Must see Memphis – a first-timer’s guide

Best known for its rich musical legacy, Civil Rights Movement links, and vibrant culinary scene, Memphis is a must-visit for almost every type of traveller. And with many lesser-known aspects and attractions proffering just as much appeal as the well-known drawcards, Memphis is a city that offers something new every time.

For first-timers, there’s so much to do that it can be difficult to know where to start and what should feature on an itinerary. Below are some key attractions, and some lesser-known city gems that any first-time visitor to Memphis should have on their list of things to do.

Neighbourhoods that locals love

Take a trip through the less touristy parts of town to really experience Memphis. The historic neighbourhood of Cooper-Young is totally on-trend but also totally relaxed, making it the perfect place for tourists who want to explore like a local. Great food and drinks, plus a happening arts and music scene mean that you can easily spend a day (and night) exploring this hidden gem. For even more of an arts fix, head over to the up-and-coming district of Crosstown. You can also enjoy some hula-hooping, comedy, or nightly punk music shows.


Big River Crossing

Reaching almost a mile in length, the Big River Crossing is the longest public pedestrian bridge in the US. The scenic way stretches across the famous Mississippi River, creating ties to attractions throughout the Memphis, West Memphis and the delta region. As the connecting point of Main Street to Main Street, the 10-mile corridor includes pedestrian and bicycle ways, along with a Big River Trail System.


Mighty Lights

After exploring the Big River Crossing be sure to stick around in the evening for the Mighty Lights installations which illuminate the two bridges over the Mississippi River with a light show on the hour, every hour. Choose a bar along the water and watch the lights as the sun sets.


Memphis Music Hall of Fame

Located in the heart of Memphis, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame honours Memphis musicians for their lifetime achievements in music and those who changed the world of music as we know it. The museum and exhibition introduce guests to some of the greatest musicians of all time – each of whom are responsible for shaping modern music.



You can’t travel to Memphis without visiting the home of The King, Elvis Presley. Spanning 200,000 square feet, the estate features interactive exhibits, an entertainment complex featuring new museums, restaurants, gift shops and more.


Eat your way through the city

From legendary BBQ to discerning distilleries to vegan fare, Memphis’ food scene is as diverse as the city itself. Ask anyone in Memphis and they’ll tell you that their local BBQ joint is the best, and with more than 100 barbecue restaurants in the city, you can find almost any kind of BBQ iteration that takes your fancy. Plus, this is food with a good dose of history behind it – so take the time to find out the story behind the people serving up your ribs, shoulder, or sandwiches. Despite its reputation for being a BBQ heaven, Memphis’ vegan scene has recently exploded, along with a spate of cocktail and wine bars, ensuring even the fussiest of eaters and drinkers will be sated in this delicious city.


Stroll down Beale Street & take in some live music

Beale Street is one of the USA’s most iconic streets, declared the Home of Blues by an act of Congress. With a rich history of legendary performers, the street is a National Historic Landmark, making it a must-see for music and history buffs alike. Boasting three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants, and shops, right in the heart of downtown Memphis, Beale Street is the epitome of cool. A melting pot of rock n roll, jazz, delta blues, gospel, and R&B, the Beale Street Entertainment District is the perfect place to stop for a cold beer and some hot music. Start at the bars, pubs, and clubs of tourist hotspot of historic Beale Street, and then wander wherever your ears take you – and it won’t be far. Memphis is home to an abundance of live music venues, festivals, and listening rooms that means whatever live music experience you’re looking for – you’ll find it.


Pack your festival feet

No matter what time of year you visit, there is likely to be a festival happening that is worthy of inclusion on your itinerary. From opera to food, and from music to international celebrations, Memphis is a city that knows how to put together a list of exciting and ever-changing festival events. Of course the likes of Elvis Week, and Memphis in May are annual crowd pleasers that see masses descend upon the city to soak up the unique atmosphere.


National Civil Rights Museum

Historically and internationally significant, the National Civil Rights Museum is a must-do for anyone visiting Memphis. The site of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Lorraine Motel, is now a famed and respected educational and cultural institution. A museum that chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement, five centuries of history can be explored through exhibitions that are often multi-touch, and always emotional. Prepare to be moved.


Be a kid again

Not just a place for hitting the cool bars and clubs, Memphis is a family-friendly destination that will leave you wanting to embrace your inner child and just have fun. The Memphis Zoo, Shelby Farms Park, and the Children’s Museum of Memphis are just a few of the top attractions that make Memphis just as much of a drawcard for small people as those looking to let loose and party. With plenty of cultural and learning opportunities at every turn, it won’t only be your kids whose horizons are expanded by taking in the kid-friendly sites of this amazing city.


Visit a historic recording studio

Memphis’ music legacy is iconic, so it makes sense that the city has more recording studios than almost any other. The world famous Stax Records and Sun Studio are both crucial fixtures in the formation and history of American music, and both are open to the public. Visitors to Sun Studio can take part in a guided tour every hour, and for those who prefer to peruse alone, Stax Museum of American Soul Music offers a comprehensive self-guided tour.


Where to stay

Rapidly becoming known for its great hotels, a swath of new hotels in Memphis are as cool as you’d expect from the city of blues, soul, and rock n roll, and the volume of choice means there is something for every type of traveller. Hyatt Centric’s rooms overlook the city skyline or the Mississippi River, and the hotel also has a Latin-American inspired on-site restaurant and a rooftop lounge, both with amazing views.  In the heart of Memphis’ arts and culture scene, The Memphian pays homage to the culture of its neighbourhood, as well as offering two restaurants and a rooftop bar mean. The boutique and pet friendly Arrive Memphis in the South Main Arts District is a food destination as much as a fabulous city stay, and the Central Station hotel, part of a converted 1914 rail hub in downtown Memphis’ Central Station, offers a listening room with daily curated playlists and podcasts as well as a record wall with 3,500 vinyls, an in-house DJ, and room speakers to transmit the hotel’s mixes.


Explore more of Memphis here:


Memphis quick facts

Tennessee’s second largest city, the vibrant city of Memphis is famous for its music, great food (and we’re not just talking the amazing BBQ), and its significant place in America’s history of civil rights. Exceptional hotels, and something to please every type of traveller await in Memphis.


New Zealanders can travel to Memphis via:

Air New Zealand via AKL – Houston – Memphis

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