Downtown Memphis grew from the warehouses that stored cotton and other goods shipped up and down the Mississippi River. For much of Memphis' history, this meant that the riverfront was solely a place for commerce. Now, you're likely to spot joggers on the riverfront visitors on Mud Island and elegant homes along the bluffs (including Cybill Shepard's--look for the round window). Visitors can take a beautifully restored trolley car up Main Street--parallel to the river--and stop at the Pyramid arena, grab a bite and a brew in one of the Pinch Historic District pubs, loop back to the south to see the Orpheum Theatre and continue on down to the Civil Rights Museum, located in the old Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. A ride up to Union Avenue and a walk two blocks East brings you to the Peabody Hotel, where the downtown comeback started. After a visit with the ducks in the lobby fountain, walk to the new Peabody Place entertainment center to see a movie, or visit the Center for Southern Folklore and learn more about local culture and history. Cross Union for some popcorn and crackerjacks while the Memphis Redbirds play baseball in Autozone Park. Brought back from a downward spiral in the 1960s and 70s, Beale Street--"Home of the Blues"--now features lively bars, clubs, restaurants and souvenir shops.
See & Do
Some of the country's most memorable moments, good and bad, came out of Memphis. The murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel left the South Main area of downtown a ghost town, but its now revitalized thanks in part to that sad history, which can be examined at the National Civil Rights Museum. Elvis Presley recorded his first hit at Sun Studio, just a short distance from Beale Street - and the world was changed forever with his brash sound and swinging hips. The Mississippi Riverfront is a delight; start with a tour of Mud Island and go for a picnic in Tom Lee Park - you'll be mesmerized by the river.
Downtown offers some incredible restaurant experiences, all with a Memphis twist. The Little Tea Shop is where one finds the big names in business plotting and planning, while the Arcade - the city's oldest restaurant - offers diner-type fare and was one of Elvis' favorite spots. Chez Philippe, in the Peabody, is the ultimate romantic and impressive eatery downtown, and Flight offers a hip scene with wine and food flights - a fantastic way to indulge any appetite. Try Charlie Vergos's Rendezvous for Ribs, Gus's for spicy fried chicken, and Cockadoos for a hearty, homemade breakfast.
Beale Street is ground zero when it comes to nightlife in Memphis. Think Bourbon Street with more soul and no girls in the windows. Closed to traffic on evenings, the area teems with a mix of tourists, suburbanites, downtowners and kids turning flips for quarters. Most clubs and bars stay open until the wee hours, which around here is 5 a.m. Here you can visit Alfred's, BB. King's Blues Club, the Band Box and Rum Boogie for nightly live music; try Club 152 for dancing, and meet a goat at Silky O'Sullivan's.
There's one issue with choosing a downtown hotel: Choosing a downtown hotel. With lush offerings like the historic Peabody and the upscale Westin on Beale Street, the quiet luxury of the Inn at Hunt Phelan, or the sleek sophistication of the boutique-y Madison, there's something for every taste. Those looking to keep an eye on the bottom line should try the Holiday Inn or the DoubleTree. Wherever you choose to lay your head, know that most attractions are within walking distance, as is the Main Street Trolley - a great way to get around downtown.
The Lansky Brothers famously outfitted Elvis - and now, with a collection of shops at the Peabody Hotel, they outfit a lot of Memphians in the trendiest fashions. The South Main district is full of galleries and shops, from the folk art-focused D'Edge to the trendy American Apparel and the inspired jewelry store Charlotte. A. Schwab and Strange Cargo are both on Beale Street, and are your best bets for funky (dare we say cheesy) trinkets.