Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane.
Touched down in the land of the delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain….
Actually, the following is more accurate….
Put on my white leather trainers and sat my arse in the front passenger seat of the car.
Pulled up on Beale street in 40 degree heat…
Yeah, my lyrics don’t fit the song, but that’s what happened.
Memphis had always been a stop on our road trip.
Originally, I’d just viewed it as place to stay to break up the journey to New Orleans.
I hadn’t given much thought Memphis at all; I mean neither of us are huge Elvis fans and, criminally, my knowledge of the city didn’t extend beyond that.
That all changed in April when I read Memphis by Tara M Stringfellow. She painted such a vibrant picture of the city that 262 pages later, I was changing our itinerary so we could stay longer.
Having now been, I can say that Memphis is every bit as vibrant as I’d imagined; I adore this city.
People may think Memphis is all about the music and yes, music plays a huge part in the city’s culture but it’s also a city with a rich history, the best food and great people.
Getting to Memphis marked the end our driving section of the trip – in less than a week, we’d made it all the from DC to Memphis, with four-hour detour to Kentucky thrown in and had seen and done a lot on our way.
First stop on my list, the legendary Beale Street, the home of the Blues….
Congress officially declared it the home of the Blues in 1966 – one for fact fans out there.
Running down to the Mississippi it is a stretch filled with bars and restaurants, it hosts festivals, outdoor concerts, people perform in the street, it’s part of the Civil Rights trail and it attracts thousands of people every year.
It’s a place that has a buzz around it, Beale Street is energetic at any time of day, take time to soak up the atmosphere in the afternoon.
It gets very busy at night – we were there on Memorial Day weekend so I can’t gauge whether or not its always that busy or if the holiday weekend and a Baseball game meant larger crowds than usual.
Stop number two for us both was the legendary Sun Studio.
It’s about a 15-minute walk from Beale Street up Union Avenue.
It is The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A must stop for music lovers the world over. Musical legends have recorded here; I’m talking Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and B.B King.
There are 45-minute guided tours throughout the day between 10 and 6, it is filled with incredible pictures, you can stand in the very spot were these greats recorded and hear outtakes from those sessions.
It’s odd standing outside it, knowing what songs came out of that studio. It’s an unassuming building, not too flashy, it is iconic.
Our mission for tea was to find the best fried chicken Memphis had to offer. The same place was recommended over and over again – Gus’s fried chicken.
Don’t take my word for it, go. Booking is advisable or you may, like us, face a lengthy queue before getting in. The queue was worth it, I’ll probably dream of that chicken for the rest of my life.
A big debate we had before getting to Memphis was around Graceland, specifically whether to go.
As noted, neither of us are huge Elvis fans, granted he does have some bangers, but I wasn’t sure if that was enough to justify the ticket price and to hold my attention for a good few hours.
There were three arguments that swung it for us…
- When are we ever likely to be in Memphis again?
- We’re here for a good time not a long time (I use this as justification whenever I’m about to spend too much money on some kind of holiday/event).
- Ultimately, I didn’t want to spend the rest of life explaining to people that yes, I’d been to Memphis and no I didn’t go to Graceland. I had a very clear image of me having this exact conversation in a care home in thirty years time….
And with that, we ordered tickets, booking is obviously essential. Its $77 per person and that includes an audio guided tour of the mansion and planes, and full access to the entertainment complex that has various exhibits, costumes and cars. The price may seem a little steep, but it is worth it.
First thing we had to do on the morning of our trip was drop the hire car off at the airport, which is close to Graceland – I promise I have a point to this tale.
Anyway, we headed to the airport taxi rank to be told by a driver that there was a free shuttle bus to Graceland.
Or so we thought….
After being told to ring for the shuttle, the driver looked puzzled when he arrived.
“Where’s your luggage?”
“We don’t have any, we’ve just dropped a car off”.
“This bus is for The Graceland guest house, not Graceland”.
It transpired that the guys at the taxi rank pull this fairly often.
You see, they don’t want a short fare, they want the big money all the way into the city. The shuttle driver was not happy about having come to get us, though he did begrudgingly agree to give us a ride. He also became much friendlier once we’d given him a tip.
When we pulled up at the guest house, he told us to get on another shuttle bus that would take us across to Graceland.
Sitting on that bus, we felt like the BIGGEST imposters there.
For a start we were now on the second bus we shouldn’t have been on, secondly EVERYONE was singing along while we were sat there thinking “I don’t know this one”.
The complex is huge, looking at how many signs there were for various exhibitions, I knew I needn’t have been worried about there being enough to see. If you find yourself at Graceland, make sure you give yourself a lot of time.
Your ticket gives you a specific time for your mansion tour. Despite that, be prepared to queue at various points, you don’t need me to tell you that this is a busy tourist attraction. There’s also a lot of getting on and off shuttle buses to drive incredibly short distances (seriously Graceland, climate crisis).
You get handed headphones and a tour pad for the mansion; it’s voiced by John Stamos, for reasons that didn’t entirely make sense to me to begin with. I hadn’t realised how big a fan he was and had forgotten about the Full House wedding.
It is a bit weird walking around a dead man’s house, especially when it’s exactly as it was in the seventies. The upstairs is closed off, as it always was to visitors when Elvis was alive, that was his space, where he could relax.
Set in stunning grounds with a squash court and stables, it is a beautiful house – on the outside – his decorating choices leave a lot to be desired.
Stories are told about each room, about how the family lived. He wanted to be able to provide for his parents and move them out of their shotgun house. One of the outbuildings tells visitors about the history of the Presley family; I had no idea that Elvis was a twin and his brother had been stillborn.
I didn’t realise that all the family were buried in the garden. I don’t think I really expected to his Elvis’s grave, though I know tens of thousands of fans make the pilgrimage every year.
At various points Lisa Marie and Priscilla share stories and memories. I did at times think ‘this can’t be the full story’. There was talk of how much he did for others, charity work, how talented he was, how much fun they used to have at Graceland (it sounded a cracking place to live) and I just kept waiting for someone to tell me about the bad parts. No one who is a musical genius is without their demons, no person in the history of humanity is all good.
Walking around the mansion is surreal and it’s fascinating.
The entertainment complex adds more about his films, his shows, costumes, there’s even the tea towel on which the contract for his first Vegas residency was written. I could have spent days looking at it all.
I’m so glad we decided to go, I don’t think my grandma would have forgiven me for swerving it. It was an incredible experience; I loved it and have had Burning Love pretty much on repeat ever since.
Jumping in a taxi on Elvis Presley Boulevard, we wanted a recommendation for lunch. The driver, without missing a beat he suggested Blues City Café, again like with most food places in Memphis, be prepared queue and don’t be put off by the queue. There’s a reason why these places are so busy, the food is delicious.
The heat in Memphis was relentless after stuffing our faces with ribs, we headed for a bar to plan out the rest of our afternoon.
At the start of this post, I mentioned the people in Memphis. Basically, in the bar we ended up in, we couldn’t buy a drink. Scott got talking to a couple at the bar who asked where we were from, the next minute our drinks had been paid for and they were shouting “Welcome to America”.
Next a family came in before going to the Baseball, there wasn’t enough chairs at their table, so we gave them two we weren’t even using. Again, two drinks appeared…
Us: “You didn’t need to do that, it’s okay”.
Him: “Of course, after what you did for us, it was so kind”.
I was sat there thinking all we did was give you chairs we weren’t even using. Still, it sparked a good chat with the family, it’s one of my favourite parts of travelling – talking to people from all walks of life.
You can’t go to Memphis without visiting the Lorraine motel. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968. He was there to support the black sanitary public works employees who’d been on strike, the night before his death, he’d delivered his “I’ve been to the mountain top” address, which would go down in history as being prophetic.
Following the assassination of Dr King, the motel eventually closed and became the National Civil rights museum.
It is such an important museum, filled with 260 artifacts, films, interactive exhibitions and oral histories. It tells the story of the civil rights movement, from the very beginning; it teaches visitors about the resistance during slavery, the civil war, Jim Crow laws, the bus boycott, the events of the 20th century and the fight for equality that still goes on.
Outside there are multiple listening posts that takes listeners through the last hours of Martin Luther King’s life, there’s excerpts from his speeches, you can see the Lorraine motel as it was, the balcony remains with a huge white wreath hanging from the balcony.
It’s quite an overwhelming site, it is a fitting tribute, it’s moving, it’s peaceful; you’ll learn a lot.
I’ve wanted to go on a paddle boat since I was a kid. I watched the musical Showboat a lot as a child.
There are loads of places online offering every kind of paddleboat cruise you can imagine – cruise and dinner, Mississippi by night, sun rise, sunset, midday; I think you get the picture.
We chose a two-hour early evening tour, hoping the heat may have cooled, an earlier walk down to the river confirmed it to be the HOTTEST place in the city, I needed a breeze and some shade.
Every boat has a bar on board and multiple decks for you to sit on and of course a tour guide.
Cruises take you past Mud Island, past Tom Lee Park – named after the man who saved 32 people from drowning when the M.E Norman sank in the Mississippi in 1925, he was in a small wooden boat. Our guide pointed out Memphis sites all along the riverbank, told stories about floods and the city all the time giving a personal touch.
The tour even crosses another state line into Arkansas before heading back down the river and under the Hernando de Soto Bridge just as the lights are starting to come on.
The cruise allowed us to take in the sites of this wonderful city, it meant we could sit and relax and reflect on an amazing visit. It meant I got to fulfil a lifelong paddle boat goal. It was a perfect evening under the Tennessee stars and a beautiful end to our Memphis adventure.
Our time in Memphis was superb.
It was filled with firsts.
It is a music lovers dream.
It’s a food lovers’ fantasy.
You can’t escape the city’s history and culture.
There’s so much more to Memphis than Elvis (though Graceland is worth it).
It is as vibrant, loud and wonderful as I’d imagined after picking that book up and being desperate to get there.
Next stop New Orleans!!!
P.S If Mark Cohn really spotted the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue and followed him to the gates of Graceland…..he walked a really bloody long way!
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm