The Great River Road

Fans of pop-culture kitsch will love what the GRR offers in Memphis: The main road from the north (US-51) is Danny Thomas Boulevard; south of downtown, this turns into Elvis Presley Boulevard and runs right past the gates of Graceland. (However, if you’re continuing on to the Mississippi Delta, from Graceland you should switch onto US-61, which runs about 2 mi (3.2 km) to the west.)

Memphis’s gifts to American culture include the supermarket, the drive-in restaurant, the Holiday Inn, Elvis Presley, and Federal Express, and if you detect a pattern here, you’ll understand why the city is at once entertainingly kitsch and supremely captivating. This is not to say Memphis (pop. 650,618) lacks a coherent character—just the opposite—but its charms can have unpredictable side effects. Elvis Presley and the Graceland experience are covered on the following pages, but even for those born long after his too-early demise in 1977, Memphis has a lot to offer.

Beale Street, downtown between 2nd and 4th Streets, has been Memphis’s honky-tonk central ever since native son W. C. Handy set up shop in the early 1900s with the blues he’d learned in Mississippi. Beale Street, and much of downtown Memphis, has been sanitized for your protection, turning it into a (new and improved!) version of its old self. The flashy arena for the Grizzlies basketball team has transformed the entire south side of downtown Memphis. Slap an adhesive name tag on your lapel and you’ll fit right in with the tour bus crowds strolling at night along Beale Street’s block of clubs—including B. B. King’s (143 Beale St., 901/524-5464), marked by a giant neon guitar.

Fortunately, a number of other music-related museums and attractions capture a more authentic Memphis: The original Sun Studio (706 Union Ave., 800/441-6249, daily, $15), where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and many others recorded their historic tracks in the 1950s, is a short walk northeast. Even more satisfying for most music obsessives: the site of Stax Records studio (926 E. McLemore Ave., 901/942-7685, Tues.-Sun., $13), now an excellent museum documenting the soulful impact of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Al Green, and other greats during the 1960s.

If there’s one place that shouldn’t be missed, it’s the eloquent National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St., 901/521-9699, Wed.-Mon., $17), south of Beale Street behind the restored facade of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Aided by extensive multimedia and life-size dioramas, museum exhibits let you step as far as you like into the powerful struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. Across the street, disturbing displays about King’s assassination are housed in the old rooming house where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot.

On the north side of downtown Memphis, Mud Island is a small peninsula in the middle of the Mississippi River, connected to downtown by a pedestrian bridge and a monorail. This 50-ac (20.2-ha) “island” holds a five-block-long mock-up of the Mississippi River. Also here is the excellent Mississippi River Museum.

Right in downtown Memphis, but just a step away from the majors, the Memphis Redbirds (200 Union Ave., 901/721-6000, $9-75), Triple-A farm club for the St. Louis Cardinals, play at AutoZone Park.

Where to Eat and Stay in Memphis

As it is with live music, food is one area where Memphis can still surpass just about any other American city, and if your taste buds prefer improvisation and passion to overrefined “perfection,” Memphis is sure to satisfy.

Competition among the city’s 50 or more rib shacks is fierce. Elvis Presley’s favorite barbecue joint, Charlie Vergos Rendezvous (52 S. 2nd St., 901/523-2746), right downtown, with its main entrance through a downtown alley, is now something of a tourist trap. Main challengers to the title of “Best Barbecue in the Universe” include Interstate Bar-B-Que (2265 S. 3rd St., 901/775-2304), just north of where US-61 crosses I-55, and bare-bones drive-up barbecue stand Cozy Corner (735 N. Parkway, 901/527-9158), just east of US-51. For a change of pace from ribs, try the onion rings, burgers, beers, and live blues at another Memphis institution, Huey’s (77 S. 2nd St., 901/527-2700), right downtown.

Except during the city’s many music and food festivals, Memphis accommodations are priced reasonably. The whole alphabet of major chains—from Best Western to Super 8—is spread around the I-240 beltway, and again along I-55 through neighboring Arkansas. One landmark place to stay, the Peabody Memphis (149 Union Ave., 901/529-4000, $215 and up) is Memphis’s premier downtown hotel, which has a sparkling lobby that is home to the Mississippi’s most famous mallards: Twice daily, at 11am and 5pm, the red carpet is rolled out for the Peabody ducks to parade (waddle, really) to and from the lobby fountain. And if you’re planning a vigil at Graceland, consider The Guest House at Graceland (3600 Elvis Presley Blvd., 901/443-3000 or 800/238-2000, $129 and up). Owned by his heirs and next door to his former lair, the upscale lodging opened in 2016 as part of a major overhaul of the Graceland experience, replacing the charming but timeworn old Heartbreak Hotel.

Related Travel Guides

Map of the Great River Road in Tennessee

Map of the Great River Road through Kentucky and Tennessee.
Map of the GRR through Kentucky and Tennessee.