When planning our American road trip, Eric was adamant about visiting one city in particular: Memphis. He had been there before, when he was a teenager and his sister lived there. I’d traveled to Nashville, but never Memphis. Because it was Eric’s second trip, he was a little more particular not only about the food, but about what there is to do in Memphis. We only had three nights, a mere weekend, and wondered how could we get it all in.
We found both interesting things to do, as well as eat, in Memphis. But, the first 18 hours of our stay were not so good. We couldn’t get wifi in our hotel, which always sours our mood. We ate the worst BBQ of our 6 weeks at an historic BBQ place (at Rendevouz, for the record). And, we had a less then stellar visit to Graceland. Our visit involved us not being allowed to take our GoPro camera in, nor use photos of Graceland on this blog. It ultimately ended with some not-so-friendly email correspondence between me and Elvis’ PR team. Never thought I would be up against The King using all sorts of legal jargon from my prior career.
Yes, Memphis was a bit of a struggle for us. Despite that, though, we were able to have some great experiences, and even better food, than we assumed we would at the end of that initial 18 hours. Enough so that, yes, I will still recommend people visit Memphis. Here are our recommendations for what to do in Memphis, after trying to secure wifi.
1. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum
We’ve mentioned loads of times before that we are not museum people, unless they are wine museums or ham museums. Generally we tend to skip traditional museums when traveling. Eric and I were also both history majors in college, with a focus on U.S. history. I consider myself fairly knowledgable about U.S. history. It’s another reason why we tend to skip a lot of museums. But, nothing prepared me for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Starting from the times of slavery, and leading up to present time, I actually learned a lot about slavery in the U.S. that I didn’t know. I never knew, for example, that the American clothing company, Brooks Brothers, made slavery clothing. We also were able to see the bus that made Rosa Parks famous. It was more interactive and engaging than I anticipated it being.
The National Civil Rights Museum is, overall, a very powerful museum. And, the two and half hours we allocated was not sufficient to read everything. A good portion of the museum talks about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the conspiracy theories that arose in the decades after his death. The most powerful of the exhibits was towards the end of the museum, where we were able to walk through the room at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King died. We also saw the room across the alley in the building from where the shot was fired.
How to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis: The Museum is open six days a week, between 9-5. It is closed on Tuesday. Tickers at $15 for adults. There is a good sized parking lot just outside. If you head around lunch time, stop at Central BBQ, just across the street from the parking lot.
2. Eat Fried Chicken
Yes, this is a city where “eat fried chicken” can be considered a thing to do in Memphis. When taking in a Biloxi Shuckers baseball game just a few weeks before, we met Julius, the king of chargrilled oysters in Biloxi. We said such nice things to Julius about his oysters that he wanted to introduce us to his boss. His boss, from Memphis, raved about Gus’s Chicken. During the following few weeks, every person we spoke with told us to eat fried chicken at Gus’s.
We expected something a little more greasy. Instead there were tinges of hipster at Gus’s, with craft beers for sale, along side t-shirts, even with red checked plastic table cloths. Regardless, Gus’s had some pretty fab chicken. Because it was a mid-day snack, we ordered a 3 piece and shared it. The chicken was crispy and spicy hot! With a side of beans, slaw, and mac-n-cheese it was perfect!
How to Eat at Gus’s Fried Chicken: We heard rumors of crazy happenings at Gus’s. But, we visited at about 3:00 pm. Not only was there no line, but we actually secured a prime parking spot just outside. We walked in, grabbed table, and ate some spicy fried chicken. My advice, go early or at an off peak time, to enjoy some fabulous Gus’s fried chicken.
Traveling around Tennessee? Check out this post on Where to Eat in Nashville.
3. Drink Craft Beer at High Cotton
Our goal was to visit a craft brewery in every state we visited during the #USChowDown. High Cotton was our choice in Memphis. We received a brief tour from one of their founders, Ryan. Not only did we sit down and talk beer with Ryan, but we talked about his beer philosophy. Ryan, and his colleagues at High Cotton, are trying to fight the good fight against mass commercialism. Their beers are pretty tasty, but I can guarantee you won’t see them on your local super market shelf. They are dedicated to keeping their operation small and local!
How to Drink Craft Beer at High Cotton: High Cotton Brewing Company is located on Monroe Avenue, just around the corner from the famous Sun Studio. The tap room is open from 4:00 pm six days a week. They are closed on Monday. They offer brewery tours on Saturday at 3:00 pm. Most nights of the week High Cotton lets out some of their prime street front parking to various Memphis food trucks.
4. Eat BBQ in Memphis
Now, here is we get into the heart of the matter. Part of any list on what to do in Memphis has to include BBQ. I mentioned above that our first foray into BBQ was not successful, at all. Rendevouz in downtown Memphis was a disappointment. Both the ribs and the pulled pork were incredibly dry. And, if I came to Memphis for BBQ, and this is what Memphis BBQ was, well, we were in for a long and disappointing weekend in Memphis. Thankfully, Memphis redeemed itself on the BBQ front.
We managed to squeeze in 3 more BBQ meals in our short weekend in Memphis, two of which were tasty, and one was incredibly tasty.
Where to Eat BBQ in Memphis:
Central BBQ has a few locations around the city, but their main spot is across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum. We sat down for lunch with their owner Roger. A friendly fellow very proud of their BBQ history, albeit a short history. The place was packed, with a line out the door for lunch. Their dry rub ribs were so fabulous, I didn’t even think of adding BBQ sauce.
We tried, what felt like, everything on the menu. Amazingly succulent smoked wings, marinated in hot sauce, pulled pork nachos, tender beef brisket, crispy pork crackling, mac and cheese, slaw, beans, and even BBQ bologna. We topped it all off with their locally famous banana pudding. Okay, I made that last part up. I had the banana pudding as an appetizer because I didn’t want to run out of space in the belly. I’m glad I did.
The BBQ Shop is located on Madison Ave, just outside of downtown Memphis. It advertises itself as “The Best in Memphis” and from our research, it is almost accurate. The ribs were tender and tasty, as was the pulled pork. And, if we didn’t eat at Central BBQ, I would say it was the tops. (Looking to make tender and tasty ribs at home, check out this braised short rib recipe. It might not be Memphis BBQ, but it’s still tasty!)
Corky’s BBQ was a bit of a pilgrimage for us. It is a small chain with locations throughout the city. It’s a bit touristy, and a little over the top. But, it was a favorite of Eric’s sister when she lived in town, and she brought Eric’s father there. Eric’s father received Corky’s ribs, in the mail, every year on his birthday. When we visited, I was full. We split some ribs, and they were tasty, but they weren’t the best.
Other Tips on What to Do in Memphis
There are a few top tourist spots in Memphis, which I also wanted to add to the list of what to do in Memphis. Obviously Graceland is probably on the top of every list of things to do in Memphis. I’ve already mentioned our Graceland issues above. It’s very crowded inside the house, with narrow stairwells and hallways, so be prepared. Also, there are restrictions on bringing video cameras into Graceland, which is why we couldn’t bring our GoPro inside, although cameras (with video cameras) and cell phones (with video cameras) were allowed. I am not sure if this will change in the future.
We also tried to go to Sun Studios. They offer one tour each hour, at the bottom half of the hour. It is best to go early, and plan ahead. When we visited, the staff told us the next tour was not for another 90 minutes because a tour group was slotted for the next tour. And, unfortunately, there is no way to visit the studio without taking the tour. When turned away, we ate fried chicken instead.
We also went to see the ducks on parade at the Peabody Hotel. The ducks head out on their little walk, twice a day, at 11 and 5. Get there early to get a spot to stand in along the red carpet as there aren’t many prime viewing spots. And, but early, I would recommend at least an hour. We were there about 30 minutes ahead of time, and it was not early enough. It’s also possible to stand along the balcony of the mezzanine. Hotel staff are very very particular about where people stand. Even better, make a reservation for afternoon tea to sit close to the fountain and to have more unrestricted access.
Have you been to Tennessee? What do you think are the best things to do in Memphis?
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.