Memphis' Best Attractions and Activities: From Music Museums to the Zoo

Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com
By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Narrowing down the list of attractions to only 10 is difficult in any city, but especially Memphis, where music, history, the arts and outdoors are all a lure.

Planning a long weekend or a week-long vacation should start with the thing that is uniquely Memphis: American music. The blues found its first wide audience at the clubs on Beale Street, and Elvis Presley brought the world a new sound from the tiny Sun Recording Service. Graceland, of course, is one of the most-visited historic homes in the United States, and truly a frozen-in-time experience that draws longtime fans of the King, as well as new ones who weren’t even alive when he died. Stax, known as Soulsville USA, brought the sound of soul to the world – and is an excellent interactive museum, as is the National Civil Rights Museum.

The retail extravaganza that is the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid is a can't miss, even if you have zero interest in the outdoors. With a bowling alley, aquarium, and pyramid peak observation deck, it's a delight to experience. With its setting on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, nature is an integral part of Memphis, and exploring nature can involve everything from a simple walk along the Mighty Mississippi, to exploring the Mighty Mississippi at Mud Island Riverpark.

Memphis is a casual town that’s easy to explore and navigate by car – and our guide to the city’s best attractions is just the start of a Memphis adventure.

10. Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid
Photo courtesy of Bass Pro Shops

It was the most anticipated opening of a store in Memphis, ever. The $190-million plus Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid - former home to the NBA's Grizzlies - opened in late April welcoming 35,000 customers its first DAY. The massive retail space combines a giant-sized version of a Bass Pro shop with a a giant cypress wamp filled with fish and alligators, a 13-lane bowling alley, a 28-story freestanding glass elevator, a 120-room hotel that resembles a swanky lodge, an observation deck at the tip of the Pyramid (visit for a fee), and all manner of boats, ATVs, and more to explore.Oh, and a gun range, an archery range, a shooting gallery, and a hotel spa. So, let's just call it Disney for outdoorsy types. Or anyone who wants to marvel at the marriage of a pyramid and a hunting lodge. Weirdly, it just works.

9. Sun Studio
Photo courtesy of Ethan.K

Sun Studio is a tiny spot - but really, really big events in the history of music happened here. The most famous of all, of course, was Elvis Presley recording 'That's Alright, Mama' in 1954; within a year, he was a superstar and the Sun label was known throughout the world. Those whose names would become synonymous with rock, country and even the blues recorded at Sun including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. The famous Sun facade is one of the most photographed sites in Memphis. A 1950s-style diner / gift shop offers up snacks a selection of music souvenirs.

8. Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com

Since 1976, this museum has housed a spectacular Impressionist collection including Degas, Monet and Pisarro, and the collection of art is rivaled only by the gorgeous gardens surrounding what was once one of Memphis' finest estates. The late Hugo and Margaret Dixon willed the house and grounds to the people of Memphis in order to establish this museum. The original Dixon collection included works by French and American Impressionists. Traveling exhibits are usually exquisite collections based on a certain theme or time period, and while small in scope are rich with offerings. Special concerts and picnic opportunities are offered from spring through fall in the gardens, many with no admission required.

7. Mud Island River Park
Photo courtesy of Mud Island River Park

Taking advantage of an island that sprang up in the Mississippi in the early 20th century, this park offers a variety of attractions. Among them are the Mississippi River Museum, which tracks both the river's development and the culture and towns that grew up along its route. Along the island, the River Walk, a scale model of the Mississippi's path, allows visitors to follow the Big Muddy from its start in Minnesota to its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. The flow of the model river mimics that of the real one. The Mud Island amphitheater attracts top names in music, a monorail offers fun overviews of the area, and bike and pedal boat rentals provide energetic folks the chance to venture further afield. Restaurants and gift shops are also available on the 52-acre island.

6. Beale Street Historic District
Photo courtesy of Lisa Buser Photography

Once the center of black-owned businesses and nightclubs, Beale became the home of the blues at the turn of the 20th century - a waypoint along the trail from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. W.C. Handy lived - and performed - here, and anyone who was anyone on the blues scene has performed in the clubs here, from Blind Mississippi Morris to B.B. King to Robert Johnson. Today, the clubs and restaurants on Beale proper still move to the beat of the blues. The FedEx Forum - home to the NBA's Grizzlies - sits just off Beale, and a variety of hotels, museums and eateries are within a short walk from the famous street. Blues fans can pay homage to W.C. Handy at the home and museum at the east end of the street, or visit the Center for Southern Folklore to explore storytelling and folk art in the South. Also nearby is the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and Gibson Guitar Factory. In Handy Park, a small stage is home to lunchtime and weekend concerts including some unscheduled jam sessions. For the best blues music, try B.B. King's, Rum Boogie or Alfred's.

5. National Ornamental Metal Museum
Photo courtesy of Ornamental Metal Museum

Decorative metalwork is a hallmark of the design and architecture of the American South, and the Metal Museum is dedicated to the art of fine metalwork, as well as its history. Exhibits range from an examination of piercing to antique weapons; wandering through four galleries filled with artifacts and artwork are always an interesting way to spend an afternoon. Working artists are often on hand to demonstrate their crafts,and there's even a working blacksmith shop on site. A beautiful sculpture garden on the grounds overlooking the Mississippi is one of the most scenic spots in town.

4. Graceland
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Jones

Graceland is the second most visited historic home in the United States, hosting more than 600,000 visitors who come to pay homage to the King. How long one spends at Graceland really depends on one's level of interest in Elvis – you can make a quick tour of the mansion and be out in an hour, or spend the day at all the associated exhibits across from the estate. For those truly committed, special exhibits change frequently. The mansion itself is really just a large family home, forever stuck in the design decade of the 70's. Elvis has a very deep interest in interior design, so he played a major role in choosing décor for the home, especially the basement. The infamous Jungle Room, where Elvis and his band actually recorded an album, is over-the-top tropical, featuring leopard spots, tropically-themed décor and green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling.Guests are never allowed to roam upstairs to view the Presley family's private quarters. Elvis' grave site in the Meditation Garden is part of the mansion tour.

3. Memphis Zoo
Photo courtesy of Memphis Zoo

The Memphis Zoo is consistently rated one of the top zoos in the country, both for its breadth of exhibits in an easy-to-navigate layout, and for the sheer fact that one can get pretty close to the animals in almost every habitat. With giant pandas from China, a Teton ecosystem replete with grizzly bears and wolves, and a Northwest Passage habitat filled with polar bears and river otters, this is a top-notch zoo that will enchant both kids and their parents. During the winter, a skating tent and festive lights bring the holiday spirit to the zoo, and it is open for select evening visits.

2. National Civil Rights Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum underwent a year-long, multi-million dollar rebirth, re-opening the full museum in 2014 with more interactivity, deeper exhibits, and an even better telling of the stories of the American civil rights movement. One of the most emotionally moving museums in America, the NCRM chronicles the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike – right in the very building where King was standing when gunned down. Exhibits in the Lorraine Motel, where King and his entourage were staying, and the boarding house across the street – where gunman James Earl Ray camped out – tell the history of the civil rights movement, leading up to the assassination of King and the hunt for his killer. In addition, the pioneers of civil rights are profiled in a special exhibit dedicated to those the museum recognizes in its annual human rights awards.

1. Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com

The lesser known of Memphis' major musical attractions, Stax is still one of the richest experiences in the city for music lovers. Home to what became known as the Memphis Sound, Stax is where Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, the Staple Singers and many others recorded hundreds of Top 100 hits in the 1960s and early '70s. Known as Soulsville USA, the excellent museum traces the history of soul music from its roots in the blues and gospel, and offers a fantastic history of American pop culture form the 70's – including Isaac Hayes' tripped-out Cadillac and a hall of gold records which astounds with its depth of talent and hits. Keep an eye out for multiple Grammy winner Kirk Whalum; the soulful sax man, a Memphis native, is now the director of the Stax Foundation and frequently on premises.