Undoubtedly one of America’s greatest music cities, Memphis has a rich heritage that birthed rock ‘n’ roll and its own version of soul and the blues. 

The vibrant and culturally diverse hub has recently seen many of its storied neighborhoods spring back to life through regeneration efforts. Where once stood empty warehouses, now you’ll find a crisp batch of independent stores and restaurants, serving up new takes on Memphis’ legendary food scene. Though widely known as one of America’s great capitals of barbecue, the past two decades have seen Memphis grow into its culinary own beyond the smoker.

The city’s laid-back and open-minded attitude means there isn’t a strict rulebook to follow, but there are a few things to know before visiting the Bluff City.

A man smiles at the camera and gives a two-finger peace sign
Don't fret too much about packing: Memphis has no specific dress code © Owaki/Kulla / Getty Images

1. The Memphis dress code is whatever you want 

Memphis is a laid-back city, with a dress code to match. You can turn up in an Elvis t-shirt, a tracksuit or sequined eveningwear, and no one will raise an eyebrow, so come as you are. The exception to this: church. When attending a service, it's best to dress smartly. 

2. Always make reservations for brunch and fine dining

Brunch is a big deal in Memphis, and restaurants book up fast, so always call ahead to secure a spot. For those seeking high-end dining, particularly if there’s a James Beard-nominated chef at the helm, you may need to call a couple of weeks ahead to guarantee a seat at the table. 

If it’s a local barbeque or hot wing joint, just show up, but be prepared to wait in line.

3. Don’t forget your reusable water bottle

Ditch the throwaway bottles – Memphis’ water is classed as some of the tastiest in the world. With the flick of a tap or the push of a fountain’s button, you can hydrate with freshwater derived from natural reservoirs flowing hundreds of feet below Memphis’ surface. 

And with Memphis’ notorious heat and humidity, topping up the aqua levels regularly is a must, especially from May through September.

A woman tucking into a meal of BBQ food in a bun
Don't miss Memphis barbecue – and if you're veggie or vegan, there are good options for you too © Wundervisuals / Getty Images

4. The barbeque capital of the US also caters to vegans

In fact, we’ll raise you – it’s now fairly easy to be vegan in Memphis. Although the city has a reputation for giving us some of the finest pulled pork barbeque in the country, recent years have seen a fresh cluster of plant-based restaurants and stalls cropping up across the city. At many barbecue joints, it’s not uncommon to find vegetarian-friendly options like lion’s mane mushroom barbecue nachos or a barbecue portobello sandwich.

Local specialties focus on southern staples minus the meat. Think cauliflower hot wings, beet burgers, carrot dogs and vegan barbeque, for a new taste from Memphis.

Crosstown Concourse is home to a collective of health-conscious restaurants, while the Imagine Vegan Café caters to all your comfort food needs. Memphis Whistle dishes out mushroom-based culinary options.

5. Memphis’ churches have an open-door policy on Sunday

There are more than 2000 churches in the Greater Memphis Metropolitan area, the majority of which are Baptist. One of the best ways to ingratiate yourself into the city is to attend a Sunday morning church service, where tourists are welcome to respectfully join congregations in worship, which often involves a full choir and band.

The Reverend Al Green – yes, the former soul-singing legend  – can be found leading a fantastically dynamic service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.

If you’re unsure of the etiquette, just quietly choose a pew in the back. A collection plate will likely make its round during the service, so come prepared. 

People walk down a street in the evening lined with neon signs
Head to Beale St, beverage in hand, to experience the Memphis' music scene © f11photo / Shutterstock

6. Grab a takeout cup – the liquor laws are relaxed on Beale St

Memphis is a town of many quirks. One of them just happens to be that Beale St, home of the blues, is the only place in Tennessee where you can legally walk the street with an open alcohol container. This rule also loosely applies to the neighboring South Main Arts District, but only on the last Friday of each month when “Trolley Night” turns the entire street into an open-container-allowed block party. 

On a warm summer evening, visitors can grab a drink from a Beale Street bar in a takeout cup and wander up and down America’s most famous musical highway, soaking up the live acoustics or catching a performance from the Beale Street Flippers, Memphis’ famed acrobatic troupe. 

Note that cannabis containing THC, for both medical and recreational uses, is illegal in Memphis, though CBD shops can be found selling legal substitutes.

7. Memphis is LGBTIQ+ friendly, but you need to know where to go

Although Memphis’ scene is certainly more lowkey than neighboring Atlanta or New Orleans, a flourishing LGBTIQ+ community exists and is increasing in visibility. Cooper-Young and Overton Square are particularly LGBTIQ+ friendly neighborhoods, flying the flag with joyful rainbow crosswalks.

For those looking to explore Memphis’ LGBTIQ+ nightlife, the main roadblock is the lack of a condensed, specific district, so transport is essential for barhopping.

Atomic Rose is a weekend-only nightclub just steps from Beale Street with drag shows and bingo nights. Dru’s Bar in midtown offers karaoke nights and a patio for cooling off on balmy nights, while The Pumping Station in Crosstown is an ultra-inclusive neighborhood hangout that’s been crowned Memphis’ top gay bar. 

Visit for the Tri-State Black Pride in June, or come for the four-day Memphis Pride Fest Weekend in June. It's the largest gathering of its kind in the Mid-South.

8. Don’t confuse Memphis with Nashville

A friendly(ish) rivalry between Tennessee’s two major cities permeates across most aspects of life, from sports to food and music. These sister cities are keepers of completely divergent cultural identities. If you once had the best night of your life on Nashville’s Honky Tonk Highway, maybe keep that one to yourself while in Memphis. In fact, you’ll struggle to find even a hint of country music in Memphis.

9. See the natural side of Memphis

The city’s connection with Tennessee’s natural beauty has been elevated in recent years. Historic Tom Lee Park re-opened along the Mississippi River after a $60 million renovation in 2023. And the $50 million Wolf River Greenway is connecting a riverfront walking and cycling trail to the city’s suburbs via more than 20 miles of trail along the city’s “other” river.

Street car in Memphis
Memphis' trolley system is wheelchair accessible © Tetra images RF / Getty Images

10. Much of Memphis is wheelchair accessible

Public transportation, especially mass transit options, are not standout in most American cities. However, Memphis does offer a wheelchair-accessible trolley system throughout downtown, which makes getting around its core easier. 

The National Civil Rights Museum has ramp access for wheelchair users, while the Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park is a good place for under 12s of all abilities. The majority of Graceland is wheelchair accessible, aside from the basement rooms. Big River Crossing offers wheelchair-friendly views of the Mississippi River and the opportunity to cross over into Arkansas.

11. Is Memphis safe to visit?

While crime rates in the city dipped during the early and mid-2010s, Tennessee’s newly-relaxed gun laws have led to a wave of violent crime throughout the state. This is particularly true in Memphis, which has notched record numbers of car break-ins and homicides since 2019.

Newly-elected leadership from the mayor’s office to the district attorney and police chief are attempting to reign the situation in, but it’s a good idea to be mindful of your surroundings in the Bluff City. Police say the majority of violent crimes and break-ins are being perpetrated by teenagers and young adults.

Don’t leave valuables, luggage or travel documents in your vehicle, and try to avoid excessive displays of wealth. If you do catch someone in the act of breaking into your vehicle, it's best to avoid confrontation. Many thieves here are well armed. 

Pockets of both downtown and midtown have recently been revitalized, with former derelict buildings transformed into residential blocks and thriving businesses. The city has also made meaningful investments in creating dedicated bike paths, making neighborhoods like the Broad Avenue Arts District, South Main Arts District, Cooper-Young, High Point Terrace and Shelby Farms active areas for cycling. 

If you haven’t visited Memphis for a few years, expect to be pleasantly surprised by the safe and welcoming vibe in neighborhoods such as South Main and Overton Square, which hum with activity on weekend nights. 

City officials have doubled down on efforts to increase police presence in two neighborhoods most frequently visited by tourists, downtown and midtown. Those two areas are also patrolled by the brilliantly-named blue suede shoe brigade, a collective of uniformed ambassadors on the lookout for nuisance issues. They are not police officers but are available for assistance. Yes, they actually wear blue suede sneakers, and yes, everyone jokes about stepping on them!

As with any metropolitan area, keep a constant eye on your belongings and note that it’s wise to stick to the main, well-lit tourist streets when exploring Memphis at night. The most common petty crimes are pickpocketing and car break-ins, so keep valuables close, especially around tourist landmarks, and never leave them in your car. In an emergency, call 911; for non-emergency situations call 211 to be directed to the relevant department. 

12. When in doubt, ask a Memphian

Memphis is a friendly city steeped in southern charm, so striking up a conversation with locals tends to be straightforward and guarantees savvy insider tips.

Those looking for an in-depth chat should just ask a Memphian about their favorite barbeque spot. But be warned: everyone in Memphis has their favorite smoke, sauce and slaw combination, so the debate can quickly get heated.

This article was first published Jul 2, 2022 and updated Feb 25, 2024.

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