48 Hours in Memphis

By on 22 January, 2018 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Two weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit Memphis. Though it’s just a few hours away by car, we flew. Next time we’ll drive – it’s even closer than New Orleans, which is nice. The city is very fun, extremely underrated actually, with lots to offer the casual visitor. Here’s what we did during our short trip.

Day 1

3:00 Check in at The Peabody, 149 Union Avenue. It’s an incredibly beautiful old hotel with a great lounge area and tons of character. The place is known for its ducks in residence. They live on the roof of the hotel in a “duck palace,” and march downstairs (via the elevator) every day at 11 to swim in the fountain in the lobby. At five, they leave, marching back up through the elevator. Their activities are announced and coordinated by the Peabody’s resident “Duckmaster,” surely the only person in the world to hold that title. The ducks are cute. We were surprised to learn that they are raised wild and returned to the wild every three months. After the tour, if you hang around you might be able to attach yourself to a tour of the hotel, including the memorabilia room up on the mezzanine, where there are artifacts from the hotel’s many years embedded in Memphis history. There’s even a contract there signed by Elvis, his first with RCA. The hotel is elegant with exquisite service, even without the ducks. But the ducks are cool.

4:00 Go to the Cooper Young neighborhood. Just across town, this little area boasts charming houses and a nice little selection of shops and restaurants. We looked for new music at Goner Records, settling on a few LPs and a couple of very cheap used CDs. Then we went next door to browse the comic selection at 901 Comics, a shop with an extensive selection of new and used books that’s somehow bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. After buying a few new comics (and a few old ones, plus a mystery grab bag), we went around the corner to Burke’s Book Store, which has been there since 1875. It’s a charming shop with a great selection of fiction and Southern specialty books, shelving new and used books together. Highly recommend, whether you’re a bibliophile looking for first editions, or just someone looking for something to read. This book store reminds you why you should have a book store, and not just get everything on Amazon.

6:00 Dinner at Imagine Vegan Cafe. Not every Memphis meal needs to be barbecued meats. Even if you’re not vegan, this quintessential comfort food joint has everything you might want in a cozy and affordable dining experience. The atmosphere is informal, but the menu is extensive. Try the chili “cheese” fries, and make sure you ask the wait staff about the curious collection of shirts they sell behind the counter.

Day 2

Art at Sunrise

10:00 Breakfast at Sunrise Memphis. Walk right up to the counter at this local staple and order just about anything off of the menu. Don’t miss the delicious biscuits, served with apple butter. The omelets and breakfast tacos are both good choices. Service is quick and efficient, and the food is great. These are people that pay attention to details. We were told to try Brother Juniper’s, but we also were told that there’d be long lines there. We will try Brother Juniper’s on our next trip, but it’s hard to imagine that it is actually that much better than what we had at Sunrise.

11:00 Graceland. Sure, it’s almost ludicrously expensive, but it’s also kind of an indispensable part of the American experience. You park across the street from the mansion, in the lot adjoining the kind of theme park they’ve built over there and pay your (exorbitant) fee. You can add on a tour of his plane for $5. You take a shuttle over to the mansion after they outfit you with headphones and an iPad for the tour, narrated by John Stamos. The house itself is strangely anticlimactic, somehow both more tacky and less tasteless than you’d expect. Back across the street there are more gift shops and museums than you can shake a stick at, each one more grandiose than the last. The more expensive ticket ($60) gets you into all of the attractions, including a showroom of Elvis’ cars and a strange room full of effigies of the people he influenced. You do get a sense of the scale of the archives on this tour, which is kind of cool, though the uncritical examination of Elvis can get on your nerves after a while. Nonetheless, the visit inspired us to pick up (and immediately consume) both volumes of Peter Guralnick‘s seminal biography of The King.

2:00 The National Civil Rights Museum. Back downtown, it’s time to sober up after the sequins and excess of Graceland. Our American democracy cannot be understood without visiting one of the most important civil rights sites in the nation. Park at the old Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was killed. It’s now an impressive museum dedicated to the history of the civil rights movement. It’s also not cheap, so be prepared, but it comes with more than enough information and exhibits to justify the price. Admission includes the site across the street where, allegedly, James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. Folks from Montgomery will see how important our city is to the global struggle, but you’ll also learn about Memphis history, including the sanitation worker strike that Dr. King was working on when he was assassinated.

4:00 Central BBQ. It’s across the street. Get a beer afterwards to process all you took in. If you eat meat, get a sandwich from this award-winning place. Plan your next move.

5:00 Happy hour at the Kooky Canuck. Across the street from the Peabody is an unassuming joint with what must be one of Downtown’s great happy hours. Start your evening with a cheap drink and marvel at the fact that folks come from all over to try their disgusting, yet fascinating, extreme eating food challenges.

6:00 Drinks at Belle Tavern. Around the corner and tucked into an alley is a laid back small bar with a great selection of whiskeys. Let the bartender recommend something, or try their Old Fashioned, made from a secret blend of three whiskeys. While you’re in this part of town, stop in at the Local for food or another drink.

John Wall does not play for Memphis, but is good at basketball.

7:00 Basketball! If you are in town on a night that the Grizzlies play, you can get a lot of fun for your entertainment dollar at a game. The night we went, it was “Wrestling night.” It’s important to know that Memphis is a key site in the history of American pro wrestling. They gave out crowns in honor of local hero Jerry “The King” Lawler, who was present and actually (sort of) wrestled at halftime. Good seats aren’t that expensive, and it’s just a few blocks from the hotel at the end of Beale Street.

10:00 King’s Palace Cafe Absinthe Room. You don’t need absinthe to have a good time at this little place on busy Beale street. Get a drink and some quarters and play their nicely maintained poker-themed pinball machine, then (eventually) go to bed.

Day 3

11:00 Beale Street may have kept you up late last night. Take it easy and make it to brunch at the Blind Bear. It’s a speakeasy by night, and a nice little neighborhood joint by day. Weekends, you can get a decent brunch and a few strong drinks. The waitstaff is friendly, and if you ask they’ll likely give you advice about how to spend your day (and night).

1:00 Stax Museum of American Soul. This well-curated museum is at the location of the legendary recording studio. It’s a priceless immersion experience in the history of American soul music. You can see Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac and reflect on all of the amazing records cut by Stax musicians over the years. The Memphis sound is a diverse and multi-layered thing, but here it’s on display for all the world to see. If you are even a casual music fan, this should be on your list. With limited time, we chose to do this one over the Sun Studio, which most Memphis visitors visit.

4:00 Cleveland Street Flea Market, 428 North Cleveland Street. Perhaps on your way to see some live music, check out this old antique mall for some crate digging and a look into Memphis’ vintage clothing market. There are some really great vinyl record albums here, and some truly funky fashion accessories. Be prepared to negotiate individually with stall owners.

5:00 Crosstown Concourse, 1350 Concourse Avenue. This 1.5 million square foot rehabilitation of an old Sears building opened in the summer of 2017, and it’s got a lot to offer the casual visitor, though it’s probably not on the usual itinerary. This is great for Montgomery folks to see the future of neo-urban mixed use facilities that reclaim historic beauty. There are art exhibits upstairs and restaurants downstairs. We got a veggie burger and a power salad and watched the football game on overhead television while we explored the space.

7:00 The Hi-Tone, 412 North Cleveland Street. Here’s a place to see what the Memphis music scene is up to these days. Sure, it’s not Beale Street, but it offers a kind of edgy “dive bar” ambiance that you can’t get if you stay downtown. The night we were there was Za Fest, a time to eat slices of pizza and hear a rotating cast of DJs and local bands in two rooms. Places like this incubate the scenes that make cities cool. Be mindful of the late hours that the kids keep if you’re heading home early the next morning.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

 

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