Nashville and Memphis are both music-centric cities. But if the former is Carrie Underwood—a center-stage idol with big, high hair and big, shiny belt buckles—then the latter is her scrappier, soulful younger sister, strumming the blues in the state’s southwest corner and shooting whiskey out of a plastic cup.
Be honest. Who would you rather hang with?
Tennessee’s largest city, Memphis was founded in 1819, 40 years after the Volunteer State’s capital. But it somehow feels older, more storied, with more secrets waiting within the walls of its enduring, eclectic architecture—from art deco to neo-classical—on the swampy banks of the Mississippi River. Nashville, now the de facto Southern choice for destination bachelorettes, has glitz and glamour. But Memphis, often dubbed the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll and a prominent place in the history of the civil rights movement, feels full of grit and ghosts.
Your preferred haunt should be the Madison Hotel, a four-diamond downtown property that, like native son Justin Timberlake, dresses up old-school Memphis charm in trendy, tailored suit-and-tie style. In its lobby (and select suites), headphone-equipped Traveler guitars beg guests to wail away. On-site restaurant Eighty3 lures diners with a weekend Hallelujah Brunch serving bourbon-peach schnapps cocktails and Southern specialties like Elvis waffles, loaded with the King’s favorite combo of peanut butter, banana and bacon. And vinyl record-lined elevators deliver guests from the fitness center, housed inside a former bank vault, to the Twilight Sky Terrace, a fire pit-bedecked rooftop bar with a front-row view of the Mississippi River. Add whiskey. Sip. Repeat.
From the Madison’s central address, you’re well positioned to go walking—and dancing, drinking and eating—in Memphis. Start with touristy draws that genuinely deserve a visit. Amble down neon-lit Beale Street, the history-steeped Broadway of blues, ducking into suds-soaked venues to hear country, jazz and bluegrass musicians. Even the worst of them blow bar bands elsewhere out of the water. (Overwhelmed by options? Start at Rum Boogie Cafe, which strikes a great balance between tourist-friendly fun and local-music-lover credibility.) Devout music fans can worship at Sun Studio, a national historic landmark open to tours, where stars like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis first committed rock to wax. But even the casually curious should pilgrimage to Presley’s old palace on the city’s outskirts, Graceland, even if just to gape agog at the mansion’s thrillingly kitsch, of-an-era ostentation; never have copious crystal and avocado shag carpeting been such beautiful bedfellows. In October the estate opens its first hotel, the 450-room Guest House at Graceland, and in spring debuts a $45 million entertainment complex, the largest addition since Graceland’s 1982 opening, with multiple restaurants, museums and a live music venue.
More somber but stirring is the National Civil Rights Museum, filled with interactive exhibits that capture the movement’s history. The recently renovated institution is attached to the former Lorraine Motel, the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and his room, 306—never rented since—remains on view as a memorial.
But Memphis isn’t mired in the past. Though unscientific studies suggest Nashville may boast a few more hipsters per square mile, those seeking Memphis’ modern energy will find an especially high dose in Cooper-Young, an artsy historic neighborhood with eclectic shops and funky bars and restaurants. Among the best are the Beauty Shop, a borderline-camp New American eatery where diners dig into seriously great food—like crispy duck with muddled blackberries and pecan-crusted trout with plum salsa—from the dryer chairs of a 1950s-style salon. Nearby cocktail joint Alchemy mixes top-notch elixirs, muddling grapes in pisco and spiking rye with black tea, while serving shareable global small plates. Poke around Goner Records, an old-school record shop from a local indie label focused on punk and garage bands.
Outside the concentrated cool of Cooper-Young, Uber will be helpful for bouncing between the city’s more scattered standouts, from groovy craft suds maker Wiseacre Brewing’s singles-baiting taproom off Broad Avenue, a revitalizing arts district, to the dim lo-fi dive that is Midtown’s Buccaneer Lounge, where live bands jam in what feels like a cheap beer-soaked ashtray. (That’s meant as a compliment.) Fussier tastes may prefer the big-budget vibe of Lafayette’s Music Room in nearby Overton Square, a historic multi-floor music hall and Southern restaurant reopened in 2014 after nearly four decades gone dark. There’s Memphis in a nutshell: a pop of electricity in a quiet corner of the South.
-Detour past Gibson’s Donuts in East Memphis, a barebones local legend for its frosted wheels of carb-loaded goodness.
-Explore regional Memphis-style barbecue at icons like Rendezvous, famed for its 5-pound skillet of barbecue shrimp that requires 24-hour advance ordering, and Central BBQ, a trio locally beloved for its superior ribs and wings.
Alchemy, 940 S. Cooper St. (901-726-4444) alchemymemphis.com; The Beauty Shop, 966 Cooper St. (901-272-7111) thebeautyshoprestaurant.com; The Buccaneer Lounge, 1368 Monroe Ave. (901-278-0909); Central BBQ, multiple locations, cbqmemphis.com; Gibson’s Donuts, 760 Mount Moriah Road (901-682-8200); Goner Records, 2152 Young Ave. (901-722-0095) goner-records.com; Graceland, Elvis Presley Blvd. (901-332-3322) graceland.com; Lafayette’s Music Room, 2119 Madison Ave. (901-207-5097) lafayettes.com; Madison Hotel, 79 Madison Ave. (901-333-1200) madisonhotelmemphis.com; National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry St. (901-521-9699) civilrightsmuseum.org; Rendezvous, 52 S. 2nd St. (901-523-2746) hogsfly.com; Rum Boogie Cafe, 182 Beale St. (901-528-0150) rumboogie.com; Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave. (800-441-6249) sunstudio.com; Wiseacre Brewing Company, 2783 Broad Ave. (901-888-7000) wiseacrebrew.com