Photo: Roger Hsu
1. Don’t… come for The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Even just hearing that it’s the largest barbecue competition in the world may make your mouth water, but don’t be fooled. It’s a serious competition and contestants are not allowed to sell samples of their food due to health codes. The different booths make up a raucous, alcohol-fueled party and it’s a lot of fun if you’re a local and know someone who’s competing. However, outsiders will have a hard time getting an “in” at one of the competitors’ booths and your only option for food will be overpriced barbecue from one of the catering trucks.
Do… try the dozens of great barbecue and soul food restaurants.
Memphis was named The Best Food Town in America by Alton Brown. We have several of the top barbecue joints in the country like Central BBQ, Bar-B-Q Shop, and Payne’s BBQ. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Dyer’s Burgers, and Gibson’s Donuts should also be on your hit list. All this great food might explain our 30% obesity rate.
2. Don’t… party on Beale Street.
Don’t expect to find an authentic piece of music history. In fact, you won’t even find good barbecue. Beale Street has become Memphis’s biggest tourist trap. You’ll see plenty of bars and souvenir shops, but expect high prices and average food. The main section of the street is only a few blocks long, so take a gander, but spend your Friday night at Overton Square with the locals.
Do… rock out at the annual Beale Street Music Festival.
The festival has taken place for nearly 40 years and showcases pop, rock, blues, and folk music. As well as local musicians, it draws plenty of impressive headliners like Neil Young, Ed Sheeran, Flogging Molly, Wilco, Snoop Dogg, and dozens more. This music festival is one of the most affordable you’ll find at only $105 for a full 3-day pass.
3. Don’t… visit Graceland.
Elvis’s famous home draws over half a million people every year, but don’t feel like you need to follow the crowd. For hardcore fans of The King: You get an intimate glimpse into his life. But unless you’re a big fan, your $50 is better spent elsewhere.
Do… check out the many smaller museums.
For the same amount of money you’d spent at Graceland on a ticket, parking, and food, you can visit almost every other notable museum in Memphis such as the Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum, Stax Museum, and Sun Studio. All of them feature key pieces of Memphis music history and it takes a much shorter drive to get to them.
4. Don’t… linger at the Pyramid.
It’s the only iconic building on the city’s skyline. Originally built as an arena, it now houses the largest Bass Pro Shop in the region. If you like fishing, hunting, camo-prints, and overpriced catfish stuffed animals, this will be the highlight of your visit to Memphis. For everyone else, skip the $10 elevator ride to the top of the pyramid and instead see the view for free from the A.W. Willis Ave. bridge right next to it.
Do… hit up a Grizzlies’ game.
Even if you’re not into sports, going to the FedEx Forum is a great opportunity to see a professional basketball game for less than $30. The Grizzlies are beloved in this city and have been gaining momentum in the NBA’s rankings over the last several years. Tickets routinely sell for about half of what NBA tickets cost in most other cities. It’s a great chance to see the locals in their blue jerseys and showing their pride. Go Grizzlies!
5. Don’t… come for the music.
With Nashville only a few hours away, more aspiring musicians flock to the other side of Tennessee to launch their careers. Most major artists commonly choose to tour over there instead of here as well. In Memphis you’re more likely to find musically-minded locals who play house shows or in small venues.
Do… come for the live theater.
What Memphis lacks in music, it makes up for in live theater. Midtown is a hot spot for independent playhouses — five within just two square miles — and many others downtown and in the suburbs. You could see a new play every week and still miss half of the great shows that come out every month. The largest theater is the Orpheum downtown, which regularly hosts touring broadway plays. They’re the exact same shows from New York City, but the tickets cost a fraction of what you’d pay there. If you don’t already love musicals, Memphis will show you the way.