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A Perfect 24 Hours in Memphis

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Greetings, Internet Stranger, and welcome to a perfect 24 hours in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis doesn’t always get as much positive press as Nashville, but I think it’s a fabulous city. (I’m biased–my great-great grandparents are actually buried in Memphis.

But that’s not the only reason I love Bluff City! Join me for 24 hours in Memphis to experience all the wonderful music, amazing food, fun facts, and even more amazing food a person could want. Let’s not waste any more time!

A Perfect 24 Hours in Memphis 1

24 Hours in Memphis

Where to Stay?

Memphis is a fairly spread out city, so I was looking for a convenient location for my hotel, right in the heart of downtown. That’s why I opted for the Hilton Garden Inn Memphis Downtown. This hotel was right within walking distance of many things I wanted to see, including fine restaurants, and it had an excellent laundry facility on the premises so I could finally wash my clothes after having been on the road for weeks.

OK, maybe that laundry thing isn’t as important to you, but I bet you care about free wifi, coffee, and breakfast, and a friendly 24-hour staff that will help you with everything from directions to getting a ride to the airport for an early flight! Of course you do.

If you want a great deal on this hotel, click here. And if you’d rather explore great deals on almost 1000 other hotels in Memphis, click here. This search engine will help you find the most affordable and convenient hotel during your 24 hours in Memphis.

A Perfect 24 Hours in Memphis 2

24 Hours in Memphis

Shopping List

  • An excellent small cell charger so you can keep taking pictures of your 24 hours in Memphis
  • A fantastic guide to Tennessee, including Memphis
  • My book Get Lost, that I wrote myself with all my best travel tips. This book will show you exactly how solo travel can take your life from BLAH to amazing!
  • Want to learn how I saved enough money to travel 16 weeks a year? Check out my top secret How to Afford Travel digital system.
  • I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you’re attacked by a giant guitar during your 24 hours in Memphis.
24 hours in memphis

24 Hours in Memphis

Morning: Stax Museum

If you’re a fan of American music, your 24 hours in Memphis will be like sheer heaven. Many of the most influential acts in US history passed through here at some point. (Yes, of course that includes the King himself, and of course we’ll be visiting Graceland tomorrow.)

But my all-time favorite musician is Mr. Otis Redding from the great state of Georgia, so I was dying to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and learn all about the legendary Stax Records where he recorded. But he’s far from the only major artist to record at Stax! Stax Records was one of the most influential recording studios ever, and today we will find out why.

Come join me for a tour, and we’re going to learn more than…

Three Sometimes Fun Facts: Stax Museum

24 hours in memphis
1) What’s Special About Otis Redding?

I’m tempted to scream HOW DARE YOU if you don’t already know all about the King of Soul. But I’d much rather teach you about the wonders of his music. The legend of Otis Redding is that he got his start at Stax almost by accident. He was working as the driver for another band and aspiring to be a singer at the same time. The band he was driving for wasn’t playing particularly well, so Otis got the chance to come out and sing “These Arms of Mine”, and a legend was born!

Unfortunately, the legend wasn’t to be with us for too long. Redding became Stax’s biggest star, famous for his difficult horn instrumentations, powerful emotion, and duets with another Stax star Irma Thomas. But just at the height of his fame, Redding was killed at the age of 26 in a plane crash. Arguably his most famous song, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, was released posthumously.

If you’re a huge Otis fan, like I am, that alone will be worth the trip to Stax. They have all kinds of Otis memorabilia and rare photos, including his jacket, which you can see above. Your fans will never forget you, Otis!

24 hours in memphis
2) Why Else Was Stax Important?

Stax Records played an important role in the Civil Rights movement in Memphis. When Stax was founded, Memphis was an extremely segregated city and the Stax Museum has many examples of what life was like in this horrific and unjust system. Even radio stations were segregated in Memphis. There have always been talented Black musicians in the United States, but it was once hard to get their music to a wider audience.

Memphis helped change that with the radio station WDIA, which was America’s first black radio station. This station would play Stax artists like Rufus Thomas, who had a big hit with a little song you might have heard of called Do the Funky Chicken.

Stax also had an integrated band with both Black and white musicians called Booker T & the M.G.’s, which was hard to find at the time. (You’ve definitely heard Booker T & the M.G.’s, as their most famous song “Green Onions” is played in just about every movie or TV show set in the 1960s.) Many Stax artists were also involved in the Civil Rights movement, both before and after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

24 hours in memphis
3) What Other Artists Recorded for Stax?

So many wonderful artists recorded for Stax, and I can’t mention them all. There’s just not enough time and we have other things to do during our 24 hours in Memphis. But I do want to get two more artists in: Sam and Dave and Isaac Hayes.

These two artists go together because Isaac Hayes, aka Mr. Shaft, actually wrote some of Sam and Dave’s songs before striking out on his own. Apparently Hayes got the idea for the title of the song “Hold On! I’m Comin’!” because his songwriting partner David Porter said this phrase to him when Porter was taking a long time to come out of the bathroom. Ha! No one ever writes songs about the things I say when I’m in the bathroom.

24 hours in memphis

Isaac Hayes really hit it big when he wrote the score for the movie Shaft, and in fact he became the first Black composer to win the Oscar for Best Score. He passed away in 2008, and now many of his possessions like his fancy red-and-white office, his shiny car, and his Oscar are all in the Stax Museum. I guess that’s all the finery that Shaft money can buy!

24 hours in memphis

24 Hours in Memphis

Afternoon: Mojo Bus Tour

As I mentioned, Memphis is famous for music, and not just the music at Stax Records. So let’s spend the afternoon on a delightful bus tour taking us around all the most wonderful attractions in the Home of the Blues.

24 hours in memphis

The Mojo Bus Tour was one of the most fun tours I have ever taken. Your guide takes you on an air-conditioned bus tour of all the most important sights in Memphis music history. But that’s not all! Since your guide will be a musician, you’ll hear live versions of some of Memphis’s greatest hits while you learn about the city.

You can book this tour for yourself by clicking here. Be sure to choose the option that gets you into Sun Records at the end! Then get ready for…

Approximately Top 5: Memphis Music

A Perfect 24 Hours in Memphis 3
24 Hour Treat: Backlot Sandwich Shop

You’ll need to eat lunch before the tour starts, so head to the Backlot Sandwich Shop, which is one of the best sandwich places in Memphis. I recommend the Backlot sandwich, which is kind of like a Reuben because it has 1000 Island Dressing, as well as a side of the brussels sprouts. You know, for health!

The Brussels were nice and vinegary, but also sweet with the sun-dried tomatoes and the meat in the sandwich was rich, but it was not too rich. I also appreciated that the marble rye bread added a lot of flavor. The best part was the meat, which was very tender. It takes a little while for them to cook it but you can tell why once you stuff the final product in your face.

Now that we’re fed, let the tour begin!

24 hours in memphis
1) Beale Street

Your 24 hours in Memphis tour begins on Beale Street, which is often known as the birthplace of the Blues. The most famous Blues musician to play on Beale Street is probably WC Handy, who is often called the father of the Blues. His most famous song was called “St. Louis Blues”, but he was born in Memphis and you can find a statue of him right on Beale Street.

24 hours in memphis

Our guide, whom I shall call Aaron, said that one of WC Handy’s early tunes was a song about Mr. Crump. Crump, who seemed just as pleasant as his name sounds, was a politician who claimed he wanted to clean up Beale Street. However, he was so corrupt that it didn’t seem likely he’d clean anything up, so Handy made up a song making fun of him.

But good news or bad news, who knows, because the song became so popular that Mr. Crump decided to make it his campaign song. I guess it’s true that all publicity is good publicity, at least for a corrupt politician.

24 hours in memphis
2) Levitt Shell

Of course, you can’t spend 24 hours in Memphis without talking about the King himself, Mr. Elvis Presley. Aaron took us past the Levitt Shell where the first rock concert was, starring the King himself. But rock music was so new, and so was Elvis that he only had two songs to play: “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, which isn’t even a rock song.

After he played two songs, the crowd kept screaming for more, but he didn’t have anything else to give them. Plus, the acoustics were so bad on stage that he thought the audience was booing him instead of cheering. Aha, if only he’d known what was about to happen for him.

24 hours in memphis
3) Hi, I’m…

Elvis wasn’t the only major star to play the Levitt Shell. The next year, a young man came to play at the concert, and he also couldn’t hear very well when he was on stage, so he couldn’t be sure the announcer had introduced him properly. That’s why he stepped out front and presented himself to the crowd by saying, “Hi! I’m Johnny Cash!”

Cash kept playing in Memphis for a while because he was recording at Sun Studio in Memphis along with his band known as the Tennessee Two. You get to have your picture taken with the Memphis statue of Johnny Cash, like I did, and you can see the church where the Tennessee Two performed. But you won’t hear a song from the Tennessee Two on the tour! Apparently Cash himself felt they weren’t that good a band.

24 hours in memphis
4) Isaac Hayes Mural

Of course your guide will talk to you about Stax Records on the tour, and some of it will be new information, so don’t feel like this part is a repeat with the Stax Museum. I especially enjoyed seeing this mural of Isaac Hayes, the private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. (SHAFT!)

Our guide played “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” to go with this portion of the tour, but maybe you’ll get a different Stax jam like “These Arms of Mine”! We got about ten songs on our tour, so I’d expect the same for you.

24 hours in memphis
5) Sun Studio Tour

I hope you booked the extra Sun Studio tour for your 24 hours in Memphis, but if you didn’t, no worries. You can just head to the Sun Studio after the tour is over. (If you did book the Sun Studio tour with the tour company, the bus will drive you over there directly, which will save you time and money.)

The only way to see Sun Studio is on a guided tour, so you’ll have to wait a few minutes in the air-conditioned waiting room. It does have a bar if you are dying of thirst or something. But then you’ll get to go on the tour and learn all about this historic music venue!

24 hours in memphis

The most important name to know when it comes to Sun Studio is Sam Phillips, who ran the whole shebang. Sam loved blues music and wanted to bring it to a wider audience, so he was looking for just the right artist. Sun Studio recorded Howling Wolf and Rosco Gordon, as well as other great Black American artists, but because of racism it was hard to get their work played on many radio stations.

One day, a young man named Elvis Presley came into Sun to audition, and Phillips’s associate Marion Keisker recorded him. She was impressed with his beautiful voice and face and wanted Phillips to give him a chance. But at that time, Presley was singing ballads, so Phillips wasn’t interested. Eventually Keisker got Phillips to give the Future King a shot.

24 hours in memphis

Elvis’s time at Sun wasn’t going great until one day Sam Phillips heard Presley singing “That’s All Right, Mama” and realized he had something special. Phillips sent the song out to a friendly radio station, and a legendary star was born!

And when you visit Sun Studio on your 24 hours in Memphis, you’ll even get to pose with one of the original microphones from the Elvis days, just like I did. (Thank you! Thank you very much!) There’s lots more fun facts and cool songs to hear on the tour, especially at Sun, but you’ll have to book the tour yourself to find out!

After this, I think it’s time on your 24 hours in Memphis to head back to your hotel and refresh yourself. Dinner awaits!

24 hours in memphis

24 Hours in Memphis

Evening: Dinner at Dory

So, when most people think of Memphis food, they think of Southern classics like barbecue and fried chicken. But Memphis also has an emerging fine dining scene, and there’s no finer place to dine during our 24 hours in Memphis than Dory!

Dory is a tasting menu restaurant, which means that there’s one menu served every night, made from the freshest local ingredients. Of course, the down side is that you don’t get to choose what you want to eat, but I love food and I hate making decisions, so this place is perfect for me! I got to sit right by the counter and even meet one of the owners of the restaurant who was working in the kitchen that night.

24 hours in memphis

Tasting menus usually start light, so we begin with a leek, endive, and truffle salad. This dish was interesting because the leeks and the endives looked similar, but they didn’t taste or feel similar, so biting into this was a fun adventure. Also truffles make everything better.

24 hours in memphis

This was trout served on polenta with shishito peppers and honey. My main memory of this dish was how fresh the trout tasted. It was fresh enough to slap me in the face and call me a toad-washing mother-boiler. I was also interested in the fact that they served this dish with polenta and not grits because I feel like a lot of upscale Southern restaurants would have made that substitution.

24 hours in memphis

This almost looks like a dessert, but it’s actually our pasta dish, gnocchi served with corn and lardo powder. I didn’t even know that you could powder lardo! And here my grammy was just calling it lard this whole time. This dish was interesting because the corn made it taste summery, and I usually think of summer dishes as being light, but the lardo powder and carbs made it a lot richer.

24 hours in memphis

DANCE BREAK! Time to mix it up with a peach nasturtium sorbet palette cleanser before we get to the meats.

24 hours in memphis

I’ve often tried tasting menus with only one meat course, which is perfectly normal. But Dory gave me two meat courses, which is even more delightful. The first was a simple duck breast with onion and black garlic demi glaze. There was nothing crazy or new wave about this dish–just a simple-seeming preparation that allowed the flavors to shine through.

24 hours in memphis

And here we have the more complex meat: a steak with beets and oyster mushrooms. Because the beets are sweet and the mushrooms are umami, there was a nice flavor contrast to the sides, so you don’t just feel like you’re dealing with a slab of meat and nothing else. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a fab slab of beef, amirite?)

24 hours in memphis

And finally for dessert I give you chocolate mousse with plums and milk crumb. Again, the flavors are really pure, especially the plums because they were compressed. It can be hard to make a chocolate dish feel summery, but adding these wonderful plums surely did the trick. And it’s the perfect end to our 24 hours in Memphis.

24 hours in memphis

24 Hours in Memphis

How to Get There?

By Car: This is an easy way to get to your 24 hours in Memphis, if you are coming from somewhere else on the southern East Coast in the United States. You can drive here easily from St. Louis, Birmingham, or other parts of Tennessee.

However, I don’t know how to drive, so this wasn’t an option for me. Fortunately Uber is widely available in Memphis. If you need to rent a car, you can use the search engine Expedia to find the best price from the available car rental companies.

24 hours in memphis

By Plane: Fortunately, there is an airport in Memphis! Since I live in New York City and don’t know how to drive, I found that flying was the easiest way to get to the best 24 hours in Memphis. (Again, I recommend using a search engine like Expedia to search for the best prices on flights.)

By Bus: You can use the Greyhound bus to get to Memphis from nearby cities like Nashville. It’s a pretty cheap ride–if you are car-free and coming from a fairly nearby destination, this might be the way for you. But I found the timing of a lot of buses to Memphis inconvenient, so I think flying or driving is the better way.

24 hours in memphis

That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Memphis!

What would you do with 24 hours in Memphis? How do you feel about fab slabs of beef? And who would dare to boo Elvis Presley? Please email me at [email protected] and let me know!

Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY have one day in Memphis.