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    Great Urban Weekend Escapes: Memphis, TN

    Memphis is home to two different and equally impressive music museums: Stax and the Smithsonian's Rock 'n Soul Museum.

    Larry Olmsted - Forbes -

    Welcome back to “Great Urban Weekend Escapes.” Today we visit the River City, Memphis, Tennessee, a fantastic choice for a weekend getaway.

    In fact, I had been to Memphis thrice before but was still shocked by how many stand-out attractions the city offers and how far it has come in recent years.

    At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to very briefly recap the logic behind this recurring feature, Great Urban Weekend Escapes. My first focused on Indianapolis, Indiana, in which I explain the column concept in much greater detail, so to learn more, read that one.

    The idea is simple: As someone who travels a great deal, I’ve become a big fan of more manageable cities, those perfect for weekend or long weekend escapes. My rules for what makes a city a great weekend choice include at least one standout attraction, like a Graceland or Alamo. It must also have unique or diverse cuisine, while natural attractions, great lodging, notable cultural offerings/museums, and shopping are all big pluses. I’ve said this before: If you live in Memphis, please take your selection as a compliment. I’m not suggesting your hometown is only “worth” a couple of days – I happily live in a town of less than 5,000 souls with two restaurants and no major attractions myself.  Rather, I’m saying your city is user-friendly and jam-packed enough to be enjoyed in a weekend – hopefully the first of many weekend visits.

    Memphis excels, and I mean really excels, in four distinct areas, each worth a visit: attractions, culture/museums, entertainment, and dining.

    The 800-pound gorilla of Memphis tourism is Graceland, the former home of the city’s most famous son, Elvis Presley, which draws pilgrims from every corner of the globe. For many visitors, Graceland alone is enough reason to make the trip to Memphis, and I can appreciate that because it is a really good attraction and very well run. Even if you have no interest in The King from a fandom or music prospective, it is well worth visiting, and simply one of the nation’s marquee attractions. I wrote at length about Graceland here at Forbes.com in a separate piece a few weeks ago, as it is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary of being open to the public, with plenty of detail on visiting and how to make the most of it.

    But surprisingly, while Graceland is the city’s most famous attraction, it is not the most visited one. According to the city’s excellent tourism bureau, depending on how you count an “attraction,” that honor goes to either the Beale Street Entertainment District or the Memphis Zoo. The latter is one of only four in the nation with Giant pandas, a major draw. The zoo is over a century old, spans 70-acres, and has over 3,500 animals representing 500 species. It has been rated the number one zoo in the nation by TripAdvisor readers, and has done more than $77 million in renovations in the past 20 years. Beale Street is packed with bars, restaurants, shops and most of all live music venues, with the sounds spilling into the street nightly. Beale is in the heart of downtown, convenient to most hotels, and has been declared a National Historic Landmark and thanks to an act of Congress is officially the nation’s “Home of the Blues.” W.C. Handy park in the middle of Beale Street often hosts live outdoor concerts, and the charming minor league stadium for the Tennessee Redbirds is a two minute walk away and a great way to spend an afternoon.

    Beale Street is both a daytime attraction and nighttime entertainment option, and hearing live music here is almost mandatory. To me the best of the many venue options are B.B. King’s and the Rum Boogie Café, but everyone has a favorite. I will note that the quality of the food on Beale Street, especially when it comes to barbecue, pales before the rest of the city and is very touristy.

    More than Beale Street or even Graceland, the sights that really set Memphis apart are its very unique museums, most notably the National Civil Rights Museum. Many visitors I know have been so blown away by this that they suggest it be culturally mandatory for all Americans. After my most recent visit, which was my wife’s first, she remarked, “I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t come to Memphis,” after being particularly swayed by this museum and the others nearby.

    The National Civil Rights Museum is an architectural wonder, built to incorporate the façade of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a second floor balcony outside his room. Form the exterior, the motel looks frozen in time, and even the cars parked in front of it are correct from the period, while the actual motel room in which King spent his last hours has been glassed in and incorporated into the museum’s interior. Right across the street, the boarding house from which assassin James Earl Ray shot King has also been turned into part of the museum, with exhibits on the final day of King’s life and the FBI investigation and manhunt for Ray, and visitors can stand at the window from which he took the fatal shot.

    The Museum covers far more than just King, however, and is filled with heart-moving displays and an excellent video presentation that should not be missed. A massive renovation is about to begin next month (November 2012), extending into 2013, during which many parts of the museum will be closed, while some exhibits and sections will remain open, so be sure to check the website in advance. As part of this, for the first time visitors will have access to the balcony outside room 306 where King was actually shot, which has been closed to the public for 20 years.

    The museum also touches on the role of Memphis’ music in the civil rights movement, and that is echoed at two other top museums devoted to Memphis’ rich musical history. Stax Records was a label born here that emphasized soul, jazz and R&B, and introduced many big stars such as Otis Redding. Stax went out of business but its former studio has been turned into the very impressive Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a must-visit. In downtown, there is also the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum, a satellite of the Smithsonian. Between these two interactive museums the full breadth of the Memphis music scene, including soul, jazz and R&B on one side and the exploding popularity of Rock n Roll with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and the like on the other, is covered. A free shuttle bus links Rock ‘n Soul, Graceland and the city’s other big music attraction, Sun Studio. While not really a museum, this famous studio is where Levis recorded, along with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and tours are offered daily. Visitors can also tour the famous Gibson guitar factory near Beale Street daily.

    Between Graceland, the Zoo, the National Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studio, and these two high powered music museums, the cultural attractions of Memphis will easily fill your days for a long weekend, while the city’s extremely rich live music scene and legendary barbecue offerings will take care of the nights.

    Memphis, along with Kansas City and Austin, is one of the world’s major hubs of barbecue, with its own style, focused on ribs and pulled pork, but you will find many other uniquely Memphis menu times including barbecued Cornish game hens, lamb riblets, BBQ bologna and BBQ spaghetti. There are barbecue joints everywhere you look, but as someone who writes a regional food column for USAToday.com,  has written extensively on the subject of barbecue for various food publications, and has served as an official judge at some of the world’s largest barbecue competitions, this is a topic I feel very strongly about. You do not want to go to a place like Memphis that has so much great food and be shortchanged. Some of the more famous BBQ joints are overrated and some of the less well known ones really shine. My favorites are Central Barbecue (everything is good but especially the phenomenal ribs and homemade potato chips) and Cozy Corner (most famous for its Cornish game hen but don t miss the succulent rib tips), while barbecue neophytes will enjoy the broad selection, helpful staff, and full sit-down restaurant service at the BBQ Shop. While best known for barbecue, and rightfully so, Memphis is also home to a legendary fried chicken joint that is a true standout and great value, very convenient to Beale Street and downtown, Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken. It’s well worth a visit and has been featured on Man vs. Food and other TV shows.

    For its size, Memphis is simply jammed with must-see, must-do, and must-eat choices, and there are more than enough reasons to make a long weekend trip – as soon as possible! Where to stay is the easiest choice, since in my opinion there is only one real option to experience the full flavor of Memphis, the Peabody Hotel. This grand dame of the South has a rich history, classic vibe and elegant ambiance, and the best location in town, across the street from the minor league stadium, two blocks from Beale Street and within walking distance of the Rock ‘n Soul Museum and Gus’s chicken. It has several restaurants of its own, including the city’s top fine dining eatery, the 4-Diamond, classically French Chez Philippe, and the city’s most popular cocktail spot, the lobby bar. But the Peabody is most famous for its morning and afternoon “duck marches,” in which the hotel’s uniformed Duck Master escorts a family of ducks to and from the lobby fountain where they spend their days and the miniature version of the Peabody on the roof where they spend their nights living like kings. This spectacle is a major tourist attraction in its own right and packs the lobby twice daily. Hotel guests even have the opportunity to serve as honorary Duck Master and lead the procession. The lobby is also home to perhaps the most unique store in all Memphis, Lansky Brothers, where Elvis shopped and today countless music stars, the world’s most famous names in everything from country to heavy metal to grunge, shop for what can only be described as “rock star” attire. If you ever wondered where to get that snakeskin blazer or a pair of blue suede shoes, this is the place. It’s worth visiting to check out the huge display of guitars signed by its many famous customers. I love this hotel, because the lobby is so grand, the amenities extensive, and the staff oozes Sothern hospitality. Amazingly, for a hotel that is far and away the top choice in the city, it is also surprisingly affordable and shows up many more expensive hotels around the country. I wrote about the Peabody in more detail here at Forbes earlier and would not stay anyplace else.