Our recent weekend stay in Downtown Memphis was centered on attending a Memphis Grizzlies game as part of the third installment of our NBA Road Trip Series. But we discovered so much more than just NBA fun during our 48 hours in Memphis experience. And on the surface, that might seem hard to believe, considering we’re residents of the Memphis area. But staying in a downtown hotel helped us enjoy 48 hours in Memphis like we’ve never done before.
I work in Downtown Memphis, so we had a major advantage over others visiting Downtown Memphis for the first time. I know the lay of the land very well, I’m familiar with all the restaurants and bars, and the ins and outs of attending an NBA game at FedExForum. I’ve even visited several of the tourist attractions (Beale Street, Sun Studio, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and National Civil Rights Museum). But what I’ve never done is stay overnight. In fact, in my more than 20 years of living in the Memphis area, I’ve never spent one night downtown. So this portion of our NBA Road Trip, experiencing 48 hours in Memphis, allowed us to experience the city like visitors.
What We Did:
So what did we do? Well, I can say what we didn’t do. We did not visit Graceland. In fact, we never left Downtown Memphis. I know most Memphis visitors are going to spend at least a couple of hours in the Whitehaven neighborhood visiting Elvis’ former home. But this trip was all about Downtown Memphis.
There are several museums and attractions downtown. We only visited two museums: Sun Studio and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. We also spent time at the Memphis Farmers Market, exploring the shops of the South Main Historic Arts District and playing at the river.
In fact, we spent a lot of time playing at the Mississippi River. The spring weather was perfect to enjoy the parks fronting the Mississippi River on Mud Island, as well as Tom Lee Park and the River Walk along the bluff overlooking the river.
We started out on Saturday shopping the stalls of the Memphis Farmers Market in the South Main Historic Arts District.
After the market, the shops and galleries of South Main were calling our name. There are lots of finds here, especially at Stacey’s favorite store, Hoot+Louise.
After lunch, we decided to get in the car and drive to Sun Studio. It’s technically walkable, but Memphis is an easy city to drive in. Street parking is free at night and on the weekends, and Downtown usually isn’t too crowded during the day on weekends. Plus, we really did need our car to get across the Memphis Harbor onto Mud Island.
Sun Studio is one of my Memphis favorites. In case you aren’t familiar with your rock ‘n’ roll history, this is where the magic happened. Elvis Presley was discovered at Sun Studio.
Other rock pioneers, including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, launched their careers at Sun.
And more modern artists, including U2, have recorded albums at Sun.
The tour isn’t long, but it packs power in its quick punch. It starts out in the upstairs part of the two-story building with an overview of the magic that happened at Sun, all while seeing displays on the studio’s great artists. There is also the radio studio that Dewey Phillips first played Elvis’ record to the young ears of Memphis.
The tour moves downstairs and into the studio, which is still in use today. Clips of music recorded at Sun is played throughout the tour with stories behind the artist are told.
You even get the chance to stand on the X and sing into the microphone that Elvis used.
We had time to visit a couple of more museums, but we decided to just tour the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on Sunday. Its location across from our hotel was perfect.
We spent nearly two hours at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. And as any parent traveling with children knows, being able to spend nearly two hours in a museum with kids means it must be pretty interesting. I wasn’t sure how much Colby would enjoy the Rock ‘n’ Soul, but I was hopeful. He does have an interest in music, and living in Memphis he is aware of Elvis. But beyond that, he doesn’t know much about the role Memphis has played in creating some of the great music of the past 50-plus years.
The museum chronicles the creation of rock ‘n’ roll and later, soul music, starting in the farmland in the Memphis region with the country, blues and gospel songs that farmers and sharecroppers listened to and sang in the fields. That music went with them as they moved to Memphis for jobs following the Great Depression and World War II years.
And what was created in Memphis was magic, from B.B. King’s blues to Elvis and Carl Perkins’ rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll to the soul magic of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Al Green.
I find that this is the best site for visitors to Memphis to get an overall understanding of the music scene in Memphis. Sure, lots of people want to see Elvis’ Graceland. And as mentioned above, the Sun Studio tour is really cool. I also think a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music near Downtown is a wonderful museum. But to get an overall appreciation for all of that magic, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum touches it all.
And again, this place held the attention of our 7-year-old son. It might have had something to do with all the fun music he could punch into his audio tour guide. But I think he really listened to the tour, and enjoyed the displays.
Where We Ate:
Memphis is a great food town, and we experienced a mix of old favorites and new-to-us locations. Our pregame meal before attending the Memphis Grizzlies game was at South of Beale. The restaurant is probably a half mile or so from FedExForum. SOB is a mix of great food at good prices and a great bar scene. Plus, it’s run by big Grizzlies fans, and everyone — staff and customers — gets into the act on game night.
We enjoyed snacking our way through the Memphis Farmers Market Saturday morning, followed by lunch at a new Memphis restaurant in the core of Downtown along the Main Street trolley line: Café Keough.
Saturday evening we enjoyed the wonderful dinner prepared at Bleu Restaurant and Lounge, which is in the Westin Memphis Beale Street. We had been to the restaurant recently — for Valentine’s dinner, actually — so we knew the food here would be good. Bleu is more of a special occasion or date night-type spot, but we did not feel out of place having Colby there with us. The restaurant is welcoming to children. We actually visited the restaurant after the Grizzlies game the previous night. Being located across the street from FedExForum makes this a prime pre- and post-game spot. We enjoyed our late-night snack there Friday night.
There are lots of brunch options in Downtown, and I’d happily recommend several (South of Beale and Majestic Grille are great with good patios, and the Arcade in the South Main district has a really good breakfast).
We decided to check out Tamp and Tap, a newer restaurant located between Main and Second streets just north of Peabody Place. Tamp and Tap is a drink spot; the tamp is for the coffee drinkers and the tap for the beer drinkers. We enjoyed Nutella toast and drinks while listening to a bluegrass duo. It’s a relaxing spot for a late Sunday morning.
Where We Stayed:
I’ll have a full review of The Westin Memphis Beale Street soon, but I’ll give a few thoughts here. Downtown Memphis is continuing to see a growth in lodging options. Considering I live in the city, I don’t get out much to stay in hotels. This was the first time since our wedding night nearly 15 years ago to stay in a Memphis hotel. But I will say for the type of weekend we had in Memphis, the Westin Memphis Beale Street is really hard to beat.
Our visit was centered on attending the Memphis Grizzlies game. Being across the street from FedExForum, the Westin has an unbeatable location for games. Being located across from the arena and just behind the fun of Beale Street did raise a concern for me about street noise at night. But even with our room that faced the backside of Beale, we never heard the music from the clubs there. That is an important factor for us.
The room was spacious enough for the three of us, and I enjoyed the view out to the Memphis skyline.
If you want to consider the Westin Memphis Beale Street, I do recommend checking ahead as far in advance as possible. During the spring and summer, Downtown Memphis gets busy. I mean, really busy. May is especially a busy time. And with the Memphis Grizzlies making deep runs in the postseason, it means hotel rooms fill up even quicker.
Taking in a Game:
So our NBA Road Trip series is about visiting a city with an NBA team, and enjoying everything in the city near the arena. But it’s the game that makes the trip. It obviously helps that the Memphis Grizzlies have been one of the most consistent teams in the NBA over the past four seasons. They are in select company of teams that have made the NBA playoffs every year in that stretch. So having good players and a fun product on the court makes games a good experience for sports fans.
But the Grizzlies set themselves apart. Games at FedExForum are more cultural experience than just basketball. In a city historically divided by race, those old lines don’t exist at FedExForum. The city’s obsession with being unique can be seen in the stands when five people are decked out in five different versions of some unique homemade T-shirt. The music is local and unique. And as chronicled recently here, the team’s staff goes to great lengths to ensure fans leave with a memorable experience.
The Grizzlies have one of the most affordable tickets in the NBA. Concessions and beer choices have plenty of the usual suspects, but there are local touches such as Ghost River beer and the oh-so-Memphis staple of barbecue nachos.
For Elvis and blues fans, the secret has been out about Memphis for a long time. I worked as a tour guide at Graceland during college and met so many visitors from Europe and Asia who were obsessed with seeing not only Elvis’ world, but tracing the history of blues and soul music. When we visited Sun Studio this trip, we had a nice conversation with a couple from the northeast of England who were in the States only visiting Memphis. I’m not sure how many Americans realize how cool Memphis is. You want music history? Yeah, Memphis is an obvious winner in that category. But there are plenty of great outdoors opportunities, an amazing restaurant scene found throughout the city, great parks, cool neighborhoods and some great art and shopping options. We choose to live in Memphis. It makes me happy knowing I can spend lots of 48 hours in Memphis.
We were hosted by the Westin Memphis Beale Street hotel and graciously given passes to several Memphis attractions by the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. I was in no way swayed by the beautiful dirty soul of Memphis, the awesome food and service at Bleu, the hot and powerful shower at the Westin or its wonderful location. As always, opinions are my own.