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. For a local's perspective on the city's history food, history and music, sign up for one of the best Memphis tours.
Updated May 14, 2020
- #1View all Photos#1 in Memphis1.1 miles to city centerMonuments and Memorials, MuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND1.1 miles to city centerMonuments and Memorials, MuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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.
Reviewers described the museum as "surreal" and "incredbily moving." They went on to note the staging of the exhibits is "top-notch" and said the museum helped put seminal events of the period into context for a better overall understanding of the movement. Visitors should budget at least two to three hours to tour the entire facility. The museum is also a featured stop on many of the best Memphis tours.
- #2View all Photos#2 in Memphis1.4 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.4 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
Recent visitors praised the quality of the memorabilia on display and the introductory film screened at the beginning of the self-guided tour. Though reviewers do warn that there's a lot of information to read and absorb, they called the experience "fascinating." If you need a break from reading, you can bust a move out on the Express Yourself dance floor – another point of praise for recent visitors. The studio is also a featured stop on many of the best Memphis tours.
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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.
Recent visitors said Sun Studio is everything Graceland is not: authentic, personal and quirky. Reviewers said the tour guides were knowledgeable and entertaining, with many calling the experience "moving" and even "spine-tingling." Since this is such a popular attraction, travelers recommend arriving as soon as the studio opens to avoid having to wait for a tour spot. All tickets are booked in person on the day of the tour, though you can purchase a prepaid voucher online to be exchanged for a ticket upon your arrival at the studio. Note that prepaying online will not guarantee you a spot on a specific tour, and you'll need to budget at least two weeks to receive your voucher in the mail.
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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. In fact, the ducks are a featured stop on many of the best Memphis tours. 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.
Recent visitors said this spectacle is a fun activity that children are sure to love. Just note that the lobby can get crowded, so be sure to secure a good vantage point by arriving early and heading up to the second-floor atrium. The Peabody Memphis is located less than a half-mile from downtown. The daily duck march is free to watch.
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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 (considered one of the best Memphis tours), 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.
While some visitors claim Graceland is overpriced and too crowded, most agree visiting is a must – even for non-fans. Reviewers also offered a few tips: get to the house early to avoid the crowds, don't bring anything you won't need for the tour (you'll be juggling headphones and an iPad as you wander the house) and check with the visitors bureau for deals and discounts on tickets. Also, be sure to check Graceland's website to see if any events are taking place during your visit (if you hate crowds, avoid visiting Graceland in August, when Memphis hosts the annual Elvis Week festival). After touring the house, consider visiting Elvis Presley's Memphis at Graceland, an all-new 200,000-square-foot entertainment complex filled with restaurants, museum exhibits, gift shops and more.
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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.
Recent visitors described the atmosphere on Beale Street as "buzzing," thanks to the variety of live music that pours from the clubs stationed along the street. Though reviewers say this is a must-see when in Memphis, they also warned crowds can grow stifling, especially on the weekends. Beale Street also hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, which some travelers advised avoiding due to the headache-inducing crowds and traffic. Beale Street is also a featured stop on many of the best Memphis tours.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Memphis1.1 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.1 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
Recent visitors have called the Belz Museum a "hidden gem" in Memphis, noting that the impressive collection of Asian art rivals even exhibits in China itself. They said that the mixture of Judaic and Asian art is unusual but spectacular, and that the Holocaust Memorial Gallery left them speechless. Many travelers said this museum is not to be missed and that it was more than worth the cost of entry. However, some museumgoers did note that this is probably not the best thing to do with young children, as the Holocaust exhibit can be heavy and young kids may become bored.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Memphis2.8 miles to city centerZoos and AquariumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND2.8 miles to city centerZoos and AquariumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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.
Travelers who recently paid a visit to the zoo said it was hit, especially with young kids. To beat the crowds (and the heat, if it's summer), reviewers recommended getting to the zoo in the morning. The zoo does offer an on-site cafe and several food stands throughout the facility, but recent visitors said the food is overpriced and not satisfying. If you can, try to pack a picnic or plan to eat at nearby Overton Square after your visit.
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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.
Recent visitors said this museum helps put Memphis' musical history in context and said the "sound comes alive" thanks to the variety of artifacts and details on display here. Some were a little unimpressed with its size and said they expected more considering it's affiliated with Smithsonian. Still, even with its relatively small size, travelers found the museum fascinating. And with its central location on Beale Street, you can easily swing by some of the city's other top attractions before or after your museum visit.
- #10View all Photos#10 in Memphis2.1 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.1 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
Recent visitors agreed this is a worthwhile stop even if you aren't a history buff. They said the tour guides were informative and engaging and described the experience as a "moving history lesson," especially for children. Travelers warned that the neighborhood is a bit "run-down," but they also said that shouldn't deter you from visiting.
- #11View all Photos#11 in Memphis4.4 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND4.4 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
If you've got kids in tow, plan on stopping by the Pink Palace Family of Museums. Housed in a flamboyant pink mansion constructed by supermarket tycoon Clarence Saunder, the museum is dedicated to educating visitors on history and culture with a variety of interactive exhibits – you can see a full-scale reproduction of an original Piggly Wiggly store, and spend some time at the popular dinosaur exhibit, the miniature circus, the planetarium and the IMAX theater. The wide variety of displays will appeal to visitors of all ages.
Recent visitors said the museum excels at exploring a diverse array of topics, making it easy for everyone in your group to find something that piques their interest. Some reviewers complained of the high admission cost; to save some cash, plan to visit on Tuesday when the museum offers free admission from 1 p.m. to close.
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