Memphis is known as “The Home of the Blues” and “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll”. To visit Memphis and not see some of its iconic musical attractions and venues would be like going to Orlando and skipping the theme parks. Music put Memphis on the map. If you love music, a visit to Memphis needs to be on your bucket list.
In 2015, USA Today polled its readers for the 10 best musical attractions in the world. Memphis music landmarks Graceland, Sun Studios, and Stax Museum landed #1, #2, and #5 respectively. Memphis not only stirred the beginnings of Rock and Roll and the Blues, but continues to cultivate and encourage young musicians today.
When planning my “3 Days in Memphis”, I knew music should be a huge focus. I actually could have filled all three days with nothing but musical attractions and still not have seen everything!
Here is how I planned out each day:
Day 2: Music Lovers
24 Hours in Memphis for Music Lovers
Blue Plate Cafe
Start your day with an amazing breakfast from a downtown Memphis favorite, Blue Plate Cafe. Serving breakfast all day, everyday plus southern favorites for lunch and dinner, you’ll find a mix of locals and tourists.
The biscuits are super buttery and fluffy, better than my Grandma’s, and everyone loved her biscuits! I’m not a big grits fan, but I saw lots of diners ordering them.
Parking is on the street with parking meters. Before leaving this area, stroll around the historic Court Square. One of four parks laid out by Memphis city planners in 1819, Court Square is the only one still in its original design, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the center of the park is the 20 feet high cast-iron Hebe Fountain, and a gazebo is the stage for frequent musical performances. For all you movie buffs out there, the park made an appearance in The Firm in the scene where Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman meet. If you are visiting on a Thursday, come back for lunch when the park hosts a weekly food truck rodeo.
Important Information: 5469 Poplar Avenue
There is a famous saying about Sun Studios: “If music was a religion, Memphis would be Jerusalem, and Sun Studio would be its most holy shrine.” One tour, and you’ll be seconding that statement.
In 1951, Sun Studio recorded the first rock and roll song called “Rocket 88”. The legendary sound happened because of an accident. The band’s amp fell off of their car, breaking the speaker cone. This caused the sound to become distorted. The band used the amp anyway, Sam Phillips (founder of Sun Studios) magnified the distorted sound, and rock and roll was born.
Sun Studio cemented its importance in rock and roll history when Elvis Presley walked in the doors to record his first song, reportedly as a gift for his mother. With the success of Elvis came Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash.
The studio is not called a museum because it is still a working studio. Tours start at the bottom half of every hour beginning at 10:30 until they close at 6 p.m. The doors then open for recording, and the recording continues through the night. The studio boasts Sam Phillips original acoustics design, even the ceiling tiles are original. Having that “original” sound is a draw for young musicians from miles around. The tour guide bragged that this was the only recording studio in Memphis from that era that was still in its original location and included all the legendary architecture. Other places, like Stax, sadly deteriorated, were torn down, and relocated.
A tour of the studio starts on the top floor where famous music memorabilia is displayed. It is a small area, but the real treat is the passionate stories told by the tour guide with original audio clips played to accompany the stories. Our tour guide was Jake, and he alone was worth the admission price! The tour then goes downstairs to the recording studio. Stand on the “X” marked on the floor where Elvis stood to record “That’s Alright Mama”. Very cool experience!
Free parking is available right behind the studio. While waiting for the tour to start, check out the gift shop or order an ice cream at the soda shop. Tours last around a 45 minutes to an hour.
Important Information: 706 Union Avenue, sunstudio.com
Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum
Stick around Sun Studio until the next half hour to catch the free shuttle bus that runs every hour between Sun Studio, Rock n’ Soul Museum, and Graceland. While in route, you”ll be treated to videos of Elvis performances. If you weren’t in the mood to dance after the Sun Studio tour, the shuttle ride will put you there quickly!
The shuttle bus goes directly from Sun Studio to the Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum. Opened in 2000 by the Smithsonian Institution, the museum tells an interactive story about the birth of rock & roll and soul music. The museum isn’t that big exhibit-wise, but the true beauty of the museum is the audio headset that guides you along. After all, a music museum should be mainly audio, right?
As your tour guides you along, you have options to hear different songs played by pioneers in the rock and soul genres. Depending on how many “options” you choose, the tour could be one hour or three hours.
Also available at the museum is an audio walking tour of Beale Street. You can keep the headset for the entire day as you walk along the historic street known as “The Home of the Blues”. Stop in one of the fantastic soul food and barbecue restaurants to get refueled, then pick back up on your audio tour.
Other musical attractions located within walking distance of the Rock n’ Soul Museum include:
Gibson Guitar Factory Tour (located right across the street)
Memphis Music Hall of Fame (Beale Street)
Blues Hall of Fame (5 blocks south)
Important Information: 191 Beale Street, memphisrocknsoul.org
Board the free shuttle again for Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home for twenty years. It is one of the top visited private homes in the world. People from all over the world visit the historic home, not only Elvis fans, but music lovers, and pop culture buffs. May of this year, Graceland welcomed its 20 millionth, that’s 20 MILLION, paying visitors since opening to the public.
Don’t let the ticket price of $38.75 deter you, this is a cool experience. After the tour (my perfect timing), I found out with a 2-week advanced request, teachers can get a voucher to get in free. My teacher friends and I will have to plan a return visit! (To be honest, as a Memphis resident, I told myself I “needed to visit Graceland” for 15 years, so even though it’s only 30 minutes away, lets knock-on-wood that it doesn’t take another 15 to go back)
One of the best features of a Graceland tour is the interactive iPad that leads you from one room to the next. The tour is perfectly narrated by Elvis super-fan John Stamos! As you change rooms, the iPad vibrates and prompts you to change screens. On each screen is a visual representation of what you are actually seeing, and you can touch the different items on the screen to learn more in-depth information.
After your tour, you can shop in several of the different souvenir shops or eat at the Rockabilly’s Burger Shop. There you can order Elvis’s favorite sandwich, a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich!
Important Information: 3765 Elvis Presley Boulevard, graceland.com
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
The free shuttle picks up at Graceland at the top of every hour and will take you back to Sun Studio. If somehow you are a fast tourist and can make it before they close at 5 p.m., head down to Stax Museum of American Soul Music. I had to save it for another day. Regardless of when you can fit it into your schedule, no music tour of Memphis is complete without a visit to Stax!
The tour starts with a 20-minute movie explaining the beginning and end of Stax Studio, and how the studio contributed to the growth of American soul music (this was my teenage daughter’s favorite part). Then the self guided tour starts at the roots of soul music, the black churches of the South, and takes you through the development and spread of this distinctly American style of music.
Important Information: 926 East McLemore Avenue, staxmuseum.com
No visit to Memphis is complete without an evening at Beale Street. The music starts bellowing out of the clubs by midday. Start on the western end with the iconic statue of Elvis Presley.
Then continue walking down Beale Street soaking in the atmosphere. Photo opportunities abound on every block. Beale Street screams “Instagram Worthy!”
You can’t beat it for people-watching, eats, and rhythm & blues. Beale Street also is special for a personal reason because it’s where Joe and I had our first date! We ate catfish and barbecue at the Blues City Cafe then danced the night away at Silky Sullivan’s. You never know where a night on Beale Street will lead you!
Important Information: Beale Street is family friendly during the day. On Friday and Saturday nights, security barriers go up at 9 p.m. and only those 21 and up are permitted to enter the street. Those younger can stay (with a parent) until 11 p.m.
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