Experience the Magic and Music of Memphis, Tennessee

A vintage neon sign reading Popular Tunes and Welcome to Memphis
(Photo by California News Press)

The city of Memphis, Tennessee, has adopted the tourist-drawing tagline “Home of the Blues,” with “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” as a close runner-up. Memphis Tourism opts for an all-encompassing “Home of Blues, Soul and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” With a heritage that includes the very genesis of multiple genres, Memphis is fueled by the magic of its music. Top tourist attractions in the city such as Graceland, Beale Street and Sun Studios showcase the ways in which its homegrown music changed the world. 

Visitors soon learn that Memphis has a lot of pride in its past. The city feels timeworn and comfortable in itself, and in gentle pleasures like long-smoked barbecue and the gifts of casually masterful musicians. Exploring the city means being constantly aware of its history, from the cruelties of the antebellum to the volatile victories and losses of the civil rights era. Most tangible of all is the music. In Memphis’s mid-20th century heyday, its musical magic sparked with an intensity that transformed popular culture all around the globe. In this century, that magic has mellowed into a harmonious hum. Walking in Memphis feels like the musical notes that live in your head have finally come home.  

A view of the Memphis skyline from he Mississippi River
A view of the Memphis skyline from the Mississippi River (Photo by California News Press)

A vacation in Memphis is an unforgettable, affecting and totally sensory experience. This is an essential destination for anyone seeking to know America, and to have a really enjoyable time doing so. Maximize that enjoyment by including the following must-see Memphis sights in your itinerary.

Graceland & Elvis Presley’s Memphis

The most famous tourist attraction in Memphis, Graceland extends Elvis Presley’s astonishing stardom in perpetuity. Whether you’re an Elvis fan with a lifelong dream to pay homage to The King at his beloved home and resting place, or just curious to check out a unique pop culture time capsule, a tour of Graceland is a must. 

Elvis Presley's gravestone in the Meditation Garden at Graceland Mansion
Elvis Presley’s gravestone in the Meditation Garden at Graceland Mansion (Photo by California News Press)

The highlight of any visit is the audio-guided tour of Graceland Mansion. You’ll get to see the lavishly decorated and immaculately preserved rooms where Elvis and his family lived, entertained and spent their day-to-day lives. The property was a private home and HQ of the business of being Elvis. Today, it also includes extensive museum exhibits that tell the rags-to-riches story of one of the world’s biggest and most charismatic megastars.

A visit to Graceland doesn’t end after the mansion tour. Across the street is the sprawling entertainment complex called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Here, you’re invited to explore multiple museum exhibits, among them Elvis’s awesome car collection at the Presley Motors Automobile Museum. There are also restaurants and gift stores on site.

Read more about visiting Graceland here: Get Yourself to Graceland, the No. 1 Must-See Attraction in Memphis

neon sign reading Memphis Recording Service at Sun Studio
Vintage neon signage at Sun Studio (Photo by California News Press)

More Amazing Music Museums in Memphis

You won’t spend much time sightseeing in Memphis without hearing some of its homegrown music, a category that spans many eras and genres. Delve deeper into the sounds of the city and the talented names behind every note by visiting at least one of these amazing music-themed museums in Memphis. 

Sun Studio

If it wasn’t for the giant guitar mounted to its facade, or the awesomely vintage logo painted on its brick walls, nobody would really notice the oddly shaped, poky building that once housed Sun Records. Today, Sun Studio is a very popular Memphis museum. 

The brick exterior with painted sign and giant guitar of Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee
Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo by California News Press)

Small tour groups squeeze into the upstairs exhibit space to see radio and record-making artifacts from the 1950s and 60s, then the downstairs studio, still soundproofed and filled with original instruments. What is the provenance of the Sun Studio space and its exhibits? The pioneering record studio, owned and run by Sam C. Phillips, championed Memphis musicians who all but invented blues, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and rockabilly. 

Learn how a teenaged Elvis Presley, who at first failed to impress, recorded his debut single, “That’s All Right,” at Sun Records. His song caught the ear of a local radio DJ… and the rest is music history. Other big names who recorded their earliest songs here include B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. Your tour guide will tell the tales of musical geniuses and industry eccentrics while playing snippets of their songs over the speakers. Listen to Rufus Thomas’s 1952 hit “Bearcat,” an innocently recorded homage to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” that triggered a copyright infringement case and almost bankrupted Sun Records. 

Museum exhibits upstairs at Sun Studio in Memphis
Upstairs exhibits of vintage music paraphernalia at Sun Studio in Memphis (Photo by California News Press)

A highlight of the tour comes at the end, when visitors are invited for photo ops with an original 1950s studio microphone. You can also sit down at the upright piano that might look unremarkable if you didn’t see the iconic Million Dollar Quartet photo mounted above it. The photo captured a spontaneous jam session at Sun Studio in 1956 shared by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. A savvy Sam Phillips called the local paper to report on this historic meeting of musical talents. The tapes of the recording were discovered and released decades later. 

A Sun Studio tour is packed with many more remarkable stories and priceless memorabilia, so be sure to add it to your Memphis itinerary. 

Stax Museum of American Soul

The name Stax is synonymous with American soul music and its biggest stars. Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers and house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s all made music under the banner of Stax Records. In doing so they defined the globe-spanning sounds of Memphis soul. Explore the history of the genre and the record label that pioneered it, at the Stax Museum of American Soul

Marquee frontage of the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, Tennessee
The entrance to the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo by California News Press)

A visit to the museum begins with a screening of a brief, highly entertaining film detailing the story of Stax, its high and lows and enduring influence. The film features footage of entrancing performances from some of Stax’s biggest stars. The story of soul is told in much greater detail through the chronology of interactive exhibits in the rest of the museum. Displays of instruments, photographs, recording equipment, films, stage costumes in all their dazzling ’60s and ‘70s glory, and all manner of memorabilia transport you back to the heyday of Stax. The timeline expands before and after the rise and fall of Stax to communicate the origins of soul as well as its influence on contemporary music.

Start by learning about the roots of Memphis soul music way before Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart founded Stax Records in 1957. A major highlight of the museum comes early on – the genuine, relocated wooden structure of Hoopers Chapel AME Church, built by hand around 1906 in Duncan, Mississippi. The old piano inside the church building symbolizes the gospel roots of soul music, while other displays relate to the blues. These displays show how southern Black communities brought the sacred and the secular together to create the joyful new genre of soul. 

The historic wooden Hoopers Chapel AME Church on display inside the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, Tennessee
The Hoopers Chapel AME Church on display inside the Stax Museum of American Soul (Photo by California News Press)

Another interesting display inside the Stax Museum of American Soul is an enormous wall map showing regional subgenres that developed around Muscle Shoals, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, the Rust Belt and West Coast, among others. All connect back to Memphis and to each other. Visitors can strut their stuff on the “Soul Train” dance floor, see a recreated Studio A of the original Stax Records, and admire Issac Hayes’ 1972 gold-plated peacock blue Cadillac. A perk of Hayes’ lavish new contract with Stax, the showy vehicle features a refrigerated bar, TV set and 24-carat gold windshield wipers. 

More somber exhibits explain the low points of Stax Records’ history, most notably the untimely death of its biggest star, Otis Redding, in 1967. It’s also interesting to learn about Stax’s connections with the Lorraine Motel, the Memphis lodging of choice for its artists. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the motel marked a turning point for Stax alongside the wider civil rights movement. Financial troubles led to the end of the record label, but Stax’s importance is showcased by the museum and in the works of every musician influenced by Memphis soul.

Memphis Rock and Soul Museum

The Smithsonian-affiliated Memphis Rock and Soul Museum is in a modern brick building attached to FedExForum and a short walk from Beale Street in downtown Memphis. The music-filled museum does an excellent job of an enormous task – telling the story of rock and soul music in the south in its entirety. Exhibits recreate moments in music from the star-making turns of the biggest names in the industry, to the unknown, less celebrated history of regular folks listening to records, singing and playing their instruments at home. 

A collage of Memphis musicians on display in the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum
A display dedicated to Memphis music legends inside the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum (Photo by California News Press)

Through seven galleries, follow a timeline from sharecroppers developing their homegrown sounds in the 1930s, to the blues hub of Beale Street in the 1940s, the rise of Sun Records in the 1950s, Stax and its soul singers in the 60s and 70s, and into contemporary global sounds influenced by all that came before. Learn about the Black pioneers of all those eras, who persevered in making remarkable music in the face of enormous racial and socioeconomic barriers. 

You’ll see instruments, hand-written lyrics, neon signs, costumes, vintage recording equipment, and a series of jukeboxes with song options linked to your MP3 audio guide. Listening to the sounds of Memphis from the 1930s to the 1970s is an amazing way to augment your self-guided museum tour. 

The National Civil Rights Museum

A must-do while in Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum expands the story of the civil rights movement beyond its storied home of the Lorraine Motel. Visitors start in front of the motel facade, where you can spot from afar a large mourning wreath marking the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated in 1968. Vintage cars parked in front transport you to that tumultuous time, so famous as to feel familiar even to those who did not personally live through it. 

The exterior of the Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
The Lorraine Motel, part of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo by California News Press)

Inside, you venture back in time to the 17th century to learn about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. Continue along the timeline to the rise of Jim Crow, the battle for desegregation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Riders, reading and listening to first-hand accounts of conflicts in the courtroom and the streets of the United States. Dr. King and his hallowed words are a key focus of many exhibits, but the museum amplifies the voices of other civil rights leaders as well as the countless lesser-known names whose smaller actions also propelled a world-changing movement. 

Read more about this incredible Memphis attraction at Museum Monday: The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis Riverboats Sightseeing Cruise

A sightseeing cruise with Memphis Riverboats is one of the best things to do in Memphis outdoors. It’s a fun and family-friendly experience, combining live narration about the Mississippi River and its role in the history of Memphis with a relaxing sightseeing voyage. Sightseeing cruises are 90-minute tours covering approximately 8 to 10 miles of the mighty, murky waterway in a roundtrip. The storied river and nostalgic vessel with its gingerbread trim and churning paddlewheel give passengers a sense of the steamboat age, when Memphis was a much younger city. The views of downtown Memphis and the city’s expansive riverfront parklands are also outstanding.  

Paddlewheeler tour boats lined up at a dock along the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis Riverboats’ paddlewheelers lined up ready for tours on the Mississippi River (Photo by California News Press)

Memphis Riverboats’ charismatic tour guide offers narration throughout the outward leg of the sightseeing cruise. You’ll hear about answers to the most curious FAQs the guide has heard about the Mississippi River, such as “are there sharks?” (answer: perhaps) and “how deep is the river” (its dynamic dimensions are never the same). Most remarkable is the story of Tom Lee, the namesake of Tom Lee Park, which you’ll see from the decks of the boat. Lee (1885-1952) was an African American river worker who became a local hero in Memphis when he single-handedly saved 32 passengers from a sinking steamboat in 1925.

In addition to hearing the stories of the Mississippi River and Memphis, passengers can sit back and enjoy the urban and natural scenery along the river. The lower-lying Arkansas side is almost entirely undeveloped, while Memphis sits atop a bluff with its tall buildings looking down onto the wide and deceptively sluggish waters. You’ll cruise underneath several bridges and see Presidents Island and the Wolf River Tributary before turning around and heading back to the historic Cobblestone Landing. Spend the return leg dancing to live music in the dining room, where snacks and drinks are available. 

Mississippi Riverboats offers sightseeing tours daily from March through October and on weekends in November. The 100-foot paddlewheeler features enclosed, covered and outdoor decks with plenty of seating. Dinner, brunch and special holiday cruises are available as well.

Beale Street Entertainment District

Beale Street, a national historic landmark and the birthplace of the blues, is one of the most iconic places in Memphis and an absolute must-see for visitors. The street runs 1.8 miles from the Mississippi River to East Street and is lined with blues clubs, bars, cafes, gift shops and tourist attractions. 

Beale Street Entertainment District in Memphis, Tennessee at dusk
An uncharacteristically quiet Beale Street at dusk (Photo by California News Press)

The major hub for visitors is the Beale Street Entertainment District. Here you’ll find the W.C. Handy Home Museum, B.B. King’s Blues Club, the New Daisy Theatre music venue, the Memphis Hall of Fame and the Ghost River brewery, among others. It’s fun to stroll Beale Street in the daytime, but the evening is when it really comes alive. Take in the street performers, live music pouring out of every storefront, and a vibrant party atmosphere. 

The Peabody Ducks

A tradition totally unique to Memphis and its downtown Peabody Hotel is the twice-daily procession of resident ducks from the hotel’s lobby fountain to the rooftop. Yep, just regular-looking ducks living irregular lives in a historic and luxurious downtown hotel. The procession is a big production that draws enormous crowds who fill every seat and almost every square foot of the huge, lavish Peabody lobby. Children are invited to sit down alongside the red carpet for an up-close view. 

The Peabody ducks walking along a red carpet into the elevator, a Memphis tourist attraction
The Peabody Ducks making their nightly procession along the red carpet (Photo by California News Press)

Conducting the whole Peabody Ducks show is the Duckmaster, a showman who works up the crowd for a considerable length of time before coaxing the ducks along a red carpet and into the elevator (or vice versa). The first set of ducks to enjoy swimming in the large marble fountain of the Peabody lobby were left there by the manager after a hunting trip. In 1940, a bellman and former circus animal trainer volunteered to care for the ducks, thus creating the role of the original Duckmaster. Hotel guests enjoyed this quirky arrangement so much, it has endured for more than 90 years and become one of the top tourist activities in Memphis. 

The morning march of the Peabody Ducks from the rooftop to the lobby takes place at 11 a.m. and their evening return march is at 5 p.m. Arrive at least 30 minutes early to get a good view. 

Where to Stay in Memphis: Hotel Napoleon

Looking for somewhere wonderful to stay in downtown Memphis? Consider Hotel Napoleon, a member of the Ascend Hotel Collection. The upscale boutique hotel is housed most handsomely in the 1902 Scimitar Building, a Beaux-Arts meets Romanesque Revival beauty at the corner of Madison Avenue and Third Street. The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally home to the local Evening Scimitar newspaper. It is considered one of the finest turn-of-the-century commercial buildings in all of Memphis.

Inside this lovingly restored property, the lobby retains its original Tennessee marble and tons of natural light, while the overall aesthetic is updated to be chic, contemporary and welcoming. Attached to the lobby is the brightly minimalist Luna Restaurant and Bar, open for breakfast, dinner, snacks and barista drinks. Locals and sightseeing tourists often join hotel guests at the restaurant and bar. Part of this appeal is Hotel Napoleon’s optimal downtown location, on the trolley line and within a short walk of Beale Street, the FedExForum and other top Memphis attractions. 

A guest room with two queen beds at Hotel Napoleon in Memphis, Tennessee
A guest room with two queen beds at Hotel Napoleon in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo by California News Press)

Hotel Napoleon offers 58 guest rooms, making it an intimate property where all guests enjoy personalized southern hospitality. Choose two queens or one king bed in a standard guest room, or upgrade to a more spacious corner room or one-bedroom suite. High-end amenities come as standard, among them plush pillow-top mattresses, large flat-screen TVs, rain showers, robes, and the convenience of an in-room refrigerator and coffee maker. 

The guest room decor reflects the building’s stately heritage. Raw brick walls and bay windows with views of neighboring historic high-rises are a reminder of the property’s century-plus as a downtown landmark. Guest rooms feature clean lines with all-white linens and fixtures, ornamented tastefully with checkered curtains. A work desk, vanity, closet, leather bench seat and spacious, gleaming bathroom ensure the neat living space has all the comforts you could desire. 

Hotel Napoleon is a 100% smoke-free hotel. Guests enjoy free WiFi plus access to a fitness center and business center.


Hotel Napoleon, Ascend Hotel Collection

179 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103

(901) 526-0002


California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.

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