Laid-back, eccentric Memphis is a city built by music, where the streets can often feel like a throwback to another era.

Whether you’re strolling the brick-lined byways of downtown or sliding into a booth at a Midtown dive bar, there’s often a whiff of the past lingering in the alleyways and between the stage curtains here. In Memphis, it’s still easy to imagine a young BB King carrying his guitar along Beale St, or a teenage Elvis Presley deploying the lessons he learned there to thrill a crowd at the Overton Park Shell. Little imagination is needed to envision Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes strolling beneath the studio signs at Stax Records, or to walk in the footsteps of Johnny Cash at Sun Studio.

Memphis has kept its music history alive. And while the city’s most popular tourist attraction, Graceland, can be seen as a kitschy shrine to the late King of Rock ’n’ Roll, other corners of this soulful, Southern city invite travelers to cut a rug and help its sounds continue to thrive. 

Here are the best ways to get to know Memphis.

A pair of people look at an exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, USA
At the can’t-miss National Civil Rights Museum, the history grim, defiant and powerful © Joe Sills / Lonely Planet

1. Reflect at the National Civil Rights Museum

Anchoring downtown Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum is a solemn reminder of the price paid for progress. The institution encompasses the former Lorraine Motel, whose balconies became known globally as the site where civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr was gunned down by an assassin in 1968.

A wreath marks the location of the tragedy outside; inside, an immersive story of America’s civil rights movement unfolds – a difficult but critical starting point that no visitor to Memphis should miss. The history here is grim, defiant and powerful. And it’s impossible to truly appreciate the city’s connection to the nation without exploring that past in depth.

Bright lights and signs outside clubs on Beale St, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
The best plan for the music joints and bars of Beale St? To have no plan on Beale St © Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

2. Find bonafide blues on Beale St

The electric glow of neon signs arching over Beale St in downtown Memphis is impossible to miss. This famous street rose to fame as a magnet for the city’s Black-owned businesses – from a newspaper edited by Ida B Wells to department stores owned by Robert Church, the South’s first Black millionaire. In the early 20th century, musicians ranging from jazz maestros WC Handy and Louis Armstrong to blues legends like Muddy Waters and BB King cut their teeth on Beale. Their music, and the music of early rock ’n’ roll and soul pioneers can still be heard live on Beale St, seven days a week.

Though tunes are on deck year-round, blues hounds from across the globe make the pilgrimage to Beale St sidewalks each January for the International Blues Challenge, during which hundreds of artists square off in an epic, four-day battle of the bands.

Planning tip: The best plan for Beale St? To have no plan on Beale St. The thoroughfare is home to dozens of bars, restaurants and juke joints all featuring some of the most talented musicians in the area. While larger venues like BB Kings Blues Club and the Rum Boogie Cafe host full bands, save room for smaller venues like Blues Hall or The Pig on Beale to check out acts like solo artists and trios. 

A man looks at old records, posters and photos encased in a large display at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Music lovers shouldn’t miss the exhibits at Sun Studio, where the first-ever rock ’n’ roll album was cut © James Kirkikis / Shutterstock

3. Explore the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll at Sun Studio

Perhaps no recording studio in the country was as perfectly positioned to take advantage of the evolution of the Delta blues as the one operated by Sam Phillips on Union Ave. The doors of Sun Studio sit just over a mile off of Beale St, and they house one of the most captivating collections of music history in the country – one where even minute details have immense stories to tell.

An unassuming vinyl record sits behind glass in the upstairs museum here. Its label doesn’t bear the name of any of the artists this legendary recording service is famous for – no Elvis Presley, no Jerry Lee Lewis, no Johnny Cash, no Carl Perkins. But this dusty relic, from 1951, might be more important than them all. One of the first pressings of an album that would make its way north to Chess Records in Chicago, the record is labeled “Rocket 88,” and it is widely credited as the very first rock ’n’ roll hit.

Rock ’n’ roll was literally born in Memphis, and seven decades after giving birth to the sounds that permanently transformed pop music across the globe, Sun Studio remains a sacred site that’s well worth the two-hour tour. 

The interior of Tiger & Peacock, the rooftop bar at The Memphian hotel, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
In Midtown, be sure to grab a cocktail at Tiger & Peacock, the stylish new rooftop bar at The Memphian hotel © courtesy of The Memphian

4. Make your way to Midtown

Performing arts take center stage in Midtown, where a cluster of theaters host exciting productions year-round. Take in a show at the Hattiloo Theatre, the only freestanding Black repertory theater in the region. Cozy up to a live performance at historic Playhouse on the Square or marvel at the movements of Ballet Memphis.

Each theater flanks Overton Sq, a historic entertainment district where some of the city’s best fusion restaurants – we love The Second LineBoscos Squared and Complicated Pilgrim – showcase a side of the city’s food scene that goes beyond barbecue. Meanwhile, newly opened boutique hotel The Memphian serves up sunset views of the square from its rooftop cocktail bar, Tiger & Peacock.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music occupies the site of Stax Studio, Memphis, Tennesee, USA
At the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrate the hits of the label’s famous roster, which included Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding © Pierre Jean Durieu / Shutterstock

5. Saunter through Soulsville

Nestled into a neighborhood just south of downtown, Soulsville encompasses a musical history just as rich as Beale St and Union Ave.

The Southern rival to Motown – one with an all-star roster featuring Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T & the MG – Stax pumped out a staggering 167 Top 100 hits in just 15 years while showcasing a mixed-race house band, which brought together the best of Memphis’s blues and rock ’n’ roll artists.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is the modern-day centerpiece of Soulsville. Carved out of the studio’s former digs, the museum spotlights the chart-topping hits of Stax artists, as well as the resounding impact those artists created in the era’s civil rights movement.

Local tip: Swing by The Four Way Soul Food Restaurant to satisfy your appetite in one of the city’s most famous spots for home cooking, or stretch your legs at Memphis Rox, a world-class nonprofit community climbing center that welcomes guests daily.

Pool room in Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
As you tour Elvis Presley’s onetime home, you’ll admire his, um, eclectic taste in decor © jejim / Shutterstock

6. Get lost in the glamor of Graceland

Nearly fifty years after Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, the grounds of his former Memphis home and headquarters at Graceland remain hallowed ground for music fans. Presley and members of his family are buried on the grounds of a home that is as bizarre as it is grandiose.

Visitors to Graceland gain access to a 200,000-sq-ft (18,580-sq-m) entertainment complex that showcases the life of one of the planet’s first global superstars. Though travelers are unlikely to find many locals at Graceland, they’re virtually guaranteed to encounter a host of other world travelers soaking in the ambiance of the Jungle Room, Elvis’s hall of gold records and the gold-plated bathroom on his private jet.

If you want to really do it up, Graceland recently completed a $137-million renovation that includes a full-scale concert venue, Graceland Live, and a four-star luxury retreat, The Guest House at Graceland

Planning tip: A hidden gem of history hides just around the corner from Graceland. Hernando’s Hide-A-Way was once a favorite haunt for rock ’n’ rollers like The King, as well as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Disused for decades, Hernando’s is now a restored rockabilly roadhouse welcoming visitors with live music and a full menu of Southern-fried treats. 

A woman serves barbecue to diners at Central BBQ, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
No visit to Memphis is complete with out barbecue – and Central BBQ has some of the best in town © courtesy Central BBQ

7. Spend a weekend night on South Main

A former warehouse district just two blocks from the Mississippi River boasts some of the best weekend nightlife in Memphis. Broadly encompassing the remainder of downtown south of Beale St, the South Main Arts District is home to rooftop views of the Mississippi River at Beck & Call, hyper-popular craft-beer maker Wiseacre Brewing Co., iconic barbecue joint Central BBQ, and a host of cocktail and dive bars serving a range of libations from bargain-basket beer buckets to artfully crafted craft cocktails. 

Local tip: One of the best dive bars in America sits on the corner of South Main St and GE Patterson. On weekend nights at Earnestine & Hazels, visitors can dance the night away to a house band featuring live horns, rock ’n’ roll, soul and blues. But the bar’s real secret lies upstairs, at Nate’s Bar. There, Nate Barnes has been tending to a low-lit corner bar since the 1990s – in a space that once housed a brothel. 

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