How To Take The Ultimate Vacation In Memphis, Tennessee

It's time to stop giving Nashville all the attention in this Southern state. Here are the best experiences, bars, restaurants and more for your trip.
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Take A Break is your ultimate guide to the perfect trips to recharge, rediscover yourself and your relationships, and reengage with the world. We’ll cover shopping stops, great bars, restaurants worth your money, photo opportunities, memorable drives and experiences, and other important details you need before you book.

Below, we chat with Caroline Bologna, senior travel and culture reporter at HuffPost, about why you’ll want to put Memphis, Tennessee, on your bucket list.

What drew you to Memphis as a place to visit or explore?

I first had the chance to experience the magic of Memphis in 2011 when I visited a friend who went to college there and absolutely loved it. The strong sense of community, amazing food and vibrant music scene were among the many qualities that made me excited to return. I’ve recently had the opportunity to spend even more consistent time in Memphis as my partner started a one-year job in the city last August while I was still working remotely.

What are the best times of year to visit?

Fall is beautiful in Memphis, but I’m partial to spring, especially during “Memphis in May” ― a historic monthlong international festival that features tons of cultural events.

What’s your best tip for getting there? How can you make the travel as stress-free as possible?

The newly renovated Memphis airport is still fairly small, but you can fly directly from most major hubs. (And you’ll get a good look at the massive fleet of FedEx planes as you drive away from the airport.)

Where do you recommend staying when you go?

The Peabody of course has the famous “duck march,” but I recommend staying in one of the boutique hotels in the downtown and midtown area for more relaxing vibes.

Arrive Memphis, The Memphian and Hu. Hotel all have cozy eateries and bars (the latter boasts beautiful views of the Mississippi River and the “Mighty Lights” show on the Hernando de Soto Bridge.). I also like the atmosphere at The Central Station, which brings a vibrant, modern energy to a historic transportation hub. The lobby bar, Eight & Sand, has great cocktails.

If you’re looking for a unique experience, however, consider Big Cypress Lodge ― the wilderness-themed hotel inside the famous Bass Pro Shops pyramid. Think treehouse rooms, balconies overlooking an outdoor sporting goods store, and a lot of taxidermy.

What are your go-to restaurants or foods to eat while you’re there?

Memphis is famous for its dry-rubbed ribs, which you can try at classic spots like Central BBQ, Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Cozy Corner and The Bar-B-Q Shop (where you can also order barbecue spaghetti!).

For delicious Southern comfort food, you can’t go wrong with The Four Way, Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken, Miss Girlee’s or The Cupboard. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is another favorite. I also love trying new dishes at Global Café, which is staffed by immigrant and refugee food entrepreneurs.

When I’m craving something sweet, I have a tough time deciding between Makeda’s Cookies, Gibson’s Donuts and Margie’s 901 Homemade Ice Cream. The “Prozac” cupcake at Muddy’s Bake Shop is also exceptional.

What bars or entertainment spots do you make sure to hit? What’s good to drink there or what else should people know?

Once you’ve belted out “Walking in Memphis” while strolling Beale Street with a drink in hand, consider checking out the other bar areas like Cooper-Young (shoutout to Alchemy and Railgarten) or one of the many popular breweries in town (Ghost River, Crosstown, Memphis Made, Wiseacre and Grind City, just to name a few).

Loflin Yard is great for day-drinking when the weather is nice. If you’re looking to dance, go to Paula & Raiford’s Disco. If you’re after trendy vibes, try a speakeasy like The Pocket. And if you’re a sports fan, consult the Grizzlies, Redbirds, Memphis 901 FC or University of Memphis game schedules.

From left to right: Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, a three-meat combo plate from Central BBQ, and a scoop of red velvet from Margie’s 901 Homemade Ice Cream.
Caroline Bologna/HuffPost
From left to right: Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, a three-meat combo plate from Central BBQ, and a scoop of red velvet from Margie’s 901 Homemade Ice Cream.

What are your favorite shops and what do you look for when you’re there?

I love to go to Stock & Belle for cute clothes, home goods and lots of unique Memphis-themed items. Burke’s Books is a great place to pick up some new reads and support an independent bookstore. I often stop by Dinstuhl’s Fine Candies to pick up souvenirs for friends and family. And although I’m not a frequent Bass Pro Shops customer, I do recommend checking out the giant pyramid shop and going up to the observation deck at least once.

What’s your single favorite spot to go for photos and why?

Mud Island is my current favorite spot for photos. You can get great shots of the river, the bridges, the downtown skyline and the big Memphis sign.

What tourist attraction should people skip and what should they do instead?

Graceland is obviously a must-do for Elvis fans, but the tickets are pretty pricey. If you’re looking for a taste of Memphis music history for a lower cost, consider checking out Sun Studio and the Stax Museum. The National Civil Rights Museum is also an essential experience.

Where do you feel the most relaxed, calm or happy?

I feel most relaxed and at peace when I’m looking at the water, so my happy place involves strolling along the Mississippi River or walking across it. The Big River Crossing pedestrian bridge is a particularly nice route ― and you can even walk all the way to Arkansas!

What scenic spots do you recommend checking out?

In addition to the many nice roof views downtown (the hotels I’ve mentioned, the Bass Pro Shops observation deck), you can find scenic nature views at the Memphis Botanic Garden, Shelby Farms and the Crystal Shrine Grotto. For a slightly more industrial vibe, I also like exploring Crosstown Concourse.

From left to right: the Memphis Upstanders Mural by Nelson Gutierrez Studio, the famous Peabody Hotel "duck march," the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, and the upholstered billiards room at Graceland.
Caroline Bologna/HuffPost
From left to right: the Memphis Upstanders Mural by Nelson Gutierrez Studio, the famous Peabody Hotel "duck march," the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, and the upholstered billiards room at Graceland.

What’s one thing you make sure to pack if you’re going and why?

If I’m going in the winter, I make sure to bring clothes that work for a range of temperatures because of the wild fluctuations. One morning it might be 25 degrees and the next afternoon could be up to 60.

What are some specific planning tips to know before you go so you’re not stressed?

Fortunately you don’t have to book things too far in advance in Memphis most of the time, especially since many of the best eateries are casual walk-in spots. But you might want to make your nicer meal reservations at least a week in advance ― and consider booking hotels and flights with more lead time if you’re planning to visit during Memphis in May.

What surprised you about Memphis when you went the first time?

I was struck by how friendly everyone was. People in Memphis are largely very warm, talkative and full of local pride. If you ask someone for a recommendation, they’ll quickly rattle off what feels like 100.

Anything else visitors should know?

Memphis definitely has a gritty side, but that’s part of its unique charm and character.

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