Things move through Memphis, a shipping town since its inception and still renowned in business circles as “America’s Distribution Center.” Some of what’s moved through town—music, especially—has been distributed all the way around the globe, changing the way the world thinks and dances.

But in spite of all that movement, what makes the town such a nice place to visit is its relaxed feel and all the things that never leave or change. As always, Memphis welcomes its visitors warmly, in the tradition of Southern hospitality, and it offers them good food, good music and friendly people. Whether you want to dance all night, perform an Elvis Presley pilgrimage or just watch the sun set over Old Man River—and even if you, too, are just passing through on the way to somewhere else—Memphis will treat you right.

While some Elvis disciples might rush directly to Graceland, we prefer to begin where the city began—the Memphis riverfront. You might want to start at the new Visitor Information Center, on the river’s edge at 119 N. Riverside, almost underneath the Interstate 40 bridge. Then amble along Riverside Drive by car or foot and take in the view of the two massive steel bridges that cross the Mississippi to Arkansas. You can also see the old-fashioned paddle wheelers moored at the foot of Monroe Street. Sightseeing tours aboard the boats—the {5{Memphis Queen Line}5}—run daily from March through November, with dinner cruises available May-October. The views of the Memphis skyline—both day and night—are quite nice from the deck of a riverboat.

Just offshore is Mud Island River Park, a combination park, museum and entertainment center that’s connected to downtown by a monorail and a pedestrian bridge. A highlight of the sizable park is the five-block-long scale model of the lower Mississippi River that includes maps of riverside cities and re-creations of the seasonal changes in water level. Mud Island is also home to the famous Memphis Belle, the first B-17 bomber to fly 25 successful missions in World War II.

To get an up-close look at the real Mississippi, head for Tom Lee Park, located between Riverside Drive and the Mississippi. It’s the scene of several spring and summer festivals. For a view from on high, stroll along the new Riverbluff Walkway, which runs along the top of the bluffs for 1 mi/1.6 km from Main Street to Calhoun Street.

Also on the riverfront is Memphis’ 32-story stainless steel Pyramid, a structure modeled after the ancient pyramids near the city’s namesake in Egypt. (There’s even a statue of a pharaoh out front.) The building’s shape has made it a controversial topic among residents, but it is functional: It’s the city’s main sports/entertainment complex and home to the University of Memphis basketball team.

Downtown Memphis itself overlooks the riverfront from atop high bluffs, which have spared the city from the floods that plague other Mississippi River towns. Unfortunately, much of downtown Memphis was allowed to fall into deep decline—many historic buildings were knocked down only to be replaced by parking lots—before downtown preservationists went to work in the 1980s. As a result, the city lacks a central focus: It’s a hodgepodge of older ornate buildings and glass-and-steel skyscrapers separated by empty lots. Like many big-city downtowns in the U.S., it can seem vacant on nights and weekends when the office buildings are closed.

But there are signs that things are turning around for downtown: More people have been moving back in, Autozone moved its corporate headquarters into a spectacular new glass-dominated building right on the bluff and the Peabody Place development has added apartments, restaurants and an office tower. The driving force behind Peabody Place is real-estate magnate Jack Belz, who now houses his stunning jade collection in Peabody Place’s Belz Museum. Nearby is the new Fire Museum of Memphis that includes a reenactment of an actual fire, heat and all, as well as vintage firefighting equipment. Also new—or soon to be new—is the baseball stadium that’s under construction for Memphis’ minor-league team, the Redbirds, and a renovation of Central Station, which serves as the Amtrak station and is also a stop on the Main Street Trolley line.

But in the midst of all the newness, it’s the oldest site downtown that’s the favorite: the Peabody Hotel (built in 1925). Aside from being a gracious old hotel that’s a favorite with many Memphis visitors, it’s the home of the famous Peabody Ducks. What separates these ducks from the rest of the flock? They march in formation and they live in their own rooftop penthouse. Every morning at 11 am, the ducks descend in an elevator with their trainer and, to the tune of the “King Cotton March,” parade down a red carpet to the fountain in the middle of the lobby. At 5 pm, the ritual is repeated as they go back to their room. Large crowds turn out for the spectacle, especially on the weekend. If nothing else, it’s a good excuse to have a drink in the lavish lobby of the hotel, a large, ornate space ringed by a second-floor balcony.

A few blocks from the Peabody is Beale Street, a three-block area that was once a thriving center of black-owned businesses and nightclubs. Fortunately, some of the old buildings (in one case, just the facade) survived the short-sighted “urban renewal” demolition projects of the late 1960s. Today, Beale Street is a lively entertainment district that draws locals as well as visitors. (You’ll know you’re on Beale when you see the statue of blues pioneer W. C. Handy blessing the crowds from the small park named in his honor.)

In their heyday, the Beale Street clubs were school for many blues musicians, among them Handy, Muddy Waters, Albert King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Today, the beat goes on, even if the atmosphere is quite a bit more touristy than in the street’s golden age. Two excellent places to hear live music on Beale are Rum Boogie, modern-day Beale’s oldest club whose house band plays Otis-Redding-style soul, and This Is It!, the loosest and least-corporate club on the street. We also recommend B. B. King’s Blues Club, though there’s a cover charge in effect day and night. B. B. rarely plays his own club, but one of the most popular acts on the street, Ruby Wilson, makes her Memphis home there. Take time as well to shop in the boutiques and stores in the area.

If you want to learn more about the history of the area, stop by the Center for Southern Folklore. The center will give you a taste of the people and traditions of the South—it offers live music and guided walking tours that highlight Beale Street’s culture and heritage. While you’re at the center, be sure to see the award-winning film All Day and All Night: Memories From Beale Street Musicians.

The newest attraction on Beale, slated to open in the spring of 2000, is the Gibson Guitar Manufacturing Plant, which will feature plant tours, a small performance space, a cafe and the “Rock and Soul: Social Crossroads” exhibit produced by the Smithsonian Institution—the first Smithsonian exhibit to be on permanent display outside Washington, D.C. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame, also on Beale, has more music exhibits. It presents a chronological account of American music from post-World War II to the present.

For all of its importance as a musical center, Beale Street did not have a direct role in the career of Elvis. The closest link between the two was Lansky’s, a clothing store on Beale where the young Elvis bought his flashy duds. In later years, the store closed and Elvis passed away, but now the two have been brought together again. Elvis Presley’s Memphis has turned the old Lansky’s building into a club that is essentially a replica of Elvis’s home, Graceland. The club offers food and music: When the tunes aren’t provided by a live band, it’s pure Elvis, blasting through loudspeakers onto Beale Street.

The true spirit of the King is not to be found in his namesake nightclub, however, but at the real Graceland, located south of downtown on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a busy auto strip that has grown up around it. Elvis’ home is part Taj Mahal, part Xanadu and part cheap motel. The mansion—smaller than you probably imagine it—is the centerpiece of a very busy tourist attraction that draws some 700,000 visitors a year. (It seems like the majority of them arrive during Elvis Tribute Week, which centers around the anniversary of his death on 16 August 1977: If you want to avoid crowds, don’t visit in mid August.)

Depending on your interest in this cultural phenomenon, you can spend a few hours or an entire day at Graceland. There are various attractions to choose from, but the mansion tour is a must. The rooms in the house are extravagant time capsules of 1960s and ’70s interior design (bad interior design, some take pleasure in pointing out). The Jungle Room is our favorite—leopard spots and zebra stripes run rampant and green shag carpeting covers the ceiling. We also liked the TV Room, themed in canary yellow and bright blue, where Elvis watched three TVs simultaneously from the long sectional sofas. And then there’s the grand piano covered in gold leaf. The Trophy Building has a big display of sequined jumpsuits and photographs of Elvis with presidents and movie stars. Elvis’ gravesite in Meditation Garden is also included in the mansion tour and has become a kind of pop-culture mecca. It’s especially colorful around his birthday, 8 January, when it’s festooned with heaps of bouquets and wreaths sent by fans.

In place of live guides, the sites in the house are now explained via a personal tape player and headset (with narration by Priscilla Presley). We found the tape player method to be somewhat frustrating—Priscilla’s narration rarely matched our speed of travel through the rooms, forcing us to stop and restart the tape. It’s also difficult to converse with a headset on. (For fun, turn off your tape and watch people wander through the rooms in utter silence. It’s a sight that makes Graceland visitors seem like devout religious pilgrims.)

The other sites at Graceland are less attractive, though they may be of interest to die-hard Presley fans. We found the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum disappointing. It’s billed as containing 22 vehicles, but that number includes small items such as golf carts, snowmobiles and motorcycles. Though Elvis was known to buy as many as 14 Cadillacs on a single visit to a dealership, only one Caddy is on display at the museum (though that one is pink).

If you want to take the full plunge into Elvis hysteria, stay at the new Hearthbreak Hotel, right across Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland. The hotel, owned and operated by Elvis Presley Enterprises, features themed suites and a heart-shaped outdoor swimming pool. Special “Elvis Experience” packages are available that include accommodations, admission to all of the Graceland tours, dinner for two at Elvis Presley’s Memphis on Beale Street and more.

There are several worthwhile sites at Graceland that charge no admission fee. One is the Wall of Love, the stone barrier along Elvis Presley Boulevard where legions of fans have scrawled messages to the King. (The mansion is visible through the custom iron gates with guitars on them.) The gift shops (yes, more than one) in Graceland Plaza offer an endless array of items affixed with Elvis’ picture. Finally, the best value at Graceland has to be the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich at the Rockabilly Diner near the gift shops. For the King, this sandwich was one of the heights of culinary enjoyment. When you munch on one in the stylized 1950s decor, spinning your favorite Elvis tunes on the tableside jukebox, you just might think he was right.

Of course, Elvis’ career didn’t begin at Graceland but at Sun Studio, which is in Midtown Memphis (east of downtown). The studio still stands, and it offers a short but informative tour of the exact spot where rock and roll was born (at least in some people’s estimation). It was there that Sun founder Sam Phillips coaxed 18-year-old Elvis through his first groundbreaking sessions and where Phillips initiated the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. There’s really only one room to see (this isn’t Graceland), but the tour does a good job of explaining the important music created at Sun and incorporates recordings of the hits. For a price, you can record a song at this historic studio (karaoke style—singing along with a prerecorded music track). For a much larger price, you can record your own music from scratch—the Sun room still operates as a working recording studio, though professional sessions usually take place at night, after the tours have ended. There’s a gift shop upstairs with a good selection of Sun, Elvis and Memphis souvenirs.

If your musical pilgrimage compels you to push beyond the popular sights, there are a few other options. (Some find Beale Street and Graceland too commercialized and not the best place to look for the real spirit of the music.) For a funky, no frills night of good tunes and dancing, check out Wild Bill’s Restaurant and Lounge, home to the ever-popular Hollywood All-Stars band. If you’re up for some adventure and a road trip, head down historic Highway 61 into the Mississippi Delta and go to juke joints like the Do Drop In in Shelby, Mississippi, and the Boobah Barnes Playboy Club in Greenville. Both are within a couple hours’ drive of Memphis.

Another stop for music lovers: Hear velvety-smooth soul singer Al Green—now the Reverend Al Green—preaching on Sunday mornings from the pulpit of the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where he is minister.

As much as music is at the heart of Memphis, it’s not the only show in town. The National Civil Rights Museum is in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Don’t miss the well-done exhibits, audiovisual programs and dramatic presentations documenting the triumphs and tragedies of the struggle for equal rights in this country. You can also visit the steps of Mason Temple, the place where Dr. King gave his last public speech (“I have been to the mountaintop”).

A tour of the Burkle Estate allows you to witness a house that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, complete with secret doors and a tunnel. It allows you momentarily to imagine what it must have been like to have been a runaway slave hiding in a dark cellar before beginning a journey to freedom.

Among the city’s other points of interest are the Victorian Village historic district, which centers on Adams Avenue, a showplace of 1800s architecture. Those with an interest in antiques and history will particularly enjoy stopping at the Hunt-Phelan Home (an antebellum home visited by Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson), Magevney House (one of the oldest dwellings in Memphis), the Mallory-Neely House (an Italian mansion) and the Woodruff-Fontaine House (a French villa). Another neighborhood worth visiting is Overton Square, where you’ll find unusual shops, live music, comedy, theater and places to eat and drink.

We also recommend stops at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium (natural history and an IMAX theater in a structure made of pink marble); the National Ornamental Metal Museum (displays of metal sculpture and jewelry along with a working smithy and artisans creating and repairing metalwork); and the Memphis Botanic Garden (88 acres/36 hectares of greenery).

Kids will enjoy the Memphis Zoo and Aquarium, which has exhibits on big cats and nocturnal animals, a working farm and a “Zoo Lights” exhibit at Christmas time. Other sites that might appeal to young visitors are the Chucalissa Indian Village, a re-created Native American community and museum, the Memphis Children’s Museum and the Libertyland theme park.

Memphis has received worldwide acclaim for its Wonders Cultural Series—big, showy art and artifact exhibits. Phone 901-521-2644 or 800-263-6744 for information on this continuing series. Art lovers will want to visit the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Tennessee’s oldest and largest art museum, or Dixon Gallery and Gardens . Elmwood Cemetery, the oldest operating cemetery in Memphis (opened 1862), has one of the best collections of Victorian statuary in the South and has been designated as a national arboretum.

Just north of Memphis, in Henning, the Alex Haley State Historic Site preserves the family home of the author of Roots. And if you are interested in gambling, there are now 10 casinos in Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi (about 35 mi/55 km south of downtown Memphis). Mind you, these are no backwater slots parlors: The biggest, Grand Casino Tunica, has four themed restaurants, two first-class hotels, a golf course and a child-care complex. (In some cases the halls are located right next to cotton fields, a strange juxtaposition of farm acreage and neon.)

Among the notable events on the Memphis calendar are the Memphis in May International Festival (a spring celebration that honors a different country each year); the Cotton Maker’s Jubilee (the country’s largest African-American parade—May); and the Elvis International Tribute Week (a salute to the King—August).

Suggested Itinerary

First-time visitors will need three days to get a good sense of Memphis.

Day 1—Visit the riverfront area, stopping at Mud Island, Tom Lee Park and the Riverbluff Walkway. In the afternoon, visit the National Civil Rights Museum. Get some ribs at the Rendezvous, hit Cafe Expresso for dessert (if you’ve still got room), then head down to Beale Street to listen to the music.

Day 2—Drive down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Graceland (even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, don’t miss this chunk of unrivaled Americana). Tour the mansion and any other attractions that interest you, then see Sun Studio in the afternoon. Stop by the Peabody Hotel before 5 pm to see the Peabody ducks return to their penthouse. Have drinks at the Peabody, dinner in its Dux restaurant and dance to big-band music in the hotel’s rooftop nightclub.

Day 3—Drive out to the Chucalissa Indian Village and/or head for the Memphis Zoo and Aquarium. In the afternoon, stop at Overton Square to shop and browse. Close out the evening at a restaurant or club on the square. Or take a dinner cruise on the {5{Memphis Queen Line}5} (available on selected days May-October, reservations required). If you’re interested in gambling, drive to Tunica for the evening.