10 Best Tours for Discovering Memphis Music, History and Culture

By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Memphis is a city filled with history and culture - the roots of American music, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, the commerce and culture that came from being one of the most important city's on a river.

And there are a myriad of ways to discover Memphis  – on foot, by trolley, via riverboat, or even through a Saturday morning group run. If a quick hit of downtown attractions - and minimal effort on your part - is the ticket, try the Segway Experience; those who want to become immersed in the history and contributions of African Americans in the city will want to reserve a seat with Heritage Tours. For the ultimate in Memphis music, a VIP tour of Graceland can't be beat.

Exploring the river has never been easier, thanks to Memphis Riverboats, which offers both nostalgic riverboat cruises on a seasonal basis - as well as airboat tours of the Mississippi River, which are not for the faint of heart. For those who want a fun and funky tour of Memphis and all its musical heritage, Backbeat or American Dream Safari are the ways to go; both offer very different but equally fun touring experiences - one in a vintage coach bus, the other via vintage Cadillac.

10. 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.

9. Victorian Village
Photo courtesy of Victorian Village

Victorian Village was the city's original affluent neighborhood, and just a few of its original Victorian homes remain today. Near Main Street, this quiet residential area offers glimpses into lovely homes with exquisite French Second Empire and Italianate Victorian architecture. The village houses several historic residences including the Mageveny House, the Woodruff Fontaine House and the Mallory Neely Home. In November 2012, the Mallory-Neely home reopened for tours; many are hoping that this renovation will be the beginning of many throughout the area. Currently, that home and the Mageveny home are open for tours; a self-guided walking tour and seasonal events are also offered. The nearby Mollie Fontaine house is now a hip bar that's also worth a visit.

8. 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.

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. American Dream Safari
Photo courtesy of American Dream Safari

Tad Pierson is your tour guide, and forget the bus - his ride is a vintage Cadillac, with a limit of five passengers. The small size of the group means there's plenty of time for Q&A on one of Tad's tours, which range from 'Drive By Shooting' (a photographic tour of Memphis) to a Delta day trip south of the border - to Mississippi. Music lovers will delight in the Juke Joint tour, which starts at 9 p.m. and promises to take you to the real deal, as well as some more mainstream blues clubs. Along the way, Tad is full of trivia, jokes, and serious incredible pieces of fascinating information about Memphis.

5. 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.

4. Memphis Riverboats

Rolling on the river takes on a whole new meaning when you can step aboard an old-fashioned riverboat and explore the Mississippi. A variety of sightseeing and themed cruises are available, from leisurely dinner cruises to Fourth of July fireworks cruises. Add-ons, from bottles of champagne to cakes or flowers, can be arranged. The truly adventurous might want to cruise in a different way - via air boat. Up to six passengers (no kids under 6, however) cruise the mighty river for 30 minutes, and given the barge traffic and strong currents, the trip promises to be a thrill ride.

3. Blues City Tours

There are more than a dozen tours of Memphis and beyond to choose from, and whether you are a singleton or part of a larger group, Blues City can accommodate. With options for starting in Memphis or Tunica, MS (home to the casinos, just about 40 minutes south of the state line), tours are theme-oriented – the blues, music, night time tours, even a shopping tour; in Tunica, you can visit the charming downtown area, the Riverpark and the casinos. Advanced reservations are recommended, as tours fill quickly in the prime season - summer, especially August - and Elvis birthday week in January.

2. Carriage Tours of Memphis
Photo courtesy of Carriage Tours of Memphis

The clip-clopping of horse hooves can be heard throughout downtown Memphis, thanks to a robust carriage tour industry. Kids certainly delight in these tours, which wind around downtown, form the Peabody Hotel area through the main business district, with a drive-by of Beale Street, South Main, and along the river. The horse-drawn tours operate day and night, and often run late into the evening, when the run by Beale becomes way more interesting. Many of the carriages feature fanciful lights for the evening, whether decorated as Cinderella's pumpkin carriage or a more sinister-looking ride; tours generally start at the Peabody Hotel (or call for an advance reservation / location).

1. 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!)The company offers a comprehensive look at the city - from shopping to dining to attractions - on it's latest offering, called the Discover Tour.