|Memphis is a city with only two directions;
bounded on the south by the state of Mississippi and on the west by the
river of the same name, the City on the Bluffs has spread inexorably
eastward, gobbling up more and more of Shelby County. Once the bluffs rise
from the riverbanks, the rest of the city stretches out on flat land
making the city feel more mid-western than southern. The local accent,
too, reflects a mid-western influence, quite different from eastern
Tennessee or the Carolinas. Painfully hot and humid in July and August,
Memphis enjoys a mild climate the remainder of the year. This climate
dictates that most outdoor events such as festivals, craft fairs, and open
air concerts occur in the spring and fall rather than summer. The one
major exception is Elvis Week, the gathering in honor of Elvis Presley on
the anniversary of his death in August. Memphis residents find the city to
be very livable, with an airport 15-20 minutes from most parts of the city
and entertainment in the form of local music and theater of consistently
Downtown Memphis grew from the warehouses that stored cotton and other goods shipped up and down the Mississippi. For a long part of Memphis' history, this meant that the riverfront was a place for commerce, not recreation and tourism. That has changed, with the development of public facilities, housing, and restaurants taking the place of many of the drab, industrial buildings of the past. Now, when you take a ride on the paddlewheel boats that run regular tours from the Memphis harbor, you can spot joggers in Riverfront Walk, swimmers in the pool on Mud Island, and elegant homes along the bluffs (including Cybill Shepard's, look for the round window). Or, visitors can take a beautifully-restored, 19th-century trolley car up Main Street parallel to the River and stop at the imposing Pyramid arena, grab a bite and a brew in one of the Pinch Historic District pubs, loop back to the south to see the Orpheum Theatre and continue on down to the Civil Rights Museum, located in the old Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. A ride back up to Union Avenue and walk two blocks east brings you to the Peabody Hotel, where the comeback of downtown started in 1971, with a major restoration. After a visit with the ducks in the lobby fountain, cross the street to the new Peabody Place entertainment center to see a movie, or cross Union for some popcorn and crackerjacks while the Memphis Redbirds play baseball in Autozone Park.
The focal point of downtown, for tourists at least, is Beale Street, 'Home of the Blues.' Brought back from a downward spiral in the '60s and '70s by a coalition arrangement of private business and city government, Beale Street now features lively bars, clubs, restaurants and quaint souvenir shops. Closed to traffic on weekend evenings, the area teems with an eclectic mix of tourists, suburbanites, downtown residents and kids turning flips for quarters. Here you can visit Elvis Presley's restaurant with its souvenirs and videos of Memphis' favorite son. Visit B.B. King's Blues Club and the Hard Rock Café for music, food and dancing. Come to the Center for Southern Folklore and learn more about local culture and history.
More of Memphis' fabulous musical heritage can be soaked up at the original Sun Studio just a short distance down Union from the Peabody Hotel and Beale Street. This is the studio made famous by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and others. The walls seem to have soaked up the musical magic created by these legendary performers, or at least that's the mystique that still brings up-and-coming musicians here to record.
Few buildings in Memphis date back more than 50 years, making the preservation of the Victorian Village, on the north side of the downtown area, all the more important. These homes, built at the turn of the century, still stand in their original tree-lined setting. Some of these homes are maintained as examples of life in post-Civil War Memphis and are open to the public.
Harbor Town is a planned community founded in 1989 by developer Henry Turley and Belz Enterprises (responsible for the revival of the Peabody Hotel and the building of Peabody Place). It sits on a narrow spit of land between the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers, just north of the downtown Memphis area. The original idea was to create a self-contained community of homes, stores, schools, and recreational facilities. The shopping and schools have been slow in appearing, but Harbor Town has quickly become one of the most desirable residential areas in Memphis, sparking renewed interest in living downtown and building along the river. The architectural design is a based on a Victorian style (peaked roofs, wood construction, tall, narrow buildings) but with extensive use of glass in doors and oversized windows. Lampposts from the turn-of-the-century enhance the ambiance of the neighborhood. Residents enjoy the use of the Marina, a Montessori elementary school with a bilingual pre-school, a yacht club and shopping plaza. Miss Cordelia's Grocery Store provides a limited selection of provisions. Harbor Town is not a gated community and visitors are welcome to stroll the pleasant streets and enjoy the parks.
The Midtown area stretches from I-240 on the west to the University of Memphis on the east, and from Southern Avenue to North Parkway. This lively neighborhood harbors beautifully restored residential areas, the highest concentration of ethnic restaurants, trendy clubs, and live theater, along with some of the best places for antique shopping in Memphis.
At the heart of Midtown lies the Overton Square Entertainment Complex, home of Playhouse on the Square, the Malco Studio on the Square movie house and wine bar, Loony Bin Comedy Club and a selection of restaurants and funky shops. This walkable area is a great place for a pre-theater glass of wine at Le Chardonnay, followed by a play, musical, or independent film, then a late dinner at the elegant Paulette's.
To the north is the rolling lawn and spreading shade trees of Overton Park, home of the Memphis Brooks Museum, the Overton Golf Course and the Memphis Zoo. Just down the Poplar corridor is the Circuit Playhouse, an intimate theater where many young actors and actresses have gotten their start. Burke's Book Store draws the local literati to readings and book signings.
The Cooper-Young Historic District forms the south border of Midtown. Annual tours of this neighborhood and its fall festival show off the turn-of-century homes, lovingly restored over the last 15-20 years. The affluence of the current residents supports some first-rate restaurants including the Pacific Rim-style Tsunami and the wonderfully eccentric Java Cabana coffeehouse. Several second-hand and antique shops have found homes here too.
Just east of Cooper-Young is the Mid-South Fairgrounds, home of Libertyland Amusement Park and the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The Mid-South Fair, held each September, attracts visitors from surrounding states eager to see the exhibits of purebred cattle, hand-sewn quilts, and local art and photography. One weekend every month, an enormous flea market occupies both the stadium, the surrounding grounds and parking lots.
Opposite the Fairgrounds is Christian Brothers University, known for its excellent engineering program, while nearby is the charming Children's Museum. Just down the street, the founder of the Piggly-Wiggly Grocery Stores built his Pink Palace to spite the snooty members of the Memphis Country Club. The Palace now houses a replica of the first ever self-service grocery store, exhibits on natural history, the Sharpe Planetarium and an IMAX Theater.
Memphis locals flock to Midtown when they're in the mood for authentic Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Greek or Japanese food, when they want to hang out with friends in a coffeehouse such as the Deliberate Literate or Otherlands, or when they want to treat themselves to fine cuisine at restaurants such as Paulette's or Tsunami.
University of Memphis Area
The University of Memphis is largely a commuter campus, thus it has not developed the usual collection of businesses catering to students. Instead, the stretches of Highland and Park along the borders of the campus have an odd collection of semi-respectable bars and a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mo-Jo's (looks like a fast food place, but isn't). Some of the best housing in the Memphis is located in this area. Small houses with excellent potential for restoration surround the campus. The block to the north comprises some of the most coziest neighborhoods to be found in the city, with a stable population and manicured yards. The campus itself is undistinguished, but it does produce some worthwhile art exhibits as well as theater and musical productions.
You almost never hear the phrase "East Memphis" without the adjective "affluent" in front of it. Despite the fact that many of the most expensive homes in Memphis are in the Midtown areas, East Memphis gets the epithet because of the uniformly high standard of living of its inhabitants and the clusters of upscale shops. In an area ranging roughly from just east of the University of Memphis to just outside the I-240 perimeter, East Memphis encompasses the Laurelwood Shopping Center, Oak Court Mall, and the Regalia Center at Poplar and Ridgeway, the best locations in Memphis for designer boutique shopping.
To sate their appetites for culture and beauty, East Memphians have the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, a museum in a once private home willed to the city by the Dixon family, along with the family's collection of Impressionist paintings. The traveling exhibits featured here, though small, are often more interesting than the blockbuster events at larger museums, and are always enhanced by the charming setting. Symphony concerts and other events held in the gardens are popular in the spring and fall. Nature lovers have the Memphis Botanic Garden and the Lichterman Nature Center, the former devoted to plants, flowers and a Japanese garden complete with a bridge, and the latter devoted to animals, mostly indigenous varieties in natural settings.
Perhaps the busiest stretch of the Poplar Avenue corridor runs through East Memphis. Anyone who spends much time in the city finds themselves on this congested road from time to time, looking for a particular store, restaurant, or place of business. The best bookstore: Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Laurelwood on Poplar. A reception for the opening of an artist's showing: Probably in one of the galleries along this stretch of Poplar. The barbecue sandwich voted best in Memphis year after year after year: Corky's on Poplar just west of I-240. Residents of this area know ways to avoid the non-stop traffic jams on Poplar'take Park or Shady Grove and cut through any of the dozens of parallel streets running north to south.
North of Poplar lie some of the loveliest houses and lawns in the city. A drive along Shady Grove or Walnut Grove reveals the gentle side of life here. Elegant ranch houses on wide, spacious lawns and tree-lined side streets exude peace. South of Poplar the homes are smaller: '30s and '40s cottages with peaked-roof shelters over the front doors and wrought-iron railings leading down the front steps.
There's not the concentration of nightlife in East Memphis as there is in midtown or downtown, but there are just as many opportunities for an evening's entertainment, including live productions at Theater Memphis, movies at the Ridgeway Malco, food for every palate and price (whether you're looking for California/Continental (Grover Grill, Lulu Grille, Aubergine, Napa Valley), Chinese (Wang's, Tsingtao), perfectly-cooked steak (Folk's Folly), Japanese, barbecue (Corky's, Leonard's) or Southern (Cooker), and dancing at the Adam's Mark Hotel.
North Memphis is the kind of heterogeneous ethnic neighborhood common in cities such as Chicago and New York. With a recent influx of immigrants from Mexico, authentic taquerias and restaurants have sprung up on and near Jackson Avenue. Asian shops, with exotic produce and merchandise, are helping the area take on an appealing international flavor.
Mention Memphis in Paris, Beijing, or Budapest and what comes to mind? Elvis Presley, of course. The King is more connected with his hometown than most celebrities, and his home, Graceland, brings more visitors to Memphis from all over the world than any other single attraction in the area. In fact, Graceland is the second most visited home in the U.S., after the White House. More than 700,000 people come every year to this stately manor located just south of the city in what used to be one of the best residential areas, now named for its most prominent attraction. The Presley Foundation has expanded the Graceland complex to include the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, an exhibit of his airplanes, a gift shop with an impressive variety of Elvis souvenirs, and three restaurants.
The surrounding area has been largely overtaken by hotels and motels to house the fans who come to pay homage. The newly renovated Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel taken over by the Presley Foundation is worth a visit just to see the cocktail lounge, decorated in a style Elvis would have loved. Other hotels in the area include Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Marriott, and Radisson. For fine dining, travelers will probably want to visit other areas of the city. However, some great nearby barbecue places include Interstate BBQ and Marlowe's Ribs and Restaurant.
Germantown, Bartlett and Cordova
While largely residential, Germantown brings in visitors for the international horse show and the Kroger St. Jude Tennis Tournament. The area provides some excellent dining and shopping as well. Current favorite places to dine include the Greek/Mediterranean-inspired Yia Yia's Eurocafe and the country-club style Three Oaks Grill.
For shopping, Germantowners and East Memphians flock to the Shops of Saddle Creek. The smaller Carrefour at Kirby Woods, where there are several small clothing shops and a top-notch leather goods shop.
Bartlett and Cordova, two newer bedroom communities, have little to attract tourists other than Cordova Cellars where visitors can taste locally grown wines and learn about wine-making or the Davies Manor Plantation, a restored log home from the 19th century. Still, as more and more Memphis locals move out east where they can get more home for their money, restaurants and shopping centers are bound to proliferate.
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