Memphis, Tennessee, is synonymous with Elvis Presley, but this city, nestled on the banks of the Mississippi, has so much more to offer the visitor. Here are our favourite non-Elvis Memphis attractions.
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1. Cooper-Young District
Cooper-Young is an eclectic neighborhood and historic district in the Midtown section of Memphis, named for the intersection of Cooper Street and Young Avenue. The entrance to the neighborhood is marked by the Cooper-Young Trestle, a 150-foot (46 m) long steel sculpture which depicts homes and businesses found in the neighborhood. In 2012, Cooper-Young was listed on the American Planning Association's 10 Great Neighborhoods in the U.S list. The neighborhood is known for its mix of shops, bars and restaurants, which reflects the creative spirit of the neighborhood. Our restaurant choice was The Beauty Shop - a whimsical New American eatery & bar in a former '60s beauty parlor complete with hair-dryer chairs!
2. The National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum offers 260 artifacts, more than 40 new films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts that guide visitors through five centuries of history — from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the seminal events of the late 20th century that inspired people around the world to stand up for equality. The museum is built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Two other buildings and their adjacent property, also connected with the King assassination, have been acquired as part of the museum complex, where you can see the bathroom where James Earl Ray fired his rifle. Among the guests of the Lorraine Motel during the 1960s were musicians such as Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers and Wilson Pickett.
3. Music Related Museums
Memphis has been highly influential in the development of music, especially the blues, rock and roll and soul. Sun Studios is perhaps the most famous music related museum in Memphis, being the recording studio where Elvis was first discovered and recorded. But Memphis also has The Blues Hall of Fame, The Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum, and The Stax Museum.
The Blues Hall of Fame honors those who have made the Blues timeless through performance, documentation, and recording. Members are inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in five categories: Performers, Individuals, Classic of Blues Literature, Classic of Blues Recording (Song), Classic of Blues Recording (Album). Since 1980, The Blues Foundation has inducted 350+ performers, industry professionals, recordings and literature into the Blues Hall of Fame.
The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum tells the complete story of Memphis music history, as researched by the Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s digital audio tour guide is packed with over 300 minutes of information, including over 100 songs, and takes visitors through seven galleries featuring 3 audio visual programs, more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes and other musical treasures.
The Stax Museum is a replica of the Stax recording studio, the former Capitol Theatre, even down to the sloping floor of studio A. It is a 17,000-square-foot (1,600 m2) museum with more than 2,000 videos, films, photographs, original instruments used to record Stax hits, stage costumes, interactive exhibits, and other items of memorabilia. Some of the standout exhibits include an authentic 101-year-old Mississippi Delta church to help show the gospel roots of soul music; the Soul Train dance floor, Isaac Hayes' restored 1972 gold-trimmed, peacock-blue Cadillac El Dorado. Find out about this studio’s artists such as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs, and Rufus.
4. The Cotton Museum
Before music, Memphis was famous for cotton. The Cotton Museum tells the story of how Memphis came to be. Engaging exhibits help visitors understand the city's place in time and explain how the art, history and music that is so important to the culture of Memphis evolved from the confluence of people that were originally gathered here around the cotton industry. The main exhibit is located on the Historic trade floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange- where cotton traders once stood at the center of the global cotton economy. This grand space is now filled with striking artifacts and exhibits that tell the story of "King Cotton" and its impact on the world.
5. The Peabody
The Peabody hotel is legendary for its charm, elegance, and gracious Southern hospitality. However, it is their five resident Mallard ducks, who march daily through the Grand Lobby at 11 am and 5 pm, that the hotel has become known for nationally. The luxurious downtown hotel opened in 1869 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, and continues to carry the distinction as the "South's Grand Hotel." The tradition of the ducks in The Peabody fountain began back in the 1930's, when Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas and placed some of their live duck decoys in the beautiful Peabody fountain. The tradition of the having ducks in the fountain was developed in 1940, when Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody Duck March. Mr. Pembroke became the Peabody Duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.
6. Historic Houses
The cultivation of cotton brought Memphis great prosperity during the 19th century. This has been reflected in the many beautiful mansions that are still standing between Downtown and Uptown Memphis. Some are open to the public, with two in particular - The Mallory-Neely House and The Woodruff-Fontaine House - being fantastic examples of period architecture and design.
The Mallory-Neely House was built from 1852 by Isaac and Lucy Kirtland. In 1883 Columbus and Frances Neely bought the house and moved in with their five children. The Neely’s made significant changes, adding a third floor with an additional level for the tower and were responsible for the magnificent period interiors we still see today. The décor and furnishings date to circa 1890 and include pieces the family bought at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and later from the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
The Woodruff-Fontaine House was built by the successful carriage maker Amos Woodruff in 1871. Noland Fontaine was the second owner of the mansion. Noland came to Memphis in 1861 and quickly established himself as a businessman and a Cotton Factor. The estate was sold in 1929 and became a public property in 1961. Woodruff-Fontaine has one of the most extensive Victorian era fashion to 1920’s textile collections in the South. They have over 4,100 pieces in their collection from wedding gowns to undergarments and everything in between.
7. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art was founded in 1916, and is the oldest and largest art museum in the state of Tennessee. The original Beaux-Arts building, a registered U.S. National Landmark designed by James Gamble Rogers in 1913, was donated by Bessie Vance Brooks. The collection has over seven thousand works of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and examples of the decorative arts.
8. The Pyramid
Perhaps the most unique attraction in Memphis is the massive iconic Pyramid in Downtown Memphis. What is a pyramid doing in this city? Well, it must come down to the fact that the city is named after one of the capitals of ancient Egypt. Originally built as a 20, 000 seat arena in 1991, The Pyramid is the tenth tallest pyramid in the world! Today it is home to a Bass Pro shop, however it is a lot more than just a store. Inside the expansive 535,000-square-foot pyramid there is a hotel, a cypress swamp with 100-foot-tall trees, an 84,000-gallon alligator habitat, and underwater ecosystems including aquariums teeming with more than 1,800 fish. You can also ride the world’s tallest freestanding elevator 28 stories to the top of the Memphis Pyramid to the observation deck or eat at the restaurant while taking in the spectacular view of Memphis below.
9. Beale Street
No visit to Memphis would be complete without a walk down Beale Street. This is the vibrant hub of the city and the best place to go for a party. Beale Street was created in 1841 by entrepreneur and developer Robertson Topp. From it's heyday in the 1920s to the 1940s, Beale Street became synonymous with the Blues, with Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and jazz legends playing on Beale Street, helping develop the style known as Memphis Blues. As a young man, B. B. King was billed as "the Beale Street Blues Boy." By the 1960s, Beale had fallen on hard times and many businesses closed, even though the section of the street from Main to 4th was declared a National Historic Landmark on May 23, 1966.
On December 15, 1977, Beale Street was officially declared the "Home of the Blues" by an act of Congress. Despite national recognition of its historic significance, Beale was a virtual ghost town after a disastrous urban renewal program that razed blocks of buildings in the surrounding neighborhood, as well as a number of buildings on Beale Street. Since then, there has been many years of redevelopment, returning the street into a vibrant center of entertainment, which now includes Hard Rock Cafe, Blues City Cafe & the Band Box and the Rum Boogie Café. Our favourite place to visit, however, was the original B.B. King’s Blues Club. There is great live entertainment every night of the week – from authentic blues to classic soul and rock and roll – and a menu full of Southern favourites.
10. A. Schwabs
Step back in time at A. Schwab’s old fashioned Soda Fountain. They offer gelato in freshly made waffle cones, milkshakes, malts, phosphate sodas with homemade syrups. In 1876, Jewish immigrant Abraham Schwab opened a store on Beale Street. Over its 138-year history, A. Schwab has become a Memphis institution. A. Schwab is the only original business remaining on Beale Street.
Join us next time when we visit Royal Deeside, Scotland.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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