Sightseeing, Memphis Style: Get Your Groove On!

By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Where to start?

That’s the first question to ask when planning a sightseeing tour of Memphis – and 10Best is here to help you make the most of your time in Memphis.

Our list of sights to see and tours to take include individual attractions as well as all-out tours, modes of transportation and a few must-hit spots.

Lots of folks think of Graceland as their first stop (and we do consider it a must-stop) but advise that starting your visit to Memphis where the city began – at the Memphis riverfront and downtown – is the ticket. Mud Island River Park and its museum and its outdoor scale model of the Mississippi is a great place to begin a Memphis tour – and get a real feel for the city. If there's only one place you have time to stop, however, we say it is the National Civil Rights Museum, which serves as a reminder of the fight for human rights throughout our history.

The Peabody Hotel is downtown's most famous landmark, and its ducks perhaps the most famous residents of Memphis. A few blocks from the Peabody is Beale Street, which you can see at night, or during a run through the city’s landmarks with other fitness-minded individuals.

There are a number of ways to tour Memphis while letting someone else do all the work. Tour providers Backbeat and Blues City each offer unique perspectives on Memphis, and the main Street Trolley and the Hop bus are two ways to sightsee without having to worry about maps and directions.

10. March of the Peabody Ducks
Photo courtesy of Peabody Hotel

The tradition of the duck march started following a hunting trip in 1932. The story goes that then-general manager of the hotel and his hunting buddies, along with their live decoy ducks, stopped in the Peabody's ornate lobby bar for a glass or three of Jack Daniels. The guys thought it would be a hoot to let the decoys paddle around in the fountain of the lobby bar while they relived the hunt. A tradition was born. Anthony Petrina is the fifth duck master at the hotel; the job was created in the 1940's when a former Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus animal trainer named Edward Pembroke offered to help deliver the ducks to and from the fountain each day. That delivery soon turned into a full-fledged spectacle, with the ducks marching from their rooftop abode, into the elevator, down to the lobby, and across a red carpet into their watery daytime home. The ducks process at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The ducks have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and Sesame Street and have been featured in numerous publications, from Sports Illustrated to People.

9. Memphis Hop
Photo courtesy of Memphis Hop

The Memphis Hop is a brilliant idea for the city; opened in 2013, the hop-on, hop-off bus service allows sightseeing as it's never been seen in the Bluff City. Buses travel from attraction to attraction, stopping hourly at each spot. From Graceland to the National Ornamental Metal Museum to Stax and the Zoo, a dozen attractions, plus Beale Street are on the route. The buses operate from 10:30 am - 7:00 p.m. daily, with the exception of Mondays. Tickets are good for 24 hours of riding, which means you can really see a lot. And because many attractions are spread out, you can leave the navigating to someone else.

8. 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.

7. Rockin' Running Tours
Photo courtesy of Rockin' Running Tours

Dedicated runners don't let travel get in the way of their mileage - and runners visiting Memphis now have a way to see the sights and fit in a run. Rockin' Running Tours offers running, walking or walk / run tours of the city on weekends from 5 am. to 10 p.m., or during the week by appointment. The tours are $25 for a three-mile run ($5 for each additional mile), and include a t-shirt and a bottle of water and snack at the end of the run. Tours vary from a 3 - 6 mile downtown loop that includes a jog by of the National Civil Rights Museum, Cotton Row and Sun Studio; a Midtown Hipster loop covers the historic homes in Cooper Young and goes by the museum and zoo in Overton Park.

6. 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. The mansion itself is really just a large family home, forever stuck in the design decade of the 70's. 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. The recorded tour information is quite informative and of course loaded with good Elvis songs; for hardcore fans of the King, the VIP Tour allows access to exclusive exhibits featuring infrequently seen artifacts, and includes priority access to the bus.

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. Backbeat Tours
Photo courtesy of Bacbeat Tours

A magical musical tour awaits for those who jump on the brightly decorated Backbeat bus; whether it's Memphis music in general, Elvis in particular, or a haunted trek around the city, each lively tour is accompanied by music, jokes and plenty of fun. But who knew that Memphis was once known as the 'wettest dry town in America?' Stories from Memphis' colorful Prohibition days highlight the Cocktail Tour, our particular favorite. (Sorry, kids, you have to be 21 to ride the bus during the cocktail tour!) Some tours include music and comedy, and the Memphis Discovery Tour is our favorite, combining food, attractions and shopping.

2. Mud Island River Park & Mississippi River Museum
Photo courtesy of Mud Island River Park

Mud Island is reached by an aerial tram (you may remember it from the Tom Cruise movie, The Firm) and features a to-scale model of the Mississippit River that one can walk along, noting the changing conditions of the river. The Mississippi River Museum explores the 10,000-year history of the Mississippi, noting how it developed and what the areas around it have drawn from the river. The Belle of the Bluffs, the reconstructed front half of an 1870s steamboat, complete with cotton bales stacked on the lower deck and water lapping at the hull. The Memphis Blues exhibit highlights the music of the Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, early rock 'n roll, and Elvis. Mud Island's pay-one-price package includes entry to the museum, a round-trip monorail ride, and a guided tour of the five-block scale model of the Mississippi.

1. 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.