The days of gliding under the radar as a hidden gem are nearing an end for Memphis. This Tennessee city’s dynamic food scene, soulfully-curated hotels, cocktail establishments, emerging art scene, music, history and outdoor activities are ushering in a new era – fellow travelers: take note. This is the city where soul music originated, fights for justice were waged on streets and pulpits, and dry rubs and vinegar sauces were crafted.
Memphis is special. And Memphians are proud of their city’s uniqueness whether outsiders want to celebrate it or not. Should you show genuine interests however, warm greetings and remarkable hospitality are likely responses – and even if you don’t, the music and food will be just as good.
Being crowned “one of the best places in the world” by Time magazine will only expand Memphis’ draw. So TravelCoterie spent several days interviewing locals to find out what new visitors like you and I should do while we’re here. After sampling many of those dry-rubs, dining at Black-owned restaurants, visiting museums, and connecting with the city’s soundtrack, here are the things to do in Memphis.
Things To Do In Memphis
1. The Civil Right’s Museum
The Civil Rights Museum stands on the hollowed grounds of the Lorraine Motel. It’s on the second story balcony, just in front of room 306, that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray. A wreath hanging on the railing in front of the room announces the spot where King’s was struck by a single bullet. Visitors who purchase tickets can have a glance inside King’s room as well as explore the area where Ray is believed to be standing when firing his weapon.
The Civil Rights Museum also traces the turbulent existence and tireless persecutions of African-Americans in the United States. Exhibits focus on slavery, segregation, desegregation, activism, and all the other unfortunate familiars which most African-Americans are acquainted .
2. Cozy Corner
Black-owned and operated, this legendary barbecue shop gets name dropped frequently by locals as the best in the city. Cozy Corner is known for their signature smoked cornish hen, but the rib tips are the shop’s underrated, secret weapon. Desiree Robinson, Cozy Corner’s pit master, made history when she became the first Black woman inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame. Her food does not disappoint.
Other notables include: The Barbecue Shop, Payne’s, Charlie Verdugo’s Rendezvous and Central Barbecue.
3. Beale Street
If you’re planning a trip to Memphis, a night on Beale Street is a requirement. It’s a lot less intimidating than New Orleans’ raunchy Bourbon street but the vibes of incredible live music and free flowing libations are similar. Bands with incredible talent perform nightly covers inside the corridor’s numerous bars. Black musicians first started playing music here in the 1860s. Beale Street was purchased by Robert Church in the 1870s, helping make him the South’s first black millionaire.
Blues legend BB King also got his start playing gigs here – the B.B. is his name an evolution and reduction of his former nickname, the Beale Street Blues Boy.
4. Stax Museum
Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers and other prominent recording artists used Stax Records to launch their iconic recording careers. The legendary studio is now a museum honoring the musicians who shaped culture and American history from within its walls. An enormous selection of exhibits and artifacts fill out the roughly 17,000 square-feet of space, none fresher than Isaac Hayes 24-karat gold-plated 1972 Cadillac El Dorado.
5. Home of Aretha Franklin / Soulsville
Aretha Franklin is often associated with Detroit music, but the late singer was actually born in Memphis. Her dilapidated childhood home is located in Soulsville USA at 406 Lucy Ave. The property is secured by fencing, but visitors can still pop by to leave a tribute, or photograph themselves in front of the home while reading up on the vocalist’s history in the city.
Plans are underway to turn the home into an Aretha museum.
6. Mason Temple
Also located in Soulsville is the Mason Temple: Church of God in Christ Global Headquarters. MLK delivered his remarkable “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech here on April 3rd, 1965. On April 4th, a sniper took the reverend’s life outside the Lorraine Motel. A plaque outside the church details the event and it’s subsequent impact.
Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ, is also entombed in inside the Temple. Visitation is possible on Saturdays and Wednesdays only. Check COVID restrictions.
7. The Four Way
Fried catfish, fried chicken, fried okra, fried green tomatoes … lots of fried and all of it good. During the Civil Rights movement, Four Way Grille refueled activists with some of the aforementioned menu items. 70 years and going, Four Way is still a pillar in the Soulsville community. Located at 998 Mississippi Blvd, it’s a must visit for foodies exploring Southern cuisine or just a hungry tourists looking for grub.
Recognized for their soulful take on egg rolls, Sage is a Black-owned restaurant located in Downtown Memphis. Their signature “Soul Roll” is a meshing of fried chicken, turnip greens and mac-n-cheese stuffed inside a classic, New York-invented, egg roll. Sage also has cocktails, and other appetizing things that keep their cooks on very limited smoke breaks.
9. The Pocket
The Pocket is a Black-owned speak easy located at 115 Union. The popular bar has reasonably priced drinks, transfixing live music and two levels of service: one for folks like you and I, and a more private, cavernous experience on the lower level – members only.