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Here’s How to Experience Memphis and Nashville
Ask Americans to name the music capital of the United States, and some will tell you Memphis, with its long history including Beale Street blues, Sun Studio, and Elvis Presley. Others will likely answer Nashville, citing the Grand Ole Opry, Music Row, and countless clubs. If you’re trying to choose between them, this itinerary’s answer is “why not both?” 

You’ll spend two days exploring Memphis’s leading concert theaters and clubs, followed by three days in Nashville, seeing musical acts at intimate lounges, and conclude your trip with a show at the Grand Ole Opry. Both cities, however, offer much more than music. Also included in this itinerary are restaurants—both new critics’ favorites and time-tested institutions. You’ll stop at neighborhoods that have emerged as must-visits thanks to an influx of designers, artists, and other creative types.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in Memphis
    Memphis’s history dates back to 1819, when future president Andrew Jackson was one of its founders. While the city celebrates its bicentennial this year, the interesting part of Memphis’s history for most visitors begins in the 1910s and 20s, when Beale Street emerged as the home of the blues. Memphis’s impressive musical legacy was then continued by Sun and Stax studios and music greats like Elvis Presley, whose Graceland estate is a music pilgrimage for many people who visit the city. 

    First, however, drop off your bags at your hotel. The Hu. Hotel and Hotel Napoleon are two stylish options downtown, close to Beale Street as well as South Main, and just a few blocks inland from the Mississippi River. To the north of them, the Big Cypress Lodge is unique—a hunting and fishing lodge located inside an enormous glass pyramid that’s home to Bass Pro Shops. You could also opt to stay at the Guest House at Graceland which is, like Graceland itself, to the south of most of the other sights in Memphis. But if Elvis inspired your trip, it’s a must-stay; the property celebrates the man and his music through the hotel’s decor, entertainment, and menu items. 

    After you’re settled, head out for a stroll along South Main, an area where a number of new galleries, boutiques, and restaurants have opened in recent years. The Blues Hall of Fame, on South Main, celebrates blues greats like Charlie Musselwhite, Eddy Clearwater, Otis Spann, and Mavis Staples. The National Civil Rights Museum is a block away on Mulberry Street. The preserved Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated now houses Smithsonian Institution artifacts chronicling the achievements of the civil rights movement, from the early years of slavery to today’s continued civil rights work. 

    When you’re ready for some food, Loflin Yard is a surprising oasis, serving Southern comfort favorites in a restaurant with an enormous outdoor space in the middle of the city. The Gray Canary is an upscale option in this part of town. Thanks to its handcrafted cocktails and Italian-inspired small plates, it has quickly become a favorite of the city’s locals.  

    Not far from the Gray Canary, the historic Orpheum Theatre dates from 1928 and has been restored and expanded. Today, its events calendar includes live performances like concerts, touring Broadway shows, dances, and film screenings. 

    There’s even more culture—and especially music—to be found nearby on legendary Beale Street, which has been a lively strip of clubs, bars, and restaurants for more than a century. Many musical giants have performed here—Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B.B. King—and the music continues to this day.
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    Day 2
    Midtown’s Highlights
    Head east from the Mississippi today to Midtown. Like South Main, Broad Avenue has emerged in the last decade as one of the city’s most exciting neighborhoods, with new designer boutiques, artists’ workshops, and performance spaces. (You’ll find it just beyond Overton Park, home to the Levitt Shell, which hosts some 50 free concerts each year.)  

    Despite the name, The Liquor Store on Broad Avenue is actually a restaurant that makes for a good place to start the day; order up a plate of biscuits and gravy (or yogurt and granola if you must) from the all-day breakfast menu. If you visit the neighborhood later in the day, drop by the Wiseacre Brewing Company to taste some of the brewery’s artisanal beers at its taproom (open 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 1 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays).   

    While Broad Avenue and South Main are relative newcomers among the city’s most exciting neighborhoods, Cooper-Young (named after the intersection of two streets) has been  Memphis’s cool neighborhood for some time, and it’s not interested in relinquishing its title. The area is filled with antique stores, coffeehouses, and vintage clothing stores. You’ll find some of the city’s best restaurants and trendiest bars here, too. Adding to the area’s charm is a large stock of well-preserved and handsome houses from the early 20th century. When you’re ready to refuel, the original Central BBQ location on Central Avenue serves what many locals consider the city’s best barbeque.  

    Start this evening with dinner at the Global Café in Crosstown. This unusual international restaurant has chefs from Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela, and is managed by a chef from Mexico. You’ll find an extensive menu that includes arepas, shawarma, and baklava, all excellently prepared. Afterwards, head to Hi-Tone for live music and drinks that flow until the wee hours (they close at 3 a.m.).
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    Day 3
    Next Stop: Nashville
    While you may have been out late last night, the drive to Nashville won’t take too long—about three hours—so you can sleep in a little before hitting the road this morning.  

    While Nashville is famously associated with country music, thanks in large part to the Grand Ole Opry, you’ll also find rock, pop, blues, jazz, and more being performed at its many clubs and bars.  

    A number of hotels will put you right in the heart of the party, like East Nashville’s Vandyke Bed & Beverage and The Dive Motel & Swim Club, which opened earlier this year with an over-the-top retro ’70s décor, complete with disco balls and shag carpeting. The Russell, another East Nashville option, combines style with a social conscience. A portion of every room bill is donated to Nashville homeless shelters—on average, each guest stay covers the cost of food and a bed at a local shelter for 16 nights.  

    Check out the luxurious Germantown Inn, a 10-room boutique property in a restored 1865 home in the small but vibrant Germantown neighborhood. Or explore the recently renovated Hutton Hotel, in the West End neighborhood near Music Row.  

    Wherever you choose to call home in Nashville, spend this afternoon exploring SoBro (short for south of Broadway); this neighborhood has changed radically in recent years with the openings of new restaurants and stores. The Country Music Hall of Fame, which moved to its current location in 2001, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which followed in 2006 across the street, were early pioneers in reshaping SoBro’s character.  

    When you’re ready for a late lunch or early dinner after exploring SoBro, Prince’s Hot Chicken on Nolensville Pike has been serving its namesake dish for more than a century. The fried chicken prepared with generous amounts of peppers and other spices has become one of Nashville’s signature contributions to the culinary world. While it is just a little to the south and east of SoBro, Peg Leg Porker is famous for its pulled pork, best enjoyed with a cold glass of sweet tea.  

    SoBro also plays host to some of Nashville’s top music venues, so you should return in the evening. The Cannery Ballroom is the largest space within the Mercy Lounge complex, and it’s where the biggest acts tend to be booked. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway is an institution—many legends of country music performed here early in their careers, and you might hear tomorrow’s stars when you drop in. Rudy’s Jazz Room, in the nearby Gulch neighborhood, is an intimate, low-key space serving classic cocktails and New Orleans cuisine. Rudy’s jazz brunches have become a local favorite.
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    Day 4
    Germantown and East Nashville
    Start this morning with a visit to one of Nashville’s most historic neighborhoods, Germantown. Located north of downtown and along the Cumberland River, it gets its name from the immigrants who settled here in the 19th century. While it suffered a period of decline in the 20th century, the neighborhood has reemerged thanks to its central location and historic Victorian homes, many of which are in the process of being restored.  

    New restaurants and stores have popped up on many of the brick-paved streets, and you may just want to wander and find your own perfect spot for lunch. You can also head just a little west of Germantown to Slim & Husky’s, where you’ll find artisanal pizza and local microbrews. Like the Russell hotel, this business has a social vision, using pizza to support and build communities by patronizing local suppliers, and encouraging political and civic engagement on the part of their partners, patrons, and employees.  

    After lunch, cross the Cumberland to explore East Nashville. East Nashville tends to have a more hipster and bohemian edge when compared with the rest of Nashville, with new restaurants helmed by young chefs and new bars serving everything from cheap beer to expensive cocktails. If you aren’t staying at the Vandyke Bed & Beverage or The Dive Motel & Swim Club, drop in for a drink to get a taste of East Nashville’s eclectic vibe.  

    A trip to Nashville wouldn’t be complete without seeing a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, so get tickets for a show there on the last night of your Tennessee adventure. There’s a reason why the Opry is consistently Nashville’s number-one attraction: It’s the most famous country music venue in the world and the site of some of the genre’s most memorable performances and unforgettable moments. If you’re interested in something more intimate, check out the Bluebird Café, where the songwriters behind familiar pop and country hits perform their own works.
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    Photo Courtesy of Daniel Rivera
    Day 5
    Book on a Later Flight
    You’re supposed to leave Nashville this morning, but it’s understandable if you can’t tear yourself away so soon. With another day in the city, you could explore some more neighborhoods, like 12South, a lively half-mile stretch of 12th Avenue South lined with independent boutiques, bakeries, and bars.  

    And if you can push your flight back just a few hours, you could experience a dim sum lunch at Tansuo, a Chinese restaurant concept cooked up by Food Network’s Chopped chef Maneet Chauhan, with a menu inspired by street fare and night markets. But if work and real life can’t be put off any longer and you have to leave, Nashville, and Tennessee, will be waiting to welcome you back whenever you need some unforgettable music, food, and drinks in your life.