This is America’s most fun city right now – here’s why

The Sunday Times

Memphis has long been the plucky underdog of American cities, and it’s the kind of place that first-timers to the US tend to overlook. But speak to seasoned travellers who have visited this spot in southwest Tennessee — often as a harmonious pitstop between the honky-tonks of Nashville and jazz joints of New Orleans — and they’ll talk fondly of return visits, lured by the heady combination of blues, barbecue and a laid-back attitude that permeates the coolest music city in the country.

While its greatest hits — including the Graceland mansion where Elvis Presley lived and the National Civil Rights Museum — are certainly worth visiting, be sure to also make time for the lesser-known attractions of Bluff City, as Memphis is also known. Explore the mural-clad South Main neighbourhood, a forerunner for the recent renaissance of the city, before getting all shook up with a sleepover in the bedroom where Elvis slept as a teenager. January, May and August bustle with Elvis and barbecue festivals, so swerve these months if you’re seeking cheaper hotel rooms; alternatively, book early to join the hip-swivelling, finger-licking celebrations.

Day one

• Morning: meet the ducks at the Peabody hotel
• Eat at: Arcade Restaurant
• Afternoon: National Civil Rights Museum
• Drink at: Earnestine & Hazel’s
• Evening: Tom Lee Park
• Eat at: Central BBQ

Day Two

• Morning: see the Reverend Al Green
• Eat at: Beauty Shop Restaurant
• Afternoon: Graceland
• Drink at: Tiger and Peacock
• Evening: Sun Studio
• Eat at: Crosstown Concourse

What to do

Since 1940 a flock of ducks have paraded daily through the lobby of the Peabody

Since 1940 a flock of ducks have paraded daily through the lobby of the Peabody

Start the day in the beating heart of downtown Memphis at the Peabody. Since 1940 a flock of ducks have paraded daily through the lobby of this hotel at 11am (and 5pm). This Memphis curiosity is a spectacle to behold, involving the unfurling of a plush red carpet and a theatrical ceremony conducted by the official “duck master” (free;


Just around the corner from the Arcade is the National Civil Rights Museum, at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968. It’s a powerful museum that chronicles the movement through interactive exhibits, including a replica of the lunch counters where non-violent sit-ins occurred in the Sixties (£16;

The Montgomery bus boycott display in the National Civil Rights Museum

The Montgomery bus boycott display in the National Civil Rights Museum

Wander the leafy delights of Tom Lee Park, which — after a £48 million revamp — has unlocked the Memphis waterfront to epic views of the mighty Mississippi River. It is open daily until 10pm (free;

Visiting Memphis on a Sunday? Then you’re in luck, as the Reverend Al Green — yes, the soul-singing legend — can often be found leading a rousing service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Whitehaven, on the southern edge of the city (free).

Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland

Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland

Pay your respects to the King of Rock’n’Roll at his fabulous, maximalist mansion. Those who haven’t visited Graceland for a few years are in for a treat, as a vast complex of permanent exhibits — including a bedazzlement of sparkling jumpsuits — have sprung forth at Elvis’s playful palace (tour £65;

Swing by Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock’n’roll. This dinky hit factory launched the careers of legends including Elvis, BB King and Johnny Cash. Stand in the atmospheric recording room where history was made and get a lip-curling photo with Elvis’s original chrome microphone (£16;


• 8 best things to do in the Deep South
• 12 of the best US road trips

Where to eat and drink

Arcade Restaurant
It’s a scenic 20-minute stroll through the historic South Main district from the Peabody to Arcade Restaurant, or hop on the tram to arrive in style, whistle a-blowing. Once inside the pastel-hued diner, lovingly preserved in all its mid-century glory, ask to be seated in the Elvis booth — the exact spot where the young rockabilly would devour peanut butter and banana sandwiches (mains from £8;

Earnestine & Hazel’s
At this dive bar you’ll find a well-stocked jukebox and a spotlit stage for live music at the weekends, set against the backdrop of its artfully dishevelled interior. Legend has it that this former brothel is one of the most haunted places in the US (beers from £3;

Ribs at Central BBQ

Ribs at Central BBQ

Central BBQ
Beloved by locals and tourists alike, the downtown branch of Central BBQ is the place to get your fix of pulled pork and ribs. On walking through the door, the tantalising smell of smouldering meat greets diners like a warm, smoky hug. Come for the platter plate, but stay for the banana pudding, served with lashings of sweet cream, just like grandma made (pulled pork plate £10;

Beauty Shop Restaurant
Shake a leg to the Cooper-Young district and dine at the whimsical Beauty Shop Restaurant. This former beauty salon is where Priscilla Presley had her sky-high beehive tweaked. It’s since been reimagined as a trendy restaurant, serving unexpected takes, such as spicy wings and watermelon, eaten in chairs crowned with vintage hairdryers (mains £12;

Tiger and Peacock at the top of the Memphian hotel

Tiger and Peacock at the top of the Memphian hotel


Tiger and Peacock
Match your zodiac sign to a cocktail at Tiger and Peacock, a swanky bar at the top of the Memphian hotel in Overton Square. The eccentric interiors feature swirling disco balls, a taxidermised zebra overlooking the bar and blockbuster views of the city (cocktails from £12;

Crosstown Concourse
Take the creative pulse of Memphis at the Crosstown Concourse, an abandoned warehouse now filled with art galleries, performance spaces and stylish eateries. Global Café is an international food hall created by recent immigrants, where you can fill up on street tacos before catching a live show upstairs at the Green Room, a hotspot favoured by music-loving locals (mains from £7;;

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Where to stay

Caption by Hyatt Beale Street

Caption By Hyatt Beale Street

Caption By Hyatt Beale Street

Best for nightlife
This recent addition to the hotel scene in Memphis is steps from the blues joints of Beale Street. The ground-floor coffee bar buzzes with people on laptops, while upstairs the hip interiors feature hand-drawn illustrations of city landmarks. Ask for a room overlooking the Mississippi River, dramatically illuminated at night from the arches of the Hernando de Soto Bridge (room-only doubles from £121;

Elvis Presley Apartment at Lauderdale Courts

Sleep in the King’s bedroom
This apartment is the only Elvis residence in the world offering overnight stays. He lived in this housing complex between the ages of 13 and 17, and it has been restored with vintage furnishings. The apartment still flies under the radar with most visitors as it’s only bookable by phone or email, but it’s worth jumping through a few extra hoops for this once-in-a-lifetime sleepover (one night’s self-catering for four from £197;

The James Lee House


Stay in a historic home
One of the many charms of Memphis is its preservation of historic architecture, including this opulent house from the Victorian era that stands on what was once known as “Millionaire’s Row”. These days it’s a boutique B&B, with museum-worthy antique interiors and one of the finest breakfasts in town. The film director Baz Luhrmann is said to have rented the entire house while researching his Elvis movie (B&B from £256;

Getting there

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines and United Airlines fly from the UK to Memphis with one stop. Direct train routes are available from cities including Chicago and New Orleans. Alternatively, make Memphis a stop on a self-drive — 13 nights’ room only from £1,945pp, including flights (

Getting around

Memphis airport is just eight miles from downtown, and Ubers are plentiful, or take the No 28 bus for less than £2. Once in the city, the tram service runs between many of the tourist attractions, costing about £1 a ride, while Explore Bike Share has 80 pick-up/drop-off locations and costs about £4 per day (
Zoey Goto was a guest of Memphis Travel (

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