driving Highway 61 Gateway to the Blues. Don’t forget to meet the Peabody Ducks, take the Island Queen on the Mississippi and visit the National Civil Rights Museum. These were our favourites of so many things to do in Memphis. Our adventures continued onto Clarksdale in Mississippi for the Shack Up Inn and Dockery Farms.
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