Sitting at the conjunction of three states—Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi—and on the banks of a great river, Memphis is a breeze to find. I-40, the great east-west interstate highway, and I-55, running north and south, pass through it; Northwest Airlines has a hub at the Memphis International Airport; and the legendary Illinois Central train called the City of New Orleans, now run by Amtrak, connecting Chicago and the Crescent City, stops in Memphis twice a day.
Summer in Memphis can be brutally hot and humid, particularly in July and August, but the weather doesn’t keep visitors away during Elvis Presley International Tribute Week8212;Death Week to locals—which culminates on the anniversary of the singer’s death on August 16 with a candlelight vigil in front of Graceland attended by as many as fifty thousand fans. The climate is a bit more cooperative for May, the month of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which gathers colorful teams from all over the world to stoke their hickory coals and slow-cook their pork ribs and shoulders in a park overlooking the Mississippi River downtown. April and May are filled with music festivals that capitalize on the city’s heritage of blues, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll.
The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau provides valuable information for travelers to the city and the region. Write the bureau at 119 North Riverside Drive, Memphis, TN 38103, or call 543-5300 (all phone numbers are area code 901). There’s a Welcome Center downtown on Riverside Drive south of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. A trolley system running north and south along Main Street and Riverside Drive provides comfortable access to almost all the downtown area.
Most visitors to the city will want to stay downtown. Rates tend to be high during the summer.
The Peabody, “the South’s Grand Hotel,” opened in 1925; its huge, sumptuous lobby, where ducks swim in the central fountain—the two daily duck marches are hilarious—has been a gathering place for Memphians and Mid-Southerners for decades. Rates are $185 to $285. Call 529-4000. At the north end of Main Street, the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza connects with the Memphis Convention Center and is a short walk from the Pyramid, a sports and entertainment arena, and the Pinch entertainment district. Rates are $108 to $135. Call 527-7300. Out east, the Adam’s Mark Hotel, near I-240 and Poplar, raises its round glass tower like a giant lipstick. Rates are $99-$175. Call 684-6664.
The city and its suburbs feature dozens of hotels and motels bearing the familiar names of national chains; rates are usually less than $100. Call the Memphis Chamber of Commerce tourism division (543-5333) or the Convention & Visitors Bureau for information. For bed-and-breakfast accommodations and rates, typically $65 to $175, call or write Bed and Breakfast Guest Houses and Inns of America at 755-9613 or P.O. Box 382868, Memphis, TN 38138-2868, or visit their Web site at
Memphis proudly offers the products of farm, field, and stream prepared in two related traditions: what’s called home cooking, which is basic white country fare, and soul food, the black version of the same sort of food, which tends to be spicier (lots of pepper).
The third strain in this old heritage of the city’s insatiable appetite is barbecue; notice that the word is a noun, not a verb. Here it’s pork, whether ribs or shoulder, and the sauce tends to be not too sweet.
For home cooking, look to the Cupboard (downtown at 149 Madison, 527-9111, and in midtown at 1495 Union, 276-8015). Acolytes of soul food gather at Ellen’s Soul Food Restaurant, universally known as Miss Ellen’s (601 South Parkway East in South Memphis, 942-4888). Memphians will man the barricades for their favorite barbecue establishments, but there’s general local agreement that the best is either Interstate Bar-B-Q (2265 South Third, 775-2304) or Cozy Corner (745 North Parkway, 527-9158). Out in the eastern part of the city, Gorky’s is a favorite (5259 Poplar, 685-9744).
Memphis offers more than barbecue, of course; it has restaurants as diverse as in any city its size. One of the most eclectic is Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club (83 South Second, 525-7948), which serves Southwestern and Caribbean food with a touch of Southeast Asia in a boisterous setting. Another exhilarating, eclectic restaurant is KoTo (22 South Cooper in Overton Square, 722-2244), with the “Ko” for Copenhagen and the “To” for Tokyo (for its Danish and Japanese owners); the real story is its Amero-Euro-Asian fusion in superb fish dishes, interesting sauces, and beautiful preparation.
The most comforting service in town, indeed the most opulent and romantic setting, is at Chez Philippe, the flagship restaurant in the Peabody (529-4188), where chef José Gutierrez turns out French food enlivened by touches of the South, as in hushpuppies stuffed with shrimp ProvenÇal.
You’ll find two other establishments in similar categories worth a trip out east, right off what’s known as the Poplar Corridor (Poplar Avenue starts at the river and doesn’t stop until the next county). Catering to deep pockets, Erling Jensen: The Restaurant (1044 South Yates Road, 763-3700) provides a cool and elegant setting for Euro-American fare of full-throttle richness and flavors. At the intimate Aubergine (5007 Black Road, 767-7840), the chef Gene Bjorklund’s delicacy and finesse and his sense of integrity and invention in dealing with ingredients make for the best restaurant in Memphis.
The best music venues on Beale Street are B. B. King’s Blues Club (524-5464), the Rum Boogie Café (528-0150), and the Band Box of Blues City Café (526-3637). The New Daisy Theater features concerts by local and national groups (525-8979). While strolling on Beale, stop at the Center for Southern Folklore (525-3655) for an overview of the material bedrock of Southern life and culture, and also at A. Schwab Dry Goods Store (523-9782), a vast and seemingly eternal emporium of the useless, the fantastic, the humble, and the definitely hard-to-find.
Those searching for local music with perhaps less commercial emphasis may travel to Wild Bill’s Club at 1580 Vollintine (726-5473) or to Green’s Lounge, 2090 East Person, off Airways near the Kellogg’s factory (276-4970).
Memphis is the center of a thriving gospel-music culture. A Sunday-morning visit to Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle, 787 Hale Road, is thrilling; call to see if the charismatic singer and preacher will be present (396-9192).
The King looms symbolically over Memphis, and the focus of the Elvis Pilgrimage is Graceland, 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard, where the singer and his parents are buried (332-3322). Elvis’s airplane is parked across the street, and there’s a separate museum of his many automobiles. Fans of early rock ’n’ roll generally will not want to miss Sun Studio (706 Union, 521-0664).
Memphis boasts a group of attractive and unique museums. The Art Museum of the University of Memphis, 3750 Norriswood, offers lively changing exhibitions of regional and national contemporary art as well as the Neil Nokes West African Art Collection (678-2224). The Children’s Museum of Memphis, 2525 Central, makes learning fun with interesting and colorful interactive exhibitions (458-2678). The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, houses a collection of French Impressionist art; the gardens are stunning (761-5250). Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, in Overton Park in midtown, is the region’s largest general art-history museum (722-3500). The National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry, occupies the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968; its permanent displays about segregation and the civil rights movement are stirring and disturbing (521-9699). The National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive, is the country’s only museum dedicated to the craft and artistry of metalwork. It stands on bluffs overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River; the view is stupendous (774-6380).
Memphis has not been kind to its architectural heritage, but the surviving nineteenth-century houses open for tours display remarkable diversity.
The Hunt-Phelan Home, 533 Beale, built beginning in 1828, is arguably the oldest building in Memphis (344-3166). The Mageveny House, 198 Adams, is far more modest and typical of the city’s houses built in the 183Os (526-4464). What’s called Victorian Village features six fairly opulent stately homes from the era, two of which are open to the public: the Mallory-Neely House, 652 Adams (523-1484) and the Woodruff-Fontaine House, 680 Adams (526-1469).
Mud Island began as a sandbar in the river right off the downtown bluff in the early twentieth century and grew so much that it now supports a park and a cultural and educational area and a large residential community. A monorail carries visitors from the mainland to the island (576-7241).
Take the trolley to its southernmost limit at Main Street and Calhoun on a weekend night. Disembark. At one corner, facing the train station, is the Arcade, 540 South Main, founded in 1919 and the city’s oldest continuously operating restaurant; it was featured in the cult film Mystery Train . The pizzas are great, the company interesting (526-5757). Across the street is Earnestine & Hazel’s, a former whorehouse, grocery store, and restaurant, now a late-hours scene for live music and dancing (523-9754). This is the real Memphis. Take a deep breath. Have fun.