Three Ways To Do Downtown Memphis
One of my favorite ways to spend a day in Memphis is to drive downtown, park the car and walk wherever my mood (or my company) takes me. Now, it’s your turn. Start by completing this sentence:
I love my:
Next, follow one of my three simple itineraries. (Each itinerary suggests a museum, refreshment and wild-card stop in tune with your love, but if you love a little bit of everything, mash them up. I won’t be offended as long as you tell me all about it.)
If you love your family:
Give them an educational outlet for their energy at The Fire Museum. Downstairs, my four-year-old loved sitting at the wheel of a real engine and sliding down the fire pole; upstairs, more intrepid visitors can enter the Fire Room (an intense simulation involving a smoke machine, video footage and a roaring soundtrack). Anyone can enjoy being inside the circa-1911 fire house which served Memphis at a time when horses pulled the trucks. (You can see one of those models, as well as the city’s first gas-powered engine, on site too.) Tip: The museum is popular with field-trippers. To have the place to yourselves, visit in the afternoon or call ahead.
For lunch, track down the Revival: Southern Food Company food truck (weekdays, it’s often parked at Court Square, a few minutes’ walk from The Fire Museum). Kids will love the changing – but ever-playful – menu (think sliders, tacos and Krispy Kreme bread pudding) and the chance to picnic on the square.
Pull your wild card in time to see the ducks march at The Peabody: They waddle the red carpet at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, and you should arrive early to stake a decent vantage.
If you love music:
Get thee to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum – not as a substitute for visiting Memphis’ legendary studios, but as a prelude. It’s small-ish but crammed with relics (Jerry Lee Lewis’ costumes; Ike Turner’s first piano; the original lyrics of “Heartbreak Hotel”) and introductions to Memphis music names you should know. Still, my favorite thing about the place is the audio tour: It’s included with every admission and features 100 songs that sing the story of Memphis music. I haven’t been able to get Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” out of my head since.
Wild card: After you’ve seen the B.B. King “Lucille” guitar at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, cross the street to the Gibson guitar factory. Tours are guided several times daily, but it’s best to reserve in advance.
Save your appetite for Itta Bena. Though technically on Beale Street (atop B.B. King’s Blues Club, specifically), Itta Bena’s dim lights, soulful songstresses and elevated-Southern menu invite with a low-key sophistication. The restaurant is open daily at 4 p.m., but the crooners come on around 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
If you love history:
The Cotton Museum uses archival photos, artifacts and documents (one, a slave trade receipt) to chronicle the history of cotton and what remains, to this day, its largest spot market. But merely standing inside the museum’s main hall – the former floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, where deals were made over cards and cigarettes at a time when cotton-classing was an apprenticed art – intrigued me most. There’s plenty of A/V and interactive flair here too: Duck into an original phone booth on the exchange floor to hear oral histories; handle cotton to practice classing and carding; and learn about biotechnology in the museum’s colorful, interactive secondary exhibit space.
Discuss what you’ve learned at The Arcade, which claims to be Memphis’ oldest restaurant (established in 1919). It’s the kind of place where you can order breakfast all day (or, a little later, a burger, pizza or daily special. Try the catfish if they’ve got it.) Just mind the time: The Arcade is open daily, but only until 3 p.m.
Step out of The Arcade onto South Main Street to catch the trolley for your wild card. The Main Street line follows the same path once traced by mules and takes you on a deliciously slow, rocking ride past Beale Street and The National Civil Rights Museum. It’s the next best thing to walking, in my opinion.