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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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!
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…