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Hidden Gems / South / The Travel Detective

Hidden Gems of Memphis, Tennessee

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Named after the ancient city of Memphis in Egypt—Memphis, Tennessee is located in the southwestern part of the state, on the Mississippi River.

Memphis, or The Bluff City, is filled with hot restaurants, trendy neighborhoods, and a pedigree in musical and civil rights history. But you might be surprised to find out that it’s also a perfect place to experience the great outdoors.

Shelby Farms

One of the great secrets of Memphis is Shelby Farms. It’s among the largest urban parks in America and is five times bigger than New York’s Central Park. Nevertheless, most visitors to Memphis don’t even know it’s there! There are more than 20 lakes in the park, where you can canoe, paddleboard, or kayak. They’re all available to rent from one of the boathouses. But if you prefer wheels to paddles, you can also hop on a bike and ride around the lakes or on the dirt trail.

One of the options is the Chickasaw Trail, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the park’s buffalo grazing near the fence. You can ride right from Shelby Farms to the Greenline: an unused railroad line that’s been transformed into a bike path that goes right to downtown Memphis. From here, you can head to Big River Crossing—the longest biking and pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi—and watch great scenic vistas.

Beale Street Landing

Beale Street Landing, which looks like a pyramid, is actually one of the largest bass pro shops in the country. Inside, you’ll find hunting, fishing, and outdoor gear, as well as some things you wouldn’t expect, such as 600,000 gallons of water and 1,800 fish, a bowling alley, an archery range, the country’s tallest freestanding glass elevator, and a hotel.

Graceland

It should come as no surprise that Graceland is one of Memphis’ most visited attractions. This former home of Elvis Presley has welcomed over 20 million visitors since it opened in 1982. People come here to see the living room, the kitchen, and the infamous jungle room. If you wander out back, you’ll find the trophy room and the meditation garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried. There’s also Elvis’ racquetball court, where he played the morning that he died in 1977. Right across the street from Graceland, you’ll find Elvis Presley’s Memphis Complex featuring the Presley Motors Museum, the Elvis Presley Career Museum, the two planes (the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II), the gift shop, and the Elvis Presley Discovery Exhibits.

Angie Marchese, the director of Graceland Archives, comments on the Ultimate VIP Lounge in the complex, “One of my favorite gems we have here is Elvis’ wallet because it’s just so personal. And of course, the first thing you see in his wallet is pictures of his little girl, Lisa.” There are over 1.5 million artifacts here at Graceland, such as Elvis’ collection of guns, remote control from Elvis’ nightstand, and his gold microphone he used on stage when he opened in Vegas in 1969. “But the highlight we have here is also from 1969 and is also gold. It’s the gold belt that Elvis received for shattering all the attendance records in Las Vegas in 1969. Diamonds, rubies, and sapphires in the belt buckle. It’s sterling silver. Silver laid in gold,” Angie Marchese explains.

Hidden Gems of Beale Street

You can’t come to Memphis without visiting Beale Street. This National Historic Landmark was declared the “Home of the Blues” by an act of Congress, and is three blocks of restaurants and music, nightclubs and bars, where you can hear jazz, rock, gospel, soul, and of course, blues. At first glance, there are no hidden gems on Beale Street, just noise, chaos, restaurants, and barbecue joints. But they’re here. You’ve got to go above BB King’s restaurant. Don’t look for any signage, a street address, or a name on the door, because you won’t find it. Just get to the top of the stairs and there it is—Itta Bena restaurant.

Kevin Quinnell, the executive Chef of Itta Bena, explains the name of the restaurant. “Itta Bena is a town in Mississippi that BB King was actually born in. So it’s affiliated with BB Kings downstairs. So this is the…downstairs is a juke joint—BB Kings, and upstairs is the speakeasy—Itta Bena.” The restaurant doesn’t advertise much because it attracts its customers through the word of mouth. The menu is Southern Contemporary, so it tries to utilize delta cuisine, New Orleans, Cajun, and soul food. One of the newest dishes on the menu is called “The Memphis Barbecue,” which is a play on a barbecue sandwich. It is Chef Quinnell’s favorite foie gras dish. He came up with it while thinking of Memphis and trying to make its best possible representation.

There is another little hidden gem on Beale Street and it’s kept out of sight. It’s been at this location since 1922 in the oldest remaining building on the street. A. Schwab was founded by Abraham Schwab in 1876 as a haberdashery and dry goods store. Today, it offers shoppers an eclectic and quirky mix of merchandise: from local art and Memphis’ music memorabilia and records to Voodoo charms. You’ll also find a small museum that offers a glimpse into the rich history of Beale Street as well as a remnant of a darker time in our country’s past.

Memphis’ Museums

There are plenty of great museums in Memphis and they’re definitely worth a visit. There is the National Civil Rights Museum in its historic location at the Lorraine Motel, which traces the history of the civil rights movement in the United States from the 17th century to the present. Then there are the music museums, such as The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which tells the story of music in Memphis, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and Sun Studios, one of the most iconic studios in music history. In Sun Studios, artists from Jerry Lee Lewis, to Elvis, to Johnny Cash recorded some of their biggest hits.

But if you’re looking for something a little different—a museum that’s out of the ordinary—you’ll want to visit the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Located on the western half of a former Civil War Marine Hospital, it’s the only museum in the country devoted to the craft of fine metal work. After you visit the exhibits, you might be inspired to make something yourself…and you can! The museum offers classes that last for a few hours, a day, or even an entire weekend. The best part is that you can take home whatever you make.

Peabody ducks

If you’ve ever been to the Peabody Hotel, then you know about the Peabody ducks. The hotel’s famous residents have been a tradition here for more than 80 years. Every day at 11 am, the ducks leave their home on the hotel’s rooftop, ride down the elevators, and march to the fountain in the Peabody lobby. There they spend their day until 5 p.m., when they are ushered out of the fountain, return onto the elevator, and then march back to their rooftop home. The ducks are presided over by an official “duckmaster.” But what many people may not know is that as part of a special hotel room package, some guests can be an honorary “duckmaster.”

To see more of Peter Greenberg’s segments from his television show The Travel Detective, check out:

By the Peter Greenberg Worldwide team for PeterGreenberg.com