The largest city in Tennessee, Memphis lies on the Mississippi River and shares its southern border with the state of Mississippi. Founded in 1819, the city served as an important trading point along the river, particularly for cotton, once an important crop for the many plantations nearby. As the hometown of several genres, many of the city’s nicknames—such as Blues City and the Birthplace of Rock and Roll—reflect its music pedigree. Today, Memphis is the headquarters for FedEx, whose business has turned Memphis International Airport into the largest cargo operation in the world. A mild southern climate makes for average summer temperatures of 80F/27C and 43F/6C in winter.
The City’s Culture
Memphis has long been associated with music, whether it be blues, rock and roll, or the variety of soul known as the “Memphis sound,” and many of the city’s cultural institutions and festivals reflect that heritage. As a more northerly state in the Confederacy, Tennessee was often the site of racial clashes, but also had many stops on the Underground Railroad, some of which are now open to visitors. Several of John Grisham’s novels take place in Memphis, as the author grew up nearby. The food scene has exploded in recent years, and although the city has long been known for its Southern barbecue, it’s recently gained renown for gourmet burgers and even pizza.
The many music-related sites, from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music to the Blues Hall of Fame—are cornerstones of the Memphis experience. Other cultural attractions include the Memphis Brooks Museum of Fine Art, with a large collection of American and European works from the Renaissance to today, and the Pink Palace Family of Museums, which includes a nature center, historic houses, and a planetarium. Another facet of the city’s history is detailed at the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built around the former hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. One of the most-visited private homes in the country, the Graceland mansion is a shrine to rock-and-roll icon Elvis Presley, while even those not staying at the Peabody Hotel show up for the daily duck walk.
Where to Explore
A hop on a vintage trolley offers an informal tour of the downtown area, which includes famed Beale Street, the city’s music nexus. Named the most iconic street in the country by USA Today, the thoroughfare boasts dozens of music venues offering blues and other genres. Revitalization efforts have turned the Cooper-Young neighborhood into a hip, artsy destination that has been home to the literary landmark Burke’s Books since 1875. Located walking distance from the University of Memphis, the Highland Strip attracts both college students and those seeking trendy eats and shopping. The quirky Riverwalk on Mud Island allows visitors to explore a scale model of the lower Mississippi.