After an action-packed first few days on the road with Trek America, I was excited to spend a decent amount of time in Memphis. As much as I love abseiling 80ft and hiding in mirror mazes, exploring cities and finding out what makes them tick is more my thing. In America this is even more fascinating, due to all of the media we’ve consumed over the years and the frames of reference we have. I didn’t know what to expect in Memphis, apart from Elvis music and BBQ food and knew that I’d probably need to wear my stretchiest clothing.
My first impressions were that it all seemed a little familiar thanks to the grid-like system, trams and Walgreens (gotta love a drugstore haul), but with a different sort of energy. It’s the birthplace of the blues, soul and rock n’ roll after all and I swear that every car was constantly playing the same R&B song at full blast. You can definitely make music the main focus of your stay, but there’s also a great food scene and plenty of important history to learn about in context.
I thought I’d share all of the things you could feasibly fit into 48 hours, to really get a sense of the city. It’s possible to cover Downtown on foot but just note that some of the outer areas may need an Uber journey. We were a little ambitious and ended up crossing a motorway in 30 degree heat before giving up!
Step 1 – Prepare To Become An Elvis Fan
It goes without saying that Graceland should be one of your main stops, even if your Elvis obsession levels are only at 15-20%. I’d never really described myself as much of a fan prior to visiting, however after watching the introductory film, wandering through the archives and marvelling at random things like old receipts, I became converted (as well as developing a bit of a crush).
The museum is a bit like an Elvis theme-park and consists of several exhibits dedicated to clothing, memorabilia, cars and even planes. The actual mansion sits separately and can only be reached by shuttle bus once you’ve been given your iPad guide for the tour (yes, it’s pretty flash here). It adds an extra insight into all the displays and you’ll be filled with enough trivia to ace any pub quiz. Did you know that Elvis was actually a twin and used to receive 5000 items of mail per day?
The bold decor of the mansion won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s fascinating to see a home frozen in the 1970s (plus I can appreciate anyone that isn’t minimalist). From time to time, the family come back for meals and the upper floors are out of bounds to retain a bit of privacy. The scale of his continued fame becomes apparent when you hear about people making return trips every year and forming a bit of a community as a result.
You’ll want to allow 1-1.5 hours to see the house properly (and get your snap outside), plus the rest of the exhibits could easily make your visit more of a day trip. There’s restaurants on site but I’d save plenty of time (and dollar) to browse the shops. It’s like a haven for kitsch mugs, keyrings and fridge magnets plus some of the tees would look great oversized. Make sure you book tickets in advance and prepare to have ‘A Little Less Conversation’ in your head for at least 24 hours.
Step 2 – Soak Up The Sounds Of The South
If you want to connect even more of the musical dots together, then a visit to Sun Studio is a must. Part museum, part recording studio (in the evenings), it’s an important piece of rock n’ roll history and the place where Elvis recorded some of his early demos. There’s less multimedia than Graceland but our tour guide really made the experience and needed her own stand-up show.
It’s also worth wandering down Beale St to soak up the atmosphere and Blues music. The whole area used to be one of the few safe spaces for African Americans during segregation and the old Daisy Theatre was one of the main concert venues. Now it’s a bustling historic area with a yearly festival and plenty of places to eat, drink and be merry.
Step 3 – Buy Some Hot Sauce For Your Bag
Prepare to feel hungry! Memphis has to be added to my list of Best BBQ Experiences which is no surprise, since it originates in these parts (the other contenders are Meatsmith in Singapore and the Bank branch of Jackson & Rye FYI). Each Deep South destination flavours their ribs, brisket and chicken with their own twist and since Memphis is a port town, there’s always been access to a wide range of ingredients. As a result, the ribs have a bit of a sweet and spicy taste, thanks to the molasses being transported along the Mississippi river.
The key is the dry rub. A messy sauce is all well and good, but it’s the combination of paprika, black pepper, cayenne and brown sugar that allows the meat to be seasoned and slow-cooked to perfection. We tried ours at Rendezvous, which is a bit of an experience. Service is at times bewildering (we were in the middle of ordering food when the server disappeared) but it’s all worth it for the ribs. If you want to keep things authentic, choose the potato salad and BBQ beans as a side and you’ll finally realise what KFC has been trying to recreate for all these years. As per usual, I brought some sauce and seasoning home with me and I’m hoping to attempt my version very soon.
I also had to try some of Gus’ Fried Chicken, though I was experiencing fried chicken fatigue by this point. A special mention also has to go to the fried okra.
Step 4 – Photowalks & Thrifting
Trust me to google the hipster areas before I visit anywhere. The Cooper-Young district is home to creative shops, Insta-friendly walls and places where you can get your avo on toast fix, though it’s all rather spread out. You may only find a couple of shops per block on Cooper Street, but it’s an interesting area for a photowalk nonetheless with houses that could have come straight from the Sims. Wander towards the Circuit Playhouse and admire the original 1930s architecture.
We also stopped by Cleveland St flea market, which is another taxi-ride away. It’s a massive space with lots to root through and each trader has their own area. It’s not the cheapest place for vintage, but you can appreciate everyone’s hustle (Meg was probably the luckiest finding two pairs of jeans that wouldn’t look out of place in Urban Outfitters). One thing to note is that we were warned by our Uber driver about the sketchiness of the vicinity, so I’d just tread carefully. In an ideal world you’d hire a car to get a sense of the different areas. Jerry’s Sno Cones would have been perfect for a shoot but was completely out of the way – I will live vicariously through any photos you take!
Step 5 – Immerse yourself in important history
The thing I’m most gutted about? Not making a proper plan and completely missing out on the Civil Rights Museum (I realised this at 9pm the night before we were due to leave). This just means that I’ll have to make a return visit but I’d definitely recommend that you make it part of your itinerary. The interactive exhibits guide you through five centuries of history and the ongoing journey towards equality.
Our Trek America guide was happy to answer any questions I had and briefly took us to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated (it now forms part of the museum). It probably would have been a bit of an intense experience, taking in all the oral histories and learning about the full extent of segregation, but I’m determined to go back one day.
Other places we sadly missed…