March Madness is the best time of year for sports fans, when college basketball tournaments lead into the NCAA Tournament, the grand party of college basketball. And in cities across the United States, college basketball fans are traveling to follow their favorite teams. This week in Tennessee, the madness hits the Bluff City for the Memphis American Conference Tournament. In just its first year of play, the American Athletic Conference has half its teams in the Top 25. And in basketball-mad Memphis, the madness will be at a fever pitch this week for the American Conference Tournament.
The opening games of the American Conference Tournament are Wednesday, March 12. But the big boys of the conference get underway on Thursday, when Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU, UConn and Memphis are in action. But anyone who has ever traveled with their team for a tournament knows that the trip isn’t all about sports. Of course only two teams make it to championship Saturday, meaning fans of eight teams will be hanging around the city looking for things to do that don’t involve the basketball court.
Everyone knows Memphis for Elvis and Graceland. That’s easy. I’d like to offer up some travel tips for my hometown that don’t involve visiting the King’s mansion. As a University of Memphis graduate who loves sports travel, I thought I’d give my five recommendations for enjoying Memphis while attending the American Conference Tournament.
Enjoy Foodie Scene of Main Street
Memphis is known for its great barbecue and downhome Southern cooking, and rightfully so. But there is a great food scene in the city right now and it has nothing to do with pulled pork. Great chef-driven restaurants can be found throughout the city, from East Memphis to Midtown to Downtown. And since the American Conference Tournament will have you Downtown at FedExForum, consider finding some of the great restaurants along Main Street when you want something different than concession stand food. My advice is to find your way to the corner of Beale and Main streets, walk north along the Main Street Trolley and pop into any one of the several restaurants you’ll discover. From great pizza at Aldo’s Pizza to small plates at Flight and a unique twist on Southern classics by one of the city’s great chefs at Felicia Suzanne’s, there are plenty of options.
Experience South Main
The South Main Historic Arts District is one of our favorite neighborhoods in the city. We are regulars at South of Beale for happy hour, special dinners or pregame and pre-theater meals. I predict this will be one of the hot spots of the tournament. But SOB is one of just several restaurants in the district. The city’s oldest diner, The Arcade Restaurant, is at the corner of G.E. Patterson Avenue and Main, the great Central BBQ has an outpost near the National Civil Rights Museum, and a cool bar with great burgers — and possibly a few ghosts — can be found at Earnestine & Hazel’s.
Do make time to stop in at the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is preparing for a grand reopening in April following an extensive renovation. It is open, just not with all the new bells and whistles. And of course you can see the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
And don’t forget the shopping. Throughout the district are art galleries and retailers, including the vintage shop that has filled my wife’s closet, Hoot + Louise. The district has been our favorite for years, in part because of the monthly Friday Art Trolley Tour that occurs the last Friday of every month. But you don’t have to attend trolley tour to enjoy the coolness of the street.
Enjoy the Local Beer Scene
It wasn’t that long ago that the only locally brewed beer that could be bought in Memphis was at Bosco’s, the brewpub in Midtown’s Overton Square. Bosco’s is still there, but joining the market has been four breweries, three of which opened over the past year. the originator is Ghost River, which is brewed in South Main. Its beers, along with those from Memphis Made, High Cotton and Wiseacre can be found at bars throughout the city. The Flying Saucer at Peabody Place and Second Street has plenty of the beers and others. And South of Beale and Local will keep you covered, too. But if you find yourself with a little extra time, drive to the Broad Avenue Arts District, about a 10-minute drive east of Downtown where you can hang out at Wiseacre Brewing and have a couple of beers in one of the coolest settings in town. The brewery just opened in September 2013, but it’s already become one of the city’s go-to spots for beer and fun. If the weather is pleasant, the deck will be packed.
And if you find yourself in Midtown and have a few minutes to spare, consider driving down to Cooper-Young where newly opened The Growler will have you covered with all the local breweries and other great regional finds.
Discover the City’s Music Heritage
Everyone comes to Memphis to visit Graceland. But what about the city’s other great music museums like the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Gibson Guitar Factory, Sun Studio and Stax Museum of American Soul Music? A visitor to the city could spend days learning about the city’s rich music heritage at these iconic facilities. If you’re in town for a basketball tournament, you might only have a few hours to spare. The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is attached to FedExForum, so it’s an obvious first choice. But the Gibson Guitar Factory is just across the street. And a 15-minute walk or a really quick drive is Sun Studio, where music history was made by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many more. And if you have time, one of my favorite attractions in the city is the Stax Museum, which sits on the site of Stax Recording Studio where many of the great soul singers recorded their hits.
When I first moved to Memphis back in 1991, I remember seeing a bumper sticker on a car that read “Midtown is Memphis.” I never thought much about that sticker. And when I began working Downtown in the early 2000s, my neighborhood of choice was the South Main Historic Arts District, which was in its infancy at the time. But today I kind of agree with that slogan about Midtown Memphis. From the bustling restaurant and bar scene of Cooper-Young, to the rebirth of Overton Square to the hipster cool of the Broad Avenue Arts District, Midtown has regained its status as the “It” place of Memphis. I still love Downtown, but there is so much excitement going on in those Midtown neighborhoods. A car is necessary to get to Midtown, but it’s only about a 10-minute drive from Downtown. And if you followed my advice above and checked out the local beer scene, you are already familiar with how awesome Midtown is thanks to Wiseacre.
And if time permits, there are a few great attractions in Midtown to visit, all at Overton Park. The city’s great park has an amazing old-growth forest, a rarity in any city these days. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Memphis Zoo, named as the nation’s top zoo by Trip Advisor a couple of years ago, are both in Overton Park.
A Social Note:
A head’s up about what the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau is doing to help visitors while in town. The team from Memphis CVB will be heading up the American Athletic Conference Social HQ during the tournament. Volunteers will be stationed in the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum answering questions, directing visitors and giving tips on how to better enjoy Memphis. Fans should follow @MemphisCVB and @ilovememphis on Twitter for updates.