Memphis has been on my list of places to visit for a few years, mainly because so many people I love are from there or live there. Although I’m from Atlanta, I transferred to Middle Tennessee State University in my junior year and made lifelong friends that have encouraged me to visit. When you mention Memphis, what comes to mind for many people is BBQ and Elvis, but locals want us to know there is much more to the historic city than that.
My recent trip to Memphis inspired me in ways that I never dreamed of. From the young Black creatives that are making it their mission to create safe spaces for the youth of the city to Global Café, an international food hall that supports immigrant and refugee food entrepreneurs from Nepal, Sudan, and Syria — Memphis made a lasting impression on me. Memphians are taking control of the narrative of the city and creating a city where creatives, entrepreneurs, and community organizers can thrive.
Here is a guide full of places that will feed your soul, fill your belly, and open your mind.
Where to stay…
The Hu Hotel is new to the downtown area, replacing the Madison Hotel. The 16-floor property overlooks the Mississippi River and comes with amenities like a bathtub and a rooftop bar. The Hu is also a nice option if you want to walk to Beale Street since it’s less than a 12-minute walk.
If you prefer a home away from home that makes you feel like you’re snuggled in your bedroom, Talbot Heirs is where you should book. Each of their suites has a full kitchen (stocked with complimentary breakfast items), so you can save money on eating too many meals out. Like the Hu, this property is located within walking distance of all of the action Downtown Memphis has to offer.
The Peabody Hotel is a staple of Memphis for their service and their ducks. Yes, the Peabody ducks could be more famous than the hotel itself, making it a hot spot for tourists. The full-service hotel offers spa treatments at the Feather Spa, rooftop parties on Thursdays from April 11-August 15, and plenty of history, as the hotel has been a known establishment in Memphis since 1869. Book the deluxe king room and enjoy sleeping on luxe Egyptian cotton linens.
What to do…
When we walked into B.B. King’s, we were met with friendly faces and music that made the floors shake — literally. Every night you can guarantee a show that you’ll want to write home about.
If you’re someone that enjoys live shows and supporting the arts, the Hattilioo is a must. Located in Overton Square, the theatre is one of four freestanding Black repertory theatres in the country. Their 2019 season kicks off in August with the Tony Award-winning musical, Jelly’s Last Jam. With tickets priced $35 and under, you can make space in your budget to support this magical establishment.
Visiting the Stax Museum was one of my favorite moments. Much of the time when we hear about the music scene of Memphis, Elvis dominates the conversation, which is difficult for many black Memphians, since Elvis ultimately experienced significant success after recording records like “Hound Dog,” which was originally recorded by Blues Icon Big Mama Thornton four years prior to Elvis’s 1956 release. The Stax Museum gives the soul musicians of the time and beyond the credit they deserve. You’ll find items from artists like Otis Redding, Issac Hayes, and the Staple Singers. Be sure to take a moment to admire Issac Hayes’ souped-up ride. It is truly a masterpiece.
The Civil Rights Movement is an essential part of Memphis history, especially with the city being where Dr. Martin Luther King was fatally shot April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel. The museum holds 260 artifacts from the beginning of the resistance during slavery to the events of the late 20th century that have shaped our society.
As I mentioned above, Graceland can be troublesome for black Memphians and tourists alike, but as the most popular attraction in the city, I couldn’t leave the 13.8-acre estate off this guide. Graceland provides an intimate view of the superstar’s life. You’ll see inside his home, his on-stage costumes, and even his private jets, one of which is named after his daughter, Lisa Marie, which has a living room, conference room, private bedroom, gold-plated seatbelts, and 24-karat gold-flecked sinks.
The Broad Avenue Arts District is lined with locally-owned shops, restaurants, and bars. My favorites were City & State, Mbabazi House of Style, and Falling Into Place. While you’re strolling, don’t forget to stop by The Liquor Store where breakfast is served all day or spend a late night at the Rec Room where you can play vintage arcade games and sip on some “Magic Potion.”
When I walked into Cheryl Pesce, I almost left my debit card at the counter because I wanted to buy everything. Many of the items in the store are made by local artisans like Mo of Mo’s Bows (who you might have seen on Shark Tank), along with collections like “Angel” that are filled with adorable onesies and small stuffed animals for baby.
Formally a Sears Roebuck & Co Distribution Center (and one of the first integrated workplaces in Memphis), the 87-year-old building has taken on a new life. The renovated space is not only serving up good eats and cocktail with shops like Global Cafe and the Art Bar, but the building is becoming a communal space for artists thanks to the Crosstown Arts Shared Art Making space. There, anyone can use their art-making facilities and equipment to make everything from a piece of furniture to large digital prints. The Concourse is also home to the A Step Ahead Foundation (which provides women with free long-acting reversible contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies), Church Health, and Crosstown High, which are all helping provide services and education to the community.
Where to eat…
Best Brunch Spots
This eatery prides itself on sourcing its ingredients from local farmers. We hear their pancakes and pizzas (dough is made from scratch daily) are worth a trip to Madison Ave.
When I arrived at the Broad Ave diner, I was struck by their full-service bar and the healthy option the menu provided alongside their specialties like the biscuit beignets. I opted for the sweet potato hash, and it didn’t disappoint. If you find yourself with a little post-flight sniffle, ask for a hot toddy. Not only did it help my cold, but it was delicious.
This establishment came up over and over again as a place we must stop by to have a meal. Decorated with vintage hooded hair dryers, their Sunday brunch serves up unique items like grapefruit brulee, Beneduck (Eggs Benedict served with crispy spiced duck), and lemon ricotta pancakes.
You don’t have to venture to NOLA to get a taste of Creole classics, as chef Chef Kelly English has brought the flavor to Overton. The “irrationally good bbq shrimp” is just that. You’ll want to lick the mini black skillet the dish is served in, but to keep it classy use the bread to soak up the leftover gravy. The Mississippi catfish sauce piquant and roast beef + gravy + swiss po’ boy are staff favorites and crowd pleasers.
The Global Café is now one of my favorites of all time. Supporting women in the business of food that are sharing their beloved dishes from their countries with us feels special. My eyes were certainly bigger than my stomach when it came to ordering. The wrapped grape leaves from Chef Fayha, the soup du jour with stuffed cheese potato bread from Sudanese Chef Ibti, and the Mo Mo dumplings from Nepalese Chef Indra were worth every calorie.
This historical establishment needs no introduction, as the restaurant served civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spent time in Memphis. The fried green tomatoes, catfish, mac & cheese, and fried chicken are a must.
Located downtown right next to Old Dominick Distillery, the Gray Canary is a swanky restaurant with a full wine list, craft cocktails, and seafood dishes that spark rave reviews.
Drinks with the Girls
Tucked away at Crosstown Arts, the Art Bar is a full-service bar opened Tuesday-Sunday from 5 pm-1 am. What makes this bar special is its nostalgic decor that includes a cat and dog room, and each month the bar features work from a different artist.
Live music lovers will enjoy this reasonably new addition to Overton Square. With a seven-day music line up, you’ll never have a shortage of good music and cocktails.
Located downtown, this “hippie” bar is a local go-to because of its inviting atmosphere, vegan slider, “chicken” options, and their cocktail menu.