If you don’t care for retro guitar sounds (blues, early rock ‘n roll, Southern soul), are a strict vegetarian or don’t like award-winning BBQ, don’t go to Memphis. The Tennessee city does a lot of things right, but it excels in music and meat.
With exception to its notable jailhouse rock and celebrity origins, it’s mostly a slow-cooked place—a four-star city wearing three-star clothing with a five-star history. When considering a trip to the third largest metropolis in the great American Southeast (and third most affordable in the nation), here’s how to unwind.
If more recognizable audio talent has come out of a single place, I’d like to know. As the home of the blues and birthplace of rock ‘n roll, Memphis is music city.
For that reason, the majority of 600,000 annual visitors come to pay their respects to said talent, including the city’s greatest son, Elvis, and many more influential musicians. B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison.
If that weren’t enough, a decade later the city popularized Southern Soul with its unforgettable “Memphis Sound.” Sam & Dave sang “Soul Man.” Al Green stayed together. Otis Redding wasted time on the dock of the bay. Isaac Hayes took groovy to a whole new level.
How did so many genres come from the epicenter of “The Most Southern Place on Earth”? We may never know for sure. But for those who visit it, Memphis has the beginnings of that answer.
If it weren’t for North Carolina, we might not have barbecue at all. But if it weren’t for Memphis, it might never have evolved and reached Kansas City, Texas, and elsewhere as big as it did.
Although difficult to find well-prepared fiber here—at least that’s not wrapped in bacon or deep fried—Memphis knows savory meats and speciality treats. At Hog & Hominy, you’ll fall in love with bacon-wrapped dates and rediscovered poutine. At local favorite Central BBQ, visitors devour dry-rub ribs and homemade potato chips. And at the fast-growing Gus’s, zesty, cake-battered chicken and fried-green tomatoes will have you writing home about both.
In addition, you’ll be delightfully surprised by the top-rated Flight Restaurant and Bar on a beautiful night along the trolly-lined Main Street. It’s sophisticated, reasonable, delicious and charming. So are the blueberry and old-fashioned donuts from Gibson’s.
Don’t let its “dirty” reputation fool you. For most people—especially food and music fans—Memphis is worth seeing, even though it’s not as good looking (on the surface, that is) as others in the nation.
Short-list highlights include the bustling Beale Street at night for drinks and more diverse live music than any place I know. The larger-than-life Graceland, home of Elvis. There is a reverence here for fans of The King, but you have to peel through a lot of crowds, gift shops, tackiness and tour guides to find it. For best results, visit in the morning at opening.
My personal favorite, however, was downtown in Sun Studio, where it all began for many of the above musicians, including Elvis. Simply put, you will leave this place with newfound appreciation. It’s that good.
Visit in May during the World BBQ Championships in historic Tom Lee park, which overlooks the ageless Mississippi. Pro tip: The comically short Duck March at The Peabody is only worth doing if you happen to be walking by at the time or (ideally) staying at the extravagant hotel. It’s cute … but in a self-aware Emperor’s New Clothes sort of way.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.