One of the coolest road trips we’ve ever taken – a musical pilgrimage that begins in Memphis, Tennessee, passes through Louisville, Kentucky, and culminates in Cleveland, Ohio and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 2,270 miles in 7 days, we covered a lot of ground, heard amazing music, experienced musical, cultural and architectural history, and ate and drank our way around a very special part of the USA. It’s a lot take in, so let’s focus here on part 1 of our journey.
Memphis has an authenticity about it, and it comes through in the welcoming warmth of the people who live there. We can’t recall a shuttle driver, bartender, Uber driver, waiter or waitress that didn’t serve as an ambassador to their beloved city. Every person we encountered had favorites, recommendations and stories to share, and made us feel right at home. It is a special place.
There was simply too much to see and do in the 3 days we had…but we did fit in a lot! Listed below, in no particular order, are the must-see, must-experience choices we made, and highly recommend to anyone and everyone who enjoys (what we consider) the good things in life.
1) Beale Street
There are a select number of places in the good ‘ol USA, where you can actually walk down the street with a beer, and be pulled in to a bar by the sound of of a wailing guitar or a soulful voice booming though wide open doors. Beale Street is at the top of that short list…alive with Blues, Soul and Rock n’ Roll. The energy can be felt early in the day, and seems to accelerate throughout the afternoon as bands take the stage by lunchtime, hitting a crescendo at night, when the neon lights create a spectacle of color. We recommend experiencing an afternoon of happy day-drinking that works into your sight-seeing schedule, and most definitely an entire evening that you won’t want to end.
We hit most of the top spots…anything left out is simply due to the time we had, and the need for at least a few hours sleep!
Rum Boogie Cafe
Features an astounding collection of autographed guitars covering the walls and hanging from every ceiling, we picked out all of our heroes – Aerosmith, ZZ Top, The Neville Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughn…they are all there. The main stage has some of the best blues on Beale, we got to see the amazing Preston Shannon take us on a musical journey we won’t forget.
For the same cover price as Rum Boogie (or through a separate entrance on the street), through a sticker-cover door is a long, narrow, grungy room with a stage at one end and a bar that runs the entire length. Every night we spent on Beale, we spent a good amount of time here, each time with an band paying homage to the American institution we call the Blues.
Although I expected it to be a bit more commercial, we were not disappointed by any band we saw here, especially the soulful BB King All Stars on Saturday Night.. Yes, there were cover tunes, but they all had just a bit more soul…and the place was jumpin’ till the wee hours. We did some awesome day drinking here with new friends Alice and Rob from Austin…even introduced Rob to the pickleback!
The rooftop bar was a cool place to be on a sunny afternoon, and it was crazy crowded since were there during March Madness, but that didn’t stop a good time. Enjoy a local Ghost River beer in plastic cups and a pulled pork sandwich while watching the Beale Street crowds below. We even got to hear a marching band!
At night, the big stage came to life with a rock and pop cover band…the level of musicianship was incredible, as singers belted out everything fro Aretha Franklin to Prince.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk
Had a rockabilly trio, balcony seating, courtyard cafe and paid tribute to the Sun Records legend. Party like a rock star at this raucous honky tonk, definitely worth a stop.
We sat outside waiting for the goats to do something cool (yes, they have goats in a pen – go figure), that supposedly do some sort of dive, which we didn’t see. We did, however, enjoy the blues guitar duo while downing a giant beer.
2) Sun Records Studio
This was the real deal (for me), and my favorite Memphis attraction. Our outstanding tour guide started us with an amazing collection of 50’s memorabilia and original recording equipment that brought rock and roll legends to life.
Each story was enhanced with a listen to the amazing music recorded here, and the inside stories of BB King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, of course, Elvis Presley.
Stand in the same spot, even holding the same microphone used by the King, where he walked into the studio for the very first time, was first rejected by Sam Phillips, and went on to create rock and roll with an honesty, heart and soul that changed music forever. It gave me chills and I’ll never forget it.
3) Soulsville: Stax Records Museum
Its hard to believe that in just the surrounding neighborhood of this studio, an incredible wealth of talent lived and recorded right here. In contrast to Motown, which (has been said) has a polish to it, therefore helping black music appeal to whites, Memphis Soul has a grit and raw emotion to it, that was captured right here at Stax.
Artists including Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, Al Green, Isaac Hayes and so many others launched their careers here. It is an interactive, immersive experience in music history…it even has a dance floor should you be so inclined!
4) Gibson Guitar Factory
OK, so I play the guitar..and I play a Gibson, so this is totally biased, but I felt as if I were on hallowed ground. The immense lobby and giant guitar ‘sculptures’ alone is worth the visit.
Actually seeing the craftsmanship that creates these beautiful instruments was amazing. The problem was the store. I could barely tear myself away from the guitars, wanting to take home a souvenir way out on my price range. But being able to play a few licks and strum a few chords needed to be enough…(next time, Carla!!)
FYI, tours sell out, so make a reservation.
5) The Peabody Ducks (and Hotel)
Founded in 1869, one of the South’s first grand hotels. In the ornate lobby, the march of the ducks is a fun, frenzied activity every visitor should see. Get there early for the 5pm march as the ‘Duckmaster’ leads them from the fountain (where they swim all day) across the red carpet to the elevators to their home on the roof.
You’ll even get drink your wine out a real glass (as opposed to the plastic cups back on Beale Street).
6) The American Civil Right Museum
This is a powerful and moving experience like no other. In stark contrast to the music that broke racial barriers, the museum sits on the site, actually connected to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
A wreath marks the balcony where the tragedy occurred, and the museum documents the Civil rights movement from slavery to the present day.
7) The ‘Rock and Soul’ Museum
Just when you think might be ‘museum-ed out’, save some energy for this one. In association with the Smithsonian it brings the entire Memphis story together…from the blues sung in cotton fields, to the stages on Beale street.
Artists who broke barriers are paid tribute here, covering the Rock and Roll sound that came from Sun Studios to the Memphis Soul that developed at Stax records.
8) The Elvis Statue
Directly across from the Hard Rock, stop and take your picture with this tribute to the King. It’ll put everything into perspective as you trace music history and have an awesome time, day or night on Beale Street.
9) The Arcade Diner
This throwback eatery is a must-do experience. Elvis’s favorite diner, it was destiny that we actually got to sit in his favorite booth!
The 20’s deco architecture starts in the exterior neon signs and continues in to the retro booths and tables. Do NOT miss the sweet potato pancakes!
Would a trip to Memphis be anywhere near complete without a visit? Of course not. But we’ll give you our honest assessment.
This is an attraction at the level of a Disney Theme Park, prices and lines included. Your experience does not start at Elvis’s home, but at the massive 200,000 foot entertainment complex across the street. Pick from the mansion tour only ($39) to the ultimate VIP tour ($159). All the gold records, jumpsuits and other memorabilia you may expect to see at the mansion has been brought here, so you’ll probably want something in between to get the full experience. We chose the Elvis Experience Tour at $57.50 each.
I do think there were great exhibits at the complex, notably the ‘Entertainer’ Museum, where the memorabilia mentioned earlier is housed and the ‘Icons’ exhibit…where today’s entertainers are quoted and pay tribute to Elvis’ influence. You can visit one of the many gift shops and buy almost anything imaginable with Elvis’ picture on it. You can see his cars, planes, movies…it goes on and on.
The logistics of moving the crowds from the complex via shuttle bus to the mansion was quite a long wait, disorganized and annoying. However, once at the mansion, once you finally got in, the audio-visual tour, guided by John Stamos was very well done, and it felt both interesting and personal, with stories from his daughter, Lisa Marie.
At the end, I felt the sadness and loss when passing his grave. He was a dreamer, who dreamed big, made them come true, and changed the world forever.
11) The Center for Southern Folklore
This was a special treat. On Front street (just a few blocks from Beale Street) where the trolleys run, and the famous Orpheum Theater sits is this small cultural center that features art, photography and artifacts that are well worth the trip. The treat for us was the intimate concert we saw on Saturday night.
Probably about 30 people at small tables experienced the Daddy Mack Blues Band. This was a truly intimate celebration of the Blues led by a genuine guitar master. This was the real deal. When you are planning your trip, look for these types of special events off the beaten track, you’ll be glad you did.
12) A. Schwab General Store
Smack in middle of Beale Street is the oldest general store, serving Memphis residents for over 140 years. Step back in time at the soda fountain, where we had the most amazing root beer float, sipped out of paper straws.
The shopping is outstanding…featuring interesting oddities, sundries, candy, toys and souvenirs. The upstairs is a ‘museum’ showcasing household antiques and memorabilia from the store’s history.
Plan on spending a bit of time here, it’s well worth it, and a great oasis from the frenzy outside.
13) Memphis Food
So much to try…so little time. We had to make some tough choices here:
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
No fuss, no frills, just damm good spicy fried chicken at it’s finger-lickin’ best. Paper plate, plastic forks and nothing but chicken and sides on the menu. It is what it is. And it is good!
There’s a lot of talk about where to find the best BBQ in Memphis. We listened to it all, and settled here. On an alley off Beale Street, down in the basement the crowded restaurant is funky, low-key, noisy and lots of fun.
Though technically not BBQ, the dry-rub was what we wanted to try. I had the combo ribs and brisket and it was amazing. To Carla’s delight she had a salami and cheese sandwich, bringing her right back home, growing up with her favorite brown-bag lunch!
The Majestic Grille
We treated ourselves to an upscale meal away from Downtown (just a few blocks, really), and this did not disappoint. Set in what was once the Majestic Theater, showing black and white classics on the large screen behind us.
The blend of modern, upscale decor in the historic building was a unique and special experience. The service was spectacular, and the food amazing. Carla had the Tilapia and I opted for a Pesto Tortellini. Save room for the array of deserts served in shot-glasses.
Whew! That was a lot – but we’re talking about a place like none other, with a lot to offer. We just couldn’t do it all, and if we left out any of your favorites, please add a comment. If you are planning a trip, this should give you a pretty good head start.
The good part for us is…we’ll just have to go back.