Most associate Memphis, largest city in Tennessee, with the iconic Elvis Presley, legendary 'King of Rock 'n Roll'. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the city each year to make a pilgrimage to Graceland, the mansion where Presley lived and died. The city has spawned the modern musical forms of blues and soul as well. Music fans from all over the world stroll down legendary Beale Street in the downtown area, happy to be walking in the footsteps of the blues and soul heroes.
Aside from touring Graceland there are several other music-related attractions, and a whole lot of other things to see and do in Memphis. The nightlife is world-renowned, the cuisine, particularly barbecue, irresistible. And there are some fascinating museums, beautiful gardens, Mississippi river boats, amusement parks, and some quirky cultural and natural sights to explore.
The second-most visited house in the United States after the White House, the Graceland Mansion was home to a world leader of a different kind, the 'King of Rock 'n Roll', Elvis Presley.
Today, thousands of fans of all ages travel to Memphis to tour the house, grounds, and visit the musical icon's grave. The house has been kept as close as possible to how it was when Elvis lived there. Mansion tours are offered with audio players describing the rooms and memorabilia, including Elvis' trophy building that houses all of his awards, trophies, and platinum records.
Just outside the mansion is the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum containing the star's renowned 1955 pink Cadillac. 32 other cars that were owned by Elvis are lined up along a recreation of a tree-lined street complete with a 1950's drive-in theatre, a collection of Elvis' personal belongings, and a re-creation of an airport terminal where the singer's two private jets are on display.
Graceland Plaza offers several dining options for visitors, most with a focus on 1950's and 1960's diner-style food, including some of Elvis' favourites like the infamous deep-fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich.
As of 2006, Graceland joined the White House, Mount Vernon, and Monticello as a National Historic Landmark, the USA's highest designation for historic properties, usually accorded to the homes of American presidents. Long live the King.
Visitors who come to Memphis to pay homage to Elvis Presley inevitably find their way to the legendary recording studio in Union Avenue where the King of rock 'n roll's career, and that of numerous other stars, began. The story is that Elvis first walked into the Sun Studio in the early 1950s to record a song as a birthday present for his mother. The owner of the studio was self-taught, and made several 'mistakes' that resulted in the sound we now know as the first version of rock 'n roll.
The rest is musical history, now enshrined in the studio that also launched the likes of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis on the road to stardom. Visitors to the studio can hear outtakes from recording sessions, touch Elvis' first microphone, view a great deal of memorabilia, and listen to anecdotes. Alongside the studio is the Sun Studio Café, a diner that retains its 1950s style and is still a favourite musician's hangout.
The studio still hosts live sessions and recordings with current artists. Free shuttles are on hand to transport visitors to and from either Graceland or the Rock 'n Soul Museum.
Put together by Smithsonian Institution, the Memphis Rock n' Soul Museum is a collection of rare recordings, vintage films, photographs, and interactive exhibits celebrating the history of American musical pioneers. The museum is located on the corner of the legendary Highway 61, otherwise known as the Blues Highway, and the equally famous Beale Street, home of urban jazz and blues.
The exhibition fills seven galleries and covers the development of American popular music over the past century. From gospel to blues and rock, the museum exhibits costumes and guitars from performers like Elvis Presley, Ike Turner's piano, and B.B. King's 'Lucille' guitar. Each of the seven galleries has a specific focus - rural culture, rural music, coming to Memphis, Sun Records and youth culture, soul music, social changes, and the bravo gallery, focused on the performers and other music industry players who contributed to a successful civil rights movement.
The time covered by the exhibition reaches from the start of blues and rock in the 1930's with rural field hollers and sharecroppers, all the way to the present day and the continuing influence these genres have on the world, both musically and culturally. An audio guide is available and takes visitors on a tour of the music that was the biggest influence on culture and lifestyle in the 20th century.
The Pink Palace, a nickname bestowed on this elaborate pink marble Memphis mansion by the locals, was intended to be a luxury home for the founder of the Piggy Wiggly chain of supermarkets, Clarence Saunders, when he began building it back in the 1920s. Before the ostentatious mansion was completed Saunders declared bankruptcy, and the homestead ended up in the hands of the city of Memphis for use as a museum.
The Pink Palace Museum is devoted to culture and natural history, its origins preserved in the form of a replica of the first self-service grocery store in the country, Saunders' Piggly Wiggly. Visitors can also explore dioramas, exhibits, and audio-visual displays that trace Memphis' development from the arrival of the Spanish explorers through the Civil War and yellow fever epidemics. An award-winning medical exhibit highlights Memphis' development into a health care centre for the United States. Dinosaurs and fossils also feature, as does an excellent medical-history section.
The museum also includes a planetarium, an Imax theatre, a nature centre, and a science centre. Nearby are two further houses of historical interest - the Magevney House, an 1830's clapboard house built by Irish immigrants that is furnished as it would have been originally, and the Mallory-Neely House, a 25-room house built in 1852 that still has all its original furnishings.
Mud Island in the Mississippi River offers a fascinating insight into the famous river with a series of immersive and informative attractions. The island emerged in the river in 1900 and was soon turned into a 52-acre park. The main attractions on the island are the Mississippi River Museum, an amphitheatre where touring acts perform during summer, a huge swimming pool, and a display of the Memphis Belle, a famous B-17 bomber from World War II.
The permanent exhibitions at the museum are focused on Mississippi River transportation over the years, river engineering, exploration and settlement of the river and its banks, and more. A monorail runs from Memphis to Mud Island, offering beautiful views of downtown Memphis, the Mississippi River, and Mud Island River Park.
The highlight of a visit to Mud Island, however, is the unique and fascinating River Walk, a scaled down replica of the lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans in Louisiana. The River walk is five blocks long and represents a journey of 1,000 miles (1,609km). The walk ends in a one-acre replica of the Gulf of Mexico, where visitors to the island can rent paddle boats to explore the area while taking in some of the best views of the Memphis city skyline.
Canoes and kayaks are available for rent on the island for further exploration of the river. Mountain bikes are available for visitors who would like to explore the island by bike.
The Memphis Botanic Gardens are a sensory delight through which to stroll at any time of year. The 96-acre site at Audubon Park, in the east of the city comprises 26 formal gardens. Each garden is designed according to a theme or species, ranging from a tranquil Japanese garden to the magnificent Municipal Rose Garden, an organic vegetable garden, and a tropical conservatory. Highlights are the Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden, at its best in April and May, and a Sensory Garden designed to be enjoyed by the disabled.
The gardens host a weekly farmer's market on Wednesday from April to October, providing locally grown and sourced produce and delicacies. From February to October, Tuesdays on the Terrace are also hosted by the gardens, providing an evening of wine tasting with proceeds going to support school-going children. Fratelli's Cafe, located between the Water Garden and the sculpture Garden, provides delicious lunches and snacks in the tranquil environment.
Three annual plant sales are hosted by the gardens, with all the proceeds going to various educational and horticultural programs. Throughout the summer months, the gardens host live concert evenings, inviting visitors to bring picnics and relax on the lawns for the duration of the concert.
Stax Records was not only the most successful soul music studio in history - recording the likes of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and The Staple Singers - but also a cultural phenomenon. It furthered the ends of social integration at a time when segregation was still a grim reality in the USA.
Although Stax Records was forced into involuntary bankruptcy at the end of 1975, its legacy lives on, in the form of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Located at the original site of Stax Records, the museum pays tribute to all of the artists who recorded there, with a rare and astonishing collection of more than two thousand interactive exhibits, films, artefacts, items of memorabilia, and galleries.
The only soul music museum in the world, the Stax Museum includes tributes to other influential soul music record labels, such as Motown, Hi and Atlantic Records. Artists that may not have released albums under the Stax Records label but were big players in the soul music world are also highlighted at the Stax Musuem - the Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Ike, and Tina Turner, amongst others.
Memphis has a humid subtropical climate, and experiences four distinct seasons with cold winters and hot summers. Spring and autumn can be varied and unpredictable and severe weather, like thunderstorms and strong winds, is possible during these transitory seasons. Summers are very humid thanks to moisture encroaching from the Gulf of Mexico, and while the temperature rarely reaches great heights; it tends to feel hotter than it is. Summer temperatures average between 70°F (21°C) and 92°F (33°C). Winters, by contrast, can be fairly cold with temperatures averaging between 32°F (0°C) and 52°F (11°C). Memphis averages 3.8 inches (9.7cm) of snow a year. There is plenty of rain to keep the region green, most falling in thunderstorms.
May in Tennessee is celebrated with festivals designed not only to highlight the charms of Tennessee, but also as a cultural exchange exercise, honouring a different 'guest' country each year. Kicking off the month is the Beale Street Music Festival, 'one outrageous party', taking place over three days, with four stages on 13 hectares (33 acres) hosting Cajun music acts alongside the mighty Mississippi.
This is followed up by the Desti-Nations International Festival featuring activities, displays, and cultural exhibitions relating to the chosen guest country. The other three main events of Memphis in May are the World Championship Barbecue Contest, the Sunset Symphony, concert on the riverbank, and the Education Program.
The Sunset Symphony is the oldest event in Memphis and includes all-day musical performances on the banks of the Mississippi, an air show, a performance by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and a fireworks show. The Education Program aims to educate the state's students about the guest country for the year, through the means of specially developed curriculums, exchange programs, competitions and more.
A Barbecue Contest is held at the Tom Lee Park, where teams are encouraged to decorate their stands while they grill meat that is judged by a panel of barbecue experts. Additional entertainment includes a Ms. Piggie Idol competition, a t-shirt competition, and a best booth competition.
Memphis contains one of the most famous and most visited tourist attraction in the United States, Graceland, the former home of rock 'n roll legend, Elvis Presley. Each year on the anniversary of Presley's death hundreds of thousands of avid fans flock to Graceland for a week of scheduled events, like the Candlelight Vigil, a 1950s style dance party, and a fun run in aid of charity.
Talks are conducted on stage with people who knew Elvis, and cover topics ranging from Elvis and Gospel and Elvis in the Movies, to Behind the Camera, and Behind the Stage. A contest for the Ultimate Elvist Tribute Performer runs throughout the week, with the final winner announced at the end of the week. Live music and singing is provided all week, with well-known musicians and singers paying tribute to Elvis and his music. There is also a special screening of a movie either featuring Elvis or about Elvis.
Public transport is not very reliable in Memphis and the most efficient way to cover the sprawling city is by renting a car, although you may find traffic congestion on major roads. The city is simple to navigate and parking is generally easy to find. To hire a car drivers must be 21 years old, and most agencies have higher rates for under-25s. Some require an International Driving Permit as well as a valid driver's license.
Public transport is available, consisting of slow and infrequent buses, but there are also shuttle buses that operate around the main attractions in the city centre, which visitors may find more convenient. The famous vintage electric trolleys usually used by the city have been temporarily replaced by Downtown Trolley Shuttle Buses, as the trolleys are under repair. Taxis are also available and must be booked by phone.
Music and Memphis are synonymous - the main reason visitors generally travel to Memphis is to delve into the home of the blues and rock 'n roll and visit the iconic shrines to the city's great musical heroes, most notably 'The King', Elvis Presley. Lovers of music will certainly find every bit of this colourful city memorable.
Memphis' most popular attraction, Graceland, is the second-most visited house in the United States and sees fans of Elvis make pilgrimages to his mansion all year round. Another favourite is the Memphis Rock n' Soul Museum, a unique interactive museum detailing the history of soul and rock in America. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is also an attraction worth visiting. Located at the original site of Stax Records, the museum pays homage to the legendary artists who recorded there. May in Memphis sees many music festivals, visitors can enjoy the Beale Street Music Festival, among others.
For those who are interested in more than just the music scene, the Memphis Botanic Gardens are a wonderful outdoors experience and can be enjoyed any time of year, Mud Island in the Mississippi River is great fun for the whole family, and the Memphis Zoo is one of only a handful in the US that houses giant pandas.
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