The south of the U.S. has always been curious to me. Other than Florida (which I don’t count!), I’ve never been south of Washington, D.C. I once spent a long weekend in Austin, Texas, but since Austin is basically San Francisco in the south, I don’t count that either.
So when my sister and I had a week off from Christmas to New Years, I decided to plan a road trip through Tennessee. What I discovered is that if you’re a music lover, you’ll love it! And that sometimes, walking around south of the Mason-Dixon Line can feel like you’re in a completely different country.
We started our road trip in Memphis with Charlotte as our final destination. We spent two days of our week long trip in the home of the blues.
Note that the winter time is NOT the best time to visit Memphis. A lot of the things you’ll want to do there are outdoors, so if you plan to visit, try to make it there in the late spring or summer!
Day 1 in Memphis
After you land in Memphis, grab a rental car or Uber and head to Main Street. The airport is only a few minutes drive outside of downtown.
To cure your hunger after traveling, stop in to Gus’ Fried Chicken for some famous, you guessed it, fried chicken. Beware of long lines though! It is famous after all.
If fried chicken isn’t really your thing, check out the family-owned Little Tea Shop for some slightly healthier fare. It’s only open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it’s closed between Christmas and New Years so time your visit accordingly!
Next Stop: National Civil Rights Museum
Less than a 10 minute walk from Gus’ is the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. A trip to Memphis is not complete without a visit to this museum. It’s one of the best I’ve ever been to.
The Lorraine Motel was where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot while on the balcony of his hotel room. The motel was then turned into the museum and is now a Smithsonian affiliate.
Inside the museum you’ll learn about the civil rights movement starting back in the days of slavery up to present day. It’s a very powerful museum with a ton of information and exhibits so plan to spend at least 3 hours here.
Next Stop: Elvis statue
A half mile walk from the National Civil Rights Museum is the famous Elvis Presley Statue. It looks a lot bigger online than in person!
Next Stop: Walk along Beale Street
The Elvis Statue stands at the top of the famous Beale Street. Here you’ll find tons of blues clubs, barbecue joints and souvenir shops. Spend the afternoon ducking in and out of bars and walking along the street before settling in somewhere for dinner.
The Rum Boogie Cafe didn’t have one of the most creative food menus on the planet but had really fun live music. My sister and I could have sat there all night listening to Pam and Terry!
Note that some of the bars have a $5 cover.
Day 2 in Memphis
You’ll want to get a decently early start on day 2 in Memphis. For a real southern breakfast, check out Blue Plate Cafe downtown. Think grits, biscuits and gravy, massive pancakes and giant omelets. The portions were large and it was $25 for two people, with unlimited coffee.
Immediately after breakfast, head to the famous Peabody Hotel, less than a half mile from Blue Plate Cafe. If you want a good seat for the famous duck viewing, I recommend grabbing a coffee in the lobby to secure your spot.
Every day at 11 a.m., the 5 Peabody ducks (one male and four female) are marched down from their home on the roof of the Peabody Hotel to the fountain in the lobby. The same ceremony is repeated again in reverse at 5 p.m.
The ducks date back to the 1930s when the hotel’s general manager brought back his live duck decoys from a hunting trip and thought it would be funny to put them in the hotel fountain.
People arrive incredibly early for the duck viewing so if you want the best seat in the house, plan accordingly. If you have extra funds in your travel budget, you can pay to be the “duck master” where you can have a private viewing with the ducks on the roof, ride down the elevator with them and lead them to the fountain.
The entire duck march is over in about 2 minutes so you don’t have to build too much time into your schedule for this activity.
Next Stop: Graceland
The home of the King himself (Elvis, if you didn’t know!) is a quick 15 minute drive outside of downtown Memphis. You’ll want lots of time here so plan accordingly!
At Graceland, you can tour the mansion, look inside the singer’s private jets, see his famous pink Cadillac and some of his old costumes. The cheapest ticket on site is $43.75 which gets you a tour of the mansion and the airplanes. It costs extra to view Elvis’ cars and costumes.
If you know the date you’re planning on visiting Graceland you can pre-purchase cheaper tickets online up to 24 hours before your visit.
My favorite thing about Graceland was that John Stamos is the host of the audio tour! You’re given an iPad and headphones as you wait for the bus to the mansion. Then Uncle Jesse (remember from Full House that Stamos’ character was obsessed with Elvis?) will guide you through the mansion with facts about the singer. For example, we learned that Stamos’ character was named after Elvis’ stillborn twin brother, Jesse.
Next Stop: Central BBQ
After Graceland, head back into Memphis for lunch at Central Barbecue. Their bbq sauce is like crack. You will not regret it! It’s pretty cheap as well. Central BBQ doesn’t have table service and tables are first come, first serve. We easily found a table in their heated outdoor tent.
Next Stop: Overton Square
After a filling lunch, head to Overton Square to walk it off while shopping. You’ll find vintage shops, boutiques and souvenir shops as well as bars where you can grab a local beer.
Next Stop: Sun Studio Tour
Memphis’ Sun Studio is the birthplace of rock and roll. You can tour the famous recording studio for just $14. The tour takes about an hour and a half. Sun Studio is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day with tours at the bottom half of every hour from 10:30 AM through 5:30 PM.
Last Stop: Back to Beale Street
I would recommend spending a second night on Beale Street and it’s just down the street from Sun Studio! There are so many live music joints from cover bands to blues to bluegrass. Grab a beer, sit back and enjoy the fact that Memphis is cheaper than the more popular Nashville!