15 Things to Do in Memphis for the First-Timer

One of the cool things about Memphis, Tennessee is it’s dripping in American music history and culture that dates back to the late 19th century. The eclectic city is home to the blues which then laid roots for the emergence of rock and roll.

Legends like W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Alberta Hunter, Robert Johnson, Albert King, Elvis Presley, the Staple Singers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Otis Redding all walked the streets of Memphis at one time or another.

Rock and roll brought the younger generation of the 50s and 60s, black and white, together through music. It created a powerful connection between the highly segregated worlds. Even before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis played a major role in the civil rights movement.

Not only does Memphis have a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on, it’s a city with a soulful story waiting for a few new readers.

In no particular order, here are 15 Memphis things to do for any first-time visitor:

1. Take in a sunset on the Mississippi River

 

 

I can see how the sunsets on the #mississippiriver influenced and inspired Mark Twain… beautiful. #memphis #tennessee

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The mighty Mississippi River has been the inspiration for many. It provoked the early pioneers like Lewis and Clark to explore out west. It presented Mark Twain with his name and became the setting for a majority of his stories.

The muddy utilitarian river may not always provide the prettiest views, but at sunset it’s a sight to see. Add this detour to your list of free things to do in Memphis. 

Where: Mississippi River Park, Jefferson Avenue

2. Listen to Live (Blues) Music on Beale Street

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Rum Boogie Cafe, Memphis

Memphis is not just called “Home of the Blues,” it was actually declared such in 1977 as an act of Congress! Nowadays, you can find any type of music on the infamous Beale Street, but remember you are in Memphis.

It doesn’t matter if you typically like the blues, when you hear it – especially live – you can feel the spirit and depth of the music.

RELATED: NASHVILLE – NOT JUST A DESTINATION FOR MUSIC

Take your pick of places that feature live music every day of the week. Our favorites include Rum Boogie, Blues Hall, and B.B. King’s Blues Club.

For a combination of blues classics and original lyrics look for Vince Johnson and The Plantation Allstars. The band plays regularly at a few of the bars on Beale. We could listen to these guys all night long, Vince plays a mean harmonica.

3. Watch the Duck Parade at Peabody Hotel

Memphis Things to Do
Peabody Ducks

The resident ducks have been fixtures at the Peabody Hotel since the 1930s. Every day at 11:00 a.m. they are escorted from their suite on top of the building via the elevator and red carpet to the marble fountain in the lobby. They spend the day swimming and taking pictures and at 5:00 p.m. the Duckmaster parades them back upstairs.

Our visit was rather eventful as one rogue duck did not want to leave the fountain at the end of the day. Each team of ducks only stay at the hotel for three months and are then brought to a farm to live in the wild. I don’t think he’s going to want to go back, he’s liking the fountain.

*Tip: Get there early as every day welcomes a big crowd. They do not allow people to stand on the main floor so if you don’t get a good seat, head up to the Mezzanine level to watch from above.

Where: 149 Union Avenue

4. Eat Spicy Chicken at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken

Memphis Things to Do

I know. I know. It’s not technically barbecue which is what Memphis is known for. Don’t let that stop you from having a lip-smacking delicious meal.

It may be simple, fried chicken served on white bread with beans and slaw, but Gus has the best fried chicken we’ve ever had.

Where: 310 S. Front Street

Get Your Guide is a great company that offers discounted tours and attraction tickets. One of the most popular tours out of Memphis is the Big Mojo Sun Studio + Music History Bus Tour which is a three hour tour of the world-famous Sun Studio as well as a crash-course in Memphis music history with a professional musician as your guide. Visit many of the important music-related landmarks while listening and singing along to live tunes. Did you know Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded at Sun Studios? If you book through our site, at no additional cost to you, you’ll help us support the blog since we receive a small commission.

Other fun tours they offer:

5. Visit Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley

Memphis Things to Do
Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Elvis Presley is okay but not really our thing. We were not huge fans, but we are now! That says a lot for the tour.

The price of admittance is a little steep, we debated whether or not to spend the money. There’s more to Memphis than Elvis, but in the end we decided Memphis is synonymous with him so we had to go. We chose the Elvis Experience Tour with the Airplanes Tour.

*Tip: If you don’t want to spend or have the money for admission, go between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Visitors are allowed free entrance to the Meditation Garden where Elvis and his family are buried. 

Where: Parking 3717 Elvis Presley Blvd

6. Snap a photo with the King

Memphis Things to Do

Staying with the Elvis theme, don’t forget to take a picture with the King located on Beale Street.

Where: 103 Beale Street

7. See the Irish Diving Goats and drink an Irish Ale at Silky O’Sullivan’s

Memphis Things to Do
Goats at Silky O’Sullivan’s

You’ll find Silky O’Sullivan’s at the corner of Beale and B.B. King Boulevard in a building over 100 years old. The patio is one of our favorite places to hang out along with beer guzzling goats.

I have no idea what the real story is behind the goats as I get a different story from each person I ask. All I know is that they live in a goat tower and enjoy beer. My kind of goats.

You’ll also want to try the Irish Ale, it’s made specifically for Silky customers only.

Where: 183 Beale Street

8. View from the top of Peabody Hotel

Memphis Things to Do
Sunset on the roof of Peabody Hotel

Not only can you see the penthouse for the Peabody ducks, but the rooftop offers views of the Mississippi river and downtown Memphis.

9. Go back in time at Sun Studio 

Memphis Things to Do
Sun Studio in Memphis Tennessee

Memphis Things to Do

We stood where the greatest musicians of rock and roll, country music, and rockabilly sang their hearts out at Sun Studio. Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, and Jerry Lee Lewis, all recorded here throughout the mid-to-late 1950s.

Tip: If you don’t want to spend or have the money for the tour, you can take pictures outside and in the café and store.

Where: 107 Union Avenue

10. Walk with a drink in hand down Beale Street

Memphis Things to Do

There are a limited number of areas in the U.S. you can carry a drink out on the street and Memphis is one of them. Why not grab a drink and enjoy!

11. Learn about the Civil Rights Movement

Memphis Things to Do
Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He was one of the most prolific and consequential civil rights activists of all time. The motel and adjacent buildings now house the National Civil Rights Museum.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~MLK

Where: 450 Mulberry Street

12. Browse the oldest store on Beale Street

Memphis Things to Do
A. Schwab in Memphis

A. Schwab, established in 1876, is the oldest remaining original business on Beale Street. You will find everything from Memphis memorabilia to slick hats and obscure toys. You can get spend hours browsing through the hodgepodge of quirky merchandise.

Motto: “If you can’t find it at A. Schwab, you’re probably better off without it!”

Where: 163 Beale Street

13. Hop on a vintage trolley

Memphis Things to Do
Trolley in Memphis, Tennessee

Downtown Memphis is a walkable area, but the electric vintage trolley is an inexpensive and fun way to get around.

It stops at some of the major sights including the Tennessee Welcome Center, Peabody Place, Beale Street, National Civil Rights Museum, FedExForum and the South Main Historic Arts District.

14. Have breakfast at the oldest café in Memphis

Memphis Things to Do

You can visit the Arcade Restaurant as an Elvis-related stop, he was a regular at one time and even had a favorite booth. Or maybe you would like to hit your nostalgic chord with its retro décor and classic diner food.

Movie fan? The Arcade Restaurant has been immortalized in many movies: Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, The Client, The Firm, 21 Grams, Elizabethtown, Walk the Line, and My Blueberry Nights.

Where: 540 S. Main Street

15. Smack on some finger licking good barbecue

Memphis Things to Do
Central BBQ Ribs

Last but not least, get yourself some grilled goodness. Take your pick from barbecue joints all around the city.

Favorites include B.B Kings, Payne’s Bar-B-Que and Central BBQ.

Places to Stay in Memphis

Have you been? What were your favorite Memphis things to do? Any suggestions for a first-timer?

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Top 15 Things to do in Memphis, Tennessee. How to have a fabulous weekend for a first-time visit.

Memphis Things to Do
Heading to Memphis, Tennessee for the first time? Here’s a MUST-SEE and MUST-DO list for you to experience in the “Home of the Blues.”

29 Responses

  1. Chris Travels

    Another great post, as usual! You made everything I normally wouldn’t plan to do look like an amazing adventure…and your narration and photos prove it is a wonderful city to spend time exploring!

  2. Clare

    I went to Memphis and had a great time. I have a friend who lives near so she joined me for a few days. I went to Graceland and loved it there as my mum was a huge fan. I also did the civil rights museum which was very interesting. I also walked down beale street and listened to some live music. Had a few great nights out there.

  3. Paul

    Memphis sounds like a really cool city to visit! Thanks for the suggestions guys, the live music sounds awesome and the sunset on the Mississippi river looks lush!

  4. Sandy N Vyjay

    I have heard a lot about how great Memphis can be for tourists. This article just listed everything to be seen in Memphis. I will bookmark this and save it till the time I am in Memphis and I have done each one of them!

  5. Vicki Louise

    We only had a really short time in Memphis but I’m glad we got to do quite a few things off your list. I loved Elvis’ House – with the cars/planes/costumes etc and thought the audio tour was one of the best I have done anywhere in the world. There’s so much to do in Memphis, I wish we had had a bit more time there!

  6. Elisa

    What a cool place to spend a week end! I definitely would like to see the “historical things” like the vintage trolley, the rights museum or Graceland. And the oldest cafe and toy shop! What do you mean by “obscure toys” by the way?!

  7. stacey veikalas

    OMG spicy chicken, bbq ribs, drunk goats on the roof, and Elvis! It just does not get much better than that! I am missing the USA after that post!

  8. Leigh

    Mmm..now I am hungry for some BBQ! Memphis is a fun town, I’ve been twice, but have still missed a lot that you list above. Nothing better than walking around, drink in hand, listening to all the live music!

  9. Brian - EatWorkTravel

    We spent a weekend in Memphis. We had so much fun touring Graceland and taking in the live music along Beale Street. Wish we would have had your food tips prior to our trip! Looks delicious.

  10. Carmen's Luxury Travel

    I’ve read a lot about Nashville but not Memphis! Looks like another fun city in the U.S. that I must visit. I’m a big Elvis fan so Graceland is a must for me! Thanks for sharing all of your tips 🙂

  11. Dhaval

    great post, as usual! You made everything I normally wouldn’t plan to do look like an amazing adventure..
    Thanks.

  12. Greg Kennon

    When we lived in Dallas we kept telling ourselves that we would drive to Memphis. We never did… 🙁 I am kicking myself after reading this! haha

  13. Jo crabtree

    My husband and I visit Memphis twice a year. We have been to every one of the places you listed except the Arcade. I plan on going there on our next visit.
    We love Memphis!!

  14. Isa

    Memphis is on my to do list for the next year! Thank you so much for sharing this article, this is great advice! And the photos make me want to to go even more 😊

  15. Todd

    For great blues music, I’d also recommend the following 2 local artists: Ghost Town Blues Band, Brandon Santini provided they’re not on tour out of State. For blues joints, the Rum Boogie Cafe and the Rum Boogie Blues Hall are the two best. They’re actually 2 separate bars connected through a side door and share the same bathroom. Two different live bands play at each of them nightly. You also forgot to mention Midtown Memphis. There is a fantastic bar/restaurant there called Lafayette’s that has live music 7 nights a week. It’s better than the other Lafayette’s locations in Orlando and New Orleans. There is another studio tour you can do besides Sun Records, it’s called Stax Records. Stax Records is tied into the school and is influential bringing music back into schools. Their high school was rated best in the State of Tennessee. I’d also mention specific BBQ restaurants. I’ve been to about 15 different ones. Notable: Germantown Commisary, Corky’s, Central BBQ, The Rendezvous, Leonard’s Pit BBQ (Since 1922), Blues City Cafe, Pig On Beale, etc.

    • Dang Travelers

      Todd, this is fantastic! Thanks so much for the recommendations! We’ve been to some but not all so we will definitely be making note and checking them out on our next visit.

  16. Penny

    FYI I live in Memphis and, unfortunately, the trolley system has been shut down since one caught fire. The city hasn’t found room in their budget to get the system up and running again, but they still have the cables up and they have buses disguised as trolleys now. Otherwise, a great list! I would also advise you to go into midtown and see Overton Square. Midtown and the Cooper-Young neighborhood are both wonderful and filled with fantastic cafes and restaurants.

    • Dang Travelers

      Good to know Penny! Thanks so much, I’ll update the info. We might be coming back to Memphis soon so I’ll put both of those neighborhoods on our list.

  17. Leigh

    Memphis also has a great zoo, a pedestrian bridge that crosses the river, and the big Bass Pro shop in the Pyramid. Some other good restaurants are the Soul Fish Cafe, Babalu’s, and Las Delicias.

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks Leigh! We have visited the zoo (loved the pandas!) and the Bass Pro but have yet to cross over on the pedestrian bridge. We will have to check that out next time. Ooh and those restaurants will definitely go on my list of places to try! I have plans to write another post on things to do on a second visit or a more in-depth trip. We really enjoyed Memphis.

  18. Carolyn

    My teenage daughter and I have a trip to Memphis planned for April of this year. This article gave me a great idea of everything we should experience when we visit. Thank you!

  19. Meet Saxena

    Hey, thanks for distributing the information. It really helps me to visit Memphis. These things can help me on my trip. Thanks once again.

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