Looking to fill your soul with a visit to the capitol of the Mid-South, Memphis, Tennessee? Whether you plan to visit for an evening out or for a week-long vacation, Memphis has plenty to offer.
As a life-long visitor to Memphis, I consider Memphis almost another home town, and, these days, more often than not, stay with friends when we find ourselves in the area. It’s a place that’s familiar – but is always revealing itself in new ways.
Following is my personal go-to list of must-visit places in Memphis, perfect whether you’ve been going there your entire life – or are visiting for the first time. Reconnect with the soul of Memphis as you work your way down this list for the first – or fiftieth – time.
Where to Eat Memphis BBQ
I have three go-to favorites, and then a list of worthy alternates. I love them each equally – but for different reasons. I should also mention this bit of info I picked up from Memphis locals: tourists eat ribs, locals eat pulled pork. Do with it what you want.
1. Charlie Vergo’s Rendevous in downtown Memphis.
Perfect for first-time visitors, it provides a convenient downtown location and one-of-a-kind experience that everyone should experience at least once. My favorite thing on the menu is the Sausage & Cheese Plate. Open daily 4:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
2. One & Only BBQ, 1779 Kirby Parkway, #1A, Memphis.
The atmosphere is a bit strip mall-esque, but the food is legit. Pulled pork is the hero on their menu – juicy and smoky. The ribs are tender and very meaty, full of smoky flavor – just the like the entire inside of the restaurant. My favorite side was the Twice Baked Potato Salad with all its creamy, saucy herb-filled goodness. One & Only’s sauce is liquid gold. Period. It’s more runny than a typical red sauce with a distinct twang of vinegar and outstanding blend of not-to-spicy spices. I preferred the spicy version of the sauce, but didn’t find the heat in anyway overwhelming to the smoky flavor of the meats. Pass on the brisket and turkey. Do not skip, however, the old school banana pudding with meringue. Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
3. Central BBQ, 2249 Central Avenue in Memphis.
Be prepared for a line out the door, but that’s okay because they’ll serve you a draft beer while you wait in line that you’ll pay for when you order. Hospitality at it’s Memphis finest. This place feels like a neighborhood joint that you weren’t meant to find. When we were there, live music was playing on the patio, but I’ve heard that’s a pretty standard expectation. Buckets full of hickory wood can be found soaking on the side of the building proving concretely that this place is legit. The pulled pork is smoky with pieces of burnt ends – which I love – and a dryer texture compared to the aforementioned One & Only. The ribs were also dryer – but very tender. The trick to falling head over heels with Central BBQ is in the sauce(s). There are four sauces available: vinegar, mustard, mild and spicy. Personally, I enjoyed them all and found that any of the meats dipped in a taste of sauce was perfection. My personal favorite was the sweet balanced heat I discovered in the “spicy” bottle. Try them all and pick your favorite! Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
If you’ve tried these, and you’re ready to move on with your Memphis BBQ Trail, add this eclectic list of offerings from true dives to more uptown experiences be sure to try Cozy Corner on North Parkway, Corky’s Ribs & BBQ on Poplar, Bar-B-Q Shop on Madison, Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q, Payne’s Bar-B-Q, Tops Bar-B-Q (around nearly every corner – but locally owned) and Germantown Commissary on South Germantown Road.
Where to Eat When You’re Taking a Break from Bar-B-Que
1. Gibson’s Donuts, 760 Mt. Moriah Road in Memphis.
You caught me. I love the sugary goodness of a good donut. And good donuts are prolific at Gibson’s Donuts, the largest single location, independently owned donut shop in America. Second generation owner Don DeWeese and his team manage Saturday’s line out the door as if each customer were a long lost college roommate, serving up crowd favorites like Maple Bacon, Red Velvet Cake, and Watermelon Koolaid (yes, it really tastes like the koolaid). My favorite? Their Old Fashioned Donut, a sour cream cake donut with a touch of nutmeg. Open 24 hours daily.
2. Peggy’s Healthy Homecooking, 326 South Cleveland Street in Memphis.
There’s quite a story here, so stay tuned because you haven’t heard the last of Peggy. Order the fried catfish and greens. And since you’ve been so good, go ahead and share an enormous slice of Peggy’s homemade Caramel Cake or Rum Cake with everyone at your table. 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Tuesday – Thursday, 11 a.m – 9 p.m. on Fridays, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. on Sunday. Closed on Monday.
3. The Second Line, 2144 Monroe Avenue in Memphis.
Leave BBQ behind for a bit and taste the passion of Chef Kelly English, a native of New Orleans who Memphis has adopted as a native son. English, a 2009 James Beard Award Semifinalist, is best known for his wildly successful Restaurant Iris where reservations are few and far between. But never mind that, because he’s opened an inspired venture right next door that’s full of energy and perfectly executed renditions of New Orleans favorites, most notably, po-boys. You must start with the Andouille, Crawfish & Pimento Cheese Fries. Open Monday – Thursday 5 pm – 10 pm, Friday 5 pm – 11 pm, Saturday 11 am – 11 pm and Sundays 11 am – 10 pm.
Where to Stay
Like I said, we most often stay with friends these days, but if you’ve never stayed at the historic Peabody Hotel, well, it’s a must for your life to be complete. And whether you’re traveling with children or alone, a little known secret is the basement’s heated swimming pool. Take the elevator to the Basement and meander through the halls a bit to find it. It’s just a fun discovery for all ages. Go ahead; jump in. A not-so-well-kept “secret” is the rooftop view of the city – also a must-do on any visit. Take the elevator to the top floor, and if you’re lucky, the doors will be unlocked to the rooftop, allowing you to walk out and take in Memphis from a bird’s eye view. The Peabody is located at 149 Union Avenue.
Things to Do
This is a town full of cliches. Yes, please go hang out on Beale Street and listen to live music. Visit Graceland. Go to the Zoo – it’s amazing. But the soul of Memphis is hiding in other spots. Add these seven items to your Memphis bucket list for an extraordinary visit.
1. Sit in the Lobby of the Peabody and watch the world go by for at least an hour. Just sit and be still, maybe with whatever cocktail the bartender is recommending at the time. Trust the bartender.
2. Watch the March of the Ducks in the Peabody Lobby. This isn’t as peaceful an experience, because the world shows up to watch the March of the Ducks. But nonetheless a bucket list worthy experience. Show up early to grab a good seat.
3. Toast the River at Sunset. Don’t make this complicated. Just go do it. Your life will be better for it.
4. Visit a Farmer’s Market. Memphis is home to a growing farmer’s market economy, and you’ll be inspired and encouraged by a visit to any one of their regular weekly markets. If you’re staying downtown, visit the Memphis Farmer’s Market on Saturdays at the corner of G.E. Patterson and South Front near downtown. Hours vary with the season.
5. Drive by the St. Jude Garden and be challenged. Just process what’s happening there. Kids without other options are being helped inside of those walls. And those vegetables are part of the solution. Located at 0 Shadyac Avenue in downtown Memphis.
6. STAX Museum of American Soul Music. If you want to truly connect with the soul of America, a visit to this museum is a must. It’s an amazing facility with quite a collection stored inside. But don’t rush it; soak up the experience and you’ll be moved. The STAX Museum of American Soul Music is located at 926 East McLemore Avenue, the museum is open Monday – Saturday 10 am – 5 pm and Sunday 1 pm – 5 pm, except for holidays.
7. National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel. Experience firsthand the place in history that pushed national and international civil rights forward. Located at 450 Mulberry Street, the museum is closed on Tuesdays and open 1 pm – 5 pm on Sundays. All other days, the museum is open 9 am – 5 pm.
» Read “Feeding the Soul of Memphis” for a sampling of some of the remarkable food stories emerging in Memphis right now.
» Don’t just think about, go for a visit and let us know how you enjoyed our itinerary.
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