The Essential Guide to Memphis

An important center of Tennessee’s Mid-South region, Memphis is known for its music, from blues to soul to gospel; its barbecue; its opulent hotels; and its many civil rights landmarks. It’s also home to Elvis Presley’s former mansion, Graceland, and a vibrant downtown, complete with the iconic Beale Street entertainment district and many fun attractions along the Mississippi River.

Highlights
5668 Poplar Ave, Memphis, TN 38119, USA
Commissioned as a public artwork for the Memorial Park Cemetery, Crystal Shine Grotto is the largest—and perhaps only—man-made quartz cavern in the country. In 1938, Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez had a 60-foot-deep cave dug into the hillside in the middle of the cemetery, then set to work creating a magical attraction out of sculpted cement and almost five tons of colorful quartz crystals. He even carved niches in the walls, which were later filled with biblical statues to complete an unusual but heartfelt religious shrine that now draws thousands of visitors each year. Accompanied by a loop of harp music, the Grotto can be a peaceful place to pray, though it’s also eminently Instagrammable and has become a favorite posing spot for special-occasion photos.
450 Mulberry St, Memphis, TN 38103, USA
The site of everything from lunch counter sit-ins to the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, Memphis occupies an important place in the history of civil rights. Unfortunately, the city is also where MLK was assassinated, shot on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel. Today, the fateful hotel is one in a series of buildings that make up the National Civil Rights Museum, which tells the story of the fight for equality, both in and outside Memphis, through artifacts and multimedia displays. Large exhibition spaces include an original lunch counter from an Atlanta sit-in and a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks once rode in Montgomery.
3050 Central Ave, Memphis, TN 38111, USA
Located in a massive, pink Georgia marble mansion built by Piggly Wiggly grocery magnate Clarence Saunders in the 1920s, the Pink Palace Museum features much of what you’d expect from a typical tourist attraction, including laser shows, an IMAX theater, a planetarium, and exhibits focused on the cultural and natural history of the surrounding region. Where it gets especially interesting, however, is in some of the more weathered display cases, which prove the museum’s early policy of accepting just about any donated items and artifacts. The eclectic collection includes more than 800 stuffed birds as well as several other stuffed exotic animals, plus a shrunken head, which the donor claimed to have acquired on his travels to a tribal region in the South American jungle. Its authenticity remains unconfirmed, but it’s a fascinating object to behold.
531 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103, USA
Memphis is blessed with some great dive bars and burger joints, but no place combines the two concepts better than Earnestine & Hazel’s, an iconic spot on the edge of downtown, just a short walk from the debauchery of Beale Street. An excellent option for a nightcap after an evening of madcap fun, the eatery is best known for its Soul Burger, a classic griddled patty served on a buttered bun with pickles, onion, cheese, and top-secret “Soul Sauce.”

Beyond the menu, however, the biggest attraction at E&H is the grungy ambience, plus the reputation that the former hotel-cum-brothel is now the most haunted building in Memphis. Employees and customers alike have reported seeing shadowy figures moving through the hallways, and the legendary jukebox has been known to play songs that are spookily in sync with something a patron just said at the bar. Come for the burger, stay for the ghosts.
6300 Poplar Ave #115, Memphis, TN 38119, USA
Don’t let the unpretentious exterior and strip-mall location of this little deli fool you—Las Tortugas is deadly serious about crafting delicious, authentic Mexican cuisine with only the freshest ingredients. At locations in East Memphis and Germantown, father-son duo Pepe and Jonathan Magallanes offer a menu of Mexican street food highlighted by sandwiches called tortugas (Spanish for turtle, because they’re stuffed so full with ingredients like carnitas, chorizo, chicken, and beef that they’re shaped like tortoises). Patrons can order the same fillings in a taco if they’d prefer, then top them with one of Pepe’s specialty sauces, like spicy avocado green salsa. Whichever you order, be sure to wash it down with one of the fresh-squeezed juices or a traditional horchata for a taste of real Mexico.
707 W Brookhaven Cir, Memphis, TN 38117, USA
Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer operate several restaurants around Memphis and across the Southeast, but none of them express the duo’s Italian heritage and Southern sensibility better than Hog & Hominy. The food served up by these award-winning chefs—classic Italian dishes made with Southern ingredients and cooked over a wood-burning fire—includes everything from roasted vegetables, meats, and seafood to margherita pizzas and one with pork belly, spicy honey, and snap peas. At the bar, guests can sip creative cocktails featuring top-shelf spirits and house-made syrups and bitters. Should you have to wait for a table at this popular eatery, pass the time at the on-site bocce court with all the other eager diners.
1782 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38104, USA
A classic Southern smokehouse, the Bar-B-Q Shop is reputedly where the Memphis specialty known as barbecue spaghetti was invented. Riffing on traditional spaghetti with meat sauce, the dish features a mountain of pasta topped with pulled pork and tangy barbecue sauce. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, though there are also more traditional smoked meats, from dry ribs and beef brisket to decadent beef bologna, for the less adventurous. If you fall in love with a particular flavor, know that the Bar-B-Q Shop sells its rubs and sauces at several grocery stores around the region.
2146 Monroe Ave, Memphis, TN 38104, USA
Chef Kelly English trained in some of the best kitchens in New Orleans before opening Restaurant Iris, where he now serves his homey take on French-Creole cuisine. Here, dining spaces are spread throughout the rooms of a cozy bungalow, encouraging diners to interact with other tables like guests at a convivial dinner party. A recent remodel added more modern decor and an expanded bar area where patrons without reservations can dine under a large, bayou-inspired mural that harks back to English’s Louisiana roots. On the menu you’ll find Southern classics, prepared with French techniques and international flavors. Don’t miss the corn bread–stuffed quail and the crawfish beignets, which come with a heavenly sauce ravigote.
39 N Main St, Memphis, TN 38103, USA
In a world where many diners equate large portions with value, Flight Restaurant & Wine Bar understands that some people prefer to make a meal of several different dishes. The menu here does feature full-size entrées, but guests are encouraged to choose multiple small plates or opt for “flights” of three dishes designed around fish, steak, vegetables, and more. The restaurant also emphasizes dessert trios and smaller pours of multiple wines so diners can experiment and discover their favorite pairings. It all amounts to an interactive, shareable experience that’s ideal for lunch or dinner downtown.
2000 Prentiss Pl, Memphis, TN 38112, USA
Situated in Overton Park, the Memphis Zoo has been a city fixture for more than a century. Often named one of the top-rated zoos in the country, it’s among the few facilities on the continent with giant pandas—the most popular exhibit at any zoo lucky enough to house them. YaYa and LeLe attract big crowds as they cavort in their habitat, designed to mimic their home region in China. In addition to the pandas, the zoo features many other habitats filled with exotic animals, including one of the largest collections of hippos outside Africa. Trained naturalists also present shows throughout the day, offering the chance to get up close and personal with the animals, chat with the zookeepers, or just watch the sea lions show off their tricks.
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