Memphis (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Millie Ball
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Memphis

To much of the world, Elvis Presley's Graceland is the main image of Memphis. But those who venture beyond the obligatory pilgrimage to The King's former home may leave with more vivid memories of other attractions.

Memphis is music, barbecue, Southern tradition and a place that helped spark the Civil Rights movement. Many riverboat cruisers will try to see everything in one extra day (which, of course, is impossible), but they'll discover much more than they may expect -- and learn a lot in the process.

Those embarking or disembarking on Sunday may decide to start their day with a living music legend. The Reverend Al Green -- yes, that Al Green -- preaches and sings at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church most Sunday mornings. A recent visitor described it online as a "foot stomping, hand clapping, Bible-based Christian church."

There's live music scattered around Memphis, much of it on downtown's Beale Street. For the backstory, check out Memphis' music museums: rock 'n' roll's Sun Studio, where Elvis made his first 45s; Stax Museum, onetime recording studio for soul stars such as Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes; and Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, where the full story of Memphis music is told. If that's not enough, there's also the Blues Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

The music story is incomplete without learning about the chaotic changes in Memphis after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which happened here. The music museums do mention the struggles, but to get to the heart of that era, everyone should spend time at the powerful National Civil Rights Museum, built around the site of the Lorraine Motel, where MLK died.

A new attraction in 2015 is an eye-popping store about a mile from the Beale Street Landing, where overnight and excursion riverboats dock. Once a basketball arena and site of mega-cultural exhibits, the riverfront Memphis Pyramid is now called Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid. It includes the 103-room Big Cypress Lodge, two restaurants and a dimly lighted emporium where fake cypress trees with real moss lord over shelves with T-shirts and parkas, a giant aquarium, an alligator habitat, pond, and waterfalls.

Barbecue reigns in Memphis. But again, beyond the cliche ribs -- so good -- there also are sophisticated wine bars and ethnic restaurants, plus several down-home cafes on Beale Street.

A couple of favorite meeting spots for Memphis residents are near Beale, in and around the city's beloved hotel: The Peabody Memphis. Locals and tourists crowd the lobby daily at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to watch the hotel's resident mallard ducks parade to and from the lobby fountain, where they swim all day. It's delightful. It's Memphis.

About Memphis


Pro

You can visit Graceland, home of Elvis, and the hallowed ground of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Con

Fares for taxis can be uneven; if you visit the Peabody Memphis Hotel in shorts, you might be underdressed

Bottom Line

Memphis serves up nothing short of fabulous music, barbecue and a powerful homage to the Civil Rights Era


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Where You're Docked

Riverboats dock at Beale Street Landing, where a new riverfront building opened in June 2014 at 251 Riverside Drive. It's at the foot of Beale Street, where it dead-ends at the Mississippi River, about a 10-minute walk to downtown. Daytime excursion boats also leave from here.

Port Facilities

Beale Street Landing's floating dock has a spiral walkway (and golf carts with drivers to transport boat guests when the river is high) to the top of the riverbank and the Riverside Bar and Grill, where sandwiches, salads, fried green tomatoes, catfish and Memphis peach pie are among menu items. There's also a gift shop. Both are open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in spring and summer, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in winter. Unfortunately, when the American Queen docked here to disembark passengers at 8 a.m. on a Sunday in December, nothing was open.

However, the six-acre site is a haven in good weather for those who relish being outside. There are walking and biking trails, fitness stations, spots to settle in and contemplate the river, and Island Play @ Beale Street Landing, a children's playground with misting devices in summer, dancing fountains and a giant catfish sculpture. It's a 10-minute walk to downtown, with crosswalks over Riverside Drive

The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau is at 47 Union Street, walking distance from Beale Street Landing. It's open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, but is closed Saturday and Sunday.

The 1-40 Tennessee Welcome Center, at 119 N. Riverside Drive, is near the Brass Pro Shops at The Pyramid (about a mile from Beale Street Landing). However, the Memphis CVB is open only during weekday business hours, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. So plan your Memphis visit in advance.

Good to Know

There's a friendly, casual atmosphere in Memphis, although those who venture to The Peabody Memphis will feel more comfortable if they leave their T-shirts and Nikes in their suitcases and dress up a wee bit.

When a local asks a bartender for Jack, he means Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

If you hear someone mention "the Grizzlies," they're not talking about bears, but about the local NBA team.

"Grit and grind" is a favorite Memphis saying, which is plastered across T-shirts and signs at NBA games. Tony Allen said, "All heart. Grit and grind," after his transformative performance when the Grizzlies beat Oklahoma City's Thunder in a wild game on February 8, 2011. Fans call the FedEx Forum (where the team plays) the Grind House.

Check fares in taxis. One driver posted a $4 Sunday surcharge on his meter, while the next two posted $2.

Getting Around

By Trolley: Memphis' downtown trolleys have been undergoing restoration since 2014; local officials promise they will return! In the meantime, they've been replaced on the same routes by buses painted to look like trolleys.

By Bus: There's the Hop On commercial tour bus, which operates Tuesday through Saturday in spring and summer, but only Thursday through Saturday in fall and winter. There is a free hourly shuttle between Graceland, Sun Studio and the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum.

By Taxi: On a pretty day, passengers making a Memphis port call as part of a longer cruise can walk to from the port to downtown. If you have luggage, it's best to take a taxi; they line up for disembarking passengers when riverboats dock. Uber is also active in Memphis.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

There is no ATM in Beale Street Landing, where the riverboats dock (see Where You're Docked), or at the National Civil Rights Museum. However, there are ATMs on every block of busy Beale Street downtown, a center for music, bars and cafes. There's also an ATM near the corner of downtown's Main and Peabody, a busy pedestrian intersection.

Language

English with a touch of a Southern accent is what you'll hear in Memphis.

Food and Drink

No one should leave town without digging into barbecue. You'll be asked if you want it "wet or dry," which refers to a preference for meat brushed with sauce or rubbed with dry spices before being smoked.

Central BBQ: We ordered our barbecue dry for our Sunday lunch at the packed downtown Central BBQ (there are three), across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum. Three of us shared ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, mac 'n' cheese, cole slaw and beans, and then checked out the back room to look at three wall murals depicting life in Memphis. Near the front door in December was a Christmas tree decorated with blue lights and topped with a smiling pig's head. (147 E. Butler Street; 901-672-7760; cbqmemphis.com; open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.)

Rendezvous: Some locals swear by Charles Vergos' Rendezvous; opened in 1948 across Union Avenue and down an alley from The Peabody, it's renowned for charcoal-grilled pork ribs. It also claims to have developed the Memphis dry rub, a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, chili powder, oregano and paprika. (52 S. Second Street; 901-523-2746; hogsfly.com; open Tuesday to Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sundays and Mondays)

Blues City Cafe: Blues City Cafe is a big,down-home spot on Beale Street, with a long grill where diners can see cooks at work. Their motto is "Put some South in your mouth." Chef Larry's Down South Turnip Greens are beyond delicious, with Italian sausage, hot sauce and spices. There's also catfish, ribs, skillet shrimp, large steaks, "the world's best tamales" and a sublime apple dumpling that arrived sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, and topped with ice cream. (138 Beale Street at Second Street; 901-526-3637; bluescitycafe.com; open Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., and Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 a.m.)

Majestic Grille: Located downtown in a onetime movie theater built in 1913, The Majestic Grille still screens silent films as diners eat, and sponsors special events. Winner of "best brunch" citations in local publications, its brunch menu items range from flatbreads and burgers to artichoke- or crabcake-eggs Benedict and smoked salmon hash. Steaks are a specialty at dinner. (145 S. Main Street; 901-522-8555; majesticgrille.com; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (brunch) and 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (brunch) and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday)

The Peabody Memphis: Along with watching free procession of mallard ducks at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, The Peabody Memphis also draws locals and visitors to eat and drink. Among several options is afternoon tea with scones, cakes and sandwiches, served from 1 to 3:30 p.m. in Chez Philippe restaurant (which switches to fine dining fare at night). At the Lobby Bar, surrounding the ducks' fountain, it's possible to sink into a chair for coffee, drinks and dessert anytime. Locals have named it the "best people watching" site in Memphis. (149 Union Avenue; 901-529-4000; peabodymemphis.com.)

Restaurant Iris: The showplace of Chef Kelly English (a native of southern Louisiana who trained with New Orleans celebrity chef, John Besh), Iris is set in a renovated home near Overton Square. Local polls have voted it best restaurant, best chef, best fine dining and best service. Among menu items is a New York strip steak stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese. (2146 Monroe Avenue; 901-590-2828; restaurantiris.com; open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday)

The Second Line: Next door to Restaurant Iris is The Second Line, a much more casual option with po'boys, gumbo, catfish and more. (2144 Monroe Avenue; 901-590-2829; open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., weekends open 11 a.m.)

Felicia Suzanne's Downtown Memphis: Felicia Suzanne's Downtown Memphis' menu has a touch of Charleston, S.C. and New Orleans (she cooked beside Celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse). Try shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken livers, or duck three ways. (80 Monroe Ave; 901-523-0877; feliciasuzanne.com; open Friday for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner from 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday)

Shopping

How about Elvis' pink Cadillac as a Christmas ornament? With 11 gift shops at Graceland, you'll find something Elvis-ish to take home. The Peabody Memphis has an entire shop selling avian-themed mementoes such as rubber ducks for your bathtub, ties with ducks, and books about the hotel and ducks. The Stax Museum and Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum are good places to find music-related souvenirs.

Do poke around Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid, whether or not you buy anything (fudge, parkas?); more than 2 million people visited it within its first eight months.

The National Civil Rights Museum's shop is filled with tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., peace symbols and other tangible reminders to strive for harmony.

Best Cocktail

Where to begin? Favorites at The Peabody Memphis' Lobby Bar include the Peabody Cocktail, with rum and Southern Comfort mixed with orange and pineapple juices and a dash of grenadine. The Peabody Mint Julep is made with Early Times Mint Bourbon, a sprig of fresh mint, and a secret something or other.

Local on the Square -- located on Overton Square -- makes a Velvet Elvis, with Justin Timberlake's 901 vodka, lavender syrup, Champagne and orange juice.

Partying college kids head to Beale Street's Silky O' Sullivan's for music, barbecue (of course) and Divers, a lethal drink served in a yellow gallon bucket. Ingredients are "secret," but one blogger wrote he'd heard it's made from lite beer, Hawaiian Punch, rum or gin, and creme soda. They actually pay for that.