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Memphis is a Special Kind of Americana

When many travelers think of the quintessential American experience and the most historic destinations in the country, revolutionary locales like Boston, New York or Philadelphia might come to mind. But deeper and vaster into the echelons of American lore lies a city rooted in some of the most important cornerstones of the U.S.; a city whose past and present merge together in perfectly unique harmony. Memphis may very well be the quintessential American city, both for its rich, important history and its thriving continuation as a place that’s wholly unique among the states. From barbecue both old-school and modern to history both musical and cultural, here’s why Memphis is a special kind of Americana.

The Civil Rights

Photo by Andrea Zucker

Through hardships and tragedy, the Civil Rights revolution not only shaped Memphis into the city it is today, but the country at large. Vital figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forged a path towards progress on the streets of Memphis, casting a spotlight on a city that could serve as an example for the rest of the nation. Nowadays, the struggles of the past are a beacon of pride for a city that endured and found a way forward.

The National Civil Rights Museum (pictured above) is an essential stopover when revisiting Memphis’ Civil Rights past. The museum, which contains the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, belongs on the must-visit list for every American, with its myriad exhibits weaving visitors through U.S. history from its earliest days to the present. Among the most popular are Room 306, where King Jr. died, a replica of the U.S. Supreme Court room which heard the arguments that eventually deemed segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional and a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks famously rode in Alabama. Altogether, the complex is an emotional journey through an era in American history whose darkness eventually beget light, thanks largely to cultural crusaders in and around Memphis.

Another vibrant glimpse into Memphis’ Civil Rights movement can be seen at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Surrounded by bars and blues on bustling Beale Street, the unassuming museum spotlights the works of Dr. Ernest C. Withers, a photographer who captured the city through its formative years. Music and sports play a big role here as well, but its the Civil Rights photos that really hit a visceral cord and depict American history at its most brutal. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is featured prominently, from peaceful moments lingering with comrades to bloodied imagery from the Lorraine Motel aftermath. You’ll also see photos of lynching victims, protesters, struggling families, powerful speeches, arrests, marches, riots and much more.

Photo by Vasha Hunt

You don’t need to be in a museum to get a sense of Memphis’ palpable past, either. Tune in to 1070 AM to listen to WDIA, the first African-American radio station in the country, or swing by Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River. The park gets its name from an iconic African-American man who heroically rowed his boat to rescue victims of a capsized steamer ship. Today, a statue on the popular park (pictured above) commemorates his bravery, while markers and statues throughout Memphis do likewise for the countless pioneers and heroes who helped steer the country through the Civil Rights movement.

The Music

Photo by Craig Thompson

Memphis is the rare city that’s home to not just one piece of vital American history, but two. Music is another major keystone here, home to entertainment legends and the birthplace of enduring genres. Blues, rock 'n' roll and soul music all have origins here, paving the way for generation-defying performers like Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Al Green and of course, Elvis Presley.

Speaking of the latter, Graceland is an institution that should be on everyone’s all-American bucket list, right up there with the Grand Canyon and Disney World. Elvis’ former home is a wonderful ode to one of the most legendary performers on the planet, featuring an immersive tour of his stately home (featuring an iPad tour pleasantly narrated by Elvis super fan John Stamos) and numerous expansive exhibits across the street at Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a 200,000-sq.-ft. complex complete with themed restaurants (try the famous grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Gladys’ Diner!) and endless memorabilia. Exhibits provide a deep dive into the life of a legend, from his earliest days wowing producers with his rendition of That’s All Right (Mama), through his time in the army, his vast collection of cars, his Hollywood movie history, his influence on other artists and his colorful — and oft risqué — wardrobe. While here, you can always tour Elvis’ private airplane, the Lisa Marie, eat barbecue at Vernon’s Smokehouse and even stay at the Guest House at Graceland hotel.

Through it all, it’s the tour of Elvis’ estate that really sinks in the most. While the second floor is off limits, guests get to explore the common areas of the home, each vibrantly designed and bursting with color and character. From the peacock stained glass of the front living room to the yellow-hued basement TV room and the famous Jungle Room (pictured above), a lush lounge with green shag carpeting on both the floor and ceiling, Graceland exudes the energy and persona of the man who left an indelible mark on world music.

Another requisite Memphis music stop is the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum. The downtown institution is an exploratory journey through time and sound, noting just how deeply rooted music is in Memphis, and how far back it goes. The museum, which features headsets for visitors to listen to as they make their way through the exhibits, delves into the origins of rock and soul music and how they transcended racial divides to reshape the way the world listened and danced. You’ll hear the kind of music that took shape in the 1930’s, all the way through Memphis’ musical boom in the ’60’s and ’70’s, along with the formation of paradigm-shifting record labels like Stax and Sun Studios. You’ll discover the birth of the jukebox, marvel at eclectic costumes, listen to countless songs and walk away with a deeper appreciation for music’s ability to bring humanity together.

Photo by Phillip Van Zandt

Just outside the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum is the heart of Beale Street (pictured above), a famous stretch of roadway lined with bars and restaurants, all with the common connection to blues music. Likely the most renowned musical corridor in the country, if not the world, Beale Street lives up the hype thanks to its legitimacy. Don’t let the flashing neon signs fool you; this is no Times Square. The street is lined with bar after bar, each pulsing with live blues and enticing with promise of deep pours — the street, after all, is one of the rare places in the U.S. where you can drink in public. Don’t miss B.B. King’s Blues Club, a sprawling bi-level musical Mecca with top-notch stage performers, hearty Southern-inspired food and tropical cocktails.

The Food

Yet another facet of Memphis’ distinguished cultural landscape is its food. While the city’s Civil Rights efforts and its music have no doubt shaped America, so too has its cuisine. This is particularly true of barbecue, as Memphis-style barbecue ranks alongside Texas and the Carolinas as some of the best in the world. The city is filled with famous rib joints and pulled pork emporiums, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the enduring mainstays. Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q (pictured above) is a notable example, churning out succulent, smoky ribs (available in both pork and beef), barbecue nachos, heady hot links and even barbecue spaghetti in a grocery store-turned-restaurant.

For something a bit more modern and irreverent, try Loflin Yard, a playful haunt with tons of outdoor space, a porch perched over a stream, fire pits and outdoor activities and games. Then of course there’s the food, which offers a more modernized approach to Southern-style comforts in the form of smoked beef brisket po’ boys, brisket poutine, brisket tacos and pulled pork that’s been rubbed with espresso and maple. Don’t sleep on the bracing cocktails, either, which skew classic with the likes of a barrel-aged whiskey Old Fashioned and Sazeracs.

Far beyond barbecue, Memphis’ food scene is thriving and booming. The Gray Canary is a prime example. A brand new addition to downtown’s waterfront area, the industrial-chic space boasts a hip bar area, a raw bar and a loft-like dining room in which to tuck into wood-fired fare like sweet potatoes with chorizo and Meyer lemons; octopus with garbanzo beans and crispy pig ear; and clams with celery root, ham and sunchokes. Don’t miss the country ham plate, a spread of whisper-thin ham slices flecked with Gruyere shavings, horseradish and buttery cornbread panna gratta.

In Memphis’ Midtown neighborhood, swing by The Second Line for a New Orleans-inspired experience by chef Kelly English. The restaurant, located inside a former home, is as cozy and quaint as it gets, with soulful food to match. English does a nice job bridging classic inspirations with contemporary ingenuity, resulting in a whimsical spree of andouille-crawfish pimento cheese fries, fried oyster salads and decadent cheeseburger po’ boys.

Photo by Troy Glasgow

Of course, the city’s booze scene is just as prominent as its food, as evidenced by the surfeit of breweries and distilleries popping up all over town. One particular gem is Old Dominick Distillery, a downtown mainstay whose history dates back to the genesis of Memphis’ liquor traditions. While the business today is a decidedly modern facility, with a hip bar area and engaging distillery tours, the company first took shape when its founder Domenico Canale moved to Memphis in the 1800’s. He built his reputation on the Dominick Toddy, a curative bourbon tipple, which inspired the distillery founders to launch their modern day business when they discovered an unopened bottle from the late 1800’s. Paying homage to Canale, his great great grandsons Alex and Chris Canale christened a business that became the first place to legally distill whiskey in Tennessee since Prohibition.

When it comes to late-night drinks, Memphis offers some of the coolest (and potentially creepiest) places for cocktails. Molly Fontaine is a bi-level cocktail bar housed in a Victorian home filled with knickknacks, vintage furniture, timeworn artwork and hauntingly beautiful sitting rooms. Altogether, the bar feels like Casper’s mansion; old and rickety, but warm and inviting. Slightly less Casper-y is Earnestine & Hazel’s, a no-frills watering hole that’s allegedly haunted, and definitely looks the part. The main floor has a jukebox, several tables, cheap beer, cocktails and Americana-style griddle burgers. It’s a little eerie, but it’s got nothing on the second floor, where customers are free to wander through different rooms. Go with a brave friend or two.

The Hospitality

Photo by The Peabody Memphis

Southern hospitality is alive and well in Memphis, where hotels old and new set a precedent for leisure and luxury.

The most iconic property in town is The Peabody, one of the oldest hotels in the country and a timeless institution revered for its high-end confines, architecture and ducks. Yes, the ducks that live in the hotel command a bit of a cult following, thanks to their daily red carpet parade to and from the lobby water fountain. Each morning, the well-trained birds are shuffled out of their rooftop suite, into an elevator and marched into the fountain to much fanfare and music. The same process reverses itself at 5 PM every day, presided over by a resident “Duckmaster.” The whole process is quite a fun spectacle, commanding huge crowds every day, so show up early if you want a good view.

Photo by Larry Kuzniewski

In more neoteric fashion, it’s hard to miss the mighty Memphis Pyramid (pictured above and below) perched along the Mississippi River. Constructed in homage to Memphis, Egypt, the city where Memphis, Tennessee, gets its name, the Pyramid was constructed as an enormous arena (at 321-feet tall, it’s in the top 10 tallest pyramids in the world) before filling out as a home to a Bass Pro Shops superstore, a subterranean bowling alley, restaurants, a duck-hunting museum/gallery, a fudge-slinging general store and the Big Cypress Lodge. The hotel, which occupies floors two and three, feels like a woodland retreat, with lodge-like rooms and suites overlooking the wide-open central floor. Down below, guests can gawk at boats, soaring faux trees, Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill, waterways filled with fish and the tallest freestanding elevator in the country, which ascends to an observation deck and sky-high restaurant. Elsewhere on property, visitors will find a laser arcade, an archery range, kayaks, fishing equipment, an aquarium and even four live alligators.

Photo by Allen Gillespie

For something a bit more boutique, the Hotel Napoleon is a real charmer. The chic downtown property, a relative newcomer in a historic 116-year-old building, features 58 rooms and a motif that toes the line between yesteryear and today. The classic facade of the Scimitar Building serves as a memorable backdrop for modern enhancements like LED lights, Luna restaurant, huge guest room ceilings, a state-of-the-art fitness center and exceedingly friendly hospitality.

Be it a historic hotel, a plate of espresso-rubbed pulled pork or a museum that tells a story through the ages, Memphis is filled with history and modernity everywhere you turn, each aspect of this vibrant riverside city operating harmoniously to make this one of the most quintessential American cities in the U.S.

Matt Kirouac

Written by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac is a Chicago-based food and travel writer, editor and author. After graduating culinary school, he took his education in a different direction, writing for companies like Daily Candy, Kimpton Hotels, TripExpert, Flight Network, Time Out, Food Fanatics magazine, Brand USA and numerous others. Currently, he works for Zagat, Plate and other freelance positions. His first book, The Hunt Guides: Chicago, came out in 2016, and his next book, Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, hits shelves at the end of 2017.

Read more posts by Matt Kirouac

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