As one of the world’s most storied music cities, Memphis is a crossroads of cultures, one that has defined music genres for decades.

That’s no exaggeration: without this Tennessee city, the blues, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop and other core American styles wouldn’t sound the (glorious) way they do. But music isn’t the only cultural side Memphis has to offer: while the city’s museums lean heavily on its tuneful past, there’s more to absorb in this Mississippi River–side city than the sounds of bygone eras. 

From the world-changing movement explored at the National Civil Rights Museum to world-spanning visual art collections and even a shrunken head, these are our picks for the best museums in Memphis.

A pair of people look at an exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
The National Civil Rights Museum brings the tragedies and the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement to life © Joe Sills / Lonely Planet

Tour the National Civil Rights Museum

When an assassin’s bullet struck and killed Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in central Memphis on April 4, 1968, American history was altered forever. 

Today, the motel’s historic façade serves as the exterior of the inspiring and moving National Civil Rights Museum. No first-time visit to Memphis is complete without a sobering visit to this hallowed ground, where all who come, take in the legacy of the nation’s Civil Rights movement.

Exhibits honor past American pioneers like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks and Dr. King, while providing a detailed yet extremely accessible account of this crucial era – both the uplifting highs and the heart-rending tragedies. But the museum offers fare more than static history lessons. 

Thanks to the modern-day MLK 50 initiative, the NCRM is taking an active role in continuing the push for equal rights and justice through journalism and other efforts beyond its walls.

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Closeup of old school cassette tape with an Issac Hayes tape inside at the Stax Musuem in Memphis
The Stax Museum is a celebration of soul music © Joe Sills / Lonely Planet

Groove to sounds of the past at Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Competition among music museums is fierce in this city – and for good reason. In addition to the groundbreaking work at Sun Studios in the 1950s, Memphis is renowned for chart-topping labels like American Sound Studios and Stax Records, which pumped out hundreds of hit singles in the ’60s and ’70s. 

The latter is now home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, an enthralling collection of artifacts ranging from Steve Cropper’s guitar to Booker T. Jones’ organ and Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac. 

In the 1960s, the studios in this converted movie house pumped out hits at a remarkable level from the likes of Hayes, Jones, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, William Bell and Carla Thomas. Today, the museum also houses the renowned Stax Music Academy, and is the cornerstone of the Soulsville neighborhood.

A young boy stands in front of a replica of a large dinosaur at an exhibit at the Memphis Museum of Science & History
Inside the former “Pink Palace” is a wide range of artifacts and exhibits on the natural world © Joe Sills / Lonely Planet

See it all at the Memphis Museum of Science & History

A colossal mansion of pink marble looms above the tree-lined East Memphis thoroughfare of Central Avenue. Inside, you’ll find the Memphis Museum of Science & History, formerly known as the Pink Palace Museum. 

This sprawling estate is the legacy of grocery store tycoon Clarence Saunders, who lost his fortune in 1923 while the building was under construction. Since 1930, Saunders’ would-be residence has housed a natural history museum brimming with artifacts and exhibits about Memphis and the wider world. 

Pre-Columbian artifacts, dinosaurs, mastodons and at least one shrunken head round out a collection featuring a mock-up Piggy Wiggly grocery store (the company was founded by Saunders), an IMAX theater and a planetarium. 

Best day trips from Memphis 

See beautiful artistic connections at the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art

Stroll through an unassuming glass doorway on South Main Street, descend a stairwell and enter a dizzying world of gold, jade and captivating contemporary art at the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art

The museum houses more than 1400 objects largely from China, from ceramics and ornate sculptures to textiles. The private holdings of hoteliers Jack and Marilyn Belz also include Judaic art from some of Israel’s most popular artists, including Daniel Kafri and Ofra Friedland.  

This intriguing collection was first presented to the public in a single room at the Pink Palace Museum; today, it occupies a five-gallery, 24,000-sq-ft facility in the heart of downtown.

Take the family to the Children’s Museum of Memphis

Kids can fish, fly and climb at the interactive wonderland known as the Children’s Museum of Memphis. One of the best hands-on museums in the country, this institution features such permanent exhibits as a flight simulator in an actual FedEx cockpit, a climbable skyscraper and a tornado simulator. Each is designed to kick kids’ brains into high gear and challenge them to learn in fun, original ways. 

Exterior shot of brick building of Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee
Sun Studios was where Elvis Presley cut his first record © f11photo/Shutterstock

Celebrate a musical landmark began at Sun Studio

This is where it all began, where the blues, gospel and country music fused into the world-changing force that became rock ’n’ roll. Most famous for rocketing Elvis Presley to stardom in 1954, the pint-sized Sun Studio just outside of downtown Memphis launched the careers of countless other stars as well. Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all recorded hits on the very tiles that guests can traverse today on a 45-minute tour.

Even the most seasoned music lovers are known to get chills at Sun. 

15 free things to do in Memphis 

Learn about the greats at the Blues Hall of Fame

Tour jackets, album covers and instruments line the Blues Hall of Fame gallery. Located directly across Main Street from the National Civil Rights Museum, the museum’s displays relate the story of the greatest blues players to walk the Earth – many of whom came from or through Memphis.

Some 400 inductees are honored in the museum halls. Visitors can also spot artifacts from legendary blues musicians including Muddy Waters, Pee Wee Crayton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Also included in the lineup is a notable pairing of two blues brothers: Donald “Duck” Dunn and Matt “Guitar” Murphy.

Gold records serve a frame for a black-and-white portrait of Elvis Presley, plus a folded American flag and other memorabilia at Graceland
Graceland is a pilgrimage site for anyone who loves the King – or loves American culture © Sabine Wolf / ullstein bild via Getty Images

Pay your respects to “The King” at Graceland

Gold everything. Gold jackets, gold records, gold toilet seats – you name it and Graceland likely has a gold version of it. There’s something haunting about walking the shag carpet at this world-famous estate. 

And though the King of Rock ’n’ Roll left the building more than 40 years ago, the energy Elvis Presley radiated in life still can be felt at his former residence, located near the Mississippi state line.

A time capsule of the King in his more decadent years, Presley’s iconic home has become a pilgrimage site for anyone who cares about American culture. The sprawling complex features glittering walls of records, an aircraft collection and an automobile museum in addition to the graves of Presley, his parents and his grandmother. This is a full-day excursion that will leave visitors astounded and likely a bit perplexed. 

Enjoy a hands-on experience at the Memphis Listening Lab

Ardent Records co-founder John King donated more than 35,000 45rpm singles, 10,000 LPs and 20,000 CDs to kick off the Memphis Listening Lab, a learning space designed to be interactive. 

Featuring a custom sound room from ultra-luxury music outfitters EgglestonWorks Audio, this venue for listening features vinyl, cassette, CD and reel-to-reel equipment specifically tuned to deliver museum-quality audio. 

The Memphis Listening Lab sits in the towering Crosstown Concourse, an attraction in itself. This former 1.5 million-sq ft Sears distribution center in the center of Midtown was transformed in 2015 into a civic hotspot featuring restaurants, apartments, a brewery and the WYXR radio studio. 

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