The Soul of the South Main Arts District

With its authentic blend of dining, shopping, history, creative class residents and, of course, nightlife, the South Main Arts District is a shining example of Memphis’ downtown revitalization. Over the past decade, warehouses and storefronts have transformed into chic loft spaces, hip restaurants and eclectic boutiques.

Vintage trolleys run up and down the streets of downtown Memphis. Photo by Dan Ball
Portabella BBQ Sandwich and beer from Central BBQ. Photo Credit: Justin Fox Burks
Memphis is the barbecue capitol of the world, but we've got more than pork. Try the portabella and barbecue sandwich from Central BBQ. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.
The Orpheum Theatre and trolley. Photo Credit: Phillip Parker
See a Broadway show at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis. Photo by Phillip Parker.
The Blues Hall of Fame Blues Hall of Fame honors those who have performed, recorded and significantly contributed to blues music. Photo by Lisa Mac.
Balcony at National Civil Rights Museum. Photo Credit: Bob Hazlett
Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by Bob Hazlett
Soul Burgers at Earnestine & Hazel's. Photo Credit: Justin Fox Burks
Famous Soul Burgers at Earnestine and Hazel's. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.
New interactive touchscreen displays at the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by Brand USA
The Blues Hall of Fame Blues Hall of Fame honors those who have performed, recorded and significantly contributed to blues music. Photo by Lisa Mac
Very unique Memphis food - grab yourself a lobster pronto pup from Rizzo's Diner. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Photo by Brand USA
Explore the shops, restaurants, museums and amenities of South Main in Downtown Memphis. Photo by Bob Hazlett
The Arcade has been featured on The Food Network, Travel Channel and has been the backdrop to numerous feature films. Photo by Phillip Parker

 

 

Visit South Main

If you’re traveling to Memphis and you want to spend a day on foot exploring South Main, we suggest you start off with a strong cup of espresso at Bluff City Coffee. With an artisanal espresso-only approach to the morning start, Bluff City Coffee has been serving residents since 2006, providing pastries, donuts and hearty breakfast sandwiches. However, If you’re in Memphis between April and October, you can skip Bluff City’s shop on South Main and hit their coffee stand at the Memphis Farmer’s Market. A weekly marketplace, the Memphis Farmer’s Market features local farmers and artisans, as well as kitchen and garden arts and crafts from the greater Mid-South region. 

Both Bluff City Coffee and the Farmer’s Market are both a short walk away from one of the city’s most important historical attractions: The National Civil Rights Museum. Designed around the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the National Civil Rights Museum literally traces the civil rights movement from the dawn of slavery to the present. With a recent infusion of more than $27 million, the walking tour through history is visually driven and emotionally complex. 

A parallel history to the civil rights movement can be found directly across the street at 421 South Main in the brand new Blues Hall of Fame. Though officially started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation, the new building gives the organization’s efforts a permanent home people can visit. Using clothing, paintings, records, artifacts and rare memorabilia, the Blues Hall of Fame creates an immersive and interactive experience that not only honors artists like B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and Dr. John, but gives visitors a deeper understanding of the role the blues played in shaping American culture. 

After spending a few hours at these museums, you’ll probably need to clear your head and unwind with a bite or two to eat. A few blocks south on South Main, you’ll find another historical landmark, the Arcade Restaurant. A classic diner in every respect, the Arcade Restaurant offers your traditional biscuit breakfasts, patty melt fare, fries, shakes and daily specials. But its calling card is its connection to Elvis. Yes, there are many spots in Memphis claiming Elvis as a patron, but the Arcade was a regular stop for The King. He had his regular booth, which you can sit in, and his regular meal, a fried peanut butter ‘n’ banana sandwich. Another great spot for lunch in the South Main Arts District is Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken. A hole-in-the-wall joint on South Front Street, Gus’s hot birds have gained recent notoriety from being featured in a number of different food and travel shows, including the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

There’s a good chance that no matter where you grab lunch in Memphis, you’ll need to walk it off. South Main Arts District is a great place to do just that, especially with its many locally owned boutiques and shops. You can check out the Downtown Candle Company, which offers candles made with 100% soybeans and carefully selected botanical oils. Or if you’re looking for some new digs be sure to hit Hoot + Louise for some vintage gear or cutting edge designer wear and furniture from Stock +  Belle.

Art and creativity have played a big role in making South Main a destination within Memphis. In fact, since 2000 the monthly Trolley Night has a galvanizing event for both locals and visitors. Organized around the trolley stops, the Trolley Night unites the district’s galleries, restaurants and shops in one big block party featuring dining and drink specials, live performances, and sales.

Some of the South Main restaurants featured on the tour are also popular destinations in their own right. South of Beale, aka SOB, is an easy-going gastro-pub with a focus on “chef-driven” food and expertly crafted cocktails, while Pearl’s Oyster House is a fun family atmosphere featuring their famous grilled Gulf Coast oysters. And Café Pontotoc is the perfect place to nosh on wine, craft beers and small plates before hitting a show at the historic Orpheum Theatre.

And finally, for those who like to burn the midnight oil, your day in South Main will find no better ending than with a stop at Earnestine and Hazel’s. Once a brothel house, Earnestine and Hazel’s is now known for its eclectic jukebox, long list of beers, and late-night favorite snack the Soul Burger.