While most tourists in Memphis head straight downtown to Beale Street and the Civil Rights Museum, midtown Memphis has all the best parts of the city. There are nightclubs with live blues music, and restaurants serving the city's best barbecue sandwiches. Add parks, museums, theaters, restaurants, and other unique attractions, and you have a destination not to miss.
For the best theater in the South look no farther than the Playhouse on the Square. The regional theater company opened a new 340-seat theater in 2010, and it has everything you need for a night of culture and fun: a rooftop terrace, a theater cafe, a gorgeous lobby to watch street traffic and have a glass of wine after the show. Shows range from Broadway hits like Matilda and Cabaret to independent productions written and put on my locals.
In the 1970s Lafayette's Music Room was one of the most bustling clubs in Memphis. Celebrities, businessmen, and visitors would gather there to listen to live music and dance into the wee hours of the night. After going dark it re-opened in 2014 to bright bright lights and sounds back to Memphis. The venue hosts live music seven nights a week from jazz soloists to bluegrass groups. It serves what it calls "Southern food with an attitude", with fun takes on traditional regional dishes. It's in the heart of Overton Square, and the music can be heard into the streets all night long.
There are only four zoos in the United States that have pandas, and one of them is the Memphis Zoo. Ya Ya, the female, and Le Le, the male live in a giant pavilion built just for them where they feed all day on bamboo and play with curated toys. After seeing these rare creatures, go visit the polar bears, the elephants, and the village of monkeys. Don't miss feeding the giraffes, the sea lion show, or the march of the penguins. There is also a hands-on petting zoo for children with a train that runs through it.
It's easy to spend all day at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. The museum itself has over 2,000 objects including valuable French and American Impressionist paintings and rare pieces of porcelain. They are housed in a mansion built in 1942 in the Neo-Georgian manner. Perhaps even more impressive is the 17 acres of gardens. You can meander through wild flowers on the hiking trails, admire formal gardens cultivated year round, or explore the greenhouse. There are beautiful bridges, sculptures, and fountains at every turn. The museum regularly has events for both children and adults.
Sip Local Craft Beer
Memphis has a booming craft beer scene, and many of the city's best breweries are located in Midtown. Don't miss Memphis Made Brewing, a no frills brewery that makes local favorite Fireside. It has a cozy tap room with picnic tables and food trucks parked outside for snacks. Crosstown Brewing Co. is one of the newer establishments in town. It serves a variety of beers from IPAs to sours in a sprawling indoor lounge that looks into its production facility. A bigger outdoor patio has lawn games like corn hole. Other must visit breweries in the area are High Cotton Brewing Co., Wiseacre Brewing Co, and Boscos Squared.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has a simple mission: bring the best art in the world, past and present, to Memphis. The museum's permanent collection including paintings by Winslow Homer, Thomas Gainsborough, Camille Pissarro, and Georgia O’Keeffe. It has decorative arts, ancient pieces, African art, statues, and more. The museum is also a social hub putting on film screenings, discussions, lectures, family friendly events, even concerts. There is also a quaint cafe with salads and sandwiches, perfect for lunch.
Just ten years ago Broad Avenue was an abandoned neighborhood with empty storefronts and broken street lights. Now it's a must-see Memphis treasure. This street is lined with locally owned shops, restaurants, and bars, each one more interesting than the next. At Bingham & Broad you'll find locally made pottery and jewelry. At Paper & Clay, ceramics. Don't miss Bounty on Broad that uses only meat and produce from nearby farmers or the Rec Room, where you can play vintage video games on large overhead screens. A huge water tower that changes color every few seconds hovers over the entire street.
Memphis is famous for its barbecue, and one of the best places to find it is Central BBQ. While the exact recipe is kept under wraps, we do know the chefs marinate their meat all day long and then smoke it using hickory and pecan woods. It's no wonder Central BBQ's tag line is, "smoke is our sauce." While the restaurant takes its meat seriously, it provides a laid back and fun atmosphere. It is located in a red shed lined with picnic tables. There's no better place for a rib and chicken wing feast.
Listen to Music Under the Stars at the Levitt Shell
In the heart of Midtown's Overton Park is an open-air amphitheater named the Levitt Shell. In 1954 it became the first place Elvis Presley ever played a paid concert. Now it's where locals and visitors alike gather for over 50 free concerts a year. There is something for everybody — country bands, rock groups, orchestras, hip hop up-and-comers, even international stars. Bring a blanket and lawn chairs to camp out on the grass for the evening. You can pack a picnic or buy snacks from a rotating selection of food trucks.
The Levitt Shell is located just behind the Brooks Museum. You can park at the museum, The Overton Square lot, or the Memphis Zoo. A free bike valet is also available.
You can't take a trip to Memphis without trying southern soul food, and there is no better place than the Soul Fish Cafe. Pull a chair up to the counter or nuzzle into a silver booth and let the servers dish out the ultimate comfort food: fried okra, black-eyed peas, battered catfish, and macaroni & cheese. The po’ boys & tacos and home-made pies are a must. The restaurant is located in the center of hip neighborhood of Cooper Young, so walk off your meal by browsing the neighboring book and art shops.
In the city where rock 'n' roll was born, this is the place where the musicians made their magic. All the great legends from B.B. King to Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley recorded their albums here. On a 45-minute tour you will see the spaces where they danced and sang; hear intimate stories about their work and journeys; and listen to rough outtakes of their songs. If you feel inspired to follow in their footsteps, you can make your own recording in the same place as The King (It costs $200 per hour, and you must book a five-hour block).
There is free parking located behind the building, and there is a free shuttle once an hour to or from Graceland and the Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
In 1852 fifty Memphis gentlemen pooled their money to create a beautiful cemetery of which their hometown could be proud. Now it's a historic site honoring the South's greatest heroes. Stroll among the graves of governors, senators, generals, blues singers, suffragists, civil rights leaders, even outlaws. You'll see elaborate monuments built in the Victorian era and ancient Elms, Oaks, and Magnolias. Don't forget to look up; the cemetery is also an official bird sanctuary. Red-tailed and cooper's hawks call it its home.