Graceland, barbecue, Beale Street, and the blues… That covers Memphis, right?

I was looking for a quick weekend trip to somewhere I hadn’t been before, and Memphis won out as the best option. (And it may have helped that it’s right on the border of both Arkansas and Mississippi, two of the five states I had left to visit, too.)

So, for those of you who have yet to visit Memphis, what should you check out (and what can you skip)?

We got in late on Friday night, and after debating whether to just go to bed or to check out Beale Street, we made the right choice and made a quick trip to Beale Street. Maybe it’s not fair to compare, though it reminded me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, just a smaller and calmer version. Everyone was strolling down the street with beers and other large, sugar-filled drinks, and music everywhere. We enjoyed the ribs, gumbo, and friendly service at Blues City Cafe.

Beale Street (and wouldn't you love to know what prompted the "No Reptiles" rule?)

Beale Street (and wouldn’t you love to know what prompted the “No Reptiles” rule?)

The following morning we checked out Alcenia’s. Definitely would not have found this place had it not been recommended in the NYTimes “36 Hours in Memphis” column, and almost kept driving, thinking it was closed when we first found it. The first clue that you’re in for a unique experience is the “Ghetto Aid,” extra sweet Kool-Aid on the menu. From there, for $10 each, we had a combination of fried chicken, sausage, waffles, biscuits, eggs, grits, rice, and fried green tomatoes. Maybe it’s because we live in DC, where brunch is far from a $10 affair, and aren’t used to good southern food, but we were  blown away by all of it. I can’t imagine finding other sausage or fried green tomatoes that can live up to the standards set by Alcenia’s.

Alcenia's.  Yum!

Alcenia’s. Yum!

Fortunately, we had the self-control to only eat about half of our breakfasts from Alcenia’s so we could check out Graceland rather than having to nap off breakfast. As for Graceland…wow, just wow. If you despise tourist traps, tacky 60’s and 70’s decor, mobs of tourists taking pictures of practically each blade of grass, you’ll want to avoid Graceland at all cost. Though if you’re willing to embrace the crazy that was Elvis, you’ll want to take that drive down Elvis Presley Blvd. Warning: tickets start at $30 and go up to $70, so this isn’t a decision to take lightly (see here for a coupon if you want to feel a little better about your decision-and do print it before you get there!)

Some first impressions of Graceland.

Some first impressions of Graceland.

I didn’t know much about Elvis, so to me seeing Graceland was basically getting a first-hand view of the the lifestyles of the very rich and very famous during the 60’s and 70’s. The 15-seat couch, “jungle room”, mirrored ceilings, and fabric covered walls of the house were all fantastic. You also get to tour his private planes, and check out his whole fleet of cars, including the pink Cadillac.

Does it make you want to redecorate?

Does it make you want to redecorate?

We’d seen enough of Beale Street the night before, so we decided to check out a few different restaurants and bars on Saturday night. We started at The Cove, which had a fantastic pirate ship bar and similarly great cocktail list, though it got a little smokey for our taste after a little while.

From there we checked out Mollie Fontaine Lounge, a gorgeous Victorian mansion-turned-bar. There was a DJ on the ground floor, comfy couches and chairs on the second floor, and a quiet patio with lanterns hung from the trees. You can tour various mansions in the area, though it was great to have an opportunity to settle in, check out the gorgeous decor, and have a drink.

Mollie Fontaine's (these pictures don't do justice to how pretty is really is)

Mollie Fontaine’s (these pictures don’t do justice to how pretty is really is)

My final goal for Memphis was to see the world-famous Peabody Ducks. As soon as I heard that one of the nicest hotels in Memphis literally rolls out a red carpet twice a day to let ducks march through the lobby and swim in their marble fountain, I knew I had to see it. I’ll even admit that it took two tries to get this right (we tried to sneak in right before 5 when the ducks marched out on Saturday, but it was too crowded to see anything).

After being so close to the ducks, but not actually seeing anything on Saturday, we got to the Peabody shortly after 10 on Sunday morning to stake out a good spot for the 11 a.m. march. The “Duckmaster” was already holding court, taking pictures with guests, and making announcements about the history of the hotel and the tradition of the ducks. We couldn’t have been more lucky than to get seats at the bar for coffee (with duck stirrers, of course), which gave us the perfect view.

As promised, shortly before 11, as the crowd grew, the hotel rolled out the red carpet, the elevator door opened, and 4 ducks sprinted through the lobby, up the fountain steps, and into the Fountain. Definitely the most fun and random thing I’ve seen a hotel do!

Peabody ducks...quack, quack.

Never expected ducks to run down a red carpet so quickly that it would be hard to get a good picture!

In some ways, Memphis was what I expected-all the major expectations were met, though the city had so much character. Everyone was so friendly, and (other than Graceland), it wasn’t as touristy as I was expecting.  I wish we had had a little more time to do even more barbecue sampling, to check out more neighborhoods,  go to the zoo, and check out more of the other random attractions we kept happening upon (bet you didn’t know that Memphis has the 6th largest pyramid in the world!)

**PS. You’ll most likely want to skip the Mississippi River Museum and Mud Island. Basically, just imagine the worst field trip you ever went on and assume it’s something like that…

Here at Magical Mystery Tours, we recently got to plan a mystery trip where the main criteria was that travellers wanted a long-weekend in the US where was sure to be lots of good food.

When we asked on Facebook and Twitter what the best foodie cities were, you all suggested Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Portland (both Maine and Oregon), Houston, Charleston, and Dallas, but ultimately we went with New Orleans!

I’ve only spent a long weekend in New Orleans, but knew my foodie friend Daniel would be happy to help.  He went to Tulane, regularly goes back to New Orleans, and even named his dog Tchoupitoulas (a main street in NOLA), and will happily discuss his New Orleans food preferences with anyone considering a trip. Here’s what he had to say:

My favorite restaurant in the world is Jacques Imo’s on Oak Street uptown.  The paneed duck breast with sweet potato shrimp cream sauce is to die for.  Served with buttery cornbread muffins and a spinach salad with a fried oyster. Abita beer or a good cocktail to drink. Mouth. Watering.

Also uptown (though not as far “up”) is a fantastic restaurant called Dick & Jenny’s. Took a crew there during a conference last year and everyone LOVED their food.  Neither will disappoint.  Casual but top-notch food.  MMMMM.

A wonderful and famous diner uptown is Camellia Grill.  There’s often a line out the door.  Get the pecan waffles or cheeseburger and cheese fries with the chocolate cherry freeze.  Save room for pecan pie.  Be ready to fist bump the cooks/waiters who have worked there forever.  It’s all served at the counter and there are limited seats.

Higher end price range (and fancier dress) is Commander’s Palace, also uptown.  On Canal Street you can also eat at Palace Café, which is also owned by the Brennan family (who own Commander’s) and it’s excellent.  The pecan-crusted catfish is amazing.  Also John Besh’s Restaurant August belongs on any list of excellent restaurants in New Orleans.  Lüke (also by John Besh) is really good – casual, small and low key.  Bayona on Dauphine is a unique experience and fantastic food.

Antoine’s is a 5-star restaurant in the Quarter.  French food.  Originator of Oysters Rockefeller.  You pay for the 5-stars though for sure.

I’ve not been, but I’ve been told Cochon in the warehouse district is also amazing.

Brunch at Brennan’s on Royal Street in the Quarter is a quintessential NOLA experience.  It’s not cheap, but a mimosa with one of their variety of “plays” on Eggs Benedict is a truly great experience.  Another option uptown for brunch is Café Atchafalaya – slightly cheaper, lesser known and in a neighborhood.  They do other meals too. Yummo.

Arnaud’s in the Quarter is also good.  Acme Oyster House or Deanie’s for good and fun seafood.

The Gumbo Shop in the Quarter, right off Jackson Square, has great Gumbo (duh!) and also really good po boys.

Creole Creamery in uptown has amazing and unique ice cream (not a restaurant, but thought I’d throw it out there).  Gotta do Café Du Monde in Jackson Square for beignets and café au laits.  Central Grocery there by the French Market in the Quarter is famous for inventing the Muffuletta sandwich.  Yum.

Finally, for a life-changing hamburger with boat drinks, Port of Call on the edge of the quarter is amazing.

Thanks Daniel for all the tips!

 What do you think?  Any other suggestions?  Anyone else want to go to New Orleans now?

Our guest blogger Melinda is back with part two of her blog about our trip to San Francisco.  Enjoy!

With a goal to eat our way through San Francisco, we had to rally after our dim sum food hangover and decided an afternoon of shopping was just the cure we needed.  After a quick walk from Yank Sing down Market Street with diversions at Anthropologie and The Gap, we boarded the 45 Muni Bus and rode like locals to the boutiques on Union Street in Cow Hollow.  The jewelry at Mingle won us over at reasonable prices and both Stephanie and I walked out with lovely necklaces.

We worked up a proper hunger and headed down to the Mission for a flavorful experience at Limon Restaurant.  The ceviche, yucca fries and seco de castillas (beef short ribs) won our hearts and stomachs.  We split 5 plates amongst the 3 of us and racked up a bill about $75.  We left fully satisfied and I filed it away as a solid choice to give guests a taste of Latin flavor in the Mission.

Monday was Disneyland day from beginning to end.  We never stepped foot in the theme park, but we got our fill between a visit to the Google campus and an exploration of the Walt Disney Family Museum.  Our trip to Google involved a guided tour by my main man featuring the crazy good free cafeterias, fresh squeezed juice bar, slides, meeting bikes and playing amongst the operating system statues.  You can’t walk around without an escort, but if you know someone or know someone who knows someone, take advantage of seeing the magic that is Google.

Testing out the slide at Google.

Testing out the meeting bike at Google.

Stephanie poses at Google.

 

As if we didn’t eat enough at Google, we stopped by In & Out Burger on the way back to the city for good measure.  Maybe it was because we were full or maybe because only Stephanie was an In & Out virgin, but we decided it wasn’t worth all the hype.

The Walt Disney Family Museum on the other hand exceeded my expectations.  I’m not a Disney fanatic myself, but I figured I’d tag along.  We utilized our AAA membership to get $5 off the $20 admissions ticket.  The museum boasted several interactive exhibits, tons of original drawings, several movie clips and a model version of Disney’s dream community.  The Disney family owns and operates the museum, putting in a lot of their own time and money.  It’s very well curated and worth the steep price even without the discount.

The bench where Walt Disney came up with the concept for Disney World.

From Peter Pan to Smuggler’s Cove, we moved on to decidedly adult libations.  The notoriously packed and award winning rum bar delivered the one two punch for happy hour.  Our secret was going on a Monday for happy hour to score seats.  The building is barely marked and we walked past it before back tracking and looking more carefully for the address.  It was well worth the hunt though and I personally recommend the drink named after a red head (the rum made me forget the specifics).

At Smuggles Cove

Indian Ice Cream. Yum.

We laid low that night, taking advantage of one of the hundreds of delivery options (ah, the joys of city living!) before the girls headed home.  They may not have left their hearts here, but I think little pieces of their stomachs remain and I conjure their help as I continue to nosh my way from bay to breakers.

 

When people first heard that I planned a trip to Iceland, responses fell into two categories.  There was a lot of “Iceland?  Why?”  (Answer: they just started doing direct flights out of Dulles, are having a great sale, and why wouldn’t we want to check out an isolated, island country in the middle of the Atlantic!)  Though anyone who knew anything about Iceland tended to respond with, something like “It’s great there, but really small, you know?”

This brings us to the biggest takeaway from my weekend trip to Reykjavik.  Sure, the volcanoes are fascinating, Icelandic horses are adorable and friendly, sure it’s exciting to be in the world’s Northern-most capital city, but Iceland, Reykjavik particularly, is tiny!  The whole population of the country is only 300,000 people.  There about three times that many people in Wyoming.  Though despite being a tiny country without all that many people, we found lots of good things to see and do.

Downtown Reykjavik is definitely worth a visit.  It’s brightly colored buildings and pretty harbor views were great even despite the chilly and rainy weather.

View along the Reykjavik harbor.

Hallgrimskirka, perhaps Reykjavik’s most notable building, is lovely.  A statute of Leif Erikson stands outside, and for just a few kroner you can go to the top and see pretty views of all of Reykjavik.

Hallgrimskirkja & Leif Erikson.

View from Hallgrimskirkja

Austurvöllur Square and Lauvagaver Street were the main streets where we spent most of our time.  Lots of stores with expensive, but cute clothes that leave one wondering when, exactly, in Iceland would one wear such tiny little dresses and summery clothes.  They also had lots of great coffee shops and fun souvenir shops.

Warning: you can buy just about any puffin or volcanic tchotchkes that one can imagine, but they’re not cheap.  I left with just a few postcards, candy bars, and a Viking trinket.  Yes friends, I promise I did strongly consider buying you puffin t-shirts, and thought an Icelandic wool sweater would be a perfect Christmas present for my brother, but the equivalent of $35 for a t-shirt and $200-$300 for a sweater just wasn’t going to happen.

I don't really get it, but who doesn't like puffins?

Most native Icelanders were friendly and more than happy to put up with our nonstop questioning about “So, have you always lived in Iceland?  Do you like it here?  Which Icelandic candy bars should we try immediately?”

Icelandic candy bars! Cadbury-esque, perhaps?

Food in Reykjavik was also an experience.  As with most travel and food experiences, a little research went a long way.  Most of our food was rather mediocre, though Magical Mystery Tours’ very own Stephanie Whitesel was kind enough to give us some restaurant recommendations.

Fiskfélagið (translation: Fish Company) was our best Icelandic food experience by far.  We ordered whale, not expecting all that much from it, but add a little sweet potato puree and barbeque sauce and it’s pretty tasty!

 

Whale-yum!

Puffin was also on a number of menus.  We were initially torn about eating such cute little birds, but figured we should try it.  And yes, if you go to Iceland, you should try it too, but don’t get your hopes up too high.  Even a blueberry sauce couldn’t disguise the taste which was basically like swallowing a mouthful of ocean water while eating the most foul-y birth you’ve ever tasted.  (Note: the helpful concierge at our hotel told us that real Icelanders do regularly eat whale, but mostly save the puffin for tourists.)

Puffin. Ick.

Reykjavik’s also known for it’s crazy nightlife, which is rumored not to start until about 1:00am.  Maybe we were off season, but honestly, we didn’t see it!  European celebrities are rumored to weekend in Iceland just for the nightlife, but we saw nothing of the sort.  We checked out some fun, low-key bars (including one rumored to be partially owned by Damon Albarn from Blur), but that was about it.

MRoss and I rocking out at Karribarinn (or something like that...)

Stay tuned for Part 2 to hear about what we did when we checked out the Iceland beyond Reykjavik!

First of all, we’d like to thank our friend Melinda for having us as visitors in her new home in San Francisco!  Secondly, we’d like to thank her for writing the guest blog below and also invite you to check our her blog, Palindrome at Home.

I warned them not to call it Frisco Bay.  That was my big piece of San Francisco advice when Denise and Stephanie recently came out west for a visit.  I didn’t even charge them for that gem.

View from the Presidio

After a full trip, we can offer you a few more pieces of advice too.  I’m a newly minted resident of the city and was anxious to show off the travel goods.  I only had a short list of attractions crossed off on my to do list, so it was the perfect opportunity to try new sites.

Anthony Bourdain suggested our first stop at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market.  I hadn’t thought to suggest it since it almost strikes me as an errand – but remembering back to my first visit, it’s truly impressive and a must see for foodies.  East Coasters, eat your avocado loving hearts out.

After farm fresh samples and a late lunch, we summoned our dessert stomachs on the way to the Bombay Ice Creamery.  We also had to summon our courage as we walked past barred windows.  I was buoyed with confidence since I had been to the neighborhood before to adopt our kitten, but if I didn’t know the area, I would have been tempted to turn around.  Perseverance turned out to be the key as we looked high and low before finding it behind the abandoned Sherwin Williams.  The first case of hard pack ice cream was full of normal and, I’ve got to be honest, disappointing flavors.  Again, we pressed forward and it turns out the second case was where the angels were singing and playing harps.  After a few samples we went with the shop keeper’s suggestion: a double scoop of chiku and mango-rose.  The chiku was spicy yet tropical while the mango-rose was an intriguing blend of sweet and floral.  We took in the Bollywood version of The Sound of Music while finishing our treats.  Talk about a hole in the wall – it delivered big time!

Stephanie & Melinda enjoying Bombay Ice Cream.

When the girls said they couldn’t leave northern California without a redwood sighting, I hit up some coworkers and the National Park Service website to find the best spots.  Muir Woods was the clear winner at only 30 minutes outside of the city, massive redwoods and a free parking day!  We saved $5 but had to walk about an extra mile each way due to the overflow of other hikers seeking the same deal.  It all evened out with guilt free dessert later that night though.  Win, win.

Redwoods

We consulted with friends who are self acclaimed West Coast Foodie aficionados.  After a weekend of awesome noshing, we have to endorse them as well!  Our first dinner was a knock out of the ball park at Burma Superstar.  Denise downed their famous tea leaf salad with two thumbs up and the vegetable lovers among us swooned over the fried brussels sprouts.  If your momma boiled brussels, you’ve got to give this veg one more try at Burma Superstar.  It’s a come to Jesus moment.  Wash everything down with a delicious Lychee Iced tea.  Tell them MM tours sent you.  It’ll get you a confused look at least.

For Sunday brunch, we exploited our resident dim sum expert, Stephanie, while dining at Yank Sing.  Not only did she know what was hidden in the buns and dumplings, she could stand toe to toe with the cart pushers asking them for more of the good stuff and passing on the fillers.  Having a reliable guide made experiencing a new food not only enjoyable, but hearing Stephanie’s stories of her grandmother preparing certain dishes made the experience more round and full in the context of culture.  It was a touch on the expensive side (just over $30 per person ), but the taste was authentic, the service timely and the floors clean.  If you prefer cheaper dim sum and dirty floors, you’ll have to look across town.

Dim sum!

Peking Duck

Stephanie, Dim Sum expert

Stay tuned for Part II of our taste bud focused tour of San Francisco where we explore the Disneyland of workplaces, the mind behind Disneyland and then find our own Treasure Island!

 

Here at Magical Mystery Tours we’re very excited to be helping Nikki, Bobbin, and Jennine plan their first trip abroad!  They’re going to London!  They mentioned that they were eager to try some good food in London. While the MMT team has spent some time in London, we thought that this was a question best handled by MMT friend and customer Allison (find her online here and here).  She studied abroad in London, has been back multiple times, and may possibly be Chelsea Football Club’s most enthusiastic fan on this side of the Atlantic.  She’s also quite opinionated about food!  Here’s what she had to say:
-If you get food at a pub, you don’t tip anything.  If you get food at a restaurant you leave a small tip if the service is good.  I’d recommend picking a pub near your hotel/not right in the center of town.  If you go to a bar in a place like Piccadilly Circus there won’t be a single British person in the whole place. It’s all tourists. But if you get a little further out, you’ll be with locals in a much more chill environment. -Pubs close at 11pm, so plan accordingly.  If you want to go out after that you need a club or a late night bar.

-Other than fish and chips, British food isn’t that good, so I’d recommend sticking to international cuisine to the extent you like it.  London is such an international city that if you see a Italian or Lebanese or Indian restaurant, it’s probably authentic and good.  I’m too much of a picky eater for it, but they say that London has the best Indian food in the world.

-In my experience, amazing fish and chips don’t come from a pub or restaurant.  You’ll see (especially as you move away from touristy areas) little tiny restaurants that only sell fish and chips.  Go there.  It’s like a takeout/fast food type set up where they only have a counter and a few stools for people to sit on.  The fish and chips from such places will knock the socks off any pub or restaurant. Locals love these places.

-I didn’t eat out a lot because I had a kitchen in my apartment, but when I did I was partial to Wagamama.  It’s a noodle-bar and they have locations all over the city:
-Here are some more places recommended by my old boss from London.  High-end, traditional: Rules in Covent Garden; Porters in Covent Garden; Boisdale in Belgravia.

-If you’re in the Trafalgar Square area around lunch time, the Chando Pub has pretty tasty food for a pub.

-Also near Trafalgar Square is a restaurant called The Texas Embassy (it’s where the embassy used to be when Texas was independent). It’s not any better Tex Mex than you’ll find in America, but I appreciate the ridiculousness of going to a Tex Mex place in England. It was very popular among all the American students. (Note from Denise: yes, it was fun, but I question their definition of “guacamole”)

-Most Londoners will be in/out for lunch as they are eager to get on with business. As such, you’ll see a lot of places like Pret-a-Manger that sell mostly pre-made sandwiches that you can just grab and go. Most people enjoy them. And the food is cheap, reliable, and they have a ton of locations so it tends to be very convenient for the tourist on the go.

-Candy bars. The assortment is totally different than what you’ll find in America, complete with flavors like honeycomb that we don’t get. Stop by a convenient store or (better) a grocery store and grab a variety to snack on while you do touristy things. Must tries include a Yorkie Bar and an mint-chocolate Aero bar. Also, “smarties” are not the same crappy American candy — they are like an M&M but with a thicker shell and they are delicious. (Note from Denise: I’m the last person to recommend a McDonald’s, but in London they use usesCadbury chocolate in their Flurries!  At Easter they even have Cadbury Egg flurries!)

-Fun British Drinks to Try: A snake-bit is half beer (pick a lighter color one like Fosters or Carling), half dry cider (Strongbow or Blackthorn), and a splash of black currant syrup.  A cider black is a dry cider with a splash of black currant syrup. Most pubs will also have a lime syrup that goes well with Stella Artois (think Corona with a lime, but different). Proper pubs will feature at least one real cask ale. It will be served warm, have a strong flavor, and generally be different from any beer you’ll find in America. It’s worth a try. Mixed drinks will be measured out exactly and their version of a shot is smaller than the American measurement. Lesson: order a double if mixed drinks are your thing, otherwise you’ll be disappointed in how weak the drink is.

-You should also try a traditional afternoon British tea!  If you want to combine it with some touristy activities, you can a decently priced tea on at the Court Restaurant one of the upper floors of the British Museum.  Be sure to try to scones with clotted cream or some of their other cakes and pastries!  The Ritz-Carelton also has a great tea, but it will be a bit more pricey.

Ok, MMT readers.  It’s your turn now.  Have you been to London?  What else do you think Nikki, Jennine, and Bob should try?