Soul music, the blues and rock ‘n roll. Dry rub ribs and BBQ. Ducks who live in a luxury hotel? Memphis is one of the most unique cities in the USA. It’s weird and wonderful, historical and cultural, meaningful and impactful, and charmingly approachable. A weekend in Memphis is just enough to give you a taste of this incredible city – and leave you wanting to return for more!
Although I grew up in nearby Louisville, Kentucky, I didn’t visit Memphis until recently. I’m not quite sure why I never made the trip: it’s an amazing city that seems to always be in the shadow of other amazing cities. It’s as musical as its neighbor Nashville, just three hours away, but it has a completely different vibe. It’s got BBQ and quirkiness and live music that competes with Austin, but a sound and flavor all its own. And it’s got soul and nuance and depth like New Orleans, but with a history that’s deeply American.
We found ourselves drawn to Memphis and the stories it tells – and the stories told about it – in a way that’s pulled us back ever since. To fully grasp it, you just have to visit.
So pack your blue suede shoes and hop on the last train to Memphis, and let’s go!
Memphis At-a-Glance ✍
Here’s a bite-sized snapshot of everything you need to know to plan your trip!
- When to Go: April-May or October-November. Summers are lovely but hot.
- Where to Stay: Stay in Downtown. This gorgeous condo is walking distance to Beale Street and the Civil Rights Museum, or check out the nearby The Hotel Napoleon and the MOXY Memphis Downtown.
- How to Get Around: Much of downtown is walkable, but I do recommend a car. Check DiscoverCars to find the cheapest rental car rates.
- Top 3 Highlights: The powerful National Civil Rights Museum, ribs at Central BBQ (across from the museum), and Beale Street after dark!
- Before You Go: Read this excellent book to learn all about the history, legacy, and soul of Beale Street.
Psst: Planning a trip to the Tennesse? Check out some of our other favorite nearby destinations!
- The Perfect Weekend in Nashville, Tennessee
- 50 Things to Do in Louisville, Kentucky
- 12 Epic Things to Do in Smoky Mountain National Park
- The Perfect Weekend in Austin, Texas, 3 Day Itinerary
By the way: We’ve compiled our itinerary into a super handy, 1-page downloadable and printable map! Print it out or load it up on your phone so you can easily navigate from place to place. Enter your email below and we’ll send the itinerary right to your inbox!
Things to Know about Memphis, Tennessee
I like to have some context before I visit places. And I’m gonna be honest: my context for Memphis was very, very limited before this trip. I knew Memphis was the home of Graceland, and I knew it was an important musical destination. That’s … about it.
But Memphis is so much more. So here’s what you need to know about Memphis. Like, not the useful stuff, but the important stuff. The useful stuff will come later, I promise.
- Memphis is weird.
I say this in the best way and with the utmost affection. Louisville is weird, too. So is Austin. So is Portland. Our other home, San Francisco? It’s the capital of weirdness.
So that means that Memphis fits right up there with all of my favorite places in the USA. I didn’t actually realize how weird Memphis was until this trip. But y’all, it’s a thing. And don’t just take my word for it. Locals will proudly tell you that Memphis is weird. How did it take me so long to visit this place?!
- Memphis is named after an ancient city in Egypt.
Memphis, Egypt was a huge deal. It was located on the Nile River near the Giza Plateau and was incredibly powerful in its day. History is unclear about how good the music and BBQ were during this period, but we can only assume the best.
- Memphis sits in the Mississippi Delta, directly on the Mississippi River itself, which I guess is where the whole Egyptian thing came from.
As a river girl myself – Ohio River, that is – I just feel that this is important. Historically speaking, the Mississippi River did pay a pivotal role in what made Memphis the hub of culture, music, and food that it has been for the past 100+ years.
Plus, it makes for lovely, poetic song lyrics that double as instructions for driving to Memphis. You know: “The Mississippi Delta / Was shining like a national guitar / I am following the river / Down the highway / Through the cradle of the Civil War.” Damn, Paul Simon. You’re better than my GPS.
- There is a giant pyramid in Memphis.
Because, Egypt. (I know, weird, right?) It’s this giant metal building and you can’t miss it because when you’re walking in Memphis (you just sang that in your head in Marc Cohn’s voice, didn’t you?)
It will flash beckoningly at you like a giant, mirrored vision of Egyptianism. You won’t be able to not see it.
So what is a giant chrome Pyramid doing in Memphis, Tennessee? Duh, it’s a huge Bass Pro Shop. And there are live animals and a viewing tower at the top! So pretty much what you’d expect, if what you were expecting was the exact opposite of what we were expecting.
- There are ducks living in a luxury hotel in downtown Memphis.
I did mention the ducks, didn’t I? Yes, y’all. Memphis is home to some ducks that live in a luxurious, historic hotel called the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody Ducks live on a roof and spend their days flapping around the fountain splashing water at each other and making cute little quacking noises.
It is, hands down, the cutest thing ever. And attending the Peabody Ducks’ daily commute from the roof to their little fountain is a Must-Do Activity on your weekend in Memphis – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
- Memphis is one of the national homes of delicious BBQ.
It is in that prized, elite group of USA cities smoking, grilling, and frying up that all-American flavor that just can’t be beat or replicated anywhere else. And oh my god, it’s so good. In fact, Memphis ribs are my personal favorite kind of BBQ in the entire country. There, I said it! Texas brisket is my second favorite.
As a huge plus, Memphis specializes in dry ribs, so you can get away with wearing a cute shirt and not end up looking like an accident victim!
- Memphis is the birthplace of both rock n’ roll and soul music.
But it’s also “Home of the Blues” and the blues is what started it all. That rockin’, feet-stomping, dance-inspiring sound came up out of the Mississippi Delta and blossomed in Memphis, and it’s the origin of both rock n’ roll AND soul music. Both genres are rooted in Memphis.
Sun Studios created what we know and love as rock n’ roll: legend has it that a wad of newspaper stuffed into Ike Turner’s broken amp was what gave birth to that iconic distorted guitar sound. (Oh, and a talented young man you may have heard of, named Elvis.)
Then there’s Stax Records, one of the originators of the soul sound and the heart of Memphis Soul. You can’t talk about rhythm & blues or soul without also talking about race, as these are Black musical genres that evolved to give voice to a shared experience.
We learned about the origin stories of both rock n’ roll and soul in Memphis, and were deeply fascinated and moved by both. Their story will be woven into your weekend in Memphis.
- Memphis is mentioned in more songs than any other place, ever.
Yes, it’s true. No, it’s not New York (I was surprised, too). There are 1,000 songs and counting about Memphis. Here’s the list, if you’re curious, and here’s the top 100 if you just want the abridged version. Bonus creativity points to the 63 of them which are all just titled “Memphis”.
We did listen to a Memphis Soundtrack during our entire trip to Memphis, and it turns out that there is a Memphis song for everything. We put on “Going to Memphis” as we left Louisville, then “Halfway to Memphis” when we hit Nashville. We switched to “Where the Hell is Memphis” when we took a wrong turn and got lost.
Once we arrived, it was “Walking in Memphis” and, as we were going to Graceland, “Graceland.” We left Memphis to the tunes of “Headed Out of Memphis,” and “Leavin’ Memphis, Frisco Bound,” which was perfect because we were literally leaving to move cross-country to San Francisco. Amazing, right?
If you’re the type to create a themed travel soundtrack for each of your trips (in which case, did we just become best friends??) you’re gonna love the fact that I included a soundtrack for each stop on your weekend in Memphis, AND created a soundtrack in Spotify too! So go ahead and put that on and let’s get going.
Right, so. You didn’t come here to listen to me blather on about how cute the Peabody Ducks, did you? (If you did … stay tuned.) You came here to find out all about what to do on your weekend in Memphis!
Well, here we are. 1500 words later, I’m finally starting the informative part of this post. Oh my god, is there an award for “wordiest travel blogger?” I’d win, hands down.
Weekend in Memphis: Friday
Your weekend in Memphis begins on Friday. You’ll want to arrive in Memphis before 4pm to give you plenty of time to check into your hotel and head to your first stop!
By the way, now is a good time to hit play on that Memphis playlist…
- Soundtrack: “Going to Memphis” and “Halfway to Memphis“
Meet the Peabody Ducks
Yes, your very first stop in Memphis will be to catch the nightly parade of the adorable Peabody Ducks at the historic Peabody Hotel! I can’t imagine a better way to say hello to Memphis.
The Peabody Ducks live on a roof in their own little Chateau du Canard (I don’t speak French, but I’m pretty sure that’s like the duck equivalent of the Chateau Marmont, right?) for only 3 months out of the year, so it’s like a little duck vacation.
Every day, the ducks waddle into the elevator, bobble down to the lobby, and awkwardly flop their way into the fountain. Then they paddle around the fountain splashing water at each other and making cute little quacking noises and generally being the most adorable thing ever for a few hours, before flopping out of the fountain, waddling back into the elevator, and settling in for the night on the roof again.
And their morning and evening commutes are a major red carpet affair, complete with a Duckmster to chaperone them and crowds of adoring fans to cheer on their every waddle! Yes, it’s all as wonderfully weird as it sounds.
Speaking of which … can I like … humble brag/gush for a sec??
Through some kind of glorious twist of magical fate (and the Memphis Tourism Board), I was offered the opportunity to be the Honorary Duckmaster of the Peabody Ducks. This is the biggest of deals. The list of Honorary Duckmasters includes Oprah Winfrey, Paula Deen, Gene Simmons, The Cookie Monster, and apparently, me. I just wish we could all get together to have a dinner party. I think we’d have a lot to talk about.
Anyway, so following in the famous footsteps of some Extremely Famous People, I was the Honorary Duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel during our visit.
And let me tell you: nothing that I do in life will ever be this legit again. There were crowds of people watching. Not like, a few people. Like, hundreds of people. The ducks had their own red carpet rolled out, and to help shepherd their journey, I was given what is now my most prized possession in life: a duck cane. Guess what?! They sell these in the gift shop. Someone please go buy one so we can be Duck Cane twins!!
It was my job to help herd the ducks down the red carpet through the cheering throngs of people and flashing camera bulbs into the elevator and up to their duck mansion. Just read that sentence again and try to tell me that this was not the highlight of my entire life. It’s all downhill from here. That was it.
Not only did I get my 5 minutes of duck-filled fame (and some yummy duck-shaped cookies, too!), but for the rest of our trip to Memphis, people kept stopping me on the street like “oh my god, you’re HER! The Honorary Duckmaster!!!”
…Ok, fine: it happened one time, and the guy wasn’t anywhere near as excited to spot me as I was to be spotted, BUT STILL. I didn’t start a blog because I don’t like attention, y’all. Being the Honorary Duckmaster was EVERYTHING I’ve ever dreamed of. I’ve never felt like a bigger deal in my life. A+ 100% would recommend to absolutely everyone.
Oh, and guess what? You can be the Honorary Duckmaster too, as long as you’ve some spare cash lying around to spend on fame, fortune, and fluffy waddling duck antics. Ahem: this is the top item on my Christmas list now, so. You know. Hint hint.
Travel Tip: Arrive early to snag a seat or standing room by the “red carpet” leading to the elevator, as the lobby WILL fill up. And after you watch the ducks hop into the elevator, follow them up to the roof to take in some amazing views of downtown Memphis!
- The Peabody Hotel | Address: 149 Union Ave., Memphis, Tennessee
Friday Night Dinner & Drinks
We’re giving you a couple of choices for Friday night dinner. First up is just around the block: The Rendezvous is located just in a quiet alley in the shadow of the Peabody Hotel. It’s a little hard to find, but look for the bright pink mural (you know, the one I was waving my Duck Cane around in front of).
Memphis is a BBQ town, and we could happily spend an entire weekend consuming dry-rub ribs – and this is one of the best spots in town to try them! Don’t believe us? Well, Justin Timberlake says so, too. And he’s a local.
- The Rendezvous | Address: 52 S. Second Street, Memphis, TN
If you’re down for something a little bit different, head to Railgarten. There’s a ping-pong bar, an outdoor entertainment area, an ice cream shop… an incredible restaurant, too!
We highly recommend the RG Poutine, which consists of duck fat fries (sorry ducks!), coffee rubbed pulled pork, slaw, gravy, and cheese curds.
You could definitely stay here all night and have an amazing night, but we’ve got another suggestion in mind…
- Railgarten | Address: 2166 Central Ave., Memphis, Tennessee
Friday Night Out: Live Music in Memphis
There are endless opportunities to see live music in Memphis. Like, you’d actually have to TRY avoiding live music.
Chances are, just walking in Memphis (ehhhh? How many times can I make this joke before it gets old?! Let’s find out!) you’ll walk past several bars playing some of the best soul, jazz, or rock n’ roll you’ve ever heard, a couple of bands playing in a park somewhere, and maybe even a few people just singing to themselves.
The music of Memphis is its heart and soul. So of course, you’ll spend Friday night at a concert or a show in Memphis!
Of course, you can find Live Music just walking down Beale Street. But there are many other places to catch live music in Memphis – this list of music venues outside of Beale Street has a ton of suggestions.
You can also check out this comprehensive Memphis Live Music Calendar see what’s happening in Memphis during your visit, like the free concerts outdoors at Levitt Shell during summer. Just be sure to look in advance so you know whether you need to buy tickets or switch your Friday & Saturday night plans!
Friday Late Night Dessert
It’s a bit of a drive, but the donuts at Gibson’s Donuts are well worth it. Plus, this amazing donut shop is open 24/7, so you can stop by to cure those late-night sugar cravings at 2am without judgment.
Personally I like to think of mutual diet-enabling as one of the most romantic aspects of my marriage, and if stuffing your face with a Maple Bacon Donut or a Girl Scout Cookie Samoa donut isn’t the pinnacle of romance, I don’t want to know what is.
- Gibson’s Donuts | Address: 760 Mount Moriah Rd., Memphis, Tennessee
Saturday in Memphis: All About the Music
Your Saturday in Memphis is all about the stars and history of Memphis music. You’ll fuel up and knock out 3 different music-focused stops, so that by the end of the day, you’ll know a LOT more about the music of Memphis than you probably do now.
By the time you roll up to Beale Street to stroll down the coolest street in Memphis, you’ll have a lot more appreciation for the history and music still pouring out of the windows lining both sides of the street.
Logistical Note: All three of your Memphis destinations for today are on the FREE Sun Studio Shuttle, so you can leave your car at any of the 3 and take the free shuttle in between each. We recommend starting at Graceland (and leaving your car there) even though it costs $10 mostly because it’s outside of town and there’s a giant parking lot, while the other 2 are right in town which makes parking more of a challenge.
- Saturday Soundtrack: “Hello, Memphis,” “Graceland,” “Walking in Memphis,” “Memphis Soul Stew,” and “Beale Street on a Saturday Night”
Saturday Morning Coffee
If you’re staying downtown, head to Tamp & Tap to get a perfectly balanced cup of single-origin heaven or a fun coffee drink like cold brew with cinnamon-chicory & cream or a dark chocolate & raspberry latte.
- Tamp & Tap | Address: 122 Gayoso Ave., Memphis, Tennessee
Or, head to Muggin Coffee House, a locally-owned coffee shop just down the street from Graceland (your next stop!) that serves up deliciously sweet treats that will perk you right up, like the Bourbon Machiatto made with bourbon caramel syrup, espresso, milk & a caramel drizzle.
- Muggin Coffee House | Address: 1139 Brownlee Rd, Memphis, TN
There are a ton of amazing places to get weekend brunch or breakfast in Memphis (like these), but the downside is that many of them are at least a 15 minute drive away from the city center. But you’re heading out of downtown anyway, since your first stop of the day is Graceland!
So, head to the Whitehaven neighborhood to one of these local restaurants for a filling breakfast:
- Eggxactly Breakfast & Deli: Chicken and waffles, Bourbon french toast, bananas foster … honestly, pick anything, becasue it’s all delicious. Trust us: you’re not going to leave hungry.
- Egg King Cafe: Made-to-order diner food served with Southern hospitality, right on Elvis Presley Boulevard (and hey – Elvis loved classic diner food.) Try a Chicken Biscuit or some fluffy pancakes, or dive right in with a rib-eye steak served with grits and eggs. Yes, y’all, steak for breakfast. Welcome to the South!
You’re Going to Graceland
That coffee and giant breakfast better have fueled you up, because you’re going to Graceland! Obviously, on the way there you’ll be listening to “Graceland” by Paul Simon.
You’ll be touring Elvis Presley’s home, which is exactly the type of mansion you’d expect from a nice young man who suddenly became very famous. (I imagine Justin Bieber’s home looks similar).
Without giving away the many secrets of Graceland, I just want to say that I have mad respect for anyone with enough self-love to decorate using both self-portraits AND mirrors, so that everywhere you turn, you see your own gorgeous face. I’m taking décor notes. Allow yourself a few hours to see all that Graceland has to offer.
- Graceland | Address: 3717 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis, Tennessee | Book a tour
Tour the Rock ‘N Soul Museum
Elvis and Rock n’ Roll are only one half of the Memphis music equation: soul is the other half. Well OK, there’s the Memphis blues too, but they led to soul. You’ll learn about them both at the Rock ‘N Soul Museum.
Curated by the Smithsonian Institute, the museum tells the complete story of both sides of the Memphis whole, which are intertwined musically, politically, and racially.
While most of your stops today are focused more on rock n’ roll than soul, don’t worry: you’ll be getting plenty more soul tomorrow at STAX. The Rock ‘N Soul museum will give you a great context for tomorrow’s itinerary. Almost like we planned it that way. Muahaha.
Travel Tip: Pick up a ticket online to skip the line and save time! Hey, did that rhyme? I’ll be a Memphis musician in no time. ...I’ll see myself out.
- Rock ‘N Soul Museum | Buy Tickets Online | Address: 191 Beale St., Memphis, Tennessee | Buy Tickets Online
Tour Sun Studio
Sun Studio is where rock greats like Elvis and Johnny Cash got their start. Also Jerry Lee Lewis, a dude who once married his 13-year-old cousin while he was still married to someone else, is currently on his 7th wife – 2 of them died mysteriously – and is nicknamed Killer because he tried to strangle one of his teachers in high school.
Sadly, none of that was mentioned on the tour, so if you’re curious, do your research beforehand.
But anyway, you’ll get to tour Sun Studio and imagine hanging out and listening to some of the very first rock ‘n roll greats. It’s a fun, short tour that you can do in about 30 minutes, which is perfect because by now you’re probably getting very close to hanger time.
- Sun Studio | Address: 706 Union Ave., Memphis, Tennessee
Saturday Night Dinner
I still dream about the catfish from Blues City Café on Beale Street. It’s … oh my goodness, y’all. It’s just *chef’s kiss*
From the smoky, succulent ribs to the flaky, crunchy fried catfish to the magical spice they provide at the table (we covered our food with about half the container and then bought our own to take home… and have since purchased 3 more bottles) everything here is so, so, so good.
We both got combo platters so we could try ribs and catfish, which was perfect. We also got a bowl of Memphis Soul Stew, mostly just so we could listen to the song. My one great regret in life is that we were too full to try an apple dumpling or slice of pecan pie for dessert. #firstworldproblems
- Blues City Café | Address: 138 Beale St, Memphis, Tennessee
Dance Your Way Down Beale Street
America’s most iconic street since the 1800’s, the history of Beale Street is fascinating and important. From its earliest days it was the site of activism, home to the radical anti-segregation newspaper Free Speech, co-owned and edited by NAACP founder Ida B. Wells (one of the most badass babes in history). It was also home to musicians, artists, brothels, and of course, the most fun bars and clubs in town.
The first Black millionaire of the south was Robert Church, who purchased the land around Beale Street – a savvy investment after a yellow fever epidemic left the city scrambling for funds.
Since its early days, Beale Street was a place where you could be freely Black. You could open a business. You could publish a radical, anti-racist newspaper. You could sing and write about the challenges of being Black in a deeply racist country.
The creativity flowing from this mecca of Black talent even attracted white folk, like Elvis Presley, whose style was deeply influenced (some may say appropriated) by the music created by Black artists on Beale Street.
Today, you’ll hear many an optimist describe Beale Street as one of the first truly de-segregated places in the south.
Today, Beale Street is still an amazing and vibrant place to visit, though we think knowing its history makes it even more impactful. We recommend booking a Beale Street Walking Tour to learn more about the history of this incredible place!
If you show up around sunset, Beale Street will just be coming alive with the sights and sounds of Memphis. You’ll see the incredible Beale Street Flippers, a street performer group that should be our next Olympic gymnastics team. If you watch NBA basketball, you’ve probably seen them in the half-time show. Yep, they’re from Memphis – and they still perform live right on Beale Street!
Walking down Beale Street is like flipping through channels on a radio: each brightly lit, neon-signed door has a new sound coming from it, a different genre, a different era.
Our favorite act by far was in Handy Park, where a band was playing soul to a small but enthusiastic audience, all dancing, singing along, and having a blast. The vibe of Beale Street is alive and well and can be found right here on the street and in the locals who still feel the soul of Memphis running through their veins!
- Beale Street | Historic Walking Tour | Address: Beale St., Memphis, Tennessee
Sunday in Memphis: Soul, Civil Rights, and BBQ
Saturday’s itinerary was all about the music; Sunday’s is all about the history and culture, the story of Memphis, and what makes it the unique city it is today. The story of Memphis is also the story of Black America: from the thriving Black culture and wealth that surrounded Beale Street, to art, music, and food that was born in and created by the Black community, to the integral role Memphis played in the Civil Rights Movement, including becoming the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
Here’s the thing: Memphis isn’t just “the home of Rock ‘N Roll.” You can’t credit Memphis with creating Rock ‘N Roll without also crediting Soul for and Blues for inspiring Rock ‘N Roll. And you can’t talk about soul and blues without talking about race.
These musical genres were born from a shared experience of Blackness, a shared experience felt by a displaced population who did not speak one another’s language but felt the universal language of suffering way back when they were enslaved and sang field songs that spoke to the depth of their pain as they worked under whip and lash in the hot sun.
Those field songs later became gospel and blues, which became Soul and Motown, which in turn jumped the fence and became Rock ‘N Roll: a genre rooted in Black rhythm but no longer a Black musical genre.
To speak about the music of Memphis without addressing its racial history head-on would be doing a disservice to many talented musicians who paved the way. Like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a badass babe known as the grandmother of Rock ‘N Roll: a Black woman of the church with a rockin’ guitar who was the first to develop and influenced what would later become Rock ‘N Roll.
And so your Sunday in Memphis itinerary focuses on race, politics, Civil Rights, and soul music. You are diving right into the heart of Memphis, looking it straight in the eye, acknowledging it, feeling it, learning from it, and gaining a deep, loving appreciation for it.
- Sunday Soundtrack: “Soul Man, “Why I Sing The Blues,” “Green Onions,” “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)“
Sunday Morning Brunch
Grab a perfectly poured coffee to-go at Dr. Bean’s Coffee and Tea and head to Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest café. Dating back to 1919, this classic diner serves up breakfast staples like Country Fried Steak, Chicken & Dumplings and Sweet Potato Pancakes.
The 1950’s era restaurant is a trip back in town and a Memphis institution. Elvis was a regular. It’s featured in a Justin Timberlake music video, as well as in Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, The Client, The Firm, 21 Grams, Walk the Line, and My Blueberry Nights.
You can order the pancakes like Danny DeVito did in Rainmaker, or the chili like Orlando Bloom does in Elizabethtown (my fave mostly because it was set and filmed in my hometown, Louisville!)
Just don’t forget to take a photo in front of the iconic facade. After all, it’s what the celebrities do!
- Arcade Restaurant | Address: 540 S Main St., Memphis, Tennessee
Visit the National Civil Rights Museum
Your next stop of the day is less than 5 minutes away on foot: National Civil Rights Museum.
Heads up: visiting the Civil Rights Museum is heavy. But without hyperbole, I can say without hesitation that the National Civil Rights Museum is hand down one of the best museums I have ever visited in my life, if not THE best, anywhere in the world. It is a museum capable of reducing you to tears – and then building you right back up again.
The detail, the depth of information, the meticulous design, and immersive displays set this museum a cut above any other museum I’ve ever visited. You will leave this museum feeling moved. You might also feel inspired. Hopeful. Enlightened. This is a powerful place.
It’s not just that the museum is in the Lorraine Motel, the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. It’s not just that you’ll read about his final moments while standing where he stood, or walk across the street to trace the steps of his killer, and then trace the conspiracy theories surrounding the mysterious events that led an unmotivated man to murder the most influential Black man of that time.
No, that’s not all that makes the National Civil Rights Museum so powerful.
It is the entire museum. It is every moment of the Civil Rights Movement, laid bare and without the fast-forwarding that we did in history class, where we talked only about the “highlights.” The Museum talks about the moments in between. The daily struggle and acts of heroism of regular Black folk. The incredible drive, organization, and strength of both adults… and students.
Yes, students: high school students and college students, who organized and mobilized to create SNCC: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. These amazing young people got together to learn to fight, to rebel, to resist, to protest. They were as much a part of the Freedom Rides, of sit-ins in the face of angry mobs of white terrorists, and of mobilizing Black voters as the group of fully grown adults led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Children as young as 14 signed their wills and chose to participate in dangerous activism activities daily, fully knowing that they risked their lives every single day. They were beaten, jailed, expelled, and murdered.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Jeremy is a high school teacher in Oakland, California, and we could not help but think of his kids as we read about the incredible bravery and integrity of the students, Black and white, who organized and participated in SNCC. Their strength. Their courage. Their determination.
God d*mn, you guys, it was f**king powerful.
If there is one thing you do during your weekend in Memphis, only one, you must visit the National Civil Rights Museum.
It is hands down the most important, impactful, meaningful, and powerful thing we did during our entire trip. That visit has stayed with us. ‘And as anti-racist activists ourselves, it has inspired us and challenged us to stay mobilized, to stay active, to never let our fear or our laziness stand in the way of doing what is right to fight the racism that is still alive and prevalent in the United States of America today. Because if children can give their f**king lives so that their peers can have basic human rights, how the hell can we possibly justify sitting around and doing nothing?
I hope I’ve gotten my point across because I feel like I could write about this amazing museum for pages. Go. Now!!
- National Civil Rights Museum | Address: 450 Mulberry St., Memphis, Tennessee
Sunday Lunch (& Dessert)
Directly across from the National Civil Rights Museum is Central BBQ, one of the best BBQ restaurants in Memphis. There’s pretty much always a line, which is OK because you’re going to have a LOT to talk about after the Civil Rights Museum.
We recommend the ribs, because it’s Memphis and of course the ribs are amazing, right?
Just down the street from Central BBQ you’ll find Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies, a tiny hole-in-the-wall cookie shop serving up the best butter cookies we’ve ever had in our lives.
Makeda’s Cookies is named after Makeda Denise Hill, the owner’s niece, who lost her battle with leukemia at the age of 7. The shop was created to keep her memory alive and well. We were fortunate enough to meet the owner, who was working on a few new amazing butter cookie recipes and was generous enough to let us try every single one of them. We were instantly hooked!
And .. yes, we absolutely went back for a bag of cookies to take home with us. And so should you!
- Central BBQ | Address: 149 E Butler Ave., Memphis, Tennessee
- Makeda’s Cookies | Address: 488 S. Second, Memphis, Tennessee
Tour the Stax Museum
After lunch, it’s time to head to your last stop in Memphis: Stax Museum1 If you’re unfamiliar with Stax, it was basically THE recording studio for soul musicians from the 60’s to the mid 70’s. Detroit had Motown; Memphis had Stax.
Artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding (of “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay” fame, one of San Francisco’s favorite songs and the last he ever recorded before being killed in a plane crash), Booker T. And the MGs, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla Thomas (if you’ve seen Baby Driver, you’ve heard one of Carla Thomas’ songs, “B-A-B-Y”) and more.
And of course, because this was the 60’s and soul music is a Black musical genre, the music at STAX was intertwined with racial tension.
Our experience at the Stax Museum was definitely enhanced by touring the Civil Rights Museum beforehand, as many of the impactful events affecting Stax were key moments in the Civil Rights Movement as well. Stax Records was described as a “race-free” zone (in the tearful words of one of its white musicians, to which I raise an eyebrow skeptically) where Blacks and whites integrated freely and it was all about the music … until it couldn’t be all about the music anymore, because the Black musicians at Stax couldn’t leave their race at the door and walk inside to record carefree songs while their friends and families were being murdered and beaten daily on the streets.
Race crept into Stax, and the musicians who couldn’t embrace that change left. And as the music became more revolutionary and less pleasing to the white ear, the money began to leave, too. You can guess what happened next. Stax Records was as much a victim of racism as its musicians.
The story at Stax is every bit as fascinating and inspiring as the story of the country as a whole at that time. This is exactly why we were so intrigued by Memphis: its history, its culture, its music, and its politics are all intertwined, which it what makes it both so interesting and so meaningful.
It’s one thing to tour some recording studios and think “oh, that’s cool, I like that music.” It is another to connect the dots between a recording studio, real moments in recent history that made huge and impactful change, and racial, political, and socioeconomic ramifications that are still at play today.
Our favorite part of touring the Stax Museum was that there is STILL live music pouring out of this musical mecca! We had the chance to sit and watch an amazing free live concert by local soul/pop artist Nick Black, who not only covered some of the most famous songs from Stax musicians, but also NAILED a Justin Timberlake song (another talented Memphis musician, did you know?). This dude can sing like a damn angel AND he rocks long hair with the kind of man-bun-free panache that makes me want to know all of his haircare secrets. Seriously, check out his awesome Youtube Channel and just try not to swoon (or laugh). It’s legit impossible.
The other thing we LOVED about Stax is the Stax Music Academy, An incredible music program for talented young people – particularly youth of color – the Stax Music Academy continues the legend of Stax to nurture, foster, and educate talented musicians right here in Memphis, in the neighborhood that has long been called Soulsville. You can support the Stax Music Academy by donating or by visiting and catching one of their amazing performances!
Travel Tip: Pick up a ticket online and you’ll save time once you arrive.
- Stax Museum | Buy a Ticket | Address: 926 E McLemore Ave., Memphis, Tennessee
Sadly, your amazing weekend in Memphis has to come to an end. Stock up on butter cookies for the ride (or flight) back home, but don’t worry – you’ll be transported right back to Memphis every time you listen to its incredible music!
Where to Stay in Memphis, Tennessee
There are lots of options for where to stay in Memphis. We stayed right in downtown, which was super convenient thanks to its proximity to Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Peabody Ducks. Speaking of: if you can swing it, staying at the Peabody Hotel is WELL worth the splurge!
Here are the best places to stay in downtown Memphis:
- Stay in a Vacation Rental: This gorgeous modern condo in the South Main Arts District is walking distance to Beale Street and the Civil Rights Museum. (Tip: We recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.)
- Mid-Range Boutique Hotels: The Hotel Napoleon is very conveniently located in central downtown just 5 minutes on foot from Beale Street, as is the surprisingly cool MOXY Memphis Downtown.
Weekend in Memphis Itinerary Summary
I know, I know – this is a long AF post. Y’all, don’t ever say we aren’t thorough. Luckily for you, we’ve compiled our itinerary into a super handy, 1-page downloadable and printable map!
Load it up on your phone so you can easily navigate from place to place, or print it out and make notes on it if you’re my mom/me/my sister/anyone else in my family of obsessive note-takers.
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We hope you enjoy meeting the Peabody Ducks, dancing on Beale Street, vibing at Stax Records, visiting Graceland, and tasting real Memphis BBQ on your weekend in Memphis! We’re dying to go back, so maybe we’ll see you there!
Psst: Planning a trip to Tennessee? Check out some of our other favorite nearby destinations!
- The Perfect Weekend in Nashville, Tennessee
- 50 Awesome Things to Do in Louisville, Kentucky
- 8 Incredible Weekend Getaways in Indiana
- 12 Epic Things to Do in Smoky Mountain National Park
What are you most excited to explore in Memphis? Leave us a comment below!
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Disclaimer: This post, and our trip to Memphis, were sponsored by Memphis Travel. Our itinerary was 100% our own, as are our opinions, political leanings, terrible jokes, and references to the “Duck Cane” which probably has a very respectable real name.
Our Top Travel Tips & Resources
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- What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!
Sounds amazing! Would this itinerary also work during the week rather than the weekend?
Lia Garcia says
Yes, it absolutely would!
Naomi Liz says
Wow, the Civil Rights Museum sounds absolutely amazing. I just finished writing about a tour I did of U Street in Washington, D.C., which was a historically black neighborhood (it was known as the “Black Broadway” in the 20s). It was incredibly interesting, and the last part where they talked about Dr. King’s assassination and the riots that ensued that pretty much destroyed this neighborhood for quite a few decades….it brought me to tears. If you haven’t been, I definitely recommend it. Such an inspiring place with an inspiring (and complicated and tragic and beautiful) history—I can only imagine what that museum was like. I’ve heard of bus tours that go to different Civil Rights sites in the South, and would love to do something like that as well.
That absolutely sounds up our alley. Visiting these places is difficult but so, so important – especially given the current political climate. We need to see and viscerally remember where we’ve been to keep moving forward.
Great post! I’ve been to Memphis last month, It was my second trip there, and loved more than the first time. Totally agree with the mandatory visit to the National Civil Rights Museum and laughed a lot with the “decoration tips” from Graceland. I’m an Elvis fan, but agree the house is weird…
I’ll be honest, I read up to the Peabody Ducks and then freaked out and scrolled down to comment. THAT IS THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER! I can’t believe you got to be Duck Master!!!! I’m sure the little ducks will remember you for the rest of their lives, the greatest Duck Master ever 😉 A couple of years ago we were in Nashville but didn’t make it to Memphis, but one day I’d love to go.
Caitlin Horton says
Love your itinerary! There’s so much to do and see in Memphis – you will not be bored! Super fun that you got to be the Duckmaster 🙂
This article is awesome, thanks for breaking it down into neat sections! Those ducks are so cute – I remember watching a video about a duck hotel, but had no idea it was in Memphis! Definitely adding Memphis to my USA Roadtrip City list 🙂
Love this! Lately I’ve been hearing more and more about Tennessee and am thinking that I need to make a visit out there. Of course, most of the trip will be scheduled around listening to music, visiting music-centric locations, and pretty much eating as much as physically possible!
Sounds like our trip 😛 Definitely make sure to download the printable itinerary, there’s a link to our Memphis spotify playlist on there!
dilan kumara says
very good article. I’ve never given much thought to a Memphis trip, but the city actually sounds pretty legit.
LOVE LOVE LOVE the ducks. I now need to go to Memphis to see the duck parade 😀 I also love the quirkiness of the city, and of course as a rock and blues fan, I’d love to dive into the little bars and music history. Thanks for putting Memphis on the map for me!
Is there a picture of y’all leading the duck parade? I swear, I lost it and I want to do that when I stay there. It just sounds like SUCH a great experience and Memphis sounds like a great place to hang out in terms of food/history.
There is a video, but it’s still in progress! Should be done this weekend.
Great post. This is not a part of the US I have visited yet but definitely on the list to do. The ducks sound amazing! And the Civil Rights Museum is a must visit.
Memphis has been on my must-visit list for the States for a while now but I never had a real reason why beyond the music history. But now I know I need to go for the history beyond that too. You did such a fantastic job of talking about that here and I think it’s definitely something everyone needs to be aware of. Definitely adding the museums to my list!
Meg Cale says
This makes me want to go on a Civil Rights tour of Memphis. It’s beautiful that the people of Memphis have taken such care in preserving such a pivotal historic location. The way you wrote about it reminded me of the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Yes – it’s a total downer but it sounds like both museums should be on the list of MUST see spots in the US.
I’ve been wanting to go to Memphis for the music history for a long time, but I had no idea it was also the home of such a fantastic civil rights museum. Definitely will need to make this trip happen. One question — is a car essential, or would it be possible to enjoy Memphis without one (and without spending a fortune on taxis)?
We had a car which was really helpful, but there are buses in the city (and trollies!) and that free shuttle between a few of the tourist attractions. The Civil Rights museum is really close to downtown and would be an easy Lyft ride, Graceland and some of the food spots are more like a 15 minute drive and would be a bit more expensive. Unfortunately like most US/Midwest cities, it’s not terribly walkable, except for right downtown (we walked from our hotel to Beale Street, to coffee and food, etc). But for a weekend, it’s probably do-able if you don’t mind taking Lyft a few times!
So. I’m headed to Memphis later this year, and I’m excited about going… Except for the Lorraine Hotel. I’m going, it’s happening, but I am literally terrified to go.
I enjoyed your post, yours phots–you are a writer, it shines in your work and the humor is fantastic. Can’t wait to walk down Beale Street and to try some of those butter cookies!
You’re so sweet, thank you! You’ll be OK at the Lorraine Motel … the museum is as inspiring as it is raw and real. Like you’ll cry, and you’ll feel emotionally gutted, but it’ll build you back up too. We left inspired, like “yes, we WILL defeat evil again. We will keep fighting for civil rights and we will do it together, all of us, and we will beat racism back into the ground.” I’ve been going to more rallies, protests, and Civil Rights events since my visit to the Museum – it gave me courage and strengthened my resolve. So it’ll be OK 🙂
Michelle Schroeder-Gardner says
I love this list! My husband’s family lives in Memphis so we will definitely have to do some of the things on your list next time we visit.
I’ve never given much thought to a Memphis trip, but the city actually sounds pretty legit. Plus I’ll take pretty much any ole excuse to nom on some serious BBQ! And, omg I love how amped you are about these ducks. Friggin adorable.
I AM SO AMPED ABOUT THE DUCKS. But it’s not just me! There were CROWDS. We’re working on a video of the actual event and you can see all the like, flashbulbs popping all over the red carpet like it’s the damn Oscars. SO COOL!
I now truly believe that if I don’t get to be an Honorary Duckmaster my life will be meaningless. Love this post, and I now hope my boyfriend and I get to use this itinerary and go to Memphis sometime soon!
I don’t want to say that your life is meaningless … but yes. 😉 Hehe. You should definitely go!
Mary Bosch says
I loved your article. I am a native Memphis and you got it exactly right. Cudos!
That’s so wonderful to hear! We truly loved Memphis and we really wanted that to come through. Thank you do much 🙂
Ashley Smith says
WAAHHHH So homesick! Isn’t Memphis the best?? First of all, I had NO IDEA about Memphis being in the most songs ever. I do hear “Memphis…” a lot in songs and get really excited but I didn’t know just how many. I love your idea for a playlist for a trip!
I love all the things you did and all the places you ate. My husband’s fave restaurant ever is Blues City Café. We always have a stash of their BBQ sauce and dry rub here at home (in Boston). I take home a suitcase of it every time I visit, haha!
OMG, their dry rub is SO FREAKING GOOD and I’m totally obsessed! I’m still dreaming of their flaky fried catfish TBH. Take me back!!