A city like Memphis doesn't get soul and character without having a long and storied history. Its location on the Mississippi River means that Memphis has been a place where all kinds of cultures and people have mingled and merged to give the city its distinctive personality. As you explore the music history, great cuisine, and stellar cultural attractions, you can learn the incredible stories of the places that give Memphis its personality. Experience the city’s rich history at these awesome spots!
The Cooper-Young Historic District, home to the historic Cooper Young Trestle bridge (an adorable bridge with a teeny tiny town on top of it), is one of Memphis' most vibrant communities. Gorgeous historic buildings from the early 20th century house artistic locals, cool shops, incredible eateries and more. Goner Records, Central BBQ, Young Avenue Deli, Beauty Shop, Java Cabana, and more are awesome places to soak up eclectic, indie vibes and mingle with cool residents. The neighborhood is always putting on events (most notably Gonerfest and the one-day Cooper-Young Festival), so definitely check and see what's happening in the area when you visit.
Start your adventure back in time with the Native tribes who originally called Memphis’ land home. The Chucalissa Archaeological Park and Museum encompasses a Mississippian mound complex that was built between 1000 and 1500 AD, along with a hands-on archaeology lab and museum. Learn about the people who built these mounds, why they built them, and how the mounds are being studied. It's also a great place to learn about the tribes that descended from the Mississippians who built the earthworks, like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw and Cherokee, some of whom still live in the area today.
The pre-Civil War era was also an important time in Memphis history. As cotton production boomed in the area, slaves were used to supply the goods under poor, often abusive conditions. Not everyone in the South was in favor of the practice of slavery, and this is where the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum comes in. It's located in a home that was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad (the network of people and places who helped slaves escape to freedom in the North). You can tour the dark cellar and twisting passageways where slaves were hidden as they made their way out of the South, and learn a ton about the antislavery movement in America, along with the man, Jacob Burkle, who operated this “station” on the Railroad.
If you're a history buff, the Victorian Village is a can't-miss spot in Memphis. There are twelve notable 19th-century homes in the neighborhood where a ton of history happened. Several of the homes have been turned into museums, like the 1852 Mallory-Neely House (which has stained glass brought from the 1893 World's Fair and is one of the oldest homes in Memphis to retain most of its original furnishings), and the Woodruff-Fontaine House. The Magevny House is one of the oldest buildings in Memphis, having been built in the 1830s, and is also open for tours. Plus, the James Lee House (built by a riverboat tycoon) is now a cute little bed and breakfast, and the Molly Fontaine House is now an awesome, quirky bar and lounge.
While you're at it, stop and grab a bite to eat at the oldest restaurant in Memphis: the Arcade Restaurant. It opened in 1919, moved to its current building in the 1920s, and completed the classic renovations you’ll experience today in the 1950s. They serve a killer Southern breakfast, an awesome burger, a classic catfish sandwich, and, of course, Elvis Presley's favorite: a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich (served with or without bacon). Presley was a regular back in his day, so you know it's bound to be delicious.
You can't take a tour through Memphis' past without exploring the Beale Street Historic District. The blues, the first truly American style of music, was born in the fields of the South and came of age in the juke joints and clubs on Beale. It didn't take long for the blues to become the country's favorite music. Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and more got their start in clubs on Beale, riffing on traditional styles and playing their hearts out. To this day, a visit to Beale is an experience unlike any other. Stroll Beale at night and you'll hear the soulful sounds of the blues pouring out of the bars lining the street. Enjoy a few drinks and some dancing while you soak in the truly captivating experience. If you're here during the day, stop by the W.C. Handy Museum to learn about the Father of the Blues, and how he took influences from across the South and turned them into the distinctive style of music we know today. Then head to Mr. Handy's Blues Hall, Blues City Cafe, or B.B. King's to grab a cold beer and get groovin’.
The Peabody Memphis is a gorgeous old gem in downtown Memphis. The rooms and lobby are opulent but cozy, with up-to-date amenities and renovations that still hint at the old world glamor of the hotel. It's the live ducks who steal the show, though. Yes, this fancy old hotel has ducks! As the story goes, in the 1930s, the general manager of the hotel came back from a hunting trip with a friend, and the two, drunk on the thrill of the trip (and a bit of whiskey), thought it would be funny to put their live decoys in the lobby fountain. Everyone else thought the stunt was as entertaining as they did, and the tradition stuck. Starting in the 1940s, the ducks were trained (originally by a former circus animal trainer, no less!) to march into the elevator and through the lobby into the fountain, where they spend the day hanging out before returning to their homes for the evening. It's free to stop by each morning at 11 a.m. for the Duck March, watch them swim in the fountain throughout the day, or catch their return to their penthouse suite at 5 p.m.
Memphis is more than just the official Home of the Blues – it's the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. The iconic sound was born in Midtown Memphis’ Sun Studio, with the recording of "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats in 1951. During the early days of rock, Sun Records was the pioneering label for the sound, and legends like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and more all made sweet music at the acclaimed studio. You can visit and see the spots where these icons stood as they recorded some of the most popular tunes of the era. Plus, get the inside scoop on what these performers were like while you're at it. They offer tours at the bottom half of every hour between 10:30 A.M. and 5:30 P.M. Oh, and it helps to reserve a ticket in advance!
The last stop on this history tour is the most powerful: the National Civil Rights Museum. Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was assassinated, the Civil Rights Museum is loaded with information and artifacts dedicated to one of the toughest topics in U.S. history. In addition to being able to see the balcony where MLK was shot (which has been kept the same since that day), you can see tons of other impactful symbols of the struggle for equality: footage of student sit-ins at lunch counters, the bus where Rosa Parks took her stand and relics from the days of slavery and the Jim Crow South. You'll want to leave plenty of time to see and experience everything here to its fullest, because the exhibits are informative and incredibly moving.
Whether you're rocking out to the sounds of Memphis' past or taking a poignant look at civil rights in America, there's no denying that Memphis' rich history has played a huge role in shaping the culture and personality of the city. No matter where you go in Memphis, you'll see tinges of history that add even more character to this colorful city!