Best Things To Do in Memphis
First up, the King: Whether you're a fan or just curious, you should definitely join the masses to tour Graceland and Elvis' recording room at Sun Studio. Next, an important dose of history: Swing by the National Civil Rights Museum and Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum for a better understanding of how this city's past is reflected in its present and future. Families can head to the panda exhibit at the Memphis Zoo or watch the famous march of the Peabody Ducks that parade through the lobby of The Peabody Memphis.
Updated August 7, 2018
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Recent travelers agreed the National Civil Rights Museum should be at the top of anyone's list of things to see in Memphis. Housed in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the museum features multimedia presentations on the civil rights movement. With the help of 260 artifacts, more than 40 films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts, visitors are guided through five centuries of history. During your self-guided tour, you'll view artifacts paramount to the movement, such as a Greyhound bus ridden by Freedom Riders. You'll also have the chance to see King's motel room, where he spent his final hours.
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Sitting on the original site of the Stax Records studio, this museum commemorates the musicians who recorded in this legendary space, as well as other American soul legends. Among the museum's collection of more than 2,000 artifacts, interactive exhibits, films and galleries, you'll see Isaac Hayes' custom Cadillac Eldorado, which was purchased as part of his renegotiated deal with Stax in 1972. The relic is outfitted with some unusual amenities, including a TV, a refrigerated minibar and 24-carat gold exterior trim.
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Often referred to as the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Sun Studio is a must-see for music aficionados. Former owner Sam Phillips helped launch many a music career, including that of Elvis, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. In recent years, the studio has been used by artists like Justin Townes Earle, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and The Walkmen, among others. On your guided tour, you'll hear stories about the legendary musicians who recorded here, listen to unreleased tracks and see memorabilia from the studio's heyday.
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With this city's strong musical identity, there's no question as to why Elvis Presley chose Memphis as his kingdom. Graceland, located approximately 10 miles south of downtown Memphis, is one of the most-visited private homes in the country. When you stop by for a tour, you'll see the King's famous jungle room, pink Cadillac, record collection and even shoes and gifts sent to him from avid fans. Elvis' grave is also located on the Graceland grounds. As you tour the home, you'll have the help of an iPad to guide you through the rooms, plus audio narration by actor John Stamos.
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Originally constructed in 1925, The Peabody Memphis has held a long-standing reputation as one of the finest hotels in the South. While the building itself is quite breathtaking, the real attraction here is the march of the Peabody Ducks. Since the 1940s, these North American mallards have been a staple feature of the historic hotel. Visit around 11 a.m., when the ducks make their way from their Royal Duck Palace on the hotel's rooftop down the red carpet through the hotel lobby and into the Peabody Fountain. Join the onlookers that gather along the carpet to tap their toes to the beat of John Philip Sousa's "King Cotton March" as the ducks waddle past. At 5 p.m., the tune picks up again and the ducks hop out of the fountain and make their way back along the red carpet to their home.
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Are you looking for the heart and soul of Memphis culture? Head over to Beale Street. It was here that the blues was born, and many famous musicians – including B.B. King, Alberta Hunter and Isaac Hayes – got their start. During the day, stores and restaurants beckon with music memorabilia and savory barbecue, while at night, the area between Second and Fourth streets comes to life as numerous live music clubs open their doors to music fans of all types. The Beale Street area is also home to several popular attractions, such as the Orpheum Theatre, the W.C. Handy House Museum and the New Daisy Theatre.
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At 24,000 square feet, the Belz Museum displays more than 1,400 objects across five permanent galleries. Three of these house Asian art, much of which dates back to the Qing Dynasty of China (1644 to 1911). The fourth exhibit features contemporary Judaic pieces, and the fifth serves as the Holocaust Memorial Gallery. The museum is unofficially known as the "Jade Museum" due to its extensive collection of jade sculptures.
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If you're a fan of soul music or rock 'n' roll and want to learn more about how Memphis played a part in the roots of these genres, you should consider adding the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum to your itinerary. Exploring Memphis' musical influence, from the rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the 1930s to the emergence of Sun, Stax and Hi Records, this Smithsonian Institution affiliate offers visitors a comprehensive Memphis music experience. With the help of an audio guide, travelers can explore seven galleries featuring more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes and 100 songs.
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The Memphis Zoo's hieroglyphics-clad entryway leads to a primate habitat, bear and wolf enclosures in the Teton Trek, a nocturnal animal exhibit, a vast big cat area and the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, among other exhibits. All in all, you can observe approximately 3,500 animals – including the ever-popular giant pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le – in environments designed to mimic their natural habitats. The zoo spans 70 acres, but recent visitors said it's well-organized and visibility of the animals is great. Little legs should have no trouble navigating the grounds, and lectures on the zoo's furry friends prove entertaining for all ages.
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You'll get a different perspective of Memphis history if you spend some time at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, which draws visitors back to the pre-Civil War era. Also known as the Burkle Estate (after the former owner, Jacob Burkle), the main house features artifacts portraying life in the South during the days of slavery. Also a stop along the Underground Railroad, the house is filled with secret passages and trap doors used by runaway slaves attempting to flee north to freedom.
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