Sightseeing in Memphis encompasses historical and modern attractions. At Chucalissa Archaeological Museum and Village in south Shelby County it is easy to step back in time—via slide shows, case exhibits, and village reconstruction—and learn about the Indian farmers, craftsmen and artists who lived in the area from 1000 to 1500 A.D. Operated by the University of Memphis, the archaeological site features tours and craft demonstrations by members of the Choctaw tribe.
The city's oldest private museums are located in an area known as Victorian Village, just a few miles east of downtown Memphis. Where once horse-drawn carriages kicked up dust as settlers arrived for afternoons of "calling" on their friends, Victorian Village today is a busy hubbub of tourist buses, cars, and bicycles as thousands come to see what life was like before electricity—when tea was poured from silver pots and ladies wore long, billowing frocks. The two most notable museum houses are the Woodruff-Fontaine House and the Mallory-Neely House (which, in 2005 is temporarily closed and awaiting funding). Woodruff-Fontaine, built in 1870, is French Victorian in style; Mallory-Neely was built in 1852. Several blocks away is the Magevney House; also temporarily closed, it is the oldest and by far the quaintest of the homes-turned-museums. The small white-frame building was built circa 1836. The home is furnished as it would have been in the 1850s.
Memphis's cultural heritage is strongly rooted in the mystical, magical sounds of jazz, blues, and rock and roll. W. C. Handy, the father of the blues, lived in Memphis when he heard bluesy music on Beale Street and then wrote such memorable songs as "The Memphis Blues" and "The Beale Street Blues." Beale Street has been restored and redeveloped, serving as both a center for African American culture and entertainment and as a tourist attraction since 1983. A restaurant and nightclub district, historic Beale Street also contains the renovated Old Daisy Theatre; just across the street is the new Daisy Theater, a blues and jazz venue for all ages. The Center for Southern Folklore documents Southern traditions through live entertainment, folk art, and photography exhibits.
Sightseers in Memphis also visit the Peabody, the classic hotel in downtown that was originally built in the 1920s and renovated in 1981. Of interest are the hotel's Art Deco elevator doors, its stained glass work above the lobby bar, its reconstructed 1930s nightclub, and its resident ducks. By a tradition that started as a practical joke, a group of ducks occupies the hotel lobby's baroque fountain from eleven in the morning until five in the evening. During their arrival and departure, to the strains of John Phillip Sousa's "King Cotton March," they march over a red carpet unrolled between the fountain and the elevator that rises to the ducks' rooftop quarters. The Peabody's Plantation Roof attracts crowds of several hundred for Thursday evening Sunset Serenades. It is the very same spot where Paul Whiteman's and Tommy Dorsey's bands were once heard after their familiar radio introduction, "from high atop the Hotel Peabody, overlooking Ole Man River, in beautiful, downtown Memphis, Tennessee." In 2005, the Peabody will undergo a multimillion dollar renovation and refurbishment.
Fun can be found in many colors and hues at Libertyland, an educational and recreational theme park in Memphis. Built in 1976, the nonprofit park incorporates the themes of adventure, patriotism, and freedom under one giant, outdoor umbrella. The Memphis Zoo features 2,000 mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish in facilities that include an aquarium and a petting zoo. In March of 2005, a motion simulator ride opened at the zoo to take visitors on a thrilling trip to "Dino Island."
More than 700,000 people annually visit Memphis's Grace-land, home of the late world-famous musician Elvis Presley; the entertainer moved to Memphis at age twelve, attended school there, and recorded his first songs at a studio in the city. He made Graceland, built in 1939, his home in 1957. Set on nearly 14 acres of lush grounds, Graceland is open to the public for tours that include glimpses of Presley's exotic Jungle Room, his gold-leafed piano, numerous television sets, and mirrored walls. Graceland's Trophy Building contains the singer's gold and platinum records, his costumes, and other memorabilia; the carport houses Presley's vehicles, including his legendary pink Cadillac. Graceland's Meditation Garden, the Presley family burial site, is also on view, as is the singer's private jet.
Another prime Memphis attraction is the mid-river Mud Island. What began as a sandbar in the Mississippi River grew into what is now called Mud Island, which was officially declared to be above the flood stage in 1965. Development of the island eventually resulted in the entertainment complex opened in 1982. It features a monorail, marina, amphitheater, playgrounds, River Museum, and a spectacular four-block-long River Walk that is an exact working replica of the Mississippi River; office workers and children alike are encouraged to wade in the River Walk's flowing waters. Mud Island affords visitors a magnificent view of the Memphis skyline. Another Memphis-style experience is a sightseeing cruise along the Mississippi River aboard riverboat replicas.
Arts and Culture
Touring Broadway productions are presented at the Orpheum Theatre, a lavish turn-of-the-century theater in downtown Memphis. Memphians and mid-South residents enthusiastically support other area theaters, including Theatre Memphis, Germantown Community Theatre, Jewish Community Center, Old Daisy Theatre (located on renovated Beale Street), Playhouse on the Square, and Circuit Playhouse. In addition, the University of Memphis and Rhodes College theater groups mount stage productions. Dance companies performing in Memphis include Ballet Memphis and the Memphis Youth Concert Ballet. Opera Memphis also performs in the city.
Besides the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, musical groups performing in the Memphis area include Roscoe's Surprise Orchestra, devoted to presenting audiences with the top new compositions in modern serious music. The University of Memphis and Rhodes College also support musical performances in the city. Live popular music is plentiful in Memphis, where audiences can hear the unique blend of blues, soul, and rock and roll that has been identified as the "Memphis Sound." Jazz, bluegrass, and country music are also found at Memphis nightspots, which thrive on historic Beale Street and at Overton Square. Next door to Beale Street, the new Gibson Guitar Plant is an active manufacturing facility that offers tours plus the Smithsonian Institute's "Rock 'n Soul: Social Crossroads," a permanent exhibit of the social and cultural history of music in the Mississippi Delta and Memphis.
Memphis-area museums and galleries display a range of art and artifacts. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art exhibits Renaissance pieces, English portraits and landscapes, regional works, and traveling shows. The Art Museum of the University of Memphis features Egyptian and African collections, as well as regional, faculty, and student work. Exhibits are also mounted at the Memphis College of Arts (formerly the Memphis Academy of Arts.) The Dixon Gallery and Gardens showcases French and American impressionist art and 17 acres of landscaped formal gardens. At the Memphis Botanic Garden, 96 acres form the setting for roses, irises, wildflowers, magnolias, lemon trees, banana trees, orchids, and a Japanese garden. Also located in Memphis is the National Ornamental Metal Museum, which displays weapons, model trains, sculpture, furniture, fencing, tools, and utensils. The Memphis Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium, named for the pink marble used in its construction in the 1920s, houses archaeological gems, prehistoric fossils, a Civil War display, regional exhibits, and a highly ranked planetarium; the museum is one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast.
Festivals and Holidays
The Memphis in May International Festival is a month-long series of festive activities offering celebrations to suit every taste. Events include foot races, canoe and kayak races, a triathlon competition, fireworks, and seminars. A main feature of the festival is the International Fair held at Tom Lee Park, each year honoring a different foreign country with exhibitions and demonstrations of arts, crafts, foods, and culture. The festival also hosts the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which rewards showmanship as well as culinary talent; the Desti-Nations International Family Festival; the Beale Street Music Festival with top-name jazz and blues artists; and the Sunset Symphony, a beloved Memphis in May tradition with orchestral selections including "Ole Man River," and the "1812 Overture," a bombastic symphonic standard by nineteenth-century Russian composer Petr Ilich Tchaikovsky; the concert is played as the sun sets over the Mississippi River.
In late May and early June the Great River Carnival is celebrated with a river pageant, exhibits, parades, and a MusicFest. The Elvis Tribute Week held in mid-August honors the late entertainer Elvis Presley, who made his home in Memphis and inspired intense fan loyalty. During Labor Day weekend in Memphis, historic Beale Street is the center of the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which underlines Memphis's claim as the birthplace of blues, soul, and rock music. September is also the month for the Mid-South Fair, featuring one of the largest rodeos east of the Mississippi, and agricultural, commercial, and industrial exhibits and events. October events in Memphis include the Oktoberfest and the week-long Pink Palace Crafts Fair.
Sports for the Spectator
Memphis provides sports enthusiasts with a variety of spectator action. The NBA Memphis Grizzlies play professional basketball at the Pyramid Arena, a spectacular structure which, at 32 stories high, is the third largest pyramid in the world; it provides seating for 21,000. It is also home to the University of Memphis's basketball team, the Tigers. Baseball fans can cheer for the Memphis Redbirds, AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, who play at the 12,000-seat AutoZone Stadium downtown. The Memphis Riverkings of the Central Hockey League provide hockey action. Early each spring, tennis buffs can enjoy the Kroger/St. Jude International Indoor TPA Tennis Tournament. During midsummer, golfing devotees can enjoy the FedEx/St. Jude Classic PGA Golf Tournament, a professional golfing championship held each year at Colonial Country Club. Motorsports are increasingly popular in Memphis, and more than 200 events take place at Motorsport Park, which has a three-quarter-mile paved track and quarter-mile drag strip. Dog racing is also popular in the Memphis area; fans place wagers on favorites at Southland Greyhound Park in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas.
Sports for the Participant
Memphis has 187 parks, totaling 5,387 acres; the oldest and most notable is Overton Park, where 342 acres offer picnic areas, sports fields, natural woods hiking, and bicycle trails, combined with a nine-hole golf course, the zoo, and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Other large parks are M. L. King-Riverside, with facilities for golf and tennis; and Audubon, offering water skiing, boating, swimming, and sailing. Memphis offers a total of 11 public golf courses and more than 100 public tennis courts. The T. O. Fuller State Park, at the southern city limits, is the only State Park within Memphis. Its 1,138 acres, primarily of forest land, feature a swimming pool, picnic area, nature trails, and 18-hole golf course. In the north end of Shelby County is 13,467-acre Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. Located parallel to the Mississippi River 15 miles north of the heart of Memphis, Meeman-Shelby offers horseback riding, swimming, fishing, and miles of camping and hiking trails.
Boating, sailing, and water skiing are popular leisure-hour pursuits at dozens of lakes in the Memphis/Shelby County area. The Memphis Yacht Club, located next to Mud Island, accommodates a vast array of member craft, ranging from small houseboats to ocean-going vessels. Visiting craft are also accommodated at the club's dock.
Hunting dogs from all over the United States compete each year in the National Bird Dog Championship just outside Memphis. Climate allows year-round fishing for bass, crappie, trout, bream, and catfish. Lichterman Nature Center, an urban nature center in the heart of metropolitan Memphis, encompasses 65 acres of sanctuary and nature trails and an exhibit center.
Shopping and Dining
Notable among the city's shopping centers and malls is the Main Street Mall, a downtown array of department stores, boutiques, and eating establishments that together form one of the world's largest pedestrian shopping malls. The city's largest enclosed malls include Southland, Hickory Ridge, and Oak Court malls; the region's largest shopping mall is Wolfchase Galleria, with more than 130 stores, in eastern Shelby County. The city's historic Beale Street district contains unusual shops, including A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, a landmark on Beale Street since 1876, where general merchandise is enhanced by the Beale Street Museum housed in the establishment's basement. Overton Square in the city's midtown features antique shops and art galleries along with cafes and restaurants.
For those who like to combine dining with entertainment, Memphis offers Peabody Place Retail & Entertainment Center, a mixed-use development and historic preservation project. Opened in 2001, Peabody Place offers sports restaurants and bars, video games, dancing, bowling, billiards, and restaurants. A veritable city within the city, Peabody Place encompasses three blocks of Beale Street, and includes the Peabody Hotel, the Orpheum Center, Fed Ex Forum, Autozone Stadium, plus 80 restaurants; it attracts more than 8 million visitors annually. Overton Square and Beale Street boast a concentration of sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs that contribute to the range of culinary experiences awaiting diners in Memphis. Besides European, Asian, and Mexican cuisines, Memphis-area restaurants offer traditional American choices such as steaks and seafood, as well as a number of typically Southern dishes. Regional specialties include main dishes such as fried chicken, catfish, ham hocks, chitlins, and seafood gumbo; side dishes such as turnip greens, sweet potato souffle, black-eyed peas, collard greens, yams, and cornbread; and desserts such as banana pudding, fruit cobblers, pecan pie, strawberry shortcake, and fried pie—a type of portable filled pastry. But Memphis is mainly known for its pork and barbecue masterpieces, ranging from dry ribs—prepared without sauce—to barbecue sandwiches.
Visitor Information: Memphis/Shelby County Visitors Center, 12036 Arlington Trail, Arlington, TN 38002; telephone (901)543-5333. Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, 47 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; telephone (901)543-5300; fax (901)543-5350
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