Things to Do in Memphis
Known as "The Birthplace of Rock and Roll," this former studio is Memphis's own Mecca of music. Opened in 1950, the studio was the recording site of what is supposedly the first rock and roll single - Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats' Rocket 88. From there, Sun Studio took off, signing iconic rock and country artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis to its label and continuing to serve as the recording site for these superstars.
Today, take a tour of the famous studio's headquarters and see the place where legendary performers laid down their first hit singles. Among the artifacts on display includes the microphone Elvis Presley used in 1954 when he recorded his first song, "That's All Right." After a tour of the studio, enjoy refreshments or pick up a souvenir in the ‘50s-style Sun Studio Soda Shop and Record Store. Sun Studio's musical heritage and collection of one-of-a-kind memorabilia.
All music lovers as well as those just looking for a fun night out on the town will not want to pass up an opportunity to visit Beale Street. This 1.8 mi (2.9 km) stretch of restaurants, bars, and clubs is more than just a place to get a bite to eat. It is now considered "The Official Home of the Blues."
From 1920 to 1940, artists descended on Beale Street and began to collaborate with one another, creating a new music style that blended smooth jazz with hard charging rock 'n' roll. This blend eventually gave birth to the blues, a new and distinctly American genre of music that gradually made its way into the American pop culture mainstream.
A visit to Beale Street today allows you to check out the blues clubs that served as the launching sites for some of the most famous American blues musicians of all time.
No trip to Memphis would be complete without learning about its music history, and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is just the place to do this. Originally a Smithsonian Institute research project, it became their first permanent exhibition outside of New York and Washington DC. Inside, you’ll find seven expansive galleries showcasing instruments, costumes, photographs, artifacts and exhibits like “Rural Music,” “Coming to Memphis,” “Sun Records & Youth Culture,” “Soul Music” and “Social Changes” that take you through a timeline and tell the story of Memphis and its music history.
The doesn’t just focus on the music itself or the artists, but the actual socio-economic and racial struggles as well as the successes of the people who overcame prejudice and put Memphis on the map as the “Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Peabody Hotel has some unique permanent guests in the famous “Peabody Ducks,” who live on the hotel’s rooftop and perform a march toward the Grand Lobby twice daily. The tradition dates back to 1933, when the general manager of the time returned from a weekend hunting trip and placed several of his live duck decoys in the hotel’s fountain. The guests’ positive response prompted their stay, and now five ducks live and train in the Peabody Hotel.
The Peabody Ducks are led by their “Duckmaster” (an official position in the hotel) from their home on the roof, down in an elevator, across a red carpet, and over to the Italian travertine marble fountain. They march to the tune of John Phillip Sousa’s King Cotton March. The ducks live in the “Duck Palace” on the roof when they’re not playing in the water of the lobby’s fountain, and can be visited there in the off hours.
A. Schwab is a dry goods store that has become a local landmark and Memphis institution. Since being opened in 1876, the store has transformed from a men’s clothing and goods shop to a collection of seemingly every item imaginable. It is the only remaining original business on Beale Street.
With two floors of displays filled with everything from regional arts and crafts to historic books, records, and artifacts, it is only fitting that the Beale Street Museum, located on a small balcony above the first floor, is also housed here. A. Schwab even has quirky memorabilia such as love potions and corn cob pipes. The store’s creaky wooden floors, dim lighting and original architectural details keep the building’s historic feel, making a visit feel like a step back in time. Their motto is “if you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it.”
Built in 1928, the Orpheum Theater is a historic theater and one of America’s few remaining “movie palaces” from the 1920s era. Before it was the Orpheum, it was the site of the Grand Opera House and home to vaudeville performances for nearly two decades. Since then it has withstood the threat of bankruptcy, demolition and being burnt to the ground to become known as the “South’s Finest Theater.”
Decorated with ornate crystal chandeliers, luxe draperies, carved moldings, and a large pipe organ, the theater was restored in 1996 to its former glory along with an expansion of the stage and backstage areas. Today, the theater hosts top Broadway shows, concerts, comedy shows, and special events year-round. Many famous faces have graced the Orpheum stage, and it continues to be a center for arts and entertainment and culture of Memphis.
The park at Court Square is a beautifully landscaped open space offering a change from the urban structures of the city. With a large fountain, gazebo, and benches, it is a popular spot for locals to enjoy a lunch break or a relaxing afternoon. In the summer months the park is home to outdoor concerts, food truck gatherings, karaoke contests, and other community events.
Situated right at the center of downtown Memphis, it is considered by many to be the heart of the city and thus is also a frequent meeting place. The square is surrounded by some of the most architecturally significant buildings in Memphis, and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a great place to sit and relax in the shade while taking in some of the sights of Memphis, as the antique trolleys roll by.
Located in Memphis’ Soulsville area in the former Stax Records -- which had also been the old Capitol Theater and closed due to bankruptcy in 1976 -- the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a recreation of what once was. After the original studio was torn down in 1989, there was a revitalization effort for the area and the institution was rebuilt to its former glory. Today visitors can peruse over 2,000 photos, films, music clips, costumes, original instruments, artifacts, trivia games and exhibits that tell the story of Stax Records and Memphis music history. You’ll learn about Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and other soul legends.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is one of only a very few soul-focused museums in existence anywhere in the world. Some collection highlights include the dance floor from Soul Train, Isaac Hayes’ flashy gold and blue Cadillac El Dorado.
More Things to Do in Memphis
Handy Park is a large public park known for its wide, open fields and stage, making it a great outdoor concert and event space in Memphis. The park was named for W.C. Handy, the “Father of Blues.” A large statue of W.C. Handy stands tall in the park.
Events that take place in Handy Park are always free and open to the public, often attracting large crowds. With an outdoor amphitheater that seats 2,000, it is a favorite local spot to enjoy a cold beverage and the great outdoors. There is also a small stage that often is home to impromptu blues performances on afternoons! The park is right off of the famous Beale Street, also home to a vibrant music culture and known as the “home of the Blues.” The local Memphis music scene often comes to life in Handy Park.
Victorian Village is a residential district of Memphis characterized by its grand, historic homes. Many of the Victorians that still stand today were first built in the 19th century by aristocrats on what were the outskirts of the city. Architectural styles range from Neoclassical to Gothic, and are for the most part named for the families who once inhabited them. The three- and four-story homes were collectively awarded a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Though only a few of the original houses are still intact, many of the homes that remain are now museums, including the Mallory-Neely House, an Italian style villa, the Magevney House and the Woodruff-Fontaine House, built in French-Victorian style. Guests can see original period furnishings and clothing, as well as learn about the history of the residents.
With seats for 20,000, The Pyramid is an arena that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. Designed to resemble the Great Pyramids of Giza, it stands tall at 321 feet high and is one of the largest pyramid structures in the world. It is slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty and has become an icon of the Memphis skyline.
The arena was first constructed as the Great American Pyramid in 1991 with an exterior of stainless steel and was originally conceived by a local artist to replicate the Great Pyramid of Memphis in Egypt. A statue of Ramesses II stood at the Pyramid’s entrance until it was moved to the University of Memphis campus in 1991. The interior has nearly half a million square feet of space and was used primarily for sporting events up until 2004.