When you think of Memphis, what comes to mind? B.B. King? Blues? Elvis? Graceland? BBQ? Beale Street? Martin Luther King, Jr.? If so, you would be right on all accounts. Memphis is the home of the Blues and the birthplace of Rock and Roll. Nashville may take the name of Music City, but Memphis has just as much to offer with a rich musical history. And it is not just musical history in Memphis. With its position on the Mississippi River, named after the ancient Egyptian city on the Nile, Memphis has seen a lot of history from Native Americans to the Civil War.
When we visited, we planned on spending three days in Memphis soaking up all of its rich history, music, and, of course, food. Top of mind was its African American history, since this was the second stop on our Civil Rights road trip. Plus, we were also smack in the middle of MLK50, a yearlong commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..The National Civil Rights Museum has joined forces with several destinations around the country during the year leading up to April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN.
If you are going to spend three days in Memphis, you should spread out your time between its many historical and musical attractions — but just make sure to leave plenty of time to enjoy some delicious barbecue and soul food.
Three Days in Memphis
Where to Stay in Memphis
There are actually not a ton of hotel options in downtown Memphis. And one thing you need to know about Memphis is that it is huge. Not that it has huge towering skyscrapers, the city is just really spread out so that residential neighborhoods are within the city limits. You will need a car, especially if you plan on trying out some of the smaller neighborhoods and clusters of restaurants you will find there. The other thing that struck me about Memphis was how impoverished the city was. The downtown area is small and quiet. There are many attractions that are new and beautiful, but there are also many areas just starting to go through a revitalization. I heard on the radio that Memphis is one of the most impoverished cities, but also one of the most generous, with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital at its heart, and that should tell you a lot about the people.
You will likely want to stay in the area near Beale Street and Autozone Park (the minor league baseball stadium.) There is a new La Quinta that would be great for budget travelers, and families would enjoy the Peabody or the Madison on the higher end.
We stayed at the Peabody Memphis, which is really the grand dame of southern hotels. The lobby bar is a gathering place for many reasons, not the least of which is the Duck Ceremony, which takes place at 11am and 5pm daily as the resident ducks are brought down from their penthouse on the roof to spend the day in the lobby fountain. At the end of the day, they march across the red carpet to the elevator where they are whisked back up to the roof. Hundreds of people gather twice a day to watch this ritual and Hannah had the privilege of being the Honorary Duckmaster one evening.
She received a proclamation from the Duckmaster and assisted in escorting them back up to the roof. It was quite a thrill!! Everyone knows about the Peabody Ducks (they even have duck soaps and duck cookies!), but to be the Honorary Duckmaster was such a treat. (Packages start at $429, Hannah’s was complimentary for purposes of review)
If you want to watch the duck ceremony, be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes prior and stake out a table in the lobby bar (except the table reserved for the honorary duck master and guests) because they won’t let you sit on the floor. You can also look down from the second floor into the atrium below. Kids are allowed to sit along the red carpet that lines the path from the fountain to the elevator, as long as there is space. Just keep in mind that if you are checking in or need to use the elevators at these times, service will be slow and the lobby will be extremely crowded.
We LOVED our room at the Peabody Memphis, with one exception. The furnishings were beautiful, the colors serene, the service impeccable, and the room itself was gigantic. Hannah proved it by doing a cartwheel. I think we could have fit a bed in the walk-in closet. The only downside was the noise. We were near the elevator and the doors and walls were very thin. Since the hotel is host to many weddings and events over the weekend, you could hear the late night partiers returning to their room (not very quietly) and we could nearly make out the conversations from the room next door. So if you are a light sleeper, I’d recommend a sound machine or ear plugs.
We didn’t eat at the hotel (although it should be noted that they don’t serve duck), but we did enjoy room service one evening. I only got a glass of wine and a cheese plate, but Hannah had a burger and it looked delicious.
The location is really ideal, in easy walking distance to Beale Street, Autozone Park, the riverfront, and many downtown attractions.
What to do with 3 Days in Memphis
Don’t Miss Memphis Historical Sites & Tours
Tour of Possibilities
We started off our Memphis history lesson with Queen, the owner and guide with a Tour of Possibilities. A native of the Bronx, Queen started a Tour of Possibilities to introduce visitors to the cultural and historical gems that African Americans have contributed to Memphis. Driving around with Queen, I felt a bit like royalty as all the shopkeepers and who’s who in the neighborhood would wave and shout out their greetings.
We took the overview tour, which runs about two hours twice a day on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. She also offers a one-stop tour that includes a stop at one of the historical sites, but we were fine exploring those on our own. Even though you are just driving around for two hours, Queen keeps you very entertained and we learned so much about the city’s history, leaders, and landmarks. We definitely got much more out of taking this tour than we ever would have by exploring on our own. It was the perfect way to set the stage for more in-depth visits to the historical attractions.
Slave Haven was once the home of Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who used his home as a haven for slaves escaping along the underground railroad. Today, it is an underground railroad museum. Although it may not look like much from the outside, the museum, and really its curators and guides, packs a big punch. Your tour starts with a look at the middle passage, the transport of slaves from Africa to the United States.
The tour continues with an in-depth look at the clues and symbols slaves used to communicate the path to freedom — from the gospel hymns to the symbols embedded in quilts. You will also learn about how caricatures and Negro stereotypes have been used to make people of color seem inferior. The last stop on the tour is down the narrow steps to the dark basement where escaped slaves stayed until it was safe to move on.
It is really worth a stop in at Slave Haven, but plan on spending at least an hour for a tour and visit during the week to avoid crowds. The guided tour experience makes all the difference in what you will get out of your visit.
National Civil Right Museum at the Lorraine Motel
If you are looking for history in Memphis, you absolutely can’t skip the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.) Through the use of interactive exhibits, video, and artifacts, this museum walks visitors through the struggle for equality and civil rights in America from the beginning of slavery through the rise of the Black Panthers. The visit culminates with a look into the motel rooms occupied MLK, Jr. and his team in the hours leading up to his murder. As I wrote in my post about our civil rights road trip, this is a must-do in Memphis.
Music in Memphis
Memphis is the birthplace of rock and roll and home of the blues, so music lovers will find plenty to do in Memphis. There are museums, hall of fames, historical sites, and plenty of options for listening to live music.
Graceland is the number one musical attraction in Memphis, but actually one that I skipped. (I know, shocking, but I’m not really an Elvis fan!) Graceland was the home of Elvis Presley and you can take an iPad tour of Graceland Mansion, or check out the Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum, the Presley Motors Automobile Museum, Elvis’ Airplanes and other exhibits. You can eat there and have one of Elvis’ favorite peanut butter and banana sandwiches or even stay at the Guest House.
Sun Studio is known as the birthplace of rock and roll. It was here that Sam Phillips worked with artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and other famous musicians. It is also where the first rock and roll single, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ was recorded. Tours are given daily on the 30s from 10:30-5:30. Just note that kids under five are not allowed.
Gibson Guitar Factory
Any guitar player in the family will enjoy a tour of the Gibson Guitar Factory. Tours run 45-60 minutes and reservations are recommended. When we visited, they were already sold out for the day but we enjoyed looking at all the models in the retail shop instead.
STAX Museum of American Soul Music
Another highly recommended attraction for music lovers is the STAX Museum of American Soul Music. First started in 1957 as Satellite Records by Jim Stewart, and later joined by his sister Estelle Axton, Satellite became STAX. The first hit record was produced by STAX in 1960 and they later signed greats such as Otis Redding. By the late 1990s, the once-vibrant Soulsville neighborhood near STAX had fallen into decay. Community leaders worked together with former employees to revitalize the area and offer educational opportunities for local children and open the STAX museum.
One of the most popular spots in Memphis is Beale Street, which is something like a much smaller, slightly tamer Bourbon Street. Similar to Nashville’s Broadway honky tonks, the three to four blocks along Beale Street are lined with restaurants, bars, and live music venues. We enjoyed Beale Street during the day, but it was a little loud and crazy to go there at night on a mother-daughter trip.
Memphis Rock and Soul Museum
Another place on my list to visit but we ran out of time was the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum. Located right across from the Gibson Guitar Factory and the FedEx Forum, this museum focuses on telling the Memphis music story. It tells the story of the musical pioneers and legends who created the musical sound that put Memphis on the map.
Memphis Blues Hall of Fame
Memphis is the home of the blues and the Memphis Blues Hall of Fame opened its doors in 2015 for both casual and serious blues fans. The museum highlights over 400 inductees in five key categories: Performer, Individual, Album, Single and Literature. It houses 10 galleries with interactive touchscreen displays where you can listen to music, watch videos and read about each of the inductees.
You will not have any trouble filling up three days in Memphis. Of course, one of the most important parts of planning a trip to Memphis is figuring out where to eat! Central BBQ and Alcenia’s Soul Food were two of my favorites but be sure to read my suggestions on where to eat in Memphis!! Find out 23 free or cheap things to do in Memphis.
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Note: We received a media rate at the Peabody Memphis and attraction tickets and complimentary tours from Memphis Travel for purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.