It may be the historic birthplace of blues, barbecue and rock n’roll—but suddenly, everything old is new again in Memphis, Tennessee. Nestled next to the mighty Mississippi River, this mid-Southern city has become a hotbed of culture that seamlessly blends history with what’s hot in the culinary, art and music scenes. Here’s how to jam-pack two perfect days with all that the "Blues City" has to offer in 2013.
Get in a Southern state of mind with a hearty, soulful breakfast at The Arcade, Memphis’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1919. With its diner façade, lunch counter and shrine to Elvis, it’s the perfect spot for digging into filling favorites like sweet potato pancakes, country fried steak and sausage.
Check into the city’s most iconic hotel, The Peabody Memphis, boasting some 464 rooms—many recently renovated—just steps from Beale Street. In addition to superb service and a luxurious feel, visitors can catch a free show: the quirky March of the Peabody Ducks, an 80-year-old tradition (at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.) in which the hotel’s birds march from their rooftop penthouse to the marble fountain in the ornate lobby.
In the afternoon, head to Sun Studio; music lovers will get the chills—and a few laughs—touring the original recording space of rock icons including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Take as many photos as you like, but don’t kiss the old microphones that touched these legends’ lips. Energetic tours are given every hour from 10:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m.
Spend a few hours wandering the halls of the innovative Brooks Museum of Art, displaying treasures from early American Modernism and the Italian Renaissance, along with works from regional artists. Two major exhibitions in 2013 are must-sees for art junkies, including Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey and Angels and Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th Century American Art. Have lunch at the museum’s Brushmark Restaurant, featuring chef Wally Joe’s decidedly American dishes like meatloaf and catfish tacos—the space also serves up stunning views of Overton Park.
In the afternoon, head to the South Main Arts District for a taste of what’s truly up-and-coming in Memphis. You’ll find vintage clothes and accessories at charming boutiques like Hoot and Louise and a supposedly haunted juke box at Earnestine & Hazel’s (84 E GE Patterson Ave), but don’t leave without taking a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. While the main exhibit is closed in 2013 for a renovation, visitors will be allowed a touching, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to step onto the actual balcony where the leader of the Civil Rights Movement was killed.
Restaurant Iris should be on your short list for dinner. Located in a romantic Midtown Memphis home, rising star chef Kelly English shows off his Louisiana roots with heaping portions of roasted marrow bones and his take on surf and turf, a giant New York strip steak stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese. And after dinner, wander down iconic Beale Street, a national historic landmark dotted with unforgettable live blues, jazz and rock n’roll venues.
Check into the boldly decorated Madison Hotel, a luxurious boutique hotel with a decidedly modern feel, situated in the former Tennessee Trust Bank Building.
Head to Brother Juniper’s and fuel up with a country-style breakfast of supersized omelets, tender biscuits and creamy cheese grits at this family-owned café, located near The University of Memphis.
Of course, no trip to "Blues City" is complete without a visit to Graceland Mansion. Spend an hour or three, depending on your dedication to the King: Audio tours are self guided and near-reverential—practically no one speaks as you move from room to room of Elvis Presley’s wonderfully kitschy estate chock-full of music and movie memorabilia. 2013 brings two new exhibits to Graceland: Elvis’ Hawaii: Concerts, Movies and More! and Elvis: Live from Vegas.
Spend your lunch hour at the hottest foodie ticket in town: Hog & Hominy, where childhood friends Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman serve a tasty mashup of Italian-meets-Southern-style cooking. The 50s-era ranch house has a sleek modern interior with an open kitchen, dishing out buzzed-about favorites including a fried-egg-topped red eye pizza and a beef-and-cheddar dog served on a toothsome pretzel bun. Ambitious diners can try to work off the calories at the restaurant’s own bocce ball court.
Soul music lovers shouldn’t resist a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music later in the day. The innovative complex—which includes an on-site charter school—tells the story of the pioneers of American soul, with high-tech listening stations, an in-house dance floor and plenty of memorabilia from the likes of Ike & Tina Turner, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes (his gold-plated Cadillac is a show stopper).
Make sure your final meal in Memphis is a memorable one: Fill up for dinner on consistently great barbecue at one of Central BBQ’s three Memphis locations. You’ll find a no-frills atmosphere and counter service, along with its famous, Memphis-style ribs marinated overnight, served wet or dry.
Alexis Korman is a freelance wine, food, and travel writer based in New Orleans. She is also Contributing Food Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine and founder of a blog, City City Bang Bang. Follow her on Twitter @lexisips
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