Railgarten / Craig Thompson

Not Your Mama's Memphis

Railgarten / Craig Thompson

If your idea of Memphis is all steamboats and sideburns, it’s time for an update. Sure, the Mississippi River is mighty as ever (and here, Elvis’ spirit never really left the building). But visit Memphis today and you’ll experience an international food hall, Instagrammable installations on the river, live music and visual art by new-generation creatives, and more. Lucky you: Memphis has always been a place where “classic” and “contemporary” coexist. So choose from the timeless picks below or try a new tradition. Better yet, do both. 

Samantha Crespo | April, 2019
Eat

Timeless:
Take your pick from any of Memphis’ 100-plus barbecue restaurants—each with its own specialty, from ribs dry-rubbed and chargrilled to tender pork piled high on sandwiches to barbecue-studded spaghetti. Expect a heavenly aroma, photos of celebrity patrons and a delicious reminder that Memphis’ barbecue tradition runs deep. 

Try a new tradition:
Since a 1920s-era Sears distribution center was reinvented as Crosstown Concourse in 2017, Memphis’ “vertical urban village” has introduced six new restaurants to the city’s dining scene, from The Cafe at Crosstown Arts’ plant-based cuisine to the Sudanese, Nepalese and Syrian food stalls of Global Cafe. Crosstown Concourse is also home to a craft brewery; coffee, juice and cocktail bars; a bakery and shops for popsicles and ice cream.

Drink

Timeless:
Since the late 1800s, the South Main Street building we know as Earnestine & Hazel’s has served as a church, a brothel and a haunt for performers including B.B. King and Tina Turner. That makes it a storied place to down a cold PBR and a sizzling soul burger while listening to the (allegedly haunted) jukebox or sinking into mismatched furniture in dusky second-floor rooms.  

Try a new tradition:
You can book a room or suite at the newly revamped Hu. Hotel, but absolutely do not miss Hu. Roof, the open-air hang that crowns it. Pair sophisticated snacks with cocktails like the Mint Tea Punch (tequila plus lemon and mint) and wait for the show: This rooftop’s your front-row seat for Mighty Lights, the nightly synchronized light show featuring two iconic bridges over the Mississippi River. 

Stay

Timeless:
The Peabody Memphis is celebrating its 150th year of mingling Southern hospitality with all-out luxury. Celebrate tradition with afternoon tea, a chef’s tasting dinner at Chez Philippe and/or the twice-daily duck march (featuring all the ceremony—red carpet included—you’d never expect).

Try a new tradition:
When MOXY Memphis Downtown opens this spring, treat yourself to a load of amenities: social spaces featuring egg swings, fire pits and bocce ball; an onsite Aveda salon; grab-and-go eats; a late-night bar . . . all on the Memphis trolley line. 

Go

Timeless:
Start at the Cotton Museum, where artifacts, oral histories and video—housed on the floor of the historic Memphis Cotton Exchange—tell the stories of cotton brokers, slaves and sharecroppers who made Memphis the center of the global cotton market. For a closer look at the river that made it so, join a sightseeing cruise along the Mississippi with Memphis Riverboats.

Try a new tradition:
See a free electric scooter or an Explore Bike Share station downtown? Check out a set of wheels and cruise the wide sidewalk along the river. In addition to Insta-ready views of the Mississippi and downtown Memphis, you can discover River Garden, a colorful park with hammock swings, and Big River Crossing, a rails-to-trails bridge that sweeps you over the Mississippi River from downtown Memphis into Arkansas.

Listen

Timeless:
Over the last 200 years, Beale Street has rocked, rolled and wailed with live music in its clubs and on the street itself. It’s a legendary place to soak up all that music history—and live music in bars named for greats including B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Try a new tradition:
To hear Memphis’ new generation and traveling up-and-comers in a variety of genres—from Americana and indie to rap and rockabilly—check who’s playing Railgarten and the Levitt Shell. Railgarten hosts intimate concerts indoors and out while serving gastropub fare, drinks and ice cream; the Shell hosts more than 50 free concerts a year at the historic amphitheater where Elvis and Johnny Cash once played. Then, venture into the new Green Room at Crosstown Arts, a listening room that shines a light on local talent. 

Crosstown Concourse / Alex Shansky
Explore Bike Share Big River Crossing Skyline / Craig Thompson
couple taking a selfie at Graceland memphis
Bar DKDC
Look

Timeless:
On Beale Street—one mile from the National Civil Rights Museum—the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery displays the iconic black-and-white imagery of Ernest Withers, the most prolific photographer of the U.S. civil rights movement. 

Try a new tradition:
Orange Mound, one of the first communities in the country built by and for African-Americans, is now home to The CMPLX, a creative space/gallery dedicated to showcasing art by black Memphians. Check for openings and shows at The CMPLX, and pop into Orange Mound Gallery next door. 

Shop

Timeless:
From Elvis and B.B. to Stax’s star-studded roster of recording artists, Memphis’ music legends have been dressed by Lansky Bros. Visit the clothier on Beale Street today for men’s and women’s fashions with classic Memphis swagger. 

Try a new tradition:
In the Broad Avenue Arts District, shop for clothes and accessories—and quite possibly, meet the local makers who designed them—at boutiques including Falling Into Place, Mbabazi House of Style, Five in One Social Club, 20twelve and Question the Answer.

Tour

Timeless:
Graceland, naturally. Visit Elvis’ Memphis mansion to get an eyeful of the Jungle Room, sequined jumpsuits, gold records, private jets and an entire museum devoted to his cars, including that pink Cadillac. 

Try a new tradition:
See what Elvis’ Memphis looks like today on a tour with Rockabilly Rides. Your guide/driver will be a local musician who can point out all the retro stops—and connect the dots to Memphis’ current music scene. Oh—your ride? It’ll be a classic car, maybe an aqua ’55 Bel Air.

Hang

Timeless:
Since 1972, the Center for Southern Folklore has documented Delta culture, especially its vital art forms. View elements of the Center’s archive from folk art to photography, enjoy Southern specialties such as savory greens with hot water cornbread and check the event calendar for live music.  

Try a new tradition:
Bar DKDC in the Cooper-Young neighborhood is known for creative cocktails and cuisine, like wings tossed with crisp watermelon and sweet chile lime sauce. You’re here for all that, but above all, you’re here for the music: local and traveling bands who pack the cozy venue and positively rock it across genres.  

Play

Timeless:
In 1969, Memphis got the greenlight to serve liquor by the drink. The first legal drink was poured in Overton Square, soon to buzz with restaurants, bars, clubs and a live music venue called Lafayette’s, where “unknowns” like Billy Joel and Memphis’ own Big Star would play.  

Try a new tradition:
In time, Memphis nightlife gravitated toward other neighborhoods, killing Overton Square’s buzz. But at the end of 2012, pop-up shops filled one of the Square’s vacant properties. Other tenants followed, including original restaurants, boutiques, specialty shops and a revived Lafayette’s, once again hosting daily live music.