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Memphis has always been more striking than beautiful, more soulful than edgy; never the biggest city and certainly never the wealthiest, but always the most interesting. And Memphis gives more than it takes, producing far more than its fair share of musicians, artists, thought leaders, and change-makers and, by extension, changing the landscape of American music and food and culture at large. In short, Memphis is a must-visit. As with any new-to-you place, you might find your trip enhanced by a good city tour. And the city’s guided tour offerings are quite different from their counterparts in other cities: they’re quirky, historical, creative, fun, and surprisingly affordable. Have a look at these, the best of the best that Memphis has to offer.
Best Walking Tour: Historic Memphis Walking Tour
Stretch your legs on this 90-minute morning walking tour of historic central Memphis. You’ll start right on Beale Street itself, where you’ll have a chance to grab a cup of coffee and fuel up for your walk while learning about the musical history of Memphis. On your leisurely stroll, you’ll see Civil War sites, including Confederate Park, where the Battle of Memphis was fought, and the site of Forrest’s Raid on Memphis. You’ll visit the oldest building in the city, Calvary Episcopal Church, and the famous duck march at the Peabody Memphis Hotel. For the best view in town, your guide will take you to the rooftop of the Madison Hotel, where you’ll get a picture-perfect panoramic view of the city. Your knowledgeable tour guide packs a lot of historical information into a short walk, so it’s both a pleasant and efficient way to get your bearings in the city’s center.
Best Bus Tour: Memphis City Tour with Optional Graceland Admission
Ideal for the first day of your visit, this comprehensive, educational bus tour gives you a good, thorough overview of the city of Memphis. The three-hour trip begins with a pickup at your downtown Memphis hotel (or a meeting point if you’re staying elsewhere) and then begins a leisurely drive down the two-mile stretch of Beale Street, packed with blues clubs, stores, and restaurants galore.
Throughout your journey, you’ll pass by the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the famous Memphis Pyramid, and more. You’ll make a stop at the Peabody Memphis to watch the resident ducks make their famous daily march, and another at A. Schwab, a favorite local retailer where you can do some high-quality souvenir shopping.
If you upgrade your tour to include Graceland admission, you’ll continue on to view Elvis’s memorabilia-packed home. Otherwise, it’s back to your hotel for a drop-off, likely with a nice long list of things that you’d like to see and do in more depth.
Best Graceland Tour: Elvis Presley Graceland VIP Tour
Visit Graceland in style (as the King would have surely wanted) with this VIP skip-the-line tour. The ticket entitles you to a full day at Elvis’s famous home and its adjacent museums. It’ll begin as soon as you arrive with a VIP shuttle to the mansion itself, where you’ll enjoy an audio tour through the house, preserved largely as it was when Elvis lived there and chock full of memorabilia: gold and platinum records, stage costumes, photographs, musical instruments, and more.
Once you’ve toured the mansion and its gardens, visiting the gravesite of Elvis himself, you can enjoy a self-guided tour of the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, where his collection of cars is lovingly maintained and displayed, and the new entertainment complex, Elvis the Entertainer Career Showcase Museum. As a VIP, you’ll get special access to a special private VIP exhibit and you’ll receive an exclusive souvenir “backstage pass” lanyard to bring home.
Best Music Tour: Memphis Mojo Music Bus Tour
Jazz, blues, R&B, soul, rock, and so much more: Memphis has been a hub of American music for as long as there has been American music. Who better to explain the history of the city’s musical culture than actual local musicians? This bus tour puts one of Beale Street’s most talented professionals in the tour guide seat, where they’ll give you the inside scoop on the city’s iconic music spots, past and present, while entertaining you with songs and storytelling.
You’ll see Beale Street, of course, as well as the legendary Stax Studio (now a museum), where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and countless others recorded. Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and B.B. King’s early homes are all on the route, as are non-musical Memphis landmarks like the Peabody Hotel and the Lorraine Motel/National Civil Rights Museum.
The final stop on the tour is Sun Studio, perhaps the most famous recording studio in the world, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others recorded their first sides. Upgrades are available to include the full studio tour.
Best Brewery Tour: Memphis Brew Bus
For most people, it’s music and BBQ that spring to mind when they think of Memphis, but like many of America’s great art cities, Memphis is home to a growing number of extraordinarily good micro and craft breweries. Pub crawls are always more fun when someone else is behind the wheel, so let the Brew Bus be your designated driver and take you on a grand tour of three of the city’s most exciting breweries. Your private guide will give you an insider’s insight into the booming local industry and you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the brewing process at each of your stops.
And, of course, there’s tasting. Lots of tasting. You’ll get at least one full-size drink at each stop, as well as some samples. Light snacks and bottled water are available on the bus, and some of the stops also offer more extensive snacks to purchase. You can also buy bottled beers to take home, and the bus has a convenient cooler if you’d like to keep them cold for later.
Best Food Tour: Taste of Downtown Memphis Food Tour
Memphis is more than just BBQ (though don’t worry, you’ll get some of that on this tour, too). This private walking tour makes stops at six of downtown Memphis’s best restaurants for seven different food tastings, all of which are based around sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients. Though the tour takes place in the heart of Memphis, and thus the city’s most tourist-heavy district, your food-loving guide makes a point of avoiding tourist traps completely and focusing on real locals cooking with real ingredients, from mom-and-pop shops to high-end gourmet eateries.
The string of tastings matches up to create a tapas-like multi-course meal, with bursts of exercise in between and finishes up with a tasty dessert. As you walk (the trip measures around 6,000 Fitbit steps), you’ll learn about the history and culture of the city and a bit about the burgeoning contemporary food and drink scenes, while getting tons of insider tips about where to eat and drink, as well as what to see and hear while you’re in town. (Don’t save this tour for your last day!) This tour is wheelchair and stroller-accessible.
Best History Tour: African-American History Tour of Memphis: Overview Tour
Memphis has been the epicenter of some of the greatest triumphs in American Black History as well as some of its most horrifying and heartbreaking moments. Learn about many of the most significant events in the city’s African-American history while cruising around the city on this two-hour van tour. You’ll visit Slave Haven, a former stop on the Underground Railroad which has been turned into a small but jam-packed museum about the history of slavery. Also on the agenda: the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and which has since been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, as well as the Historic Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, where Dr. King gave his final speech.
Beale Street, with its historic connection to the blues and other African-rooted musical genres, gets a spin-through, as do several historically black neighborhoods that are less-visited by tourists but which have contributed tremendously to the culture of Memphis and the world at large. The tour includes pick-up and drop-off at your central Memphis hotel.
Like every city that’s been around for a long time, Memphis is home to a whole lot of ghosts. (Well… ghost stories, at least.) This fun, informative, and slightly creepy walking tour gives you a glimpse of the city’s darker history. The 90-minute walking tour begins on Beale Street but quickly veers off the beaten path to drop in on some of city’s permanent residents, including Mary, the ghost who’s been haunting the Orpheum Theatre for almost 100 years; the tragic lovers who haunt the Victorian-era John Alexander Austin House; and the haunted piano at Grawmeyer’s Restaurant, the oldest German restaurant in Memphis.
A bit later, your final stop will be at the former brothel which is now Ernestine and Hazel’s Bar, said to be the most haunted building in Memphis. In a stroke of pure poetry, so perfect in this city that changed music history, it’s said that Ernestine and Hazel’s jukebox itself is haunted. Take the tour and find out for yourself!