I’ve always been keen to visit Memphis but had never had the time to stop off before. We were on a road trip and heading to East Nashville, so we took the day out to explore the city’s best-known sights.
Arriving in the midst of the afternoon heat, the sun was bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I was thrilled to be able to bust out my moth-eaten and rather elusive summer wardrobe, which doesn’t always see the light of day often in North Queensland, Australia. We parked up on the square across from the University of Tennessee, slathered on some sunblock and popped over to pay a visit to Sun Studios.
I’m a huge country music fan, so seeing the studio where Johnny Cash got his first break was a real draw for me. I’d heard so much about Sun over the years before our visit. The studios are really compact and had to rapidly expand to accommodate the calibre of artists they attracted.
Taking a tour of the Studios allows you to hear the stories about its famous artists, which are recounted by enthusiastic tour guides. There’s plenty of encouragement to sing along with the music. I do my singing in the privacy of my car, thanks very much. Still, if you’re not completely socially awkward like me, you’ll have a ball.
The tape on the floor, which marks the spot where Elvis and his band stood to play, is a definite highlight. It reminded me a bit of the cross on the road in Dallas where JFK was shot, but way less horrifying.
Beale Street Historic District
If you want to party in Memphis; this is the place to do it. The street stretches from the Mississippi River up to East Street and is a mecca for live music. There’s a huge selection of restaurants, bars and clubs to choose from along the almost 2-mile stretch.
The legendary Memphis Blues was established throughout the 1920s-1940s. Performers like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong helped to develop the sounds still played here today. Beale Street is now officially known as the ‘Home of Blues’, a title it received in 1977.
Beale has a host of chain bars, such as Hard Rock Cafe and Coyote Ugly, as well as Wet Willies, who make my favourite frozen margaritas in Savannah, Georgia. However, it’s the independent bars and eateries that really give you a proper taste of Memphis.
The Lorraine Motel
After a quick visit to Sun, we rest the sat nav and drove to 450 Mulberry. The Lorraine Motel, like Sun, was something I’d seen pictures of in books and on TV footage. I once saw a framed snap of Dr King’s balcony that was shown at an exhibition at a gallery in Glasgow, Scotland. The photographs were a simple sepia shot of the balcony, but it was so striking. I had a feeling that seeing it for myself would be equally so.
The area surrounding the Lorraine has obviously expanded over the years. It now includes the National Civil Rights Museum, which has recently seen further upgrading and renovation. It reopened to the public in its most up to date form in April of 2014.
Standing beneath the balcony of Room 306 is a pretty sombre experience – as it should be. The balcony has been left as it was a bears a single wreath. The motel signage is so fun that it seems out-of-place now. It almost seems wrong for it to be so colourful when it represents somewhere with such a dark history.
A quick 9-mile drive from Mulberry Street is Graceland. As this was my first visit to Tennessee it seemed wrong to not swing by. Although the mansion itself isn’t particularly mansion-like, you can easily spend a full day exploring the complex.
It’s not the cheapest day out and comes in at around 76 bucks for the full works. However, there’s a variety of differently priced packages, depending on how much you want to see. If you’re short on time, the Graceland Mansion and associated exhibits are great to visit.
I’m not a huge Elvis fan, but even I’d heard of The Jungle Room and Meditation Garden. As well as the house, the outbuildings (his father’s office, the trophy and racquetball buildings) give great insight into what life was like behind the scenes.
If you have more time to spare, the private jets and automobile museum are also fantastic. If you’re on a budget and still want to get a feel for Graceland, park up and wander around the shops. Alternatively, you can simply indulge in a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at the on-site diner.
I managed to resist that particular temptation, but walking into the 50s style diner is like stepping back in time. The space is full of vintage items and booth-style seating and it’s a great place for a few snaps.
You can also cross the highway and add your name to the graffiti on the outer walls to memorialise your visit. Please don’t write your name anywhere else, though, unless you want a visit from Memphis PD.
Even if you don’t experience any of the paid attractions, it’s still a great place to swing by. The sheer size of the overall complex is quite staggering. If you've visited before, there’s always a new temporary exhibit or two to check out.