How to Spend a Week in Memphis

Hitchhiking  to Memphis

Memphis has always been toward the top of my travel list but for no particular reason. I'm not an Elvis fan, I hate humidity (yet I visited in August!) and I don't eat barbecue. I also just learned that apparently, I can't even spell "barbecue" properly without spellcheck. (Thanks, spellcheck!) Clearly, I knew very little about a place I haad wanted to travel to for at least a decade.

Memphis is about the same size as Seattle or Denver, with a friendly population eager to say hello or give directions. After spending a week exploring Brooklyn- and Rome-influenced Cincinnati, the "Queen City", and biking/hiking/culturing it up in Kentucky, I headed to Tennessee to finally explore this vibrant, colorful, delicious city. Oh, did I mention I hitchhiked to all these places?

 The one and only Beale Street, before the evening tourist rush.

The one and only Beale Street, before the evening tourist rush.

 Mud Island Park's scale-model of the Mississippi River

Mud Island Park's scale-model of the Mississippi River

 Thanks for not being afraid of hitchhikers!

Thanks for not being afraid of hitchhikers!

Where to go in Memphis

Beale Street is a must, where you can dine, grab a drink, shop for souvenirs, and enjoy top-notch blues and jazz. According to USA Today, it's the most iconic street in America! I enjoyed strolling along and checking out the shops during the day, when it's less crowded. Live music is all over Beale Street during the day but you'll definitely also want to catch a set at night. A newer and unexpected attraction is the Bass Pro Shop, which I initially avoided since 1) I don't fish and I don't like fishing, and 2) It just sounded lame. Actually, it turned out to be pretty cool. This massive "outdoor" store containing everything from an indoor cypress tree swamp and bowling alley to the world's highest freestanding elevator that rises to an observation deck and restaurant. The Pro Shop is housed within the world's 6th largest pyramid, a gigantic glass structure originally built as a sports arena in the 90s.

At the Peabody Hotel, huge crowds of tourists gather daily at 11am and 5pm for the "Duck March". Every morning since 1940, a family of ducks has ridden the elevator down from their rooftop coop and walked a red carpet to the marble fountain in the Grand Lobby, where they spend the day before marching back down the red carpet in the evening. I visited on a Friday evening and the crowds of tourists were so thick that I couldn't even see the ducks. Fortunately, it was the last Friday of the month so I headed over to the South Main Arts District, where shops stay open late as shoppers enjoy live music, food, and free trolley rides through the area.

On one of several 100+ degree days, I walked to Mud Island River Park, a small island accessible by pedestrian bridge or tram, offering an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River, including 20 large cities mapped along the river, watershed walls mapping river drainage, and an acre-size pool serving as the Gulf of Mexico. Adults waded barefoot through the "river", which doubled as a swimming hole for dozens of summer camp children. The island park also features a charming Mississippi River Museum that appears to have been built in the 80s and not updated since then. A few museums & attractions I hope to visit next time include: the Gibson Guitar Factory,  Railroad and Trolley Museum, Cotton Museum, and the Fire Museum.

 The National Civil Rights Museum is housed within the Lorraine Motel, the city of Martin Luther King Jr's death

The National Civil Rights Museum is housed within the Lorraine Motel, the city of Martin Luther King Jr's death

 The National Civil Rights museum preserves the atmosphere of when MLK was killed

The National Civil Rights museum preserves the atmosphere of when MLK was killed

 Martin Luther King's room the night of his assasination

Martin Luther King's room the night of his assasination

The Most Important Place to Visit in Memphis

The highlight of my visit was the National Civil Rights Museum, located within the Lorainne Hotel. If you visit only one place in Memphis, this HAS to be it. The Lorainne Hotel is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968 when he visited the city to support the sanitation workers' strike. In fact, the room that Dr. King stayed in has been preserved, as has the room of his assassin, who rented a room in a boarding house across the street. This boarding house is now the Legacy Building, which re-constructs the hunt for Dr. King's assassin and details the modern civil rights movement. The museum was phenomenal and though I spent 5 hours there, I found myself being shuffled out at close without having sufficiently explored everything. The museum offers hundreds of artifacts and dozens of films, oral histories, and listening posts that cover slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and current civil rights challenges.

 Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac at Stax

Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac at Stax

 One of Elvis Presley's many cars at Graceland

One of Elvis Presley's many cars at Graceland

 Inside Elvis's vintage luxury airplane

Inside Elvis's vintage luxury airplane

Memphis has no shortage of museums and many focus on the city's impressive music history. The Museum of Rock & Soul is about the birth of rock and soul music, created by musical pioneers who overcame countless racial and socio-economic obstacles. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a state-of-the-art museum paying tribute to soul musicians with 2,000 artifacts, including Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac! I posted a picture of it on Instagram and Isaac Hayes' grandson liked it. I'll admit to being excited about that.

Elvis and Graceland

I rode my bike along the long, bumpy Elvis Presley Blvd, which better resembled a highway, to Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley and current #1 attraction in Memphis (and Elvis' final resting place!). Self-guided mansion tours start at $43 and each additional on-site museum/attraction (Elvis's car museum, Elvis's private planes, "Elvis in Hawaii!" exhibit, etc) will cost another $10-20 each. This was my first time inside a custom jet and it was impressive, especially since it was from the 70s', but the spectacle of thousands of fans and half a dozen gift shops selling Elvis pajamas and oven mitts was enough for me. I was happy to go without the mansion and museum tours.

 Soulsville, USA!

Soulsville, USA!

 A bike mural I passed while biking through Shelby Farms

A bike mural I passed while biking through Shelby Farms

Biking in Memphis

Biking in Memphis is fantastic. While there weren't as many on-street bike lanes as I'm accustomed to, drivers are friendly and there are enough well-maintained, protected lanes connecting parks to various neighborhoods. My favorite bike route was easily Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500 acre urban park that contains countless park trails and a 6.5 mile urban trail and protected Greenline that links to the heart of downtown Memphis. The city also has a new bike share program and constructed The Big River Crossing, between Memphis, TN and West Memphis, Arkansas. It is now the longest pedestrian and cyclist bridge across the Mississippi River at nearly a mile in length!

The week I spent in Memphis was not nearly enough but I had to make my way to Nashville for a conference I was attending. A friend dropped me off near the highway to hitchhike and a girl from Arkansas picked me up and dropped me off at my host in Nashville.

Related Posts

Hitchhiking Across the South: My adventures hitchhiking through Kentucky and Tennessee - it's not what you'd expect!

Cincinnati: The Queen City details my adventures in Cinncinati, and biking around Covington and Newport Kentucky, quaint cities along the Ohio River.

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Nashville: Blues, Bikes, & BBQ is pretty self explanatory :)

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