My love affair with Memphis, TN, began when I returned home after college to find my first job. It was like living there for the first time since I worked away during the summer at a resort. I jumped in with both feet, found a lovely home in Midtown Memphis and began discovering all the wonderful things Memphis has to offer.
If you want to see true beauty, plan to visit Memphis when the azaleas are blooming in the spring. The entire city is splashed with gorgeous color. Fall in Memphis is another glorious time to visit as the city is known for its majestic oak trees. Here’s how to spend …
48 Hours in Memphis
I recommend staying in Downtown Memphis as there is so much history there and a ton to do. One of my favorite hotels is the Madison Hotel. It is an example of the vision that Memphis leaders had to preserve and renovate downtown properties. The stylish Art Deco-inspired Madison Hotel was built in 1905 and is known for its rooftop bar. The views of the Mississippi River are breathtaking, and live music is part of the mix.
Once you are checked in, head to Patterson Street for a quick cocktail at Vault Memphis, the first frost rail bar in the city. If you aren’t in the know, a frost rail creates a crisp, dry frost on the bartop to keep your beverages chilled. Vault Memphis has gorgeous interiors with lots of luscious wood and exposed brick.
Next stop is the Itta Bena Restaurant located on Beale Street. Beale Street continues to be one of the most historic streets in the South, right up there with Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Lower Broad in Nashville. Known as the Home of the Blues, Beale Street was declared a National Historic Landmark in the ’60s. Beale Street houses a number of bars and restaurants, as well as the famous Schwab Store. Inside Schwab, you’ll find everything from voodoo potions to a nice set of Fiestaware.
Back to Itta Bena. Located up the fire escape above B.B. King’s Blues Club, you’ll discover a true Memphis treasure. Itta Bena is the name of the town where the legendary B.B. King was born, and the restaurant serves up Southern cuisine at its finest. Some favorites on the menu are their shrimp & grits, duck and waffles and foot stompin’ jambalaya. Since you’re in Memphis, don’t expect to go home early. You may want to consider hitting BarDog Tavern for a quick one and then you MUST go to Paula Raiford’s Disco. A visit to Raiford’s won’t disappoint as the club is an eclectic mix of all types — soul brothers, bachelorette parties and everybody in between. On a recent visit, we hit the dance floor with fervor and closed the place down. Two things to note — it is cash only, and plan on sporting a tall boy the entire night.
Make Bluff City Coffee and Bakery your first stop on Saturday morning. Located on South Main Street, Bluff City Coffee and Bakery is known for its espressos and fresh baked goods. South Main has been revitalized and is home to a number of art galleries, restaurants and shops, and it’s on the trolly line with a mix of old warehouses that have been converted to lofts.
After coffee head to the Downtown Memphis Farmers Market. Not only does it have a plentitude of fresh veggies, but a nice selection of products like essential oils and handmade goods.
Since you’re a couple of blocks away, a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is in order. Opened in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum is where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. With an impressive collection of films, oral histories and interactive exhibits, the museum offers visitors a walk through history with a chance to learn more about a tumultuous and inspiring period of change. You will actually walk through the room in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King stayed the night before he was shot. It is a sobering experience and one that is worth the visit.
For lunch, head to Ecco on Overton Park Avenue. Ecco is one of those lovely, quaint restaurants that defines a city. With a limited menu, Ecco has delicious soups, salads and pastas. My favorite is the orange fennel and Tuscan bean salad.
Overton Park is an historic area with a world-renowned old growth forest. The area also is home to Rhodes College, the Memphis Zoo and Brooks Art Museum. With so much to do, you’ll love your afternoon in the Overton Park area.
Rhodes, founded in 1848, is also profiled in the prestigious book Colleges That Change Lives. After a stroll around Rhodes, head to the Memphis Zoo. It is probably the most visited tourist destination is Memphis. Why? Because the Memphis Zoo has pandas! The Memphis Zoo is home to one male, “Le Le,” and one female, “Ya Ya.” This pair came to the Zoo as part of a long-term lease from China in 2003. Thankfully, the lease was renewed for another 10 years, and the Memphis Zoo continues to expand. If pandas aren’t your thing, there’s a new baby hippo, Winnie, who was born last March.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is truly the crown jewel of Overton Park. It houses a collection of over 9,000 objects, with paintings and sculpture forming the core of the collection. If you are unfamiliar with Carroll Cloar, definitely visit the Carrol Cloar Gallery, which was created to honor the 100th anniversary of Brooks and showcases one of the largest collections of work by the artist.
After your afternoon, head to Overton Square for a cocktail before dinner. Overton Square was once the happening place in the ’70s then fell on hard times. The area experienced a renaissance in 2014 and is more vibrant than ever. There are tons of choices for a good cocktail, but you can’t go wrong at Lafayette’s Music Room.
For dinner, Bounty on Broad continues to get rave reviews. The restaurant uses local purveyors who deliver fresh ingredients for use in their menu selections such as crispy Brussels sprouts, watermelon salad, stuffed mountain trout and fried Gulf oysters. Or, if you want to explore the Cooper Young historic area, I am a big fan of Tsunami, which continues to receive accolades for its Asian-inspired fusion menu with an emphasis on seafood. You’ll love the interior of this charming restaurant.
If you want to grab dinner near your hotel, we hear rave reviews about Catherine & Mary’s. It is part of the Andrew Michael Group, which owns Hog and Hominy, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Josephine Estelle. Catherine & Mary’s isn’t heavy Italian, but a perfect mix of authentic Italian fare. A table by the window will allow for great people watching, we promise!
*SB TIP: If you happen to be in town on Saturday, October 14, 2017, make a point of attending the Memphis Food & Wine Festival. The annual event, which takes place from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., was created to celebrate the best of Memphis’ food and wine scene. Sample delicious bites and tasty wine samples, enjoy some live music and immerse yourself in Memphis!!
Start the day out right with brunch at Owen Brennan’s, as it is on the way to Shelby Farms. Owen Brennan’s has been voted the best brunch in the Memphis Flyer’s Best of Memphis poll for 21 years running. At Owen’s, you’ll find fresh seafood, Creole specialties such as pasta jambalaya and crawfish Étouffée, as well as Eggs Benedict, Eggs Hussarde (an original of Brennan’s of New Orleans) and many other delicacies.
After brunch, head to Shelby Farms Park, one of the most popular destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. With over 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park offers bike rentals to enjoy 40 miles of paved and unpaved trails. If you are into water activities, there are kayak and boat rentals, too. And when you’ve worked up an appetite from all the outdoor activity, grab a bite from a food truck — it’s not uncommon see them at Shelby Farms Park.
Memphis continues to be a city with a rich heritage in historic preservation, authentic blues music and a slightly off-the-beaten-path way of doing things. It always makes for a good time, especially if you love the thrill of the hunt. I do, and I continue to feel proud that Memphis is my hometown!
A special thanks to David and Jamie McDonnell and Martha Podesta for their contributions to this article.
When you’re ready to plan your trip to Memphis, start by downloading the SB App, which is a highly curated guide to the city and includes the best of Memphis shopping, dining, events and more. Click here!