Because of a fellow named Elvis Aaron Presley, Memphis’ place in musical lore is secure. Dig a little deeper than Graceland in the liner notes, though, and you’ll uncover a list with so many other monumental names (Aretha Franklin, W.C. Handy, Al Green) that you start to get all shook up by the city’s true historical significance.
Blues City celebrates its place in the sonic sphere every year with the month-long Memphis in May extravaganza, with the Beale Street Music Festival being the headlining event. This year’s showing on May 5 to 7 will feature behemoths in rock (Kings of Leon) and soul (Jill Scott), but it’ll demonstrate its diversity with hip-hop (Wiz Khalifa), reggae (Ziggy Marley) and country (Sturgill Simpson) as well.
But tunes aren’t the only place where Memphis is mixing it up. Of late, the city has also shown that it can jazz things up in the kitchen and make some noise in the hotel world. With this 48-hour itinerary, you’ll be able to sample some of the new with a bit of the old, and put it all together in one sweet-sounding getaway.
Few structures are more recognizable around town than the Pyramid, the former 20,000-seat home of the Memphis Tigers and Grizzlies basketball teams. Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris envisioned an outdoorsman’s paradise inside the iconic structure and, after a massive re-imagining project that took creativity and loads of engineering ingenuity, he opened Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, his 535,000-square-foot dream of retail space, cypress swamp and so much more.
There’s a 103-room hotel, Big Cypress Lodge, inside. This is where you’ll call home for the next few nights. Though you have a full slate of fun on the agenda, we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought you’d simply drop your bags off before admiring your room’s hand-carved furnishings, mounted deer head above the bed and spectacular views of the living, breathing swamp from your terrace.
You could spend hours pointing out all the lodge’s details — wait, those really are bullet casings lining the sink! — but we suggest pulling yourself away from your room and getting to the car. You have a 10-minute ride to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Long in the shadow of Motown, Stax was the home to some of rhythm and blues’ most influential names, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. They’re given their proper due in a nicely flowing, interactive exhibition that doesn’t miss a beat. After a few hours inside, you can’t help but have a better appreciation of Hayes’ fashion sense and Johnnie Taylor’s underrated chops.
It’ll be around 1:30 or 2 p.m. once you stop humming along at Stax — the perfect time to head to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. The lunchtime wait is almost more synonymous with the restaurant than its hot and spicy recipe. But come when that crowd has calmed and you’ll have a much more relaxed dining experience.
We won’t judge if you order tenders, but the two- or three-piece chicken plate with baked beans and mac and cheese is a foolproof way to eat around these parts.
Once you pry yourself from the table, head over to another Memphis institution, Graceland. Elvis and wife Priscilla’s home has been open to the public since 1982. In that time, more than 20 million people have walked the lawn, passed through the Jungle Room and saw where the King kept his horses. But no matter how many times you visit, it’s still hard to step into the Trophy Room and not be impressed by his accomplishments or pass his gravesite and not take a reflective pause.
But Graceland isn’t stuck in the time of bell-bottoms and sequin jackets. The landmark just debuted Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a $45 million, next-generation museum and entertainment center in March while, back in October 2016, it had the ribbon cutting for The Guest House at Graceland, a contemporary hotel for Elvis lovers and other discerning travelers that subtly honors the King with royal furnishings, three restaurants and a calendar of activities.
If it’s an Elvis karaoke night (Wednesday) on property, serenade with friends to “Love Me Tender” before grabbing dinner at EP’s Bar & Grill.
However, if things are quiet on the Guest House stage, make the 18-minute drive to East Memphis’ Acre, a restaurant that approaches French cuisine with a modern Southern slant. We’re familiar with executive chef Andrew Adams’ work — we sampled plenty from him during a Napa boot camp for aspiring cooks in 2016 — so when he says that salmon goes harmoniously with speckled lima beans and hedgehog cream, we’re inclined to believe him.
Start your day off with a light bit of room service at Big Cypress Lodge. Of course, if you need a heartier fix, drive to Arcade Restaurant, a local institution where you’ll find all of your morning favorites served in delightfully retro environs. It doesn’t hurt that the diner is just a few blocks over from the day’s first stop, either.
We’ve been to a number of museums around the globe, but we can’t think of any that more clearly tell their story than the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Be it with visual tools in the “A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America 1619-1861” exhibit or the rhythmic protest songs of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: Albany Movement 1961-1963,” this museum hits every scholarly and emotional chord with precision.
But no matter how often this walk through American history changes — temporary showings such as Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer José Galvez’s “Los Angeles Uprising 1992” (through April 29) keep things fresh — the road always ends abruptly at the Lorraine Motel’s rooms 306. Next year, it will have been a half-century since King was killed at that very spot. The museum will honor his legacy with a yearlong observation from April 4, 2017, to April 4, 2018.
On the ride back to Big Cypress Lodge, you can’t help but reflect on everything you just witnessed. In the midst of your discussion, look outside and you’ll spot famed Beale Street and Tom Lee Park, site of the Beale Street Music Festival.
The mood will certainly lighten once you step inside the hotel’s Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl & Grill, a family-friendly restaurant and bowling alley that feel as if they’ve been submerged in an aquarium. Sharks hang from above that appear to be swimming. There’s also a huge cylindrical tank in the middle of the dining room with real fish that you can appreciate while noshing on fish and chips or double-stack Angus burgers.
The ground floor of Bass Pro Shops offers apparel, seasonal fare — yes, the clerks see the irony in the Easter Bunny posing for pictures in a store full of hunting rifles — and a great boat showroom. The space is so vast that the boats literally sit on a lake filled with real fish. There’s an 84,000-gallon gator exhibit as well. But when it comes to the sheer number of dropped jaws, the fudge shop might have it beat.
On the second level, you’ll find everything from roasters to duck-calling devices and knives. Not sure which kind of bow fits you best? Don’t worry. There’s a live fire archery range to try a few styles out. This floor also has an impressive collection of Berettas where gun enthusiasts can spy pieces that cost upwards of $25,000.
After you’ve checked out at the register or chilled out at the just-opened spa, it will be time for dinner. Take the Sky High Ride, the United States’ tallest free-standing elevator, up 300 feet to The Lookout at the Pyramid. Bedecked in browns, polished woods and metal frogs, the place feels like a marine biologist’s steam-punk-inspired den. The kitchen’s barbecue pork flatbread, scallops and grits, and blackened redfish aren’t surprising, but its solid execution in such a tourist-driven address might be.
There’s another aquarium here, and it has what appears to be a massive catfish swimming inside. It’s quite the sight.
Still, nothing compares to stepping outside on the Lookout’s observation deck and fully admiring a city best known for its music that’s beating to a high-end travel drum these days.