We’ve all heard of the great Mississippi River – whether or not we can all spell it! The name may be a hard task but following the river to Memphis will come easily to you. Come and travel along the river with us, along to the shimmering metropolis of Memphis, with Southern blues melodies and delicious barbecue smells wafting through the air.
Location and History
Memphis, the second-largest city in the Southern state of Tennessee is located at the far western edge of the state. Memphis is nestled in the so-called tri-state corner, between the states of Mississippi and Arkansas. Starting out from Memphis, you can be in three different states in no time at all.
Although the United States is a relatively young country, Memphis has a lot to offer when it comes to culture, musical heritage, significant historic events, and famous personalities.
The area around Memphis was originally the land of the North American indigenous people Chickasaw. In fact, the word Mississippi comes from a French rendering of the Ojibwe name for the river, Misi-ziibi, meaning “Great River.” Memphis borrows its name from the first capital of ancient Egypt, a bustling hub also located on a mighty river, the Nile.
Throughout its history, the city has undergone many transformations, from a trading centre for cotton, medicine, and food, to a hub of the slave trade, and finally an important site of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, Memphis is one of the so-called “Bible Belt” states. In these Southern states, it’s not unusual to find four churches of different denominations at the same junction.
Getting to Memphis
If you’re flying from Europe and Memphis is your first stop in the USA, you’ll need to have a layover in a major city first. There are plenty of transatlantic flights flying to Nashville or Chicago, for example. Remember that for layovers in the USA, you will need to go through customs and collect and redrop your hold luggage, so plan in extra time!
The Best Attractions in Memphis
Memphis built its reputation mainly thanks to its music scene and the famous Memphis Blues. The likes of Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, and Johnny Cash rose to fame along with the Southern city. To this day, the colourful and glittering Beale Street breathes life into the city through live music. With a pleasant average annual temperature of up to 20°C, Beale Street has the perfect weather for you to meander along and get swept away in your thoughts while listening to street performers. Bars along the street also still play the best mixtures of jazz, blues, and rock’n’roll.
Back in the 1950s, the pioneering Sun Studio gave artists the opportunity to produce and record music. The now iconic recording studio is still a popular destination for fans even to this day. The studio worked on Elvis Presley’s first songs and was also involved in Johnny Cash’s hit song “I Walk the Line”. Today, you can immerse yourself in the world of early rock’n’roll with a visit to Sun Studio. Recording sessions are still hosted in the evenings, alongside tours during the day.
Elvis Presley and Graceland
Elvis, also nicknamed “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” or “The King” for short, grew up in Memphis. His love of music began blossoming at an early age. While recording two songs in a studio as a gift for his mother, Elvis’ deep voice drew people’s attention. From there, well, the rest is history…
Nowadays, you can visit his estate Graceland in Memphis. You can participate in tours of the estate and the garden where the King himself is buried. His estate is a pilgrimage site for his fans. Directly across the street, you’ll also find the Graceland Soundstage, Gladys’ Diner, as well as Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a state-of-the-art entertainment and exhibition complex where you can walk through the superstar’s life.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement
Memphis is, however, not just famous for music. The city also holds strong ties to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement. One of the most recognisable activists of the twentieth century, King made history by standing up for black people’s rights and fighting against social injustice. He helped lead the civil rights movements to success, encouraging peaceful protests and social disobedience that led to the abolition of discriminatory racial laws. King was assassinated in a motel in Memphis in 1968, five years after his now-renowned I Have a Dream speech in Washington. Today, you can find the National Civil Rights Museum in the motel where King was shot.
Memphis Style BBQ
For an authentic Southern culinary experience, you need to visit a typical barbecue house. The region is famed for its smoking skills. One thing’s for sure: Southerners know how to prepare a BBQ, and they don’t do things by halves.
Succulent meat lies in smokers for hours, often overnight, until it’s so tender that it just falls off the bone. Pork ribs and pulled pork are particularly popular specialities down here. Barbecue meats are traditionally served up with side dishes like coleslaw, baked beans, and corn on the cob. So you don’t miss out, we’ve rounded up some of the best BBQ restaurants Memphis has to offer. Different eateries all put their own flair and flavour to the delicacies, with a rich variety of sauces and smoking wood. At the Bar-B-Q Shop, you’ll find award-winning BBQ sauces, while Cosy Corner offers an authentic atmosphere. Central BBQ rounds off the selection of distinctive BBQs that you’ve got to try!
Exciting Attractions – The Best Sights
Paying homage to the city’s Egyptian namesake, the Memphis Pyramid used to host sports games. Since then, it has undergone a redevelopment and is now home to shops, archery and shooting ranges, an aquarium, and a laser arcade, among other entertainment options.
You can also enjoy the view of the city from the observation deck at the top of the building.
River Boat Paddle Steamer
Once a common mode of transportation in the South, the beautiful riverboats now delight tourists. Boat tours sail past the Memphis skyline with fantastic downtown and riverfront views. Learn while you cruise, with the tour guide telling fascinating stories of history and culture. A titan of American literature, Mark Twain, worked on the steamboats on the Mississippi River, for example. You can find out all about his life and so much more surrounding the region and its people.
Hard Rock Café
On a trip to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, you can’t miss a visit to the famous Hard Rock Café, right on the iconic Beale Street. Look out for the famous guitar with the inscription, and you’ll know you’re in the right place! The restaurant itself offers all kinds of dishes, but Hard Rock Cafés are known for their atmosphere above all. Immerse yourself in the world of rock with dozens of exhibits and collections spanning the history of the genre.
Ghost Tour of South Main Historic District
Away from the neon-lit signs of bars and pubs, you’ll find a very different side of Memphis. There are whispers of voodoo practices, ghosts, burned down theatres, and haunting souls. Take heart and join one of the various ghost tours. Tales of gangsters, haunted lovers, and the Earnestine and Hazel Bar, which used to run a brothel on the second floor, can be found in the South Main Historic District.
While you’re walking in Memphis, the city’s authentic charm and character is found down every avenue. This rich and diverse city has all the activities and history to keep you in amazement. Whether it’s barbecue nights, live music, or retracing American history – Memphis has a lot to offer. Want to know how best to plan Memphis into your USA road trip? Don’t miss our article on the adventure road trip USA – Across the Country from the East Coast to the West Coast.