Walking in Memphis

Character and culture in an American classic

Photos by Lillian Reitz

It’s blues, beer, BBQ and bass for the city known as “the bad boy of Tennessee.” This classic American metro has a distinctly authentic vibe and rich history that are immediately evident to visitors. In fact, the collection of tourist attractions is so obvious and interesting that if you aren’t careful, you might get caught up visiting the usual suspects and entirely miss out on modern Memphis.

For those looking for an events-packed time to visit, during the month of May Memphis hosts the Beale Street Music Festival, International Week, Great River Run and The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest—the largest pork BBQ cooking contest in the world.

Where to stay:

Big Cypress Lodge, inside Bass Pro Shops, is one of the quirkiest concept hotels in the country and an outdoorsman’s paradise. Built inside the famed Memphis Pyramid, it has 100-foot trees, rooms overlooking an indoor cypress swamp and the country’s tallest free-standing elevator. Guests can enjoy views of Tennessee wildlife like alligators and 36 species of fish; there are aquariums, daily fish feedings and underwater-themed bowling. Rooms are designed to resemble tree houses and duck hunting camps, and each one features its own fireplace, handcrafted furniture and screened-in porches.

Photo by Lillian Reitz

Where to eat:

The Lookout fine dining restaurant atop the Big Cypress Lodge pyramid boasts a glass viewing deck with a 360-degree view of Memphis and the Mississippi River. The seafood offerings such as blackened redfish and seared scallops, paired with an inspired cocktail menu, make for a lovely dinner out.

For breakfast or brunch, The Arcade diner is the oldest cafe in town, founded in 1919 by immigrants from Greece. Four generations later, it is still a family operation. If it’s available, snag the “Elvis booth” (exactly what it sounds like: his favorite spot to eat) in the corner and order the exquisite sweet potato pancakes. After a few meals in Memphis, you may begin craving something light and contemporary—South of Beale (also known as SOB) has you covered with a large selection of tasty vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Photo by Lillian Reitz

Where to play:

Likely the most famous aspect of the city is its ties to the American music scene. Several of the most famous musicians throughout U.S. history were raised or discovered in Memphis, including Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Justin Timberlake—and of course, Elvis Presley. The lavish home of the King of Rock and Roll has become a fascinating time capsule featuring tours of the mansion, grounds, and his planes and cars.

Memphis played a prominent role in the American civil rights movement and is home to The National Civil Rights Museum. It is a complex of museums and historic buildings covering the history of the movement in the U.S. from the 17th century to the present. Visitors to the area must also prioritize a stroll down iconic Beale Street, three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants and shops in the heart of downtown.

Photo by Lillian Reitz

Where to drink:

Beer and spirits enthusiasts will have a heyday in Memphis. Two riveting tours top the list of attractions: Wiseacre Brewery has a tour that includes tastings, beer history and the science behind the ingredients and processes involved in making great beer. Founded by brothers Davin and Kellan Bartosch, its pilsner “Tiny Bomb” put it on the map within a year of opening in 2014 by winning Bronze at the Great American Beer Festival. The facility is huge, hip and fascinating. A few miles away, the Old Dominick Distillery tour is a sensory journey that covers the history of the founder, Domenico Canale, and his experience as the largest distributor of alcohol and produce before, during and after Prohibition. It has a close-up view of the extensive grain-to-glass craft distilling facility, and ends with a curated tasting of Old Dominick’s portfolio of unique spirits. The master distiller, Alex Castle, is the first female head distiller in the state of Tennessee. Both locations offer tap rooms to order drinks.

Photo by Lillian Reitz

Written by Julie Partin