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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21 thoughts on “Love Good Music? 7 things to do in Memphis”
Very interesting. Is that a taxidermied rattlesnake in that photo? The Blues Museum would be an interesting one to tour and I agree with the hubs. I always eat before going to museums. Good advice.
I’m not entirely sure if it was stuffed or otherwise, but it did take me back to my memories of music in the 70s and all those mad outfits. I was a bit too young to have fully appreciated the decade, but my, it was wonderfully over the top.
I love music and only started recently listening to a lot of Blues music, so when I do eventually get to Memphis, I would love to check out the Blues Museum. Anywhere with music and I am there!
You’d absolutely love Memphis then, no question. And Nashville too – it’s got so much more than country, great though that is.
I’ve been to Memphis once, and it was only for a short stop to get some fabulous BBQ. We did take a picture of the outside of Graceland though as we drove by!! I need to go back for a longer stop and visit some of these places though, and actually go inside of Graceland haha
We were busy, busy, busy the whole time we were there, as there’s so much to do. Great call on the BBQ though. 🙂
I have never had the desire to go to Memphis before as with the USA been such a big country it is hard to choose best destinations. But your blog was really interesting and provided some good places to visit next time we are in the USA. The National Civil Rights Museum would be interesting to visit also.
The Civil Rights Museum is very worth a visit, although it’s a sobering tour. We combined the Memphis trip with Nashville and Mississippi which worked out well, if you are thinking of more time in the area. Each was good in their own way, and I was certainly impressed with the Memphis museums – stuffy they’re not! 🙂
Haha! “Don’t enter until you’ve been properly fed and watered”….love that! But I totally get what you’re saying because I’ve had those experiences. I hate to admit it but Memphis is so close to me and I haven’t spent much time there and didn’t know all these different museums are there! I mean I’ve been to Graceland when I was younger, but that’s all I remember about it. My Dad really loves Blues and Elvis so I would love to come back with my parents and explore these-particularly the Sun Studio!
The Sun Studio trip is so much fun! The guides really know their stuff and are great raconteurs too, so it zips past at lightening pace with lots of anecdotes. You may have gathered that I didn’t do the sufficient food and watering, and by the time we’d got to the 1970s in the Rock n Soul museum, my stomach was gurgling along with the jukebox! 🙂 How lucky to live near to Memphis; we certainly had a great time there, and would go back in a heartbeat.
Walking in Memphis, with my feet ten feet offa Beale… though that song wasn’t even written when I passed through the city as a kid. I’d love to go back and see more, we had only a taster plus Graceland and I think I’d love seeing the music history more than Elvis’ home, crazy though it was!
I think I was the same with the history. All the sounds of my life together in one place – it was fab!
Memphis must be such a cool city – so much cool things to do! Hopefully I can manage to go there one day 🙂
We were busy all the time there, and it’s definitely cool. I was just hoping some coolness might rub off on us. 😉
I was just in Memphis, and we did do a few of these on our trip. It really is a music city through and through. I wish we’d gotten to the Rock n’ Roll Museum.
It’s a brilliant place, isn’t it? We ran out of days to do everything we wanted to.
It’s amazing how many different kinds of music can be explored there. The Sun sounds great – I can literally smell the coffee that you describe. For me, the soul music venue would be the most important one.
Stax was absolutely incredible (and the source of many t shirts reminding us just how great it is). Sun was less my kind of music, but so rich in anecdotes it was fascinating.
Great collection of places to go to get those toes tapping and hips moving! The Blues Hall of Fame would be awesome too. Memphis sounds like a music lovers dream! Blues is fun – I tried a little when I used to play the violin but it made me wish I’d learnt the saxophone instead!
Ah, I used to play the sax (badly) and it made me want to get going again. 🙂 I think I jiggled my way round all of Nashville, Clarksdale and Memphis; every place we went made my ears happy.
Memphis looks like a fun city to visit. I love that music is so much a part of the soul of this city too, I think it is somewhere that seems really authentic.