Top 12 Top Attractions in Memphis

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Memphis, Tennessee is steeped in musical history and Southern hospitality. Located on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, this vibrant city showcases iconic landmarks honoring favorite sons Elvis Presley and B.B. King alongside historic districts filled with blues bars, smoky barbecue joints, and lively nightlife. Soul music echoes through the streets fueled by sweet tea and Jerry Lee Lewis tunes piped out from corner diners.

AttractionDescription
National Civil Rights MuseumA museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, focusing on the civil rights movement.
Sun StudioIconic recording studio known as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
GracelandThe home of Elvis Presley, now a museum.
Beale StreetVibrant entertainment district known for blues music.
Memphis ZooRanked among America’s top zoos.
Mud Island River ParkOffers family fun with a focus on Mississippi River heritage.
Memphis Botanic GardenFeatures 96 acres of botanical diversity.
National Ornamental Metal MuseumShowcases metalwork art.
Big River CrossingPedestrian bridge offering views and LED light shows.
Slavehaven Underground Railroad MuseumExplores the history of the Underground Railroad in Memphis.
Stax Museum of American Soul MusicChronicles the history of Stax Records and soul music.

Yet for all its fame and familiar touchstones, visitors will also discover captivating museums exploring impactful chapters of the nation’s past around themes like human rights, poverty and nonviolent civil rights action. Modern green spaces filled with public art installations and a flourishing dining scene add fresh energy atop an old-school nostalgic foundation.

While Graceland remains the king of Memphis tourist destinations, dig deeper to uncover so much more beyond Elvis and Sun Studio waiting to be explored during your stay. This guide plots a memorable journey showcasing the top 12 attractions and experiences visitors definitely shouldn’t miss when coming to this magnificent city on the Mississippi.

National Civil Rights Museum

Name and Location: National Civil Rights Museum is located at 450 Mulberry St, Memphis, TN 38103, at the former Lorraine Motel, in downtown Memphis.

History and Significance: The museum traces key episodes in the American civil rights movement, honoring leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the site of his 1968 assassination. Powerful exhibits chronicle injustices overcome on the path toward greater equality.

What to Expect: Visitors take an immersive walk through history, viewing Dr. King’s room, Rosa Parks’ bus, artifacts, films and recreated scenes bringing seminal turning points to life regarding racial discrimination long endured by generations.

Visitor Information: Open daily except major holidays. Tours self-guided with audio guides or guided by request. Admission charged, with discounts for students, seniors, military families and children.

Honoring the enduring American struggle for human equality and social justice, the National Civil Rights Museum powerfully shares intertwined stories that peeled away legal barriers across decades of determined persistence. Housed in the iconic Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, planners intentionally left intact details around that fateful Room 306 while transforming the space into a monument for peace, courage and positive change.

Dedicated exhibits chronologically trace pivotal events along the road towards securing essential liberties starting from slavery through to present ongoing efforts with vivid imagery, soundscapes and tangible artifacts. Visitors gain perspectives around sit-ins, boycotts, marches and riots that unfolded within everyday spaces we still walk through today. While often painful, facing these periods head on strengthens our shared responsibility to sustain progress already achieved while committing to take the next steps ahead together.

Alongside the main hall, guests can explore Dr. King’s vintage Cadillac parked out front before touring a rebuild of the bus where Rosa Parks took her famous stand in Montgomery during a turning point for the movement. For an experience that inspires while unflinchingly facing down darkness, the enthralling National Civil Rights Museum opens eyes, hopes and tomorrows.

Sun Studio

Name and Location: Historic Sun Studio is located at 706 Union Ave, Memphis, TN 38103, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

History and Significance: Sun Studio opened by rock pioneer Sam Phillips in 1950 became essential for discoveries launching rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll itself through legends like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis recording there.

What to Expect: Guided tours allow music lovers to stand in the small studio space where early rock erupted, learn recording techniques from the 1950s era, see Sun artifacts like Elvis’ microphone and more memorabilia bringing history alive.

Visitor Information: Sun Studio offers daily guided tours starting at $15 for adults with discounted tickets available. Hours: 10 AM-6:15 PM, closed Sundays from November-February. Timed tickets should be booked online in advance.

As the modest recording studio where visionary producer Sam Phillips first captured the early rockabilly sounds that ignited musical rebellion across America, Sun Studio now stands as one of Memphis’ most revered landmarks for music fans. Pioneering artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and many more first experimented with their signature sounds within these close echoing walls as the open-minded Phillips recorded their sessions.

Tours wind visitors through the cozy spaces to hear stories directly from the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon that still resonates today. Exhibits showcase old recording equipment and memorabilia celebrating the stars memorialized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just a city block over on Beale Street. Many visitors seize the chance to pose holding an acoustic guitar exactly where the King himself may have strummed a tune.

Part magical musical time capsule, part shrine endearingly stuck in the past, tours of Sun Studio document the creative spark that caught fresh fire to light upPopular music forever. For music lovers, no trip to Memphis gets completed without a pilgrimage to these hollowed halls.

Graceland

Name and Location: Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion museum is located at 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd. in the Whitehaven neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee.

History and Significance: Graceland was Elvis’ home and sanctuary from 1957 until his death in 1977, remarkably well-preserved offering fans an intimate glimpse into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s lifestyle beyond the stage.

What to Expect: Guided Graceland tours with audio guides explore Elvis’ 14-acre estate to discover rooms like the Jungle Den, Trophy Building showcasing gold records and iconic jumpsuits, Meditation Garden gravesite and more. Airplanes/automobile exhibits on additional plazas.

Visitor Information: Graceland is open year-round other than Thanksgiving, Christmas and January. Various ticket packages available starting around $75 for estate tours plus access to Elvis attractions surrounding the mansion.

As the palatial home turned museum that Elvis Presley called home, Graceland stands tall as Memphis’ most visited attraction drawing over 500,000 fans annually up the driveway past the iconic gates. Visitors walk through surprisingly modest rooms contrasting “The King” media image preserved in time from when he last lived at the residence prior to his shocking 1977 passing.

The gaudy retro décor and shag carpet captures Elvis’ decadent stage persona throughout spaces like the jungle den, the mirrored bar and the basement tv room. Costumes and memorabilia convey his flashy showmanship that electrified crowds. Out back, explore his trio of private planes including the iconic Convair 880 jet nicknamed the “Lisa Marie”. All together, Graceland provides an intimate glimpse behind the scenes to discover new sides of the legend always hidden behind those signature Foster Grant shades.

While critics call the massive museum complex overpriced and cheesy, true fans insist taking the pilgrimage at least once especially with the new state-of-the-art entertainment complex under construction promising high tech Elvis experiences when opened. Love him tender or view such worship as overboard, visitors find themselves swept away by the perpetual crowd energy regardless.

Beale Street

Name and Location: Beale Street runs for 2.5 miles in downtown Memphis, spanning from the Mississippi River to East Street centered around the blocks between 2nd and 4th streets.

History and Significance: Beale Street became the heart of Memphis music from blues to soul to rock, where legends like Louis Armstrong and B.B. King performed in clubs during segregation before inspiring 1960s revival efforts and millions of annual visitors.

What to Expect: Blues tunes fill the air as patrons explore gift shops, galleries, bars and music museums before dining amid facades retaining vintage mid-20th century charm and watching talented performers hoping to be the next big discovery.

Visitor Information: Beale Street entertains visitors daily, with most gift shops, restaurants and attractions open from 11 AM into the late evening hours. Nightlife peaks after dark when over 20 music clubs roar.

As the neon-lit entertainment strip considered the spiritual home of Memphis blues music, Beale Street delivers an energetic glimpse into the city’s musical legacy. Visitors packing the bustling blocks will discover neon-lit blues parlors, spirited clubs, hole-in-the-wall juke joints and lively bars filled with live musicians carrying on traditions forged by greats like B.B. King.

Many venues offer free admission during the afternoon and early evening letting patrons sample different acts before settling into a spot further down the cobblestone road. Bands may just be warming up or already sweating hard into the second set of the night. Showtimes get listed out front on chalkboards and printed notices, but often performers play it by ear based on the assembling crowds.

Towards midnight, the nightly lineup hits crescendo as Memphis’ best blues men lead house bands firing up rapid shuffles and soul stirring solos to keep the crowds twisting well into the morning. For an authentic taste of real deal blues played in its most natural habitat, Beale Street promises boot-stomping, bourbon-soaked hallelujah nights.

Memphis Zoo

Name and Location: Memphis Zoo located at 2000 Prentiss Place in Midtown Memphis, Tennessee spans 70 lushly landscaped acres.

History and Significance: Operated by the Memphis Zoological Society since April 1906, this much-loved family attraction educates visitors about endangered wildlife through exhilarating exhibits replicating magnificent habitats from around the globe.

What to Expect: Guests view wild herds roaming roomy savannas on safari-style trams, admire the award-winning Northwest Passage with polar bears and grizzlies, plus tiger cubs in Cat Country, the world’s longest snake in Teton Trek and panda bears daily while exploring.

Visitor Information: The zoo is open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hours vary seasonally. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors/children under 12. Discounts for military families and weekday visits.

Consistently ranked among America’s best zoos, the immense Memphis Zoo sprawls over 70 acres in historic Overton Park displaying creatures from anteaters to zebras. Divided into major zones by region, guests explore huge habitats designed to mimic animals’ natural landscapes as close as possible with waterfalls, meadows and environmental enrichments keeping inhabitants stimulated.

Walk along a shaded trail encircling gecko and monkey filled islands at the Teton Trek exhibit. Safari-style experiences allow close views of playful meerkats or bathing rhinos that feel voyeuristic at times. And the impressive panda complex hosts the adorable giant bears as main attractions through themed areas explaining conservation efforts funded in part by zoo proceeds.

Special events year-round like fireworks shows, flashlight safaris and adult-only summer nights enhance visits with extra ambiance. For an affordable, friendly day escaping urban streets to connect with incredible creatures great and small, the Memphis Zoo connects minds through education and wonder.

Mud Island River Park

Name and Location: Mud Island River Park located at 125 N. Front St, Memphis, TN 38103 along the Mississippi River downtown.

History and Significance: Created in 1982, Mud Island River Park and monorail access led to redeveloping Memphis’ riverfront into an attraction celebrating the city’s heritage via the River Walk scale model recreating 1000 miles of the Lower Mississippi.

What to Expect: In addition to the detailed working river model, visitors to Mud Island enjoy a museum, restaurants, an amphitheater for concerts, outdoor adventures and playground rentals creating water-oriented fun for families.

Visitor Information: Mud Island River Park is open seasonally March-October ($8 admission, discounts for kids under 12 and seniors). Hours vary monthly. Some facilities remain available in winter months weather permitting.

Embracing Memphis’ identity infused by Mississippi River heritage, Mud Island River Park packs loads of family fun between downtown and the riverbanks. At the heart of the 52 acre public space sits a charming small-scale walkable replica of the lower Mississippi highlighting key ports and major cities found along the waterway. Interpretive signs detail facts about integral sites shaping regional development that visitors may recognize from history lessons back in school.

For spectacular views of bridges crisscrossing between Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, head up to the Mud Island observation deck in the afternoon. Joggers, cyclists and skaters cruise along peaceful riverfront trails backed by a soothing flow of mighty river waters. The cool Mississippi River Museum next to the park unravels natural science exhibits exploring critical ecosystems and influential cultures nurtured throughout the entire basin region beyond just Memphis itself.

When the summer heat swells, head over to the popular water park where families and kids splash down curving waterslides or lap lazy circles around the zero depth wading pool. With options for cultural enrichment or recreational relief from southern rays, Mud Island River Park makes for a refreshing riverside retreat.

Memphis Botanic Garden

Name and Location: Memphis Botanic Garden located at 750 Cherry Road in Audubon Park near Midtown Memphis.

History and Significance: A former golf course transformed in the 1970s through dedicated volunteers and city efforts into a 96-acre living museum, these exquisite gardens have calmly cultivated natural beauty welcoming visitors to find joyous tranquility for 50 years running.

What to Expect: Winding paved pathways under shaded canopies connect a Japanese Garden beside tranquil ponds, whimsical Children’s Garden, fragrant Herb Garden circled by stone walls and diverse spaces boasting rose gardens, tropical plants, berry brambles – over 20 specialty gardens in all.

Visitor Information: Memphis Botanic Garden is open 7 days a week year-round except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Nominal entry fees apply ($10 Adults), with discounts on weekdays and winter months.

Stretching out across 96 acres in Audubon Park, the verdant Memphis Botanic Garden cultivates 20 distinctive garden spaces rich with botanical diversity. Winding trails reveal colorful vistas around every bend from vibrant rose beds and fragrant herb patches to towering exotic tree groves that provide cooling shade. The central canopy boardwalk guides you 25 feet above spectacular flowering plants in an indoor greenhouse.

Two of the most prominent spaces include the Japanese Garden crafted around serene koi ponds and stone lanterns contrasting vibrant seasonal changes. And the My Big Backyard children’s area allows hands-on interaction chasing butterflies through imaginative structures. Gentler sensory walks cater towards visitors with visual impairments or physical limitations needing smoother surfaces.

When not admiring tranquil water features or curated plant collections, guests also enjoy stopping inside the radiant Glasshouse conservatory sprouting tropical and desert species that thrive inside despite the harsh Memphis climate just on the other side of the panes. For an authenticconnection to natural splendor and revitalizing tranquility, Memphis Botanic Garden blooms year-round escape.

National Ornamental Metal Museum

Name and Location: National Ornamental Metal Museum located at 374 Metal Museum Dr. Memphis TN 38106 beside the Mississippi River.

History and Significance: NOMM began through artist blacksmiths meeting at Memphis’ river landing in the 1970s, formalizing a collective in 1979 that has educated and inspired artisans for 40 years regarding ornamental iron’s creative possibilities.

What to Expect: The museum campus spans 3 acres containing exhibits in the historic Marine Hospital, replica blacksmith shop, and contemporary Metalworks gallery where guests watch art demonstrations or roam sculpture gardens before shopping handcrafted jewelry and decorative metal art.

Visitor Information: NOMM is open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 AM-5 PM March-October, reduced winter hours. Entry fees $6 (Adults), offering insight into Memphis’ metalsmithing heritage through programs and guided tours.

Showcasing artistic mastery crafting metal into stunning functional forms, the National Ornamental Metal Museum pushes creative boundaries forging everyday objects into cherished works destined for homes and exhibits worldwide. As the largest institution of its kind exploring a medium often overlooked by major art collectors, NOMM offers eye-opening insight around the contemporary state of smithing and metalworking arts through their intriguing galleries and working artist studios.

The elaborate Fresco Plaza gate welcomes visitors into the former estate grounds now dedicated to advancing appreciation of metal arts across science and culture. Inside the historic Gaby’s House, guests explore displays interpreting tools and forging equipment pivotal for molding, welding, stamping and sculpting raw materials. Future exhibits will highlight disciplines like armor creation and jewelry metalsmithing.

For a memorable look at the steam punk energy of orange molten iron swirling from fiery cauldrons into molds during the casting process, time your visit for one of their weekly Pour Days capturing mesmerizing creation moments echoed blacksmiths and fabricators over centuries.

Big River Crossing

Name and Location: The Big River Crossing pedestrian bridge spans the Mississippi River, connecting Memphis, Tennessee & Arkansas via a former railroad bridge restored in 2016.

History and Significance: For 30 years the unused 1929 Harahan Bridge railway viaduct sat deteriorating yet full of potential before its remarkable renovation provided a crucial LEED-certified piece of infrastructure encouraging healthy habits.

What to Expect: Locals and tourists now traverse the country’s longest public pedestrian/bike path attraction over “Ol’ Man River” dodging trains across 4 active lines on an iconic span revealing Memphis cityscape perspectives.

Visitor Information: The Harahan Bridge River Crossing path allows foot, bike and wheelchair access daily 5 AM-10 PM between Arkansas and Tennessee. Lighting varies seasonally on its half mile over-river expanse through Memphis history.

Celebrating iconic Mississippi River heritage through creative placemaking initiatives reconnecting neighborhoods to the defining waterway, the glittering Big River Crossing pedestrian bridge opened in 2016 innovating utilitarian infrastructure into an inspired public gathering space. Sweeping arches lift the wooden walkway conveyer over active train tracks to link riverfront Tennessee trails with 40 miles of paths across Downtown Memphis through Arkansas.

In addition to serving transportation functionality as a bike and pedestrian connector, the elegant Big River Crossing shines come nightfall as one of the world’s few bridges illuminated by choreographed LED light programing. Over 600 color-changing bulbs mount integrated inside the framework then spring to life several evenings a month dancing through custom shows by local artists coordinated to music which visitors can stream during their crossing.

Whether passing over on evening strolls to see designs like the epic firework simulation or simply enjoying riverfront picnics below on sunny Saturday mornings, the Big River Crossing bridge artfully enriches civic scenery.

Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum

Name and Location: Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum located at 826 N. 2nd St., Memphis, TN 38107 in the Burkle Estate once sheltering freedom seekers.

History and Significance: This unassuming clapboard home hid escaping bondmen in attic spaces under cover of a general store 1860-64 as abolitionists aided the passage of many toward liberation along the dangerous miles toward safety in the North.

What to Expect: Museum tours vividly illuminate realities about the Underground Railroad and perseverance of courageous yet nameless Black Americans who endured so future generations could live and love freely while detailing critical history still impacting today’s realities.

Visitor Information: Open for docent-guided tours Thursday through Saturday with tickets purchased on site or online in advance. Group tours accommodated outside public hours if booked/arranged in advance.

Hidden discreetly inside an unassuming clapboard house in North Memphis, the fascinating Burkle Estate once secretly operated as part of the network of safe houses and allies supporting escape routes towards freedom for enslaved people during the dangerous era of the Underground Railroad across the turbulent 1800s. Today the vital historic site provides an intimate portal bridging visitors to the harrowing choices and resilient courage sustaining extreme hardships in pursuit of basic human rights.

Walk the narrow attic passageways and compact dirt floored basement spaces where groups huddled silently waiting through days or longer for darkness to attempt urgent escapes northwards. Listen to the floorboards creak overhead imagining the constant stress raiding bounty hunters might smash down walls at any moment. While small in size, the profound site amplifies urgent Rediscovering voices that perished unrecorded.

Through the tragic Burkle estate history and crushing hardships faced by figures still unknown, the Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum reveals powerful first-person angles into one of America’s most heartbreaking chapters.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Name and Location: Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave, Memphis, TN 38106 inside the original Stax Records studio site.

History and Significance: Founded by Jim Stewart in 1957, Stax Records produced soul music pillar Otis Redding alongside legends like Isaac Hayes, The Staples Singers, Booker T. & the MG’s, Linda Lyndell, and others before closing in 1975 and later reopening as a music history museum.

What to Expect: Interactive exhibits trace the evolution of American soul music including restored recording studios, iconic performance costumes, vintage photographs, biographical profiles, even dance lessons allowing fans to find deeper connections.

Visitor Information: Open Tuesday-Sunday year-round with tours self-guided or guided daily. General admission $16 for adults, $14 seniors/military, $12 children 9-12 years old, free under 8 years old.

Detailing the overlooked legacy that Stax Records left exploring raw soul music traditions blossoming within 1960s Memphis, this vibrant institution chronicles the integrated band of musicians, producers and engineers who fostered fearless creative expression and racial collaboration seen as revolutionary during the height of cultural upheavals across the South.

Exhibit galleries showcase how artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave plus Isaac Hayes crafted era-defining chart topping hits within the cramped converted movie theater studio just a mile away. Vintage instruments, flashy costumes and other artifacts retell behind the scenes stories relaying Stax Records enormous influence launching iconic sounds.

Interactive music making stations allow visitors to try playing classics riffs through headphones or sing along karaoke-style to signature soulful vocals. For music lovers, such direct engagement intensifies the connections towards the iconic songs continuing to resonate on radio airwaves and playlists today. More importantly, Stax champions provide an uplifting reminder how creative courage can overcome even the most strained societal barriers when we raise all voices in harmonious chorus.

Conclusion

Whether tracing influential musical movements birthed in recording studios throughout Soulsville USA neighborhoods or facing periods of grave national tragedy head on inside the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis delivers an unvarnished experience celebrating regional heritage while opening up broader American stories. Barbecue smoke perfuming the air mixes with live blues bands playing that distinctive Memphis sound to keep traditions vital even as modern districts stake out fresh identities. From Beale Street to Graceland, attractions here invite outsiders into the city’s embrace as upriver heritage collides with new frontiers expanding opportunities across communities. The beat carries forward steady as rolling Mississippi watersdestination.

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